On the eve of the AAU National Short Course Championships, at East Los Angeles College, America's fastest female swimmer, Tracy Caulkins, and one of America's fastest pools were both ailing—one from the debilitating aftereffects of a virus and the other from the plumbing equivalent of a double hernia. But, thanks to youthful resilience and plumbers who were working on a rush job, 15 U.S. records were set, five by the 16-year-old Caulkins. In order, her meet in detail:
•On Wednesday night she won the 100-yard breaststroke in a record 1:01.82 (the old mark was hers).
•Two events later she lowered the national record in the 500-yard freestyle by more than three seconds while winning the event in 4:36.25. It was the first time she had swum the event in a major meet, and she broke the record held by Cynthia Woodhead, who is one of the nation's best swimmers.
•On Thursday night she broke her own record in the 400-yard individual medley by more than three seconds, swimming 4:08.09. Later in the evening she helped her Nashville Aquatic Club win the 400-yard medley relay.
•She took a day off Friday, swimming only the first leg on the second-place 800-yard freestyle relay team.
•On Saturday night, refreshed from her little vacation, she won the 200-yard IM in 1:57.86, breaking her old record by 1.47 seconds. And, swimming the first leg of the 400-yard freestyle relay, she was clocked in 49.03, smashing Wood-head's record that had stood for all of an hour (individual records can be set only on the first legs of relays).
And think what she might have done with the proper preparation. "She was sick before this meet," said her father, Tom. "Three and a half weeks ago she caught what we thought was the 48-hour virus-type thing. It put her down, really wiped her out for 48 hours. Her coach, Don Talbot, was very concerned. We took her to the doctor's and had all the blood tests and things like that. Showed nothing. But she wasn't doing it. She couldn't perform in practice. She was swimming very poorly—very poorly. But she began to get a little bit better every day, and Don said, 'It's going to be close.' "
The pool's ailments were much more serious. In January it was discovered that the foundation had dropped as much as 30 inches in some places, which caused two pipes to crack, which caused more water seepage, which—well, it was a plumber's dream come true. A backup pool was readied and the printing of the program was placed on hold.
The community-college district put up the bucks for quick repairs, and the AAU spent close to $20,000 in setting up an electronic timing system. The pool survived a wet run, which was fortunate. It's the deepest permanent-walled 25-yard pool in the world—the "shallow" end is 11', the deep end 13'—and deep pools mean less turbulence, hence, faster times.
Caulkins took full advantage of the conditions. "She's probably the greatest swimmer in the world today, male or female," says USC Coach Peter Daland, "and her event possibilities are almost unlimited. I'm sure that if she were to train for a month for backstroke that she would be giving the champion here, Linda Jezek, all she could handle. We've had some great versatile people, but she probably is as good as anybody we've had. And the thing that's most amazing about her is that she has the speed to go sprints and the stamina to go distance."
"Her concentration level is pretty much above any other swimmer I've worked with," says Paul Bergen, who was her coach in Nashville before becoming the women's coach at the University of Texas.
Bergen's move left Caulkins in the care of his replacement, Talbot, an Australian who has coached Olympic swim teams for his native land and for Canada. "There is a little bit of stress on me to make sure that she does the job," says Talbot. "She's the golden girl of the United States, and if I blow it, some swimming people are going to cut their throats." Or Talbot's.
However, there's scant danger of that happening after Caulkins' showing in East L.A. Tracy's dad, a swimming official himself, was among the pleased. "People ask her mother and me how we raised her," he says. "I can't claim credit. That's just the way she is. But she has my teeth! She's been in braces four years now. Fifty dollars a month for four years. She's about through. She's going to get them off any time now."
So much for her dental future. What about preparations for the Pan-Am games and the 1980 Olympics? "I don't think I really have a best event," Caulkins says. "But if I had to pick one, I'd pick the 400 IM. I like that one the best...I like to train in all the strokes. Moscow? I'll probably enter the 400 IM, maybe the 400 free and the breaststrokes. I'm not really sure, things could change by then."
Tennis star Tracy Austin has rid herself of her tin grin and Tracy Caulkins will shed hers soon, but orthodontists will continue to have a walking—or, in this case, swimming—advertisement in Mary T. Meagher, 14, of Louisville. (One of her 10 siblings is also a Mary, hence the middle initial.) Meagher (pronounced maw-her) was one of the bright new stars to emerge dripping and happy from the East Los Angeles pool. The AAU's short-course event usually provides upsets and fresh faces, and this year's edition was no exception. Mary T. won the 200-yard butterfly in 1:56.58, beating out, among others, American record-holder Nancy Hogshead.
She recently switched clubs, joining Louisville's Lakeside Swim Club, which does its summer training in a 50-meter pool carved out of what used to be a rock quarry that is bordered by trees. Winter training is much less sylvan and much less sane, being conducted in a six-lane, 25-yard bathtub that is often more crowded than a fish hatchery.
