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UNCLE SAM'S GIRLS PLAY IT AGAIN
Jerry Kirshenbaum
September 04, 1978
The U.S. is back on top in women's swimming, Tracy Caulkins leading the way at Berlin's world championships
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September 04, 1978

Uncle Sam's Girls Play It Again

The U.S. is back on top in women's swimming, Tracy Caulkins leading the way at Berlin's world championships

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Fifteen-year-old Tracy Caulkins was walking beneath the bleachers of West Berlin's Olympic pool when she noticed East German backstroker Birgit Treiber sitting alone, sobbing. Caulkins was not surprised. Competing earlier that evening in the World Aquatic Championships, the slender Nashville schoolgirl had swum a torrid breaststroke leg on a U.S. 400-meter medley relay team that had defeated Treiber and three other East German women. Then Caulkins had listened incredulously as a reporter asked Treiber why she had done so poorly. "The guy really put her down," said Caulkins. "I felt sorry for her."

Although Caulkins sounded compassionate, neither she nor her U.S. teammates did much to ease the great pain that Treiber and other GDR women were unexpectedly feeling at the championships, a 10-day extravaganza that also included competition in diving, water polo and synchronized swimming. East Germany's women had dominated swimming in recent years, and coming into this meet there was scant reason to think things would be dramatically different. After all, these were the Flying Fräuleins—as the European papers insisted on calling them—who had won 11 of 13 gold medals at Montreal. Nor had they given any signs of faltering. To the contrary, they broke four world records at their national meet in early July.

No wonder there was shocked surprise, then, when the Americans started beating the East Germans in West Berlin. Until recently U.S. women's swimming was in worse shape than the dollar, but that was before Caulkins came along. Stepping up the tempo in West Berlin, she and a strong supporting cast turned in awesome swims night after night, startling themselves almost as much as they did the East Germans. With only Monday night's events remaining, the American women had won nine of 12 events and accounted for six of 13 world records broken or tied. Meanwhile, the GDR women, astonishingly enough, were still looking for their first win.

Caulkins, who was entered in seven events and who brought to the busy program a sense of mission belying her tender years, gave the East Germans fits. "I feel responsibility for how we do here," she said on arrival in West Berlin. "I know the other girls are counting on me for good performances."

Caulkins began discharging her responsibility in the 200-meter individual medley, the opening women's event. She had set a world record of 2:15.09 at the AAU championships in Texas two weeks earlier, and she and Nashville Aquatic Club teammate Joan Pennington both went under that time. As other American swimmers joyfully pummeled one another in the stands, Caulkins touched in 2:14.07 and Pennington in 2:14.98. Ulrike Tauber, the GDR captain and a onetime world-record holder in the event, was third. She left the pool visibly shaken. Less than an hour later came the 400 medley relay that so discomfited Treiber. Caulkins and the other members of what has become the big four of U.S. women's swimming—backstroker Linda Jezek, butterflyer Pennington and freestyler Cynthia Woodhead—won it in an American-record 4:08.21.

Caulkins faced Tauber three nights later in the 400 individual medley, an event the East German won at Montreal in a world-record 4:42.77. But now, knifing through the water, an efficient, utterly streamlined figure, Caulkins streaked to a 4:40.83 clocking, leaving Tauber far behind. On Saturday night, battling blustery winds and a mild stomach virus, she won the 200 butterfly in 2:09.87, equaling the world record of the GDR's Andrea Pollack, who finished third. After a brief rest Caulkins then swam a swift leadoff leg on a 400 freestyle relay team that easily outdistanced the East Germans while clocking a world-record 3:43.43.

That was Caulkins' last swim, and it was just as well. Along the way she had shown signs of tiring, notably on Thursday when she failed to qualify for the final in the 200 breaststroke. "I'm relieved that it's over," she admitted Saturday night. "It's been a lot of pressure." For her efforts, Caulkins wound up with five gold medals and all or part of four world records.

Which is what it pretty much took to eclipse the performances of the rest of the big four. Pennington, for example, followed her silver-medal performance in the 200 IM by overcoming a woeful start—she was rocking back on her heels at the gun—to outduel world-record holder Pollack in the 100 butterfly. And the Stanford-bound Jezek, explosive on starts and turns, beat Treiber in both backstrokes, her 2:11.93 in the 200 breaking the East German's world record by half a second. Then there was Woodhead, a 14-year-old giant-killer who drew sustenance from a five-pound bucket of peanut butter she had brought along from home in Riverside, Calif. At 5'4", Wood-head stood seven inches shorter than GDR sprint star Barbara Krause, and as the long-stroking East German surged ahead in the 200 freestyle, Woodhead stayed close with a shorter, quicker, almost frantic turnover. She drew even at the 100-meter turn and won going away in 1:58.53, comfortably under Krause's world record of 1:59.04.

Thoroughly overwhelmed, the East Germans tried to figure out what had hit them. One answer was a flu bug that forced distance star Petra Thümer to scratch from all three of her events. Another was swimming's version of "old age," which probably did in the 20-year-old Tauber, who was said to be considering a hasty retirement. Mostly, though, the Germans were simply beaten. "If we knew exactly what we did wrong, we wouldn't have done it," Coach Rudolf Schramme said. "But certainly we must concentrate on finding a new crop of younger athletes."

What made the East German defeats all the more galling was that they came in West Berlin. The East Germans and their Socialist-bloc partners resisted holding the championships there but were voted down within the International Swimming Federation. Whereupon the organizers spent $7 million to spruce up the 9,000-seat pool, which sits in the shadow of the weathered stadium Hitler built for the 1936 Olympics.

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