Tracy Caulkins competes in the women's 200-meter freestyle IM at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games on Aug. 3, 1984 in Los Angeles.
Tracy Caulkins’ Olympic swimming dream began when she was a 9-year-old girl in Nashville, Tennessee, as she watched Mark Spitz fly to seven Olympic gold medals in Munich in 1972. Eight years later, the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow were supposed to mark her time for Olympic glory, but the boycott put those dreams on hold.
Four years later, as she readied for her first Olympic swim in Los Angeles at the 1984 Games, she had to endure yet another delay of sorts.
The Opening Ceremony, with all of its Hollywood-infused festivities, was going on outside of the room where she was staying, yet she had to tune into all the pomp and circumstance on television. Instead of marching into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum with the rest of her U.S. teammates, Caulkins stayed back in the Olympic Village.
Her first Olympic swim, the 400-meter individual medley, was scheduled on the first day of competition, and neither she nor her coaches thought it would be beneficial for her to be standing around so long in the sun. She could sense the Olympic spirit but had to wait one more day to feel it.
“I think that was the one disappointment I had from those Games … that I didn’t go to the Opening Ceremony,” Caulkins said, recalling that moment in time 30 years ago today. “I think about 10 to 12 of us swam on the first day, and so we watched it together on TV.
“I could look out of my window and see some of the things that were going on, and I knew it was the right decision and I had tried so long and hard to get to this point, but it was a little hard.”
As disheartening as it was to have her time in the Olympic sun delayed once more, the decision proved to be the right one as Caulkins won her first of three gold medals on the opening day of competition in those Games. Four days later, Caulkins won gold medals in the 200 IM and as part of the medley relay.
The morning after the Opening Ceremony, Caulkins could not wait to jump in the pool for her preliminaries.
“I got so excited,” Caulkins said. “I knew I was going to get into the final, but I looked around and saw all of the Americans in the crowd and it made me realize how much the crowd could help.”
When the final finally rolled around, Caulkins began to feel the pressure. The years — and the extra day — of waiting came down to one swim.
“In the evening, I put a lot of pressure on myself,” she said. “I knew the East Germans weren’t there (because they had boycotted the 1984 Games) but I was just getting myself so worked up.
“I saw my coach (Randy Reese) before I went to the ready room, and even though he is not a man of many words, I was expecting some sort of a pep talk. Instead, I got a kiss on the cheek and he said, 'Trace, have fun.’ I was like, ‘What? That’s it?’ But I was putting so much pressure on myself that I think that’s exactly what I needed. I needed to enjoy the moment, and it did alleviate the pressure.”
With her mother, father, sister and even her former high school physical education teacher in the crowd, Caulkins crushed the field, clocking in at 4:39.24 — 9.06 seconds faster than Australian silver medalist Suzie Landells.
As strong as Caulkins was in her victory, her time was not as fast as that of 1980 Olympic champion Petra Schneider of East Germany. It took until 2000 for Schneider’s time to be broken, and Schneider’s gold medal remains under a cloud of suspicion because of East Germany’s now well-documented, systematic use of performance-enhancing drugs.
But on July 29, 1984, Caulkins was not about to think about Schneider and what could have been. Caulkins finally had an Olympic gold medal, and for all of the waiting, heartbreak and rededication to the sport that she had undergone, Caulkins gladly would take it. When she touched the wall, she experienced a swirl of emotions, a cocktail of joy mixed with relief.
“For me, I had gotten a good time and won,” Caulkins said. “It was a personal best and an American record, but all I could think about were the ups and downs of getting to that point and the exhaustion of finally getting there. When I touched the wall, I looked for my family and my coaches. It was like a dream come true.”
Ever since Caulkins was a teenager, she had been on course for Olympic stardom. One of the most versatile swimmers in history — she won national titles in all four strokes, which is a feat not even Michael Phelps can claim — she dominated the pool in the late 1970s. At the world championships in 1978, when the meet was held in Berlin, the home of many of the world’s top swimmers at the time, Caulkins won five gold medals.
What might have happened in Moscow in 1980, no one will know, but Caulkins, then 17, certainly was in her prime when those Games came around.
Caulkins rang in the 1981 New Year at the U.S. Swimming International at the University of Florida. The meet, held just months after the Olympic Games in Moscow, featured Soviet and East German swimmers. Caulkins won seven gold medals, beating the Olympic champions.
But Caulkins struggled to maintain her dominance in the years afterward. When she competed at worlds in 1982, she left with two bronze medals.
