Fifteen-year-old Tracy Caulkins was walking beneath the bleachers of West Berlin's Olympic pool when she noticed East German backstroker Birgit Treiber sitting alone, sobbing. Caulkins was not surprised. Competing earlier that evening in the World Aquatic Championships, the slender Nashville schoolgirl had swum a torrid breaststroke leg on a U.S. 400-meter medley relay team that had defeated Treiber and three other East German women. Then Caulkins had listened incredulously as a reporter asked Treiber why she had done so poorly. "The guy really put her down," said Caulkins. "I felt sorry for her."
Although Caulkins sounded compassionate, neither she nor her U.S. teammates did much to ease the great pain that Treiber and other GDR women were unexpectedly feeling at the championships, a 10-day extravaganza that also included competition in diving, water polo and synchronized swimming. East Germany's women had dominated swimming in recent years, and coming into this meet there was scant reason to think things would be dramatically different. After all, these were the Flying Fr‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√üuleins—as the European papers insisted on calling them—who had won 11 of 13 gold medals at Montreal. Nor had they given any signs of faltering. To the contrary, they broke four world records at their national meet in early July.
No wonder there was shocked surprise, then, when the Americans started beating the East Germans in West Berlin. Until recently U.S. women's swimming was in worse shape than the dollar, but that was before Caulkins came along. Stepping up the tempo in West Berlin, she and a strong supporting cast turned in awesome swims night after night, startling themselves almost as much as they did the East Germans. With only Monday night's events remaining, the American women had won nine of 12 events and accounted for six of 13 world records broken or tied. Meanwhile, the GDR women, astonishingly enough, were still looking for their first win.
Caulkins, who was entered in seven events and who brought to the busy program a sense of mission belying her tender years, gave the East Germans fits. "I feel responsibility for how we do here," she said on arrival in West Berlin. "I know the other girls are counting on me for good performances."
September 3, 1978
Caulkins began discharging her responsibility in the 200-meter individual medley, the opening women's event. She had set a world record of 2:15.09 at the AAU championships in Texas two weeks earlier, and she and Nashville Aquatic Club teammate Joan Pennington both went under that time. As other American swimmers joyfully pummeled one another in the stands, Caulkins touched in 2:14.07 and Pennington in 2:14.98. Ulrike Tauber, the GDR captain and a onetime world-record holder in the event, was third. She left the pool visibly shaken. Less than an hour later came the 400 medley relay that so discomfited Treiber. Caulkins and the other members of what has become the big four of U.S. women's swimming—backstroker Linda Jezek, butterflyer Pennington and freestyler Cynthia Woodhead—won it in an American-record 4:08.21.
Caulkins faced Tauber three nights later in the 400 individual medley, an event the East German won at Montreal in a world-record 4:42.77. But now, knifing through the water, an efficient, utterly streamlined figure, Caulkins streaked to a 4:40.83 clocking, leaving Tauber far behind. On Saturday night, battling blustery winds and a mild stomach virus, she won the 200 butterfly in 2:09.87, equaling the world record of the GDR's Andrea Pollack, who finished third. After a brief rest Caulkins then swam a swift leadoff leg on a 400 freestyle relay team that easily outdistanced the East Germans while clocking a world-record 3:43.43.
That was Caulkins' last swim, and it was just as well. Along the way she had shown signs of tiring, notably on Thursday when she failed to qualify for the final in the 200 breaststroke. "I'm relieved that it's over," she admitted Saturday night. "It's been a lot of pressure." For her efforts, Caulkins wound up with five gold medals and all or part of four world records.
Which is what it pretty much took to eclipse the performances of the rest of the big four. Pennington, for example, followed her silver-medal performance in the 200 IM by overcoming a woeful start—she was rocking back on her heels at the gun—to outduel world-record holder Pollack in the 100 butterfly. And the Stanford-bound Jezek, explosive on starts and turns, beat Treiber in both backstrokes, her 2:11.93 in the 200 breaking the East German's world record by half a second. Then there was Woodhead, a 14-year-old giant-killer who drew sustenance from a five-pound bucket of peanut butter she had brought along from home in Riverside, Calif. At 5'4", Wood-head stood seven inches shorter than GDR sprint star Barbara Krause, and as the long-stroking East German surged ahead in the 200 freestyle, Woodhead stayed close with a shorter, quicker, almost frantic turnover. She drew even at the 100-meter turn and won going away in 1:58.53, comfortably under Krause's world record of 1:59.04.
Thoroughly overwhelmed, the East Germans tried to figure out what had hit them. One answer was a flu bug that forced distance star Petra Thümer to scratch from all three of her events. Another was swimming's version of "old age," which probably did in the 20-year-old Tauber, who was said to be considering a hasty retirement. Mostly, though, the Germans were simply beaten. "If we knew exactly what we did wrong, we wouldn't have done it," Coach Rudolf Schramme said. "But certainly we must concentrate on finding a new crop of younger athletes."
What made the East German defeats all the more galling was that they came in West Berlin. The East Germans and their Socialist-bloc partners resisted holding the championships there but were voted down within the International Swimming Federation. Whereupon the organizers spent $7 million to spruce up the 9,000-seat pool, which sits in the shadow of the weathered stadium Hitler built for the 1936 Olympics.
As the championships neared, the Socialist countries complained that the West German flag was flying slightly higher over the stadium—which was used for opening ceremonies—than the flags of the other 48 competing countries. Another source of complaint was a West Berlin political advertisement, slipped in the official program, that accused Communist countries of trying to boycott West Berlin as a site for international sports events. Only when organizers apologized for having let the ad get by them did the GDR team pass continued through the Wall and settle in its West Berlin hotel, a secluded 40-room converted mansion with crystal chandeliers and well-tended gardens.
