Tracy Caulkins smiled wanly. "I've tried not to let it bother me," she said, but the prolonged slump that she carried into last week's prestigious 26-nation U.S. Swimming International Meet in Austin, Texas had indeed bothered her. At times it had made her uncharacteristically glum. At least once—following a disappointing fourth-place in the 100-meter breaststroke finals at last summer's Pan Am Games in Caracas—it had brought her to tears, a startling sight to those who know Caulkins as a bastion of composure.
"I've never given up hope," she said bravely soon after arriving in Austin. Yet as the four-day meet opened on Thursday her prospects seemed bleak. True, the 20-year-old Caulkins had won 47 national titles and set 59 world or U.S. records since 1977, but she hadn't won against top-notch international competition in three years. And here she would be facing several of the best swimmers from the dominant women's power in the sport: the German Democratic Republic.
Worse, a cystlike infection had developed under Caulkins' right arm in the days before the meet. It had swollen to the size of a plum, keeping her from training effectively because of the painful chafing with each stroke. Twice she'd had it drained, but it still hurt.
On the plus side, however, Caulkins was coming off several months of the most productive training she'd had since 1980, a year in which she might have won as many as four medals at Moscow, had the U.S. not boycotted the Olympics. "I think we're close enough now to the '84 Games that Tracy can see them out there," said her coach at the University of Florida, Randy Reese, on Friday. "She's got her motivation back, and she's really going after it."
In Caulkins' 2½ years at Florida, Reese has put her through much the same rigorous, innovative training program that he has used to develop both the 1983 NCAA men's championship team and such individual standouts as Craig Beardsley, the former world-record holder in the 200 butterfly. "Too many of our coaches are afraid to try anything new," says Reese. "They've done the same things for years, and that's why the sport is stagnating in this country." As part of his emphasis on quality training rather than simple yardage, Reese has had Caulkins swim while harnessed to pulleys and weights and while tethered to a wall with rubber tubing. On land, he has had her jump off three-foot-high walls to develop explosiveness on starts and turns and has had her run up and down the steps of Florida's football stadium to help strengthen her kick. "Some of the stuff is fun," says Caulkins. "Some of it turns out to be a waste of time," admits Reese.
But much of it pays off, as was evident when Caulkins knocked off two favored East Germans, fast-improving 18-year-old Kathleen Nord and world-record holder Ute Geweniger, in the women's 200 individual medley final on Friday night. If Caulkins' winning time of 2:16.44 wasn't particularly impressive, her racing style was. She led from the gun, dominated on the turns, pulled away from Geweniger on Geweniger's strongest stroke (breast) and fought off Nord's fierce freestyle sprint over the last length of the Texas Swim Center's pool. In the following night's 400 IM final, Caulkins put away Nord again in almost identical fashion, this time winning by inches in a terrific early-season, unshaved clocking of 4:47.31.
Caulkins' performances helped to make the International the most encouraging meet in years for the U.S. women. Despite the presence of six of East Germany's top women and the outstanding Japanese breaststroker, Hiroko Nagasaki, the American women won six of 14 individual events, with Caulkins and Mary T. Meagher (100 and 200 fly) gaining two titles apiece. Tiffany Cohen won the 200 free and nearly added three more victories for the U.S., but instead she placed second in the 400, 800 and 1,500 frees to her principal Olympic rival, 15-year-old Astrid Strauss of the G.D.R. The American men, who won five of 14 events, came out of the meet dramatically stronger, too; former 400 IM world-record holder Jesse Vassallo, who sat out the last 18 months because of torn ligaments in his left knee, made an impressive return to competition in Austin, losing narrowly to Josef Hladky of Czechoslovakia in the IM.
As recently as last summer the outlook for the U.S. women swimmers had seemed all but hopeless. Cohen appeared to be the only likely pre-Olympic gold medal favorite on the team, and in just one event, the 400 free. The G.D.R., in contrast, was arming for a possible sweep of the women's 12 individual and two relay events.
Last fall, however, Caulkins' training and attitude improved markedly, as did that of many other U.S. women, including Meagher, who took a year off from college—she's a sophomore at Cal—and moved to Southern California to work out with Cohen and others at the Mission Viejo club. Meagher, the world-record holder in the 100 and 200 fly, had put on 10 pounds and seen her performances fall off in the past two years. Now she focused on the high-yardage workouts given her at Mission and got a part-time job at a nearby J.C. Penney to fill her extra hours. "I'm a floater there," she says. "I just help out where they need me." Meagher was floating so well on her new program that at the International she not only won both butterflies convincingly but also swam a 59.63 and a 2:07.88, both of which rank among the top eight in history in the respective events. "Another five or six months and I should be ready," she said confidently. Already she's swum faster than she had in 1983.
To further boost the national program, U.S. Swimming, the sport's American governing body, held a week-long training camp in Hawaii in November for 72 of America's elite swimmers, among them Caulkins and Meagher. The camp, the first of its kind, was an ideal setting for the interchange of coaching ideas, the development of team camaraderie, stiff workouts and—at long last—a first step into the realm of scientific testing. Most encouraging, the creation of the camp indicated a willingness on the part of American swimming officials to take additional steps in the future, particularly to help the women.
Said Olympic head coach Don Gambril in Austin, "The only real concerted effort we've ever made for the women was after the 1976 Olympics, which were a disaster for us. [The U.S. women won only one gold medal, in the 4 √ó 100 freestyle relay.] That paid off in 1978, when we did well in the world championships, but after that we kind of lost the handle on the thing."
Based on American performances at the International, the current position might not be so bad: It now appears that U.S. women should win at least three individual golds in L.A. and could have an outside shot at as many as eight.
Nevertheless, in more than a few races in Austin, the East German women forcibly reminded the U.S. who's boss. In addition to Strauss's freestyle triple, there was a 100 backstroke and a 100 free double by Kristin Otto, who also finished second to Cohen in the 200 free. "Otto could probably win seven gold medals herself," says Randy Hart, swimming press chief for the L.A. Games. "But the G.D.R. has so many other good women, it won't need her for that many events."
But what had the fans in Austin talking as the meet wound down was the unexpected performance by Caulkins and the other U.S. women. How, they were asking each other, had it happened?
Otto had a simple answer, an obvious answer, but one that hasn't been heard for a long time: "They're good."