There isn't a whole lot that hasn't already been written about Tracy Caulkins. Rapidly accelerating in world prestige since she first burst onto the international swim scene at age 13, Caulkins' numerous achievements include four gold medals won at the World Games as well as the prestigious Sullivan Award in 1978, being ranked in the world's top 20 in nine events last year, and recording four world bests--as well as times under listed world bests in two other events--at the recent international showdown at the O'Connell Center pool in Gainesville, Florida. Quite simply, at age 18 Caulkins is the fastest, finest, and most versatile swimmer in the world today.
Awed coaches run out of superlatives when describing Caulkins: "I've come to understand nothing Tracy does is beyond anyone's wildest imaginations." Mission Viejo coach Mark Schubert commented at the Gainesville meet. And Ron Young, former Pleasant Hill coach and newly-arrived Nashville Aquatic coach says, "Tracy is a team leader, a super citizen and a super person. She fits right in with everyone on the team and doesn't demand any special attention--besides, the Muhammad Ali mold has no place in our program."
Ali's proclamations of "I am the greatest" certainly don't fit into the modest schoolgirl's vocabulary. Answering the phone with a pleasant drawl at her Nashville. Tennessee, home recently, Caulkins displayed none of the superstar arrogance that might be expected from an athlete of her caliber. Deliberately avoiding what she says was her "yes-no" style when she first started being interviewed, Caulkins now generously devotes large chunks of time to answering reporters' questions, enthusiastically elaborating in all her responses.
The first item Caulkins addressed was the well-publicized conversation she had with a reporter after she beat world record-holder and Olympic gold medalist Petra Schneider at Gainesville in the 400 meter individual medley. "I didn't say I was the best, I said I was one of the best." Caulkins explains, adding apologetically. "It was just hard not to feel good after I beat the world's champion."
When asked about her greatest swimming asset Caulkins immediately cites her mental attitude as being the factor that sets her apart from everyone else. "When you get to the national and international level everyone is physically equal." Caulkins says. "If you're mentally prepared and you have the stuff upstairs, then you'll win. I seem to have developed this toughness a little bit better than everyone else."
Much of the credit for Caulkins' success must go to former Nashville coach Paul Bergen, who now heads up the women's program at the University of Texas in Austin. "Coach Bergen was the one who helped me to break through, realize my potential, and get to the top." Caulkins says. "Psychologically he taught me how to handle success and failure, as well as how to rely on myself for strength."
In response to the comment that Bergen is often referred to as an overly domineering and pushy coach. Caulkins tacitly agrees, saying "Coach Bergen did have a lot of control over our lives in and out of the pool, but I was at the age where it didn't bother me too much. Besides, it all paid off because everyone swam fast under him."
Caulkins is especially lavish in praise of her parents, who she says have been very understanding and supportive throughout her and her older sister Amy's swimming careers. "My parents have made tons of sacrifices in time, money, and energy for us," Caulkins says.
"When Amy made the World Games in water polo and I made them in swimming in 1978, my mother worked at night in a liquor store so that she and my father could have enough money to travel to Berlin to watch us compete," she adds.
In view of the closeness of the family, it is not surprising that Caulkins has elected to join her sister at the University of Florida this fall on a full swimming scholarship. Other collegiate powers that presented lucrative offers to Caulkins included the University of Texas and Stanford--nationally-ranked schools she finally rejected because of the limited opportunities she would have had to see her family.
Tracy and sister weren't always close, though. Amy, a sophomore at Florida and a world-class swimmer in her own right, recalls that from the ages of 14 to 17 she had trouble dealing with Tracy's meteoric success.
"No one cared about me as Amy--all I ever heard was Tracy. Tracy, Tracy," the older sister says. "Coach Bergen was putting pressure on me, and the media were all asking why I had the same genes and I wasn't doing as well as Tracy."
Laughing now at the memory, Amy says. "I hated Tracy so much, and I couldn't understand why she had so many friends and why everyone else liked her. Now I know why--she's an amazing human being who just happens to be fantastic swimmer."
The elder Caulkins finally decided to quit swimming for a while so that she could devote her energies to water polo and escape from her sister's long shadow. After she moved out to California to train, the older sister's efforts paid off as she made the World Cup water polo team that summer and was subsequently offered full scholarships to college in both swimming and water polo.
"I never realized how tough it was for Amy then," her sister says, a ding. "It takes a tough person not to show jealousy, and I never knew it if she was envious. I'm really happy she's doing well now--it just shows that everyone develops at their own pace."
To the oft-asked question of whether she feels she has missed out on normal high school activities like dating and dances because of her rigorous and time-consuming five-hour-a-day training regimen, Caulkins just laughs.
"Swimming has taught me things I can use for the rest of my life, like how to be disciplined and how to deal with people," she responds. "I've also been able to see countries like Australia. Brazil, Russia, China, East and West Germany, and Japan, that I might never have seen otherwise. I don't regret the time I've put into swimming one bit."
Will Caulkins compete in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles to possibly garner the Olympic golds she missed in Moscow last summer? She says she doesn't know--"If I'm still swimming and doing well I might," she muses. "Right now I'm just taking it one meet at a time.