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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
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."
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 5� 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."