The world's best all-round woman swimmer stood on the starting block at the United States Swimming International in Gainesville, Fla. last week. She was Tracy Caulkins, of Nashville, the U.S.A. Or, if you please, Petra Schneider of the German Democratic Republic. The 400-meter individual medley, the ultimate combination of endurance and versatility, was about to begin, butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle—that's where the "all-round" comes in. The "best" was equally obvious. Caulkins. winner of 27 national championships, one of the world's great butterflyers and breaststrokers, until recently had held world records in both the 200 and 400 IM.
But Schneider broke both marks last May, then bettered the 400 again to win the gold medal in Moscow in July. The Olympic silver medalist finished a full 10 seconds back, but she wasn't Caulkins, of course, nor any other U.S. swimmer. That's why this Caulkins-Schneider race—the whole meet, in fact—was more than just another international get-together. Though the luster of the Olympics may have been missing, many of the stars who performed at Moscow were at Gainesville. The Russians, for example.
To the surprise of many, the full Soviet national swimming team was there to compete against the G.D.R. and the U.S. for the first time since the 1978 world championships. Swimmers from 16 other nations were entered as well, including a delegation from the People's Republic of China—six swimmers and a coach. No Chinese team had previously competed against either the U.S.S.R. or the G.D.R.
On hand were 15 of the 22 swimming gold medalists from Moscow. Naturally, there were those who saw the meet as a second Olympics. But most of those were Americans. The two other great swimming powers saw it differently. East German Coach Wolfgang Richter said, "The high point of our season will be the European championships in September." And Soviet Coach Sergei Vaitsekhovsky put it this way, "This is not an important competition for us. We have not prepared for it. It's just a chance to meet American swimmers once again. The boycott was not their decision, and we do not want to go four more years before competing with them."
January 12, 1981
But wasn't the meet an opportunity to compare the Soviet Olympic champions with the best Americans?
"No," Vaitsekhovsky said. "We have our gold medals. We do not defend them here. There is an old Russian saying: 'After the fight we do not shake a fist.' "
Based on what took place at the International, it was hard to know how serious Richter and Vaitsekhovsky were. Great swimming times require strong competition, and so many records fell at Gainesville that a sigh could be heard from the grandstand whenever an event failed to produce one. The pool was 25 meters long, so world records, which can be set only in 50-meter pools, couldn't be broken, but 25-meter world best times were fair game, and when the three-day meet had ended 19 of them had fallen. Caulkins, in her first major backstroke competition, broke one in the 100. Then she did the same in the 200 IM. In the men's 100 backstroke, New York high school senior Rick Carey lowered the record by .29 seconds, and Auburn graduate David McCagg broke the 50 free mark, though he was second to another record breaker, the G.D.R.'s Jorg Woithe.
In the men's 800-meter freestyle, the mark of 7:56.65 was trimmed by more than four seconds by Leningrad's Aleksandr Chayev, the 1980 silver medalist in the 1,500, and by the G.D.R.'s Rainer Strohbach a split second back. Pretty fair performances for two "unprepared" swimmers.
But the Americans really dominated the International, taking 19 of the 34 events and setting 11 world bests. Carey, who started swimming at the age of six when his brother threw him into a pool (he sank to the bottom), shaved .2 of a second from his own world best mark in the 200 backstroke. And Craig Beardsley of Harrington Park, N.J., just turned 20, bettered the world best time in the 200 butterfly, by 1.04 seconds. In third place was the U.S.S.R.'s Sergei Fesenko, the 1980 gold medalist in the same event. "It's early in the season," Beardsley had been saying. "I'm not feeling any pressure." Fesenko, who likes to read Jack London novels, claimed to have swum not a stroke all last fall.
In a preliminary heat of the women's 100 breaststroke, Caulkins broke her own record by .32 seconds. In the finals she broke her new record by more than twice that margin. In seventh place was China's Liang Wei Fen, who had won the event at the Hawaii International Invitational in August. But after Liang's seventh, no other Chinese swimmer even made a final for the rest of the meet.
An hour after the 100 breaststroke finals Caulkins was ready for the 200 butterfly. Her main competition was Louisville's Mary T. Meagher, who at 16 had already established the seven fastest times ever in that event, all swum in a 50-meter pool. At Gainesville someone mentioned that record to Mary T. "Seven? Oh, really?" she said, seemingly less than enthusiastic. A friend of Meagher's confided, "The boycott hit her really hard. Of all the U.S. swimmers, I think she was the most devastated by it."
"I thought of retiring," Meagher said. "But I decided to cut my training in half for the next two years, and then get back into it." Then she sidled down to the pool and took 3.45 seconds off the world best 200 record. As Meagher touched she glimpsed a splash in the next lane. It was Caulkins, 1.59 seconds slower, but also a record-breaker. In third place was the G.D.R.'s Ines Geissler, the 200 fly gold medalist in Moscow.
Among the proudest men in Gainesville on this day was Mark Schubert, the 32-year-old U.S. coach, and coach at Mission Viejo, Calif, since 1972. After the 200 butterfly, he held court on the subject, explaining how advanced and unnatural a stroke the butterfly is, and on the phenomenon called Mary T. as Meagher is known. "I've watched her since she was 11," Schubert said, "and...." He just shook his head. "She always had an inordinate amount of speed. In recent years she's done a lot of endurance training, and endurance on top of speed is an unusual combination in the 200 fly. When the others fade out at 100 meters she keeps on going. And she's not awed by history. Times don't worry her. Mary T was breaking records and she didn't even know what they were.
"And then there's Tracy, a big girl, long arms and legs, and very flexible. What's so incredible is that she has the best feel for the water of anyone I've ever seen. It's kind of a kinetic sense. She's a dedicated athlete, too. Lots of kids achieve success through hard work. But when there's the kind of talent Tracy has, well, it's no wonder she's unstoppable."
