One of the greatest swimmers ever produced by the United States in terms of her versatility, Tracy Caulkins was at her peak in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Caulkins won a record 48 national championships, and set five world and 62 U.S. records. She was the first American to win a national title and set an American record in each of the four swimming strokes (backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, and freestyle). Caulkins is also the youngest athlete to ever win the Sullivan Award, awarded each year to the outstanding amateur athlete in the United States.
Caulkins was born January 11, 1963, in Winona, Minnesota, the youngest of three children of Thomas Caulkins and his wife Martha. Her father was a group-testing coordinator for public schools, who later became a part-time swim coach. Her mother was a junior high school art teacher. Caulkins grew up in Waukon, Iowa, until the age of six, when the family moved to Nashville, Tennessee.
When Caulkins was eight years old, she began swimming at the Seven Hills Swim and Tennis Club, where her older siblings, Amy and Tim, already swam. Originally Caulkins would only swim the backstroke because she did not like getting her face wet. She eventually learned the other strokes, and though she hated the cold water and did not want to practice at first, in a short amount of time she became very good. With the encouragement of her mother and father, Caulkins realized her potential and began to embrace the tougher aspects of swimming.
At the age of ten, Caulkins joined the West Side VC (later known as the Nashville Aquatic Club) and was shortly ranked in the top ten in the nation in a few swimming events. Only two years later, when she was 12 years old, Caulkins qualified for the senior nationals. Some reasons for her success as a swimmer could be
found in her body; she had hyperextended knees that gave her leverage and had the ability to do a great kick. She also had a solid stroke and could glide through the water. With her big feet, long arms, and long wingspan, Caulkins's body was built for swimming. At her peak, she was five feet, nine inches tall and 135 lbs.
As Caulkins's swimming training intensified, it began to affect her schooling. Her public junior high school would not accommodate her need to travel for her swimming, so she transferred to Harpeth Hall Academy, a private girl's school. Harpeth was supportive of her swimming, but also was academically demanding.
Won First National Titles
When Caulkins was 13 years old, she competed in the Olympic Trials for the 1976 Summer Olympics. She did not qualify, but within a year, she would have several titles under her belt and an international reputation. In 1977, she won her first national titles in the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) National Championships in the 100- and 200-meter short course breaststroke, and the 200- and 400-meter long course individual medleys. She also won the 100-meter breaststroke at the U.S. Indoor National Championships that year. Caulkins's international status was cemented at a swim meet between the United States and Germany, when she defeated Andrea Pollock, who had won the gold medal in the 200-meter butterfly at the 1976 Olympics.
Caulkins did not make a big deal of these accomplishments, but remained focused and determined. She trained hard, swimming eight to ten miles a day and lifting weights three days a week. She even swam with a cast when she broke her leg in 1977. Her father told J.D. Reed of Sports Illustrated, "Tracy really doesn't believe that she's done anything yet that's worth getting excited about. She never says much about swimming."
Best Year as a Swimmer
Although she was only in her late teens, Caulkins was a dominant force in swimming in the late 1970s. The year 1978 was arguably her best as a swimmer. She won the Sullivan Award for best amateur athlete because of the number of championships she had won and records she had set. Caulkins won world championships in the 200-meter butterfly, 200- and 400-meter individual medleys, and won a silver medal in the 100-meter breaststroke. She also won national championships in the 200-meter long course butterfly, the short course individual medleys, and both the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke. At the AAU National Short Course Championships, she set five U.S. records, winning the 200-meter medley, the 200-meter backstroke, the 100-meter breaststroke, and the 400-meter individual medley. At the AAU Long Course Championships she set two world records and five American records, and also won the 200-meter butterfly. In total, in 1978 she broke or tied 27 records, both world and American records.
