Skip to main content
Original Issue

She pooled her talents

The Short Course Championships were a showcase for versatile Tracy Caulkins

Tracy Caulkins, one of 700 swimmers competing in the U.S. Short Course Championships at Harvard last week, stood at poolside combing her hair moments after setting an American record of 1:57.02 in the 200-yard backstroke. This was Caulkins' ninth national championship meet, and in the eight previous ones she had won 27 titles—in freestyle, breaststroke, butterfly and individual medley. A friend approached her.

"Tracy," he said, "do you realize that you're the first person to win a national title and set an American record in every single stroke?"

"Oh, really?" she replied brightly. And then, moving on to more important matters, she asked, "How does my hair look?"

Ho hum. Another day, another American record. It was that kind of week for the 18-year-old from Nashville. In four days she set four American records—in that backstroke, the 400 IM, the 200 IM and the 100 breaststroke—to up her total to 31 national titles, the most ever by a woman, breaking the mark of 30 set by Ann Curtis in the 1940s. Caulkins undoubtedly would have set even more records, but the rules limit each swimmer to four individual events over four days. In fact, her lead-off leg in the 800 freestyle relay (1:45.74) was .39 second faster than Jill Sterkel's time for the 200-yard individual race.

Altogether, 12 American records were set in Harvard's Blodgett Pool, including five the first night. The most notable men's mark was set by 18-year-old Rick Carey from Mount Kisco, N.Y., who took the 200-yard backstroke in 1:46.00. John Naber, who had held the record of 1:46.09 since 1977, was on the pool deck at the finish to congratulate Carey.

"Four years ago I told you you'd break my record," said Naber.

"Yeah, and who else did you say the same thing to?" said Carey, laughing.

Carey's record was set right after Caulkins', so in back-to-back backs there were back-to-back back records.

Carey was a lot happier with his time than Caulkins was with hers. "I've always had this thing about coming close to winning and not doing it," he said. "I've been third about five times in nationals. It was really getting to me. But when I saw I was ahead with 50 yards to go, no way was I going to let anyone pass me." Caulkins, in what was to become a postrace refrain, said, "Truthfully, I was hoping to go faster."

Indeed, the next night, after peeling nearly four seconds off her own 400 IM record and winning by almost a full length of the 25-yard pool, Caulkins said, "I was hoping to go a little faster—in 4:02." And so, on Friday, the third day of competition, after Tracy had set her record in the 200 IM, nobody was surprised at all when she said, "I know I could have gone faster. It was a lack of mental preparation. I just did not get up there and attack it."

Caulkins started competing and winning at the international level when she was 14. That was in 1977, a year after the East German women had destroyed the American Olympic team by taking 11 of 13 gold medals in Montreal. Caulkins first came to notice that year by winning the American 100- and 200-yard breaststroke titles. Then, in a U.S. vs. East Germany meet she beat Montreal gold medalist Andrea Pollack in the 200 butterfly to establish her reputation internationally. The next year Caulkins was named the winner of the Sullivan Award, the youngest person to receive it in its 49-year history.

What's so remarkable is not that Caulkins has continued to get better and better, but that there still doesn't seem to be any end to what she can accomplish in a pool. She has had three coaches in five years at the Nashville Aquatic Club, and when she enters the University of Florida this fall she will come under the tutelage of a fourth. Randy Reese, who is just as tough as she is. Here is what her first three coaches say about Caulkins:

•Paul Bergen (1975 to Sept. 1978): "She is one of the finest young ladies I've ever worked with, a genuinely nice human being. She handles disappointment really well."

•Don Talbot (1978-1980): "Any superlatives you can think of apply to her. She's the greatest woman swimmer that's ever been. She's capable of holding a world record in every stroke and every event."

•Ron Young (Sept. 1980 to the present): "Tracy is one of a kind. How many great athletes progress at that rate and still remain great persons?"

Here is what her future coach says about her: "Tracy expects so much from herself that it's far above what anyone else expects from her. I think she can do a lot better."

To find flaws in Tracy, you either have to be a good friend or her older sister Amy, now a top swimmer at Florida. "Tracy," says Amy, "is kind of uncoordinated out of the water. When we were kids, my brother Tim and I played baseball, but we wouldn't let her play with us. She's not a wonderful athlete on dry land." Says a friend, "She's a complete klutz."

Today, Amy is Tracy's No. 1 fan, but she admits that from the age of 14 to 17 she was jealous of her kid sister's successes. "I couldn't stand to be in the same room with her," Amy says. "I felt a lot of pressure from Coach Bergen and from my peer group. They all wanted to know why—seeing I had the same genes as Tracy—I couldn't swim as fast as she could."

When she was 17, Amy decided she'd had it, so she left home to go to California and try out for the national water-polo team. Fortunately, she made the team and traveled to the 1978 world championships in Berlin, where Tracy was also competing. Amy says that making the team changed her entire attitude. She proved to herself that she could do something really well, too. Now she and Tracy are very close. "She's the strongest person I've ever met in my life," says Amy. "Both mentally and physically."

Tracy's mental preparation is notoriously rigorous. "Before each event," she says, "I have a time in mind and what I expect to do. It's important to be ambitious and set high goals for yourself."

She is 5'9½" tall and weighs 133 pounds. Medical testing has shown that she has an extremely efficient heart, which pushes plenty of blood through her body, so that she does not suffer from extreme oxygen deprivation during a race. This is why, at the end of her races, she is never breathing hard. She also has a high pain threshold.

Tracy is not emotionally demonstrative. She never, ever thrusts a clenched fist in the air, as many swimmers do on winning an event. The biggest reaction one ever sees is a wide smile. And even that's not too common. "I do get excited," she says, "but I guess I don't show it outwardly."

On Saturday, the last day of the national championships, Carey won the 100-yard backstroke, Tracy got her record in the 100 breaststroke and there was a marvelous head-to-head swim between 16-year-old Mary T. Meagher of Lakeside Swim Club in Louisville and Sterkel, a sophomore at the University of Texas, for possession of the record in the 100-yard butterfly. Sterkel had wrested the mark from Meagher at the AIAWs in March, and Mary T. was determined to get it back. Sterkel did a blistering 24.78 split and outtouched Mary T. by a fingernail, 52.99 to 53.00, to set an American record. That victory allowed Sterkel to tie Caulkins for women's high-point winner with 80.

When Caulkins got up on the stand to accept her medal for the 100 breaststroke win, Harvard Swim Coach Joe Bernal presented her with a dozen long-stemmed roses. Bernal and the crowd were rewarded with a big smile. And not once did Tracy Caulkins say she should have gone a bit faster, which is not to say she wasn't thinking that very thing.



For tricorned Tracy, the championships at Harvard were another bed of roses.


Caulkins now has set records in every stroke and passed Ann Curtis for most American titles.