Meanwhile, in the grandstand, the Soviet contingent seemed to be enjoying itself. A few friendly American swimmers had learned a bit of colloquial Russian, pronounced "Knee poockha knee pira" (accent on the last syllable). It means "Break a leg," and, as in this country, it is spoken to wish a performer good luck. The Americans were happy with their Russian phrase, and always in return they would get a quick smile from a departing swimmer and the exclamation "Ka chortoo," which means, with equally benign purpose, "Go to hell."
Even Coach Vaitsekhovsky seemed content. He said, "Is easy to breathe in here." In fact, many swimmers and coaches were attributing the extraordinary times, at least in part, to the smooth water of the Gainesville pool, a part of the University of Florida's new $12 million Stephen C. O'Connell Center. The pool bottom slopes rapidly from five to 18 feet, greatly reducing the rebound of waves from the bottom. The extensive gutter system is designed to absorb any water that slaps against the pool's sides, so there are no waves to rebound there, either. And three plastic dividers separate the lanes, instead of the usual one or two, so no swimmer can create waves for any other swimmer.
The roof over the pool, a vast expanse of white fiber-glass material coated with Teflon, looks from the outside like a great tufted meringue. It was cheaper to construct than a conventional roof, and it lets a lot of light in, but to keep it up the structure requires a slightly higher air pressure than normally found inside a building. So the air flow is unusual for a building interior, resulting in very low humidity in the pool area, and wafting away most of the chlorine fumes before they can bother the swimmers.
Caulkins' father, Tom, a stroke judge, approved the new pool, but felt that it wasn't the only reason for the numerous records. "This is a very big and interesting field for our kids," he said, "and I think there's a certain amount of extra adrenaline flowing because of it."
Early in the second day of competition the Soviets trotted out their best swimmer. At 20. Vladimir Salnikov holds the world record in the 800 and 1,500 as well as the gold medals at Moscow in the 400 free and 1,500. His record time in the latter is 14:58.27, the first below 15 minutes. After the Olympics Salnikov rested, he says, "for 50 days," listening to recordings of Bach, Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky. By December, however, Salnikov was back in the water swimming four hours a day, and at Gainesville he set a world best in the 400 free.
Now Caulkins came back for the 100 fly. In the preliminaries, as she approached the finish in slightly under the American-record time, an expert at poolside had shouted, "Tracy, don't breathe." She missed the record by less than a third of a second, and the expert explained, "She breathed twice going into the wall. You can't do that in the butterfly. If she'd kept her head down she could've broken the record."
That evening, in the 100 fly finals, she would again go up against Meagher. Only 30 minutes later, she would face the ultimate test, Schneider and the 400 IM.
That afternoon Tom Caulkins spoke of what lay ahead for his daughter. "She'll have two tough races," he said, "but she wouldn't see any sense in racing if she was a sure winner.
"In the butterfly preliminary today her last turn was poor. She came up half a stroke short. She couldn't decide whether to kick or to take another stroke, but she can't afford to do that tonight. Of course, she's swimming against the best butterflyer the world has ever known. That doesn't mean Mary T can't be beaten, but it will take a super effort.
"As for the 400 IM, it should be a good race. It's a strategic event. It all depends on who makes the best plan. We should know at the end of the backstroke, halfway through the medley, who'll win. Schneider has to be well ahead then to win."
In the 100 fly Meagher and Caulkins were in Lanes 4 and 5 at the center of the pool. Meagher got off to a poor start, and Caulkins led into the third lap. But Meagher came on to shatter the world best mark, and a stroke later Caulkins also finished under the world best.
Then it was time for the Caulkins-Schneider race, "The classic matchup of the entire meet," according to Randy Hart, the U.S. team's publicity man. The day before, Caulkins had been asked, "Do you think you're the best all-round swimmer in the world?"
"Well," she said, "I'm looking forward to swimming against Petra."
Schneider, even more evasive when asked the same question, replied through her interpreter, "This is not a special competition. It is a preparatory meet for the European Championships."
"But are you the best?"
Schneider seemed embarrassed. The interpreter said, "She says she does not feel that she is the best. She says she is just like any other swimmer."
Now Schneider stood on the block in Lane 4. Caulkins was in Lane 5, Poland's Agnieszka Czopek in Lane 6. "Go, U.S.A.!" came a chorus from the grandstand. Caulkins led at the start, with Schneider close behind, and by the third lap that hadn't changed. Out of the second backstroke turn, at 150 meters, Caulkins led by two feet, and into the breast-stroke sequence she held on. At the last breaststroke turn Caulkins led by nearly a body length, and as the freestyle laps began her lead was a full length. Such leads have been overcome in 100 meters of freestyle swimming. But now the lead was a length and a half. Schneider's record was 4:37.33. Caulkins touched, and the digital clock for her lane stopped at 4:33.44. Schneider's time was 4:35.61, the second best 400 IM ever. She had trailed at 200 meters by less than .2 of a second, but Caulkins had beaten her in the breast-stroke by more than two seconds.
Minutes later Canada's 16-year-old Alex Baumann won the men's 400 IM in 4:15.11, 2.70 seconds under the old mark. "There goes the next great swimmer," one official said. But Caulkins, who, by the end of the meet had entered six individual events and bettered world marks in all of them, had the crowd watching her. In the press room a TV man asked her. "If someone said to you now, 'Are you the best all-round swimmer in the world?' what would you do?"
"I'd be humble," she said, blushing.
"Tracy," he said, "are you the best?"
She looked at the floor, then looked up, grinning.
"Yup," she said.