“I was still doing OK nationally, but not internationally, and I had not improved much,” she said. “I hadn’t done a personal best at a major meet. I just lost a little motivation. By the fall of 1983, I really started stepping up my training, though, knowing the ’84 Games were coming around. L.A. was a major factor for me to turn things around.”
Leading up to Los Angeles, Caulkins was training at Florida alongside some of the best swimmers in the world in Patrick Kennedy and Craig Beardsley, and she said that helped motivate her. Like Caulkins, Beardsley qualified for the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team, and both knew firsthand what it meant to miss out on Moscow.
The three of them would compete in the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Los Angeles, and it proved to be an emotional meet as Caulkins and Kennedy made the team but Beardsley did not.
Because Caulkins had a second lease on her Olympic dream and because she knew some swimmers who did not get that opportunity, she was going to make sure everything worked out in her favor in Los Angeles. Even if that meant missing seeing Rafer Johnson ignite the Olympic cauldron.
Caulkins, who was 21 when she swam in the 1984 Games, said the event she enjoyed the most in Los Angeles was her last — the medley relay. Caulkins swam the breaststroke in that event and won the gold with Theresa Andrews, butterfly queen Mary T. Meagher and Nancy Hogshead in a time of 4:08.34.
“To finish that way with good friends really was the most fun I had,” Caulkins said.
For as much as Caulkins might have missed out for not being able to compete in Moscow, she realizes now how much she made up for it in Los Angeles. The friends she made and the experiences she had competing on U.S. soil are ones she will never forget — and ones she might not have had if she had achieved what everyone thought she would in 1980.
Los Angeles changed her life in many ways, and not only because she became an Olympic champion. It was during those Games that she met Mark Stockwell, an Australian swimmer who won three Olympic medals (two silver, one bronze), and he became her husband. They live in Australia with their five children. Caulkins said she wonders how different her life would have been if she had competed in the Games in Moscow and quite possibly would not have gone on to swim in Los Angeles.
Caulkins has dual citizenship, and in a Skype interview from her home in Brisbane, it was quite apparent she has traded in any Southern drawl for an Aussie accent. When she comes back to the States for visits, however, she can turn on the twang.
“I say G’day and y’all,” she said with a laugh.
These days when she returns home to Nashville, there are young swimmers who train in a pool that bears her name. She will bring her Olympic medals to school visits and joked that young kids now learn about her from their parents or from looking her up on Google. Caulkins’ mom and dad each have one Olympic medal in their keeping.
Being American and Australian and a swim fan has made life difficult at times. She and her family went to the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, and she found herself rooting for both Americans and Aussies.
“I remember being in Sydney and watching the men’s 400 freestyle relay,” she said. “I was cheering for the Americans, but I also knew several Australians on the relay. I wanted it to be a really good race, and it was. I was cheering the whole time and in the end, I really couldn’t keep track of who I was cheering for.”
She has supported Team USA as well over the years and has returned to the States to talk with top U.S. swimmers at events such as the Golden Goggles awards. Caulkins (and her husband) remains an ardent fan of the University of Florida swimmers.
Next month, she will be reunited with several of her Olympic teammates, among them three-time gold medalist Rowdy Gaines, when the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships take place Aug. 21-25, in Australia’s Gold Coast, about an hour south from Caulkins’ home.
For the Pan Pacs, she has been invited to speak to the Australian team, and part of her speech will focus on competing in a home meet, something she knows all too well as an American who struck gold in Los Angeles.
When she swam in 1984, however, she was all about red, white and blue. She loved every minute of sharing her Olympic dream with Americans, and after the Games, she toured the country for ticker-tape parades and even sat next to then-President Ronald Reagan at a reception in Washington, D.C.
She doesn’t swim that much these days, although the sport never left her. She spent 13 years on the board of the Queensland Academy of Sport, something she said, “remains near and dear to my heart.” These days, much of her focus has been on raising her children. Her one son, William, is the only serious swimmer of her five kids, although his twin sister, Maddison, is a water polo player.
When contacted by a reporter about her achievements in Los Angeles and informed that this month marked the 30th anniversary of those Games, Caulkins replied, “Can that really be? Thirty years?”
But those days in Los Angeles proved to be some of the best of her life.
And although she wasn’t able to celebrate from the very start, she made sure to enjoy as much as she could, especially after her work in the pool was done.
Did she go to the Closing Ceremony?
“I absolutely did,” she said with extra emphasis in her voice. “I wanted to celebrate as much as I could. It was a party.”
For Caulkins, the Closing Ceremony was not so much a party but more of a coronation — one that was a long time coming and one that was well worth the wait.
Amy Rosewater is a freelance writer and editor for TeamUSA.org. A former sports reporter for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, she covered her fifth Olympic Games in Sochi. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today.