|1963||Born January 11, in Winona, Minnesota|
|1971||Begins swimming with the Seven Hills Club|
|1973||Joins the West Side VC|
|1975||Qualifies for and competes in the senior nationals for the first time|
|1976||Competes at the Summer Olympic Trials|
|1978||Sets three world records|
|1980||Makes U.S. Olympic team, but does not compete because the U.S. boycotts the Olympic Games|
|1981||Enters University of Florida; becomes the only swimmer in U.S. history of the sport to win the greatest number of national titles|
|1982||Wins 36th title, surpassing record set by Johnny Weismuller|
|1982-84||Becomes member of Swimming All-American Team|
|1984||Competes in the Summer Olympic Games; becomes captain of the U.S. swim team; retires from swimming|
|1985||Graduates from the University of Florida|
|1991||Marries Australian swimmer Mark Stockwell|
In 1979, Caulkins continued to dominate on both the American and international stage. She won two gold medals and two silver medals at the Pan American Games, set five U.S. records at the AAU National Short Course Championships, and won numerous events including the 100-meter breaststroke, 500-meter freestyle, 400-meter individual medley, 400-meter medley relay, 400-meter freestyle relay, and the 200-meter individual medley. Caulkins also took second in the 800-meter freestyle relay. Although she had been sick with a virus a short time before the event, Caulkins did well there; her great concentration and will to win overcame her bodily weakness.
By this time, Caulkins's dominance was recognized, though her only "weakness" was the backstroke. The University of Southern California's swim coach, Peter Daland, told Sports Illustrated, "She's probably the greatest swimmer in the world today, male or female, and her event possibilities are almost unlimited. I'm sure that if she were to train for a month for backstroke that she would be giving the champion here … all she could handle. We've had some great versatile people, but she probably is as good as anybody we've had. And the thing that's most amazing about her is that she has the speed to go sprints and the stamina to go distance."
Olympic Boycott Affected Caulkins
By the 1980 Summer Olympics, which were held in Moscow, U.S.S.R., Caulkins expected to dominate because she easily made the U.S. team. But the United States decided to boycott the games because of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. Though denied a chance at Olympic gold, Caulkins still swam at the National Outdoor Championships, winning four gold medals and one silver, and was named American Swimmer of the Year.
Despite her Olympic disappointment, Caulkins continued to pile up honors in swimming. In 1981, she became the only swimmer in U.S. history to win the greatest number of titles when she bested the records set by Ann Curtis Cuneo. In January at the U.S. Swimming International, she won 200- and 400-meter individual medleys, 100-meter breaststroke, and 100-meter backstroke, setting world records. She also finished second in the 100-meter and 200-meter butterfly, and was part of three winning women's relays. At this meet, she swam against the best swimmers in the world, many of whom competed in the 1980 Olympics, and more than held her own. She also competed in the National Short Course, winning the 200-meter backstroke, setting a national record, and winning three other events in similar fashion.
Began College Career
In 1981, Caulkins entered the University of Florida, where she majored in communications and trained harder in anticipation of the Summer Olympics in 1984. She won 12 NCAA Championships between 1982 and 1984. In 1982 and 1984, she won the Honda Broderick Cup, given to the nation's outstanding female college athlete. In 1982, 1983, and 1984, she also won the Broderick Award, given to the best female college swimmer.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1977||Won first national titles in the Amateur Athletic Union National Championships in both the 100- and 200-meter short course breaststroke, and the 200- and 400-meter long course individual medleys; won 100-meter breaststroke at the U.S. Indoor National Championships|
|1977-78||Named Swimmer of the Year by Swimming World magazine|
|1978||Won Sullivan Award; won world championships in 200-meter butterfly, 200- and 400-meter individual medleys, silver in 100-meter breaststroke; won national championships in 200-meter long course butterfly, short course individual medleys, and 100- and 200-meter breaststroke; won 200-meter butterfly at the Amateur Athletic Union Long Course Championships; named high school All-American; named United Press International's Female Athlete of the Year|
|1979||Won two gold medals and two silver medals at the Pan American Games; set five records at the Amateur Athletic Union National Short Course Championships, winning 100-meter breaststroke, 500-meter freestyle, 400-meter individual medley, 400-meter medley relay, 400-meter freestyle relay, and 200-meter individual medley|
|1980||Won four gold medals and one silver medal at the National Outdoor Championships; named American Swimmer of the Year|
