Legends of the Pool: Tracy Caulkins, The Most Underrated Swimmer Ever

While today’s class of swimmers are breaking records at a clip never before seen, they are not the first swimming superstars. Before there was  Phelps and Lochte, Cielo and Bernard, Coughlin and Hardy, there was a whole slew of swimming innovators that revolutionized the sport. Every week, The Swimmers Circle is going to take a look at one of these Legends of the Pool, and help remember the stars of the past. Click here to see all of our Legends of the Pool.

At last week’s 2010 ConocoPhillips National Championships, Michael Phelps won his 48th, 49th and 50th career individual national titles. This pushed him into a tie with, and subsequently past, a swimmer who is rarely discussed in modern-day conversations as the “greatest swimmer ever,” but probably should be: Tracy Caulkins.

Here are the stats. Pay attention, as there’s one number here that should jump out at you, and might tell the story of why Caulkins is so underrated.

  • 8 World Championship Medals (5 gold, 2 silver, 1 bronze)
  • 63 American Records (most ever)
  • 12 NCAA Championships
  • 3 Olympic medals (all gold)
  • 5 World Records
  • 1978 United Press International Swimmer of the Year
  • 1978 James Sullivan Award winner, the youngest ever
  • 4-time Swimming World American Swimmer of the Year

Caulkins may very well be the best all-around swimmer ever. She is the only swimmer ever to set American Records in all 4 strokes, a feat the great Michael Phelps could only dream of. Imagine what would happen if you took Dana Vollmer’s fly, Natalie Coughlin’s backstroke, Rebecca Soni’s breaststroke, and Kara Lynn Joyce’s freestyle, and wrapped them up into a single individual medley. That’s essentially what you were watching when Tracy Caulkins swam.

Individual Titles Only

She won sprints (100 yard freestyle American Record holder), distances (500 yard freestyle American Record holder), every stroke, and every distance. When compared to today’s swimmers, who focus on certain events, and lock in to “primary strokes” somewhere around age 11, Caulkins was a veritable versatile monster of the sport who excelled in every distance of every discipline.

But despite all of her championships and titles, she only has 3 Olympic medals, and only participated in one Olympic Games. And this is not 3 Olympic medals back in 1920, when there were only 3 Olympic swimming events for women. This is the 1980’s, when there were 14 events, all of which Caulkins had the potential to medal in at her peak.

Most of you have probably caught on to why Caulkins has so few Olympic medals. She was one of the most heartbreaking victims of Jimmy Carter’s decision to boycott the 1980 Games, held in Moscow, over the USSR’s recent invasion of Afghanistan.

At the 1978 World Championships, when she was only 15, Caulkins won 5 gold medals (200 fly, 200 IM, 400 IM, 4×100 free relay, 4×100 medley relay) and 1 silver (100m breaststroke) while training with her hometown Nashville Aquatic Club. How often, in modern swimming, does the gold medalist in the 200 fly swim breaststroke on the medley relay?

Two years later, in 1980, Caulkins would have been primed to pull in 5, 6, or maybe more gold medals, that certainly would have vaulted her to the front of the line for “greatest ever”. Instead, she had to wait 4 more years to chase her Olympic dream.

Although in 1984, she was only 21 years old, and physically was in a position to chase more medals, in the 80’s, there was no money to be made in swimming. By this point in her career, Caulkins had turned her focus to academics, where she was equally impressive. This was foreshadowed at the 1983 Pan-Am Games, where despite winning both IM events, Caulkins was considerably slower than expected. By the 1984 Olympic Trials, Caulkins only qualified in 3 individual events: the IM’s and 100 breaststroke.

As a broadcast journalism major at the University of Florida, Caulkins was twice the top vote-getter for the College Sports Information Directors Association Academic All-American Teams while swimming under the now-legendary Randy Reese. Caulkins retired from competitive swimming after the 1984 Olympics, foregoing her senior year of NCAA eligibility, to really concentrate on her advertising.

Despite her shift in focus, Caulkins still dominated the world in the individual medley events, winning the 200 by 2.53 seconds, and the 400 by an incredible 9.06 seconds at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

After her swimming career, Caulkins married college teammate Mark Stockwell and moved to his native Australia. Now living in Queensland, Caulkins has been awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia, for promoting sporting opportunities for women in her new homeland.

Should Caulkins be considered the best female swimmer of all time? I would say she certainly belongs in the top 3. To accomplish what she did at such a young age, and in such a huge range of events, puts her at least on the same plane as Dawn Fraser, Jenny Thompson, Krisztina Egerszegi, Kristin Otto, and Janet Evans. Tracy Caulkins was an unfortunate victim of timing and politics. Had she competed at the 1980 Olympics, where she was qualified to swim 5 individual events and likely two additional relays, she would have dominated. Perhaps this would have even extended her passion for swimming further through the 1984 games, and she may have won more medals there and beyond.

But as it is, until Wednesday night, Caulkins was almost forgotten, and rarely mentioned, and it’s a damn shame.

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Mark Boerner
2 years ago

Anyone that coached during that period was amazed by her accomplishments, and still are to this day. She was the topic of every Coaches World Clinic from the late 70s to the early 80s. If you to a poll from the coaches that saw her compete, it would overwhelming list her as the Greatest Female Swimmer of All Time.

Eric Lahmy
8 years ago

I have followed swimming as a reporter with or without the French newspaper L’Equipe during the last 45 years, and I consider Tracy Caulkins is the BEST swimmer, male and female, I have ever seen (and a wonderful, person). She was better than Phelps, better than Spitz, better than everybody…

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Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder/co-owner of SwimSwam.com. He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

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