Tracy Caulkins looked to her mother for help. "I don't know. Did I?" she said.
"You never really cried, no. You never really broke down and cried," her mother said. Martha Caulkins is an art teacher in Nashville, and, one imagines, doesn't run the sort of classroom in which it would be advisable to start winging paper clips. "There was that one time watching the news when Carter was making the announcement...."
"I saw your eyes fill up with tears, but that was more from anger. You never really cried."
July 20, 1980
Tracy Caulkins' views on the Olympic boycott have gone from anger to disappointment to acceptance. She is a true Capricorn, born Jan. 11, 1963—practical, ambitious, disciplined. Capricorns have been compared to the tortoise who outraced the hare. They are patient and hardworking, goal-oriented folk. And in the end they are apt to win out. Tracy is the top female swimmer in the U.S., with American records in the 200- and 400-meter individual medleys, the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke and the 500-yard freestyle. Her world records once included the 200-meter butterfly (broken by fellow American Mary Meagher) and the 200- and 400-meter IMs. In the past four months those last two were broken by Petra Schneider, an East German, also a Capricorn—patient, hardworking, ambitious. Also her country's finest swimmer. And, strangely, also born Jan. 11, 1963. They were ordained, it seemed, to meet in the Olympics. It seemed.
Caulkins' star was wildly ascendant; Schneider's gradually so. Caulkins burst into international swimming prominence in 1978 at the world championship in Berlin, where, as a skinny 15-year-old with braces, she led the U.S. women to nine gold medals in 12 events, toppling an incipient East German dynasty. Caulkins won or shared five of the golds herself. "The East German girls were dominating prior to 1978," she says, reflecting on the 11 gold medals they won at the Montreal Olympics, "but the younger American swimmers who hadn't been around in '76 weren't afraid and just went out and swam our best. To a lot of people it was a really big surprise, the way I swam, but I guess I knew it was coming." That year Caulkins won the Sullivan Award as America's top amateur athlete.
In Berlin the third-place finisher in the 400 IM, nearly eight seconds behind first-place Caulkins, was a virtual unknown from East Germany, Petra Schneider. By the end of the year, she was ranked fourth in the world at that distance, fourth in the 200 IM. Those were her only events.
"It's a lot easier to get to the top of the ladder than it is to stay there," says Don Talbot, an Australian who took over as Caulkins' coach shortly after the 1978 world championship. Tracy agrees. "As you get older you start to think more and you have time to wonder. You wonder, what will happen if I fail...? I'm not saying you shouldn't think, but at 15 you just don't wonder about things like that."
In 1979 Schneider's times were better than Caulkins', although the latter's world records in the individual medleys still stood. "Some people, including her father, expected Tracy to set a new world record every time she jumped into the pool," says Talbot. "It's not that easy." She was also fighting another battle: changing from "a little girl to a big girl," as Talbot puts it. The year before, Caulkins had had to devour a pint of ice cream four times a week in order to get her weight up to 122. Her coach at the time, Paul Bergen, had allowed that he might not take her to Berlin should she drop below that. But when Tracy became sweet 16, Mother Nature did an about-face and suddenly, despite a training regimen that called for 5½ hours of practice a day, six days a week, Caulkins' weight became a problem.
"All girls go through it around that age," says her father, Tom Caulkins, who is in charge of group testing for the Nashville-Davidson County public school system and is active in the administration of the swimming program. "Girls develop a subcutaneous layer of fat that boys never do. It's actually a secondary sexual characteristic. It's what hides the muscles and makes women softer and curvier than men. But 10% fat is 10% slower."
Tracy, who is 5'9", blue-eyed, blonde and wavy-haired and utterly deferential in manner—at least out of the pool—while still being disarmingly frank and peering with wide-eyed curiosity at the world, listens to her father's explanation with a shy and appealing smile. "Ask her what she weighs now," Tom Caulkins continues, "and she'll tell you, 'No thank you.' "
"I was 131 this afternoon before practice," Tracy drawls evenly. One pound over competition weight. Caulkins has the elongated muscles of a distance swimmer, and when she stands, her knees hyperextend backward—Mark Spitz shares this characteristic; this gives a swimmer an exceptional kick in the water. Schneider has the shorter, denser muscles of a sprinter.
