SI Vault
Kenny Moore
August 03, 1981
Finding water that's not moving, holding on to it, using it—no one does this better than Tracy Caulkins, the finest woman swimmer
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August 03, 1981

Search For Still Water

Finding water that's not moving, holding on to it, using it—no one does this better than Tracy Caulkins, the finest woman swimmer

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When all 10 lanes of the Nashville Aquatic Club pool are occupied by three or four swimmers each, the noise is that of a very swift rapids running through a steel warehouse. Two large, clanking fans force a little late-spring air into the building, but it's just as humid as the air inside, and its leafy scent is quickly smothered by the pool's heavy chlorine breath.

Standing on the gritty concrete pool deck, jostled by beleaguered mothers carrying away dripping 10-year-olds or bringing dry replacements, the visitor forgets his immediate object and says, "Oh Lord. Swimming."

It has always struck him as a sport that resists understanding, existing out in that worrisome region where commitment begins to shade into dementia. To be competitive, swimmers have to go 10,000 to 20,000 yards a day—at least four hours of intense labor—and then they lift weights. Immured in what seems to be watery sense-deprivation, they train by repeating intervals of 50 to 800 yards, with minuscule rest, hour upon hour, season upon season of seeing nothing but black lines on the bottom or a pace clock's advancing hand. Even the best of them, looking back, seem confounded by swimming's demands. "When I swim laps now," says Don Schollander, who won four gold medals at the 1964 Olympics, "I think, gosh, this is hard. Did I really do this all those years? It seems the worst kind of Chinese water torture."

While the sheer difficulty of some endeavors earns for those who undertake them society's quiet respect, such as that accorded marathoners or mountain climbers no matter how modest of attainment, in swimming only a very few are taken seriously. They're the fortunate ones who are dominant at the time of an Olympics, as were Schollander, Mark Spitz, Donna de Varona. Part of this is because of swimming's being a kid sport in which all the physiological systems necessary for success can be—must be developed in adolescence. Thus the sport's imamge: pushy parents and champions in braces carrying lucky stuffed animals. Part is because swimmers are largely invisible, their faces and strokes obscured by their medium, and their races few, coming in binges at the end of long periods of training and tapering. They are the embodiment of deferred gratification, though the reward most of them seem to long for as they approach their majority is just being allowed to quit. "If someone had come up to me just before a race," Spitz said last year, "and offered me $100,000 a year for five years if I stepped down off the platform right then and there and retired, I would have taken it. Right then."

These, then, are the visitor's convictions, that swimming is hard, thankless and estranged from reason, as he comes to seek out the most accomplished woman swimmer in history. Tracy Caulkins, who is working in a far lane, sharing it with two of the Nashville Aquatic Club's fastest male performers, has won 31 national titles over the past four years. She has broken or equaled five world and 58 American records. Her versatility is unprecedented, for she has held an American record in every stroke. After East Germany's triumphs in the 1976 Olympics, Caulkins led the U.S. women back to superiority, winning three golds and a silver in individual events and swimming on two victorious relay teams in the 1978 World Championships. She was 15.

Now, at 18, she trains on, this afternoon pulling, kicking and swimming through 8,500 yards of assorted intervals, stroke drills and individual medley work. She wears two old swimsuits to increase her drag, but still on every turn gains appreciably on her lane mates, Dave Swenson, 18, who will be off to the University of Texas in the fall, and Peter Ferreira, a talented 15-year-old who has done 4:06 for the short-course (25-yard pool) 400-yard individual medley. Caulkins' best for that one is a women's American record of 4:04.63.

"She's so far ahead of all other women in turns and on starts that it's ridiculous," says Joe Goeken, the NAC assistant coach in charge of the age-group kids. "It's streamlining, an ability to get through the water. We marvel because we can't see that she does things any different or any quicker. She just glides."

Swimmers in general and Caulkins in particular constitute a prime study in deliberateness. If football is Wagner and basketball is Gershwin, then swimming is Brahms. Caulkins seems not to kick powerfully, but her hyperextensive knees give her dolphinlike leverage. Her stroke is mesmerizing because of the economy of her arms' practiced movement. As the workout goes on, the sight of her ivory arms almost languidly stretching out ahead in the backstroke has a soothing effect, lulling the watcher into forgetfulness of the effort.

"She has amazing ability to hold on to the water," says Bob Munoz, another NAC assistant coach. "When a swimmer is efficient, her hand is always searching for water that's not moving, finding it, using it. That's a gift. I don't think you can teach that."

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