"She came to us this fall," says her coach, Denny Pursley. "It appeared to me when I first started working with her that she had the ability to hold her stroke for a longer distance better than any butterflyer I had ever seen. So that's what we decided to work her for, and it certainly paid off when we got here this week.
"Last year at this time she went to the Junior Olympics and won both the 100 and 200 butterfly in record time. She and her teammate, Lisa Buese, who made the Pan-American team in the 100-yard fly, are the two hardest-working athletes I've ever had the privilege of coaching or swimming with when I was swimming."
By comparison, 18-year-old Steve Lundquist, who goes 6'2", 180, and has what seems like thick, flesh-colored steel cable where his neck should be, confessed to the heresy that he had prepared for the nationals by taking it easy. Just a good old Georgia boy savoring his senior year in high school, in the Atlanta suburb of Jonesboro.
Yet he won the 100- and 200-yard breaststrokes and set U.S. records in both: 54.08 (in morning qualifying) and 1:59.18. "Strength is the main factor in the breaststroke, not finesse," he said, "and I'm pretty strong from lifting weights. I'm out of shape. Didn't get back in the pool until 10 days ago. I worked out with a little weight training for football season—I'm a defensive end—and I went to a swim meet during Christmas, but I didn't work out or anything. A lot of people do stretching exercises whether they're in the pool or not. I've never done stretching exercises. As a matter of fact, I can't even touch my toes.
"The main reason I haven't trained is that I'm a senior. The second main reason is next year I'm going to go all out for the Olympics. Why should I work now when I'm going to have to work next year twice as hard? I've never had a rest since I was eight years old hardly. I'll take it now instead of next year during the Olympics."
Going into the meet, Lundquist figured he only had a chance in the 100. Later he credited his brain rather than his muscles for his success in the longer race. "The 200 you have to use your noggin," he said. "You have to plan it out and everything's got to be just right. I knew that I had to work my turns because my swimming ability isn't that good right now."
So he got a fine start, "worked" the turns expertly and cracked the record. So much for touching one's toes. Touching the wall first is what counts.
The rest of the winners were a mixture of newcomers and men and women (or boys and girls) familiar to readers of Swimming World. Distance ace Brian Goodell of UCLA and the Mission Viejo Nadadores picked up where he had left off at the NCAA meet, taking the 500 freestyle and 1,650 freestyle (the latter in a U.S. record 14:47.27). Woodhead, 15, took the women's 100 and 200 free-styles in U.S. record times, although Caulkins snatched the 100 record away before Sippy got a good grip on it. Kim Linehan, 16, of Sarasota, Fla., known to her mother as the Carbo Queen for her overconsumption of carbohydrates, won the women's 1,650 in a U.S.-record 15:49.10.
Mission Viejo's Jesse Vassallo, 17, topped teammate Goodell with three wins: 200 backstroke and 200 and 400 individual medleys, the latter in still another U.S. record time: 3:48.24.
Because the top two U.S. finishers in each event were named to the U.S. team that will compete in the Pan-Am Games in Puerto Rico in July, Vassallo will be returning to the country of his birth. Perhaps it won't be as a hero, however, since Puerto Rico competes in the Olympics and Pan-Am Games as a separate entity, and Vassallo decided long ago to throw in his goggles with U.S. swimming.
One of the interested observers of Vassallo's brilliant 400 medley victory was USC's Daland. "I watched it because I'm coaching the guy who was second [the aptly named Jeff Float]," he said. "I talked to Jesse afterward. Apparently he was set up for a :47-plus and he went a :48-low, which is hitting it awfully close. He has the big middle legs for the IM, the backstroke and the breast, and he's more than adequate on the fly and the free. There is really no place to cut in on Jesse. He has the four legs, he's in fantastic condition, he's a great racer."
Because Vassallo, like Lundquist, is a high school senior, Daland and an armada of other swim coaches are interested in his services. But his plans are to go to junior college for one year and continue training for the Olympics under Mission Viejo Coach Mark Schubert.
Yale Coach Frank Keefe, who will be the men's and women's swimming coach for the Pan-Am Games, has no recruiting worries for the Puerto Rican trip. All but a handful of the short-course winners and runners-up are more than happy to interrupt their summer training to go along.
"In comparison to the '75 team, it's fantastic," he said. "I'm looking at a team right now that is very close to the same people we had at the world championships last year in West Berlin. Also a lot of kids we had in the meet against East Germany the year before. I think it's the new breed of American swimmer.
"You take Cynthia Woodhead and Tracy Caulkins. They've been on two or three international trips together. They know each other very well. There's much more of a national feeling right now than I've noticed in years.
"And that Tracy. She's swimming as well as good men in college are. I could use her on my college team."