Tracy Anne Caulkins is the most underrated swimmer ever.

Tracy Caulkins Wearing Red Swim Suit

Born in Winona, Minnesota, January 11, 1963, as the youngest of Thomas and Martha’s three children, the family moved to Nashville when Tracy was six.  At seven, she joined her older siblings, Amy and Tim, on the Seven Hills Swim and Tennis Club team, focusing on the backstroke because she did not like getting her face wet.  Caulkins–who hated cold water and did not like to practice—joined the Nashville Athletic Club team at ten, where she was taught by Paul Bergen, who later coached at the University of Texas.  Caulkins had big feet, long arms and was built for swimming.  She qualified for senior nationals at 12 and competed in the 1976 Olympic Trials at 13.  After failing to qualify for the Olympic team, Caulkins won four AAU titles in 1977, including a win over 1976 Olympic gold medalist Andrea Pollack in the 200 meter butterfly.  The following year, Tracy qualified for the 1978 World Championships in five events, while sister Amy earned a spot as a member of the U.S. Water Polo team.  To pay for her two daughters’ trip to Berlin, Martha Caulkins, who was a middle school art teacher, worked nights at a liquor store.  In the 1970s, East German women dominated world swimming, having won eleven gold medals at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.  At the 1978 World Championships, 15-year-old Tracy Caulkins won five gold and one silver medal, leading the U.S. women to victory in nine of 12 swimming events.  She was named UPI International Swimmer of the Year and became the youngest winner of the Sullivan Award as America’s best amateur athlete.

CAULKINS USA SWIMMING START

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In 1979, Caulkins won six gold and two silver medals in the Pan Am Games and three golds at the World University Games.  She qualified for the 1980 Olympic team in five individual and two team events, putting her in a position to fulfill a lifelong dream of becoming an Olympic champion.  Those dreams were dashed when the U.S. announced it would boycott the 1980 Moscow Games.  Miss Caulkins turned down college offers from Texas and Stanford, deciding to join Amy at the University of Florida.  As a freshman, she won five NCAA titles and led the Gators to the NCAA championship.  There were more good swimmers at the 1981 U.S. Swim International Meet than there were at the Moscow Games.  Tracy Caulkins won seven gold medals—equaling the total of the entire Russian team—while swimming the fastest time in history in each of her four finals.  Despite being voted three-time College Swimmer of the Year, Caulkins began to lose focus.  Following poor performances at the 1982 Worlds and 1983 Pan Am Games, Caulkins rededicated herself to rigorous training, working out five hours a day, six days a week.  After being elected captain of the U.S. Olympic team, she competed in her first Olympics, at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.  On July 29, she won her first gold medal in the 400-meter individual medley by over nine seconds.  On the morning of August 3, she set an Olympic record in the 200 IM to win her second gold medal.  That afternoon, she returned to swim the breaststroke leg of the 400-meter medley relay and claim her third gold medal.

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Today’s swimmers focus on certain strokes and certain events, locking into their “primary” strokes around age eleven.  Tracy Caulkins excelled in every stroke and discipline.  She is the only swimmer ever to set American records in all four strokes, something Michael Phelps has never done.  She had the speed to win sprints and the stamina to go distance, setting 63 American records—the most of all time.  Caulkins won 16 NCAA titles, a record that still stands, and never lost a collegiate race in individual medley.  Her 48 U.S. championships stood until 2010, when Phelps surpassed that mark.  Caulkins won eight World Championship medals and three Olympic golds in an era dominated by drug-enhanced East German women.  At 5’9”, 133 pounds, she had no weaknesses, allowing her to become the greatest IM racer to ever live.  Had it not been for the Olympic boycott in 1980, she would have added five, six or seven medals to her career total.  “When you get to the national and international level, everyone is physically equal.  If you’re mentally prepared and you have the stuff upstairs, then you’ll win.”  Caulkins set five world records.  She is a four-time American “Swimmer of the Year,” a two-time recipient of the Broderick Cup as top American female athlete and was twice the leading vote-getter for the Academic All-American team while at Florida.  Caulkins retired after the 1984 Olympics, where she met her future husband, Mark Stockwell, a member of the Australian men’s Olympic swim team.  Mrs. Stockwell currently resides in Queensland, Australia, with her five children.  In 2008, she was presented with the Medal of the Order of Australia by that country’s government for providing sporting opportunities for women.  Tracy Anne Stockwell is a member of the Florida Sports, Tennessee Sports and International Swimming Halls of Fame.

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On this date in 1982, Tracy Caulkins won her 36th U.S. swimming title, surpassing the record set by the great Johnny Weissmuller.

 

“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.”


– Randy Reese, head swim coach, University of Florida

Comments

  1. Amazing.
    63 American records is almost unbelievable.
    I remember Tracy from the 1984 Olympics, but I didn’t realize then, or until even two minutes ago before I read the Award Winning Daily Dose that she was that impressive.
    Just amazing.

  2. She was a joy to watch as a coach. Totally dominant. Missing in this very complete article however is that fact that she, with her coach Paul Bergen, literally changed breaststroke as we knew it in the late 70’s and early 80’s. If she had had the Olympic platform to show her best stuff in 1980 in Moscow, she would still be a household name. Thanks for writing the article!

  3. I was incredibly privileged to swim with Tracy and her brother and sister at Seven Hills Swim Club in the early ’70s. Even at such a young age, it was obvious that she was an exceptional athlete. What a SHAME that politics cost her the opportunity to represent the USA in the 1980 Olympics!

  4. Never underrated – she was AHHHHMAZING!!! She was unbelievable in every stroke and had the most incredible IM ever!

  5. Tracy is the best and loved how she showed the East German dopers her all-American spirit. She was also a lot of fun to be around and I enjoyed being with her on a few national teams, including the 1979 Pan American Games and the 1980 Olympic team when we toured China. Would have rather been in Moscow though to show the world her best stuff.

  6. I was able to meet Tracy in Indianapolis at trials one year by walking up to her and telling her I went to Harpeth Hall. That is where she went to highschool also. Ran in to her again at a clinic in Pittsburgh and she came and sat with me. What amazing accomplishments she had!!!

  7. Wonderful article, she was not only a remarkable swimmer, but she was an incredible person, taking the time to chat with a young kid (me) without feeling annoyed, or taken back! She inspired me to achieve success to the best of my abilities, she was a true favorite of mine!

  8. Without a doubt one of the greatest swimmers in history. To me the true test of a great swimmer is Long Course (50 meter pool) IM, either the 200 or the 400. Long course takes away some of the advantage a turning specialist has in short course races such as at NCAA’s. Tracey dominated this in ’84 and no doubt would have hauled a bunch of medals home from Moscow. We tend to not remember how bad the Eastern bloc cheating was back in the late 70’s and early 80’s and by the Montreal Olympics in ’76 it had become a joke. The fact that she beat them shows just how good she was.

  9. Incredibly dominant and a good person to boot! These are the people and their accomplishments that make sports so compelling.

  10. Awesome athlete… dominating in all four stroke, abel to swim short and long distances races all at a world class level.

    Her breaststroke was specially unique she made it flow like no one else back then.

    I would say that David Wilkie introduce the undulating breaststroke Tracy Caulkins perfected it and change the stroke to what it is today.

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