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Lessons from Legends: Tracy Caulkins and Versatility


By Chuck Warner//Special Contributor

Nine-year old Tracy Caulkins watched the television broadcast of the 1972 Olympics in Munich. She formed a dream to swim in the Olympics one day. Tracy overcame some unusual obstacles to realize that dream, but ultimately her versatility delivered an Olympic actuality.


After a move from Minnesota, Tracy spent most of her years growing up in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1976, at the age of 13, she swam in her first national championship. It was the same year that the East German women’s team dominated the competition at the Montreal Olympics. Years later, the DDR system of performance enhancing doping was exposed, but it didn’t stop Tracy and an America group of young girls from surpassing their European rivals.


At the 1977 USA Short-Course Nationals, Tracy demonstrated her versatility by setting American records in the 200-yard individual medley, 400 individual medley and the 100 breaststroke. At the 1978 World Championships in Berlin, Germany, at just fifteen years old, Tracy won won both individual medleys, but also swam the 200-meter butterfly and won that too. She added a freestyle leg on the gold medal 400 freestyle relay and also swam on the winning 400 medley relay.


In 1978, Tracy Caulkins became the youngest athlete to ever win the James E. Sullivan Award as the greatest amateur athlete in America.


Tracy’s Olympic dream was put on hold when the USA boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, Russia because the Soviet Union had launched a military invasion of Afghanistan. Although the boycott occurred at the peak of her career, Tracy continued to swim for the next four years. By 1984, she wasn’t as strong as she once was in breaststroke, butterfly or any single stroke. But she was still so versatile that she won the gold medal at the Los Angeles Olympics in the 200-meter individual medley.


Many swimmers begin their experience identifying a particular stroke and distance as their “specialty.” There is much to be learned about the advantages of working toward perfection in all four strokes like Tracy Caulkins:

  • A swimmer’s body goes through changes that may create opportunities in different strokes at various ages.
  • Training all four strokes can be easier on joints than only one or two strokes.
  • Racing in all four strokes can be met with rewards of best times in one stroke, while another is in the process of development.
  • Even if you’re not the best around in one stroke, if you’re good in all four strokes your individual medley might be superior!

Tracy Caulkins was so versatile that before she completed her swimming career, she set American records in every stroke, recording more than 60 marks and won a record 63 individual national titles, a standard that still stands today.

And Then They Won Gold (Small)

For more information or to order Chuck Warner’s books Four Champions, One Gold Medal or …And Then They Won Gold, go to (access Books * Media), Swimming World Magazine or the American Swimming Coaches Association.






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