|1980-82||Won J. H. Kiphuth Award|
|1981||Set world records at the U.S. Swimming International Championships in the 200- and 400-meter individual medleys, 100-meter breaststroke, and the 100-meter backstroke; won 200-meter backstroke and set American record at National Short Course Championships; named American Female Swimmer of the Year by World magazine; named WSF Amateur Athlete of the Year; named Sportswoman of the Year by the Women's Sports Foundation|
|1982||Won 200-meter individual medley and two other events at U.S. Swimming Long Course Championships; won Southland Olympia Award|
|1982-83||Won Honda Broderick Cup, awarded to the top female college athlete|
|1982-84||Won Broderick Award; won 12 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) swimming titles|
|1983||Won gold medals in both individual medleys at Pan American Games; won Broderick Award|
|1983-84||Named Academic All-American|
|1984||Won Honda Broderick Cup; won gold medals at the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, California, in the 200-meter individual medley, the 400-meter individual medley, and as part of 4 × 100-meter medley relay team; won NCAA Championships in two individual medleys, 100-yard breaststroke and 200-yard butterfly, and in 400- and 800-yard team medleys; won 200-meter individual medley at National Indoor Championships; named Female Athlete of the Year by U. S. Olympic Committee; named Academic All-American; named Swimmer of the Year by the U.S. Swimming Association; named member of the All-Southeastern Conference Academic Honor Roll|
|1986||Elected to the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame|
|1990||Inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame; inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame|
While competing for her college team, Caulkins continued to compete nationally and internationally. In 1982, she won her 36th title, surpassing Johnny Weismuller's record for national titles. At the U. S. Swimming Long Course National Championships in 1982, she won the 200-meter medley, and at least two other events. Caulkins did not do as well at the World Championships, where the highest she finished was third. In 1983, she won the individual medleys at the Pan American Games, but her times were slower than in the past. She also did not do well at the World Championships, winning neither gold nor silver medals.
By 1984, although there were doubts about Caulkins's ability to win in big competitions, she proved them wrong. At the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) competitions that year, she won both of the individual medleys, the 100-yard breaststroke, and the 200-yard butterfly. With other members of the 400-meter freestyle relay team, she set an American record, and set an NCAA record in the 800-yard relay with other team members. Caulkins also set records in the 200-meter individual medley, the 400-meter individual medley, the 100-meter breaststroke, and the 200-meter butterfly. She also did well at the National Indoor Championships where, despite an infection, she won the 200-meter individual medleys.
Finally Won Olympic Gold
Spurred on by those who still counted her out of Olympic contention, Caulkins reacquired her aggressiveness in training and in races. She did well at the Olympics, where she was captain of the swim team. At the Olympic Trials, she set an American record in the 200-meter individual medley. At the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, she won the 200-meter medley (setting an Olympic record with a time of 2:12.64); the 400-meter medley (with a time of 4.39.4); and with three others as part of 4 × 100-meter medley relay team. Caulkins also placed fourth in the 100-meter breast-stroke. The United States Olympic Committee named her Sportswoman of the Year, while the U.S. Swimming Association named her Swimmer of the Year.
After the Olympics ended, the 21-year-old Caulkins retired. Over the course of Caulkins distinguished swimming career, she made swimming look easy. University of Florida Coach Randy Reese told Dave Anderson of the New York Times, "She's the greatest swimmer this country has ever had, by far. Her sheer ability, her versatility in all four strokes, and her durability in being so great for so long."
Where Is She Now?
After her retirement, Caulkins finished her degree in broadcast journalism at the University of Florida, but did not swim for the school's team. Instead, she did commercial endorsements, and worked as a commentator for swimming competitions. The University of Florida created a swimming scholarship in her name called the Tracy Caulkins Award give to Florida's best female swimmer. After marrying swimmer Mark Stockwell in 1991, Caulkins and her husband moved to Australia. They had three children, a daughter, Emily, and twins Maddison and William. In Australia, she worked as an executive officer for the Australian Academy of Sport in Queensland, Australia, and was president of Womensport Queensland.
Address: 511 Oman St., Nashville, TN 37203-1234. Email: [email protected].
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Sketch by A. Petruso