"It seems like Eastern European women tend to be a little bit bigger," Tracy says. "I don't know about the steroids stuff. I don't even want to think about it. I read about one of the East Germans who defected and said, 'I would love to have children, but I am afraid that I would bring them into the world handicapped.' That's what's really sad. You hear all these horror stories, how they're like robots; you don't know what to believe." Caulkins says if she had one question she'd like to ask Schneider, it would be whether she lived in a dorm or at home. Caulkins is wryly curious about Schneider's love life—these are 17-year-olds, remember.
Caulkins goes to Harpeth Hall, an all-girl school of 700, which still requires uniforms—solid-colored blouses, gray or plaid skirts and saddle shoes. She just finished 11th grade. She spent a day shopping for presents for graduating classmates, searching for a laundry bag, resisting ice cream and finally picking up her summer reading: The Bear, The Glass Menagerie, Death of a Salesman, The Scarlet Letter and The Sun Also Rises, an all-American lineup if ever there was one. She shares the idle wish of most Americans who compete against Iron Curtain athletes that the opposition might be more accessible, instead of the iron-bodied, stone-faced "robots" they give the appearance of being. "It's almost as if they were only motivated by the money," Tracy says. Then, ironically, "For us, it's enough that it be for ourselves and our country."
In January, shortly after President Carter first mentioned the possibility of an Olympic boycott, Caulkins and Schneider swam against each other for the first time since Berlin, at the Women's International competition in Austin, Texas. After only a week of training in a 50-meter pool, Caulkins broke her own 200-meter IM world record—a non-Olympic distance—with a 2:13.69, finishing three seconds ahead of Schneider. In the 400 IM she took a sizable lead over Schneider after the butterfly leg and held it through the backstroke, but then tired. "I went out like a madman," she says. Schneider caught her on the breaststroke leg and just touched her out after the freestyle, 4:42.96 to 4:43.00.
As the boycott talk became more concrete, Caulkins' training suffered from a lack of motivation. In March the peaking Schneider broke Tracy's 400 IM world record. In May the relentless Schneider claimed Caulkins' last remaining individual world record—the 200 IM. "It was a very depressing day," Tracy recalls. "I was at home alone and a local newspaperman called and said he hated to be the one to break the news, but that she had broken my last world record. I was all right at first, but after I hung up I got so mad, and there was no one there to talk to, and I couldn't eat because I was on a diet...."
Depressing indeed. But there was a flip side to the setback, as her coach points out. "The best thing that's happened to her was when Schneider came along and broke those records," Talbot says. "I've seen a change in her workouts already. She has a new goal, and that's to get those records back. And she'll do it. There're two things that can happen when a swimmer comes along to challenge your supremacy. You can throw up your hands and say, 'I can't do any better.' Or you can respond the way Tracy has, by showing your competitive instincts. She's a competitor. This boycott business, it doesn't matter to the kids. They can set new goals. But what is truly sad is that the Olympics is the only way to really bring out the greatness in an athlete. The bloody politicians will never know what they put their sportsmen through."
For Caulkins, the anger has long since passed. She has accepted the boycott and is training hard for the U.S. Nationals, which are being held two days after the Olympic swimming competition. Special awards will be given to swimmers who are selected to an honorary Olympic team. The U.S. women are hoping to soothe the sting of their absence with a slew of world records. But while races against the clock have their place, as Caulkins says, "There's nothing like head-to-head competition, especially against Schneider."
"The other girl might be stronger," says Talbot, "but the Russian coach [Sergei Vaitsekovski] thinks Tracy's a better competitor than Schneider, has more in here...." He taps his chest. "That's why it's so sad they will not be swimming against each other in Moscow."
But Caulkins is already looking ahead to competing in L.A. in 1984, an Olympics she says she probably would have bypassed had she been able to compete this summer. "I've talked to people who have been to the Games, and they tell me there's just nothing else that can give you that feeling," she says. "Shoot, just being there you can't help but go fast."
But just getting there will require four more years of training, a grind that will be made somewhat more tolerable because she'll be going to college after next year, a change of venue, a change of teammates. Still, Talbot estimates that the average world-class swimmer peaks between five to seven years after starting serious two-a-day workouts, and Caulkins has been at it since age 12. And there is a haunting recollection from Berlin—that of East Germany's Ulrike Tauber, then 20, sobbing at poolside and considering retirement following her loss to the 15-year-old American who had just shattered Tauber's record in the 400-meter individual medley.
"I suppose I could be over the hill in 1984," Tracy says. "I don't worry about it, but I'm aware it could happen. I think about it when I see all the 12-and 13-year-olds swimming and know that any one of them...." She smiles. She accepts.