But the competition happily transcended the many annoyances. In water polo, in which the top seven finishers qualified for the Olympics, the U.S. made it by placing fifth. The Americans had not qualified for the '76 Games.
The Soviet Union's Irina Kalinina, shy, slight and with one side of her face paralyzed since infancy, put on two solid programs to win both the tower and the three-meter diving events.
Kalinina was joined in victory by American diver Phil Boggs, or, as the public-address announcer pronounced it, "Feel Bawkes." A 28-year-old University of Michigan law student, Boggs had won the three-meter title at both previous world championships, held in 1973 and 1975, and the gold medal at Montreal. Relaxing between dives in West Berlin by playing backgammon in a back room, he strutted out when his turn came to perform and snapped off one crisply executed dive after another. After each he leaped out of the water and stared confidently at the judges, as though daring them to downgrade him.
The U.S. men swimmers generally lacked Boggs' experience but overcame some blunders to win nine of their first 13 events, solidifying their No. 1 position in the world. Bob Jackson, a sixth-place finisher at Montreal, touched first in the 100 backstroke in 56.36, then held his breath as the apparent fourth-place finisher, New Zealand's Gary Hurring, was disqualified for neglecting to touch the wall at the 50-meter turn, an offense Jackson feared that he, too, had committed. But his victory stood, and he said, slyly, "I guess I was wrong."
Another lucky American was 17-year-old Nick Nevid, who misjudged his pace in the morning preliminaries and earned the last spot—in Lane 8—for the finals of the 200-meter breaststroke. The race soon narrowed to two men, Nevid and the Soviet Union's Arsen Miskarov, who was clear over in Lane 1, with the result that neither front-runner saw the other as they raced stroke for stroke. Nevid won in 2:18.37, a hair's breadth—.05 of a second—in front, and admitted he was surprised at being world champion. "Last summer I didn't even qualify for the nationals," he said.
Jesse Vassallo, the star of the AAU competition in Texas, had another big meet in West Berlin. He won the 400 individual medley in 4:20.05, more than three seconds under his two-week-old world record, and the 200 backstroke in 2:02.16. He also finished second in a 200 IM won in a world-record 2:03.65 by Canada's—and the University of California's—Graham Smith. A native of Puerto Rico now living in California, Vassallo drew the wistful attention of the five-member Puerto Rican team. The U.S. Territory competes on its own in international sport, and Vassallo, or so somebody from San Juan suggested, might be doing that good swimming of his for the glory of Puerto Rico, not the U.S. But Vassallo claims he once tried to represent Puerto Rico only to be told he could not do so while training in the U.S. "They shut the door on me," he said. "Now that I'm doing well, they say, 'You're one of us.' " The awkwardness may have been eased—then again, maybe not—by the presence in West Berlin of several of Vassallo's relatives, who greeted his triumphs with gleeful cries of "Arriba Puerto Rico."
Tracy Caulkins also had relatives on hand, including her 17-year-old sister Amy, a member of the U.S. entry in a five-team exhibition tournament in women's water polo staged at the championships. Amy is a former competitive swimmer, and Tracy has tried water polo, and each believes she has gravitated toward the right sport. "I'm nearsighted and have trouble seeing the ball," Tracy said.
"Tracy's got her head on straighter than I do," said Amy. "She can swim for herself and handle the pressure. I like having teammates helping me."
Tracy's nearsightedness made it hard for her to read the scoreboard, with the result that she had to ask other swimmers or lane judges the results after each race. While the tidings were favorable in everything else, the two breaststroke events were another matter. In the 100 she led for 70 meters only to be overhauled by the powerhouse stroke of the Soviet Union's 14-year-old Julia Bogdanova, who won in 1:10.31, a world record. Tracy touched in 1:10.77, an American record. Then there was her failure to make the finals in the 200. The heats were the morning after the world record in the 400 IM, and Tracy, apparently sapped, plodded to the 10th-fastest time. Only the eight fastest advanced, and Tracy, having been saddened by Birgit Treiber's tears, now cried herself. "I was tight or something," she said later.
But Caulkins and company were otherwise overwhelming, and the U.S. coaches, pressed for explanations, attributed the breakthrough to stepped-up weight training and greater use of flexibility exercises. They also noted, with a forgivable air of self-congratulation, that the American women seemed to have better technique than their GDR rivals. But Head Coach George Haines was careful to add, "At the moment we just may have better athletes than they do."
With the GDR having its problems, the Soviet Union appeared ready to challenge for world supremacy by the time of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The Soviets suddenly had some U.S.-style depth to work with. Sergei Vaitsekhovski, the feisty, crew-cut U.S.S.R. coach, called Bogdanova, Caulkins' conqueror in the 100 breaststroke, "unbeatable" in the 200, then cheered as Bogdanova's teammate Lina Kachushite won in a world-record 2:31.42. He also offered assurances that Sergei Rusin was a cinch to win the 400 free, only to wind up congratulating countryman Vladimir Salninkov. At this point Vaitsekhovski began toning down his predictions. "What we have achieved so far is peanuts," he said. "With the depth we are developing, the medals will keep falling from heaven."
Nevertheless, the Berlin meet belonged to the American girls, and nobody reveled in that fact more than Paul Bergen, the coach who developed Caulkins and Pennington. Later this month Bergen takes over as women's coach at the University of Texas, and while Pennington, who has graduated from high school, will be going along, Caulkins, a high school sophomore, will remain in Nashville. Thus Caulkins' triumphs were emotional ones for Bergen, who took movies of her races and victory ceremonies. The latter included a recorded Star-Spangled Banner that left him all choked up.
"Listen to that tune," Bergen whispered as the anthem sounded after yet another of Caulkins' victories. "Our girls are back on top." And so, for now anyway, they are.