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Tracy Caulkins, one of 700 swimmers competing in the U.S. Short Course Championships at Harvard last week, stood at poolside combing her hair moments after setting an American record of 1:57.02 in the 200-yard backstroke. This was Caulkins' ninth national championship meet, and in the eight previous ones she had won 27 titles—in freestyle, breaststroke, butterfly and individual medley. A friend approached her.
"Tracy," he said, "do you realize that you're the first person to win a national title and set an American record in every single stroke?"
"Oh, really?" she replied brightly. And then, moving on to more important matters, she asked, "How does my hair look?"
Ho hum. Another day, another American record. It was that kind of week for the 18-year-old from Nashville. In four days she set four American records—in that backstroke, the 400 IM, the 200 IM and the 100 breaststroke—to up her total to 31 national titles, the most ever by a woman, breaking the mark of 30 set by Ann Curtis in the 1940s. Caulkins undoubtedly would have set even more records, but the rules limit each swimmer to four individual events over four days. In fact, her lead-off leg in the 800 freestyle relay (1:45.74) was .39 second faster than Jill Sterkel's time for the 200-yard individual race.
Altogether, 12 American records were set in Harvard's Blodgett Pool, including five the first night. The most notable men's mark was set by 18-year-old Rick Carey from Mount Kisco, N.Y., who took the 200-yard backstroke in 1:46.00. John Naber, who had held the record of 1:46.09 since 1977, was on the pool deck at the finish to congratulate Carey.
"Four years ago I told you you'd break my record," said Naber.
"Yeah, and who else did you say the same thing to?" said Carey, laughing.
Carey was a lot happier with his time than Caulkins was with hers. "I've always had this thing about coming close to winning and not doing it," he said. "I've been third about five times in nationals. It was really getting to me. But when I saw I was ahead with 50 yards to go, no way was I going to let anyone pass me." Caulkins, in what was to become a postrace refrain, said, "Truthfully, I was hoping to go faster."
Indeed, the next night, after peeling nearly four seconds off her own 400 IM record and winning by almost a full length of the 25-yard pool, Caulkins said, "I was hoping to go a little faster—in 4:02." And so, on Friday, the third day of competition, after Tracy had set her record in the 200 IM, nobody was surprised at all when she said, "I know I could have gone faster. It was a lack of mental preparation. I just did not get up there and attack it."