Randy Reese had called for a “get out” swim. This is rare, Tracy thought.
She was, of course, the chosen swimmer, and the 400-meter individual medley was her task. If she beat the time set by Reese, everyone would get out of practice for the day. If she didn’t, it was back to work.
Two hundred meters in, most were thinking, “Back to work.” Her teammates were shaking their heads. “She’s not going to make it.”
At least that’s what they had been thinking. When Tracy flew through the final 200 in as good a time as she’d achieved at the previous NCAA championships “rested and shaved,” things changed. She finished the 400 in a time just under Reese’s mark. She had done it. Home free for all.
And yes, the Tracy of old was back.
“That was a huge confidence boost for me and was when I realized that if I wanted to do well in L.A. and realize my dream of Olympic gold, I had to pick up the intensity and fully dedicate myself to doing everything to the best of my ability every day. And I did.”
Did she ever.
“She” is the legendary Tracy Caulkins, a member of head coach Reese’s Florida swimming and diving teams from 1981-84 and three-time Olympic gold medalist at the 1984 Games — Games taking place in Los Angeles eight months after the “get out” swim she remembers so well from the fall of ’83.
She also happens to be perhaps the greatest swimmer in American history, and almost certainly the best to compete in the NCAA.
Consider the following: by age 19, Caulkins had set most of her five world and 63 American records, broken Johnny Weissmuller’s long-standing record for U.S. national championships, become the youngest winner of the AAU Sullivan Award (given yearly to the most outstanding American amateur athlete), helped the Gators win the program’s first NCAA women’s swimming and diving championship with five individual titles as a freshman, and become the first person to set American records in all four strokes and the IM.
That was 1982. It’s now 2012. In the 30 years between, no other Division I swimmer has even collected four individual titles at one NCAA championship. No other swimmer has set American records in all four strokes plus the IM. And no one surpassed her record total of 48 national championships until a swimmer by the name of Michael Phelps did so in 2010.
It’s no wonder that a slight break, a rest, a momentary drop in intensity, was in order.
“By 1982, I had experienced and achieved everything I had wanted in my swimming except the Olympic Games. I think mentally I just took my foot off the gas and was having a bit of a rest,” Caulkins said.
While Caulkins was “resting,” she still added to her NCAA lore, winning all three IM events (100, 200, 400) in 1983 for the second-place Gators. Then after the “get out” swim and subsequent rededication to intensive training, she defeated her East German rivals in the IMs in an international dual meet and then won four more NCAA titles in March, setting an American record in the 200 IM in the process.
Next came the Olympics. The pinnacle. Her dream. Captain of the U.S. swim squad, Caulkins didn’t disappoint, winning the 200 IM, 400 IM, and 400 medley relay crowns, the first in an Olympic-record time of 2:12.64. She celebrated with fellow Gator Olympians, cruised around Olympic Village, met her future husband, and broke down on the medal stand after she saw her bawling sister in the crowd. A true dream indeed.
“It was like having all your Christmases at once,” Caulkins said.
But the path of events almost wasn’t to be. The NCAA dominance, the golds in ’84, the encounter with Australian swimmer Mark Stockwell, to whom she is now married—none of it may have come to pass were it not for what transpired in 1980.
With 17-year-old Caulkins predicted to win several golds at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, the U.S. boycotted the games due to the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan, leaving Caulkins and teammates four years from experiencing sport’s biggest stage.
For Caulkins, however, it turned out for the better.
“Looking back on things, I am glad that I swam in the Olympics after having swum in college,” she said. “If I had gone to the 1980 Olympics and done well, I may not have wanted to keep swimming until ‘84. If that had not happened, I may not have swum in college, made the ‘84 team or met my husband. So I think it all happened for a reason.”
Collegiate swimming provided numerous benefits for Caulkins, including the new setting, the team atmosphere, the chance to train in different events and the opportunity to study as well as practice — all of which helped in the Olympics, and all of which she continues to profit from now.
“I think swimming in college not only provided a new program, coach and goals, but also importantly, a new environment where you are growing up, becoming independent and taking more responsibilities for your life,” explains Caulkins. “Swimming in college also taught me the importance of the team and supporting each other in and out of the pool. Being part of a close-knit group also takes a bit of pressure off of you as an individual and motivates you to ‘do it for the team.’ I think I took this experience and attitude into the Olympics and it helped.
“When one of your teammates did well, it gave you confidence that you would too. It was like a ball rolling down a hill gaining speed; as one person did well, you gained momentum and energy and it carried through the meet. I think in some cases, I was more excited for my teammates than for myself, and we all fed off that excitement.”
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It was amid all the excitement of NCAA swimming that Caulkins was able to improve her already absurd versatility, a quality of hers that has gone unmatched in swimming history. When the squad lacked depth in any particular event, Caulkins could be tossed into the mix—and likely win. And all for the sake of the team.
“I always liked to swim all the strokes because it offered me variety in my training,” Caulkins said. “I considered the individual medley to be my best event and over the years worked on what were my weakest strokes [backstroke and freestyle] in order to strengthen my IM. After working on those weaker strokes for many years, I felt as though I didn’t have a ‘weak’ stroke.
“It helped the Florida team that if we didn’t have enough swimmers in one stroke but had more than enough in another, I could switch, and I often did so at dual meets with [national powers] Texas or Stanford.”
When it was all said and done, Caulkins had captured 12 career individual titles at the NCAA championships, a record that still stands. Eight of the 12 came in the individual medley, where she never lost. She managed to accomplish all of this in just three seasons of collegiate swimming, and all while maintaining an impressive academic pedigree: Caulkins was the leading vote-getter on the Academic All-America team two years in a row and won the NCAA Top Five and Top Six awards for overall excellence in academics, athletics and leadership. She retired from competitive swimming following the 1984 Olympics and graduated a year later with a degree in broadcast journalism.
“Education has always been important to me and I think studying while training hard helped to give me balance and something else to concentrate on. Training so many hours also meant you had to be organized and use your time wisely, so I think that helped me to do well.”
Swimming and school may be through now for Caulkins, but, not surprisingly, she has taken to excelling in other areas. And thanks to her work, countless young females are having the access to sport previous generations never dreamed of. Now a 21-year resident of Mark’s native Australia, Caulkins serves as the chair of the Queensland Academy of Sport, an organization providing support to the elite athletes of Australia’s second-largest state. She and several other sportswomen also got together to form Womensport Queensland, a non-profit aiming to “inspire and support women and girls in sport and physical activity” in Queensland, where there are no formal intercollegiate athletics like there are in the U.S.
Among many other things, the organization recognizes its “Sportswomen of the Year” in an annual awards dinner and provides scholarships to aspiring young female athletes. After all, it was a special group of educators and administrators with comparable goals who brought Title IX into effect in time for Caulkins to compete. And for that, she — and everyone who saw her swim — is very grateful.
“I’m extremely thankful collegiate sport for women had improved and grown by the time I went to college,” Caulkins said. “Being involved in something similar with Womensport Queensland and QAS has been very rewarding for me.”
For her efforts, Caulkins, who currently lives in Brisbane, Australia, with Mark and their five children, was bestowed in 2010 with the Medal of the Order of Australia, given to recognize citizens for outstanding achievement and service to the nation and humanity at large. As it would with any recipient, this made Caulkins “one proud Australian.” But it’s a pride everyone — especially those whose lives she has impacted — can share.
“The things you learn through competing in sport — the value of hard work, teamwork, setting goals, the power of positive thinking and learning from mistakes — these are instrumental in everyday life, and I’m certainly appreciative of what I gained through my own experience in sport. I’m happy to give the same chance to others.”