Fifteen-year-old Tracy Caulkins, a Nashville ninth-grader, carried a small bouquet of yellow roses as she walked behind the grandstand at the University of Texas' Olympic Swimming Center in Austin one night last week. Greg Jagenburg, the 21-year-old butterfly specialist from Long Beach State, stopped her. "Hey, Tracy," he said, "I didn't see your race. How did you do?"
"Oh," she replied. "I only got a 14." That meant a 2:14.07, an American record in the 200-yard breaststroke. Jagenburg smacked himself in the head. "A 14? You women are amazing. Each time you get in the pool you drop a record, and you complain. You're unbelievable."
Indeed they are. When it was all over Saturday night at the AAU National Short Course Championships, Tracy had led America's talented young women swimmers to U.S. records in each of the dozen individual events; Tracy had five herself, including a 1:59.33 in the 200-yard individual medley. That made her the first woman to swim this event in less than two minutes. More important, the U.S. women now seem capable of challenging the powerful East Germans, who won 11 of 13 Olympic gold medals in 1976.
After taking the 200-yard backstroke in 1:57.79, more than a second under the previous record, Linda Jezek, who at 18 is the oldest of the new breed, said, "We're tired of hearing about how great the East Germans are. We're pointed at being the best swimmers in the world."
April 17, 1978
The best of the bunch is undeniably Tracy Caulkins, who now holds nine U.S. records. Out of the water, the tall (5'8") and slender (116 pounds) Tracy has all the characteristics of an adolescent, from her braces to her tendency to bump into things. But when she took the starting block in Austin, wearing her racing goggles, her skintight racing suit and her rubber cap marked NAC (for Nashville Aquatic Club), she had the cool and confident look of a world-beater.
Before the meet, Tracy's coach, Paul Bergen, said, "Her times in 12 events are lower than the qualifying times here. The rules say she may swim only four individual events, but I think she could win all 12 if she put her mind to it."
On Wednesday night, during the first session of the four-day meet, Tracy swam a record 1:02.20 in the 100 breaststroke, her specialty, surpassing her record of 1:03.06. Like most of the new teen stars in women's swimming, Tracy is undemonstrative. There's no squealing or tears over a record. "Coach Bergen and I thought I might be able to break a minute," she said, "but it just wasn't there. We'll make it soon, I think."
The next night Tracy slashed five seconds off her record in the 400 individual medley with a 4:11.38. She was pursued closely through the opening backstroke and butterfly legs by her 18-year-old teammate Joan Pennington—who finished 1½ seconds back—but turning into the breaststroke leg, Tracy pulled away and finished with a strong freestyle. Says Bergen, "Tracy has starts like Kornelia Ender [the retired East German gold medalist] and superb turns, which on the short course, where a third of the race is underwater, is the name of the game."
Friday's 2:14.07 that had so amazed Greg Jagenburg was a personal victory for Tracy, who in January had lost the U.S. Open record in the 200 breaststroke to Julia Bogdanova of the U.S.S.R. She was delighted with her new record, two seconds lower than Bogdanova's mark. "Sometimes I race the clock and sometimes the field," Tracy said. "This time I was racing that old record. I wanted it back." Saturday night, she broke her fourth record, with a 1:59.33 in the 200 individual medley.
Quiet, except when she's around girls her own age, Tracy once asked a teacher at Nashville's Harpeth Hall Academy not to put her press clippings on the bulletin board. She didn't like the attention. "Tracy really doesn't believe that she's done anything yet that's worth getting excited about," says her father Tom, a school administrator. "She never says much about swimming." "She's subtle," says Bergen. "I've been with her three years, and I'm just learning to tell when she's up and when she's down."
Tracy began swimming at eight. By the age of 11, she was setting age-group records, and at the '77 AAU Indoor Nationals, she began winning big in open competition. "When I first got to the Nationals, I wondered what I was doing with all these big-time swimmers I'd heard about," she says. "Then, I don't know, I just sort of decided I'd like to win." So she went out and did just that, breaking three American records.
Tracy does all the usual hard work in a demanding sport. She is up at 5 a.m. six days a week to swim eight to 10 miles. And like most of her swimming friends she is following the East German example by lifting weights three times a week. She also does reasonably well in school, preferring English to math and science.
Tracy's record times at Austin were also partly the result of a "dumb" accident. Last October, while fooling around with some other kids on a porch swing, she broke her right leg. After wearing a plaster cast for three weeks, she was fitted with a ventilated fiber-glass model and went back in the water. "She couldn't use her legs," says her father, "so she swam for six weeks with her arms and shoulders. It made her incredibly strong. That consequently made her butterfly and freestyle strokes in the medleys much faster. I know the Olympics are on her mind, but she doesn't talk about them to anyone. She won't get ahead of herself. The only thing she looks forward to right now is the dual meet with Russia this month and the World Games in West Berlin in August. That's when we get to see the East Germans and find out where we stand."
Some of the other girls who will go to Germany are Tracy's pen pals. "They write each other all the time," says Tracy's dad. The youngest is Cynthia (Sippy) Woodhead, 14, of Riverside, Calif., who in the AAUs set a U.S. record of 4:39.94 in the 500-yard freestyle, almost three seconds better than Jennifer Hooker's mark. Asked if she dwelt on her tender years, Sippy said, "I just do my best and I don't pay any attention to how old I am." Fair enough. Sippy also broke the U.S. record in the 1,650 freestyle with a 15:55.15, after being narrowly beaten in the 200 free by an inspired Stephanie Elkins, 14, of Jacksonville's Amberjax club, who swam a 1:45.91. Said Stephanie, "All my friends had records, and I felt left out. So I gave a little more."
On Saturday, Tracy did it again in the 4 x 100-yard freestyle relay. Swimming first, and therefore eligible to be timed for a record, Tracy had a 49.58 for her fifth mark of the meet, wiping out Elkins' 49.66 set earlier in the evening.
Although it was predicted that the American girls would do well, their times were unexpectedly impressive. Wendy Boglioli, 23, who helped win the U.S. women's only gold medal in Montreal as a member of the 4 x 100 freestyle relay team, thinks she knows why the kids are improving. Boglioli, who is nicknamed "Mom" and swam in Austin although she is five months pregnant, says, "There's a new attitude among the young women. People thought that before the '76 Games the girls concentrated too much on American records so that they could go on all the foreign trips as part of the U.S. team. Then they kind of let down in international competition.
"But now Tracy and Sippy and the others don't get too excited about their records. They want it all, and that means the East Germans. They're hungry and young enough to do it. They're incredibly more mature and poised than I was at that age. If they keep it up, they'll bring home a lot of gold in 1980."