The numbers, by themselves, were simply amazing: five world records and a staggering, most-ever (at that time) 63 American records.
But then you take into consideration just how Tracy Caulkins established herself as one of the greatest swimmers of all-time. Most swimmers have a specialty; Caulkins set records in every stroke. Most swimmers stick to either the sprints or longer races; Caulkins excelled at everything.
Perhaps the biggest struggle was for Tracy Caulkins was timing. She emerged as a star in the late 1970s, winning five gold medals and one silver medal at the 1978 World Championships in West Berlin, setting four world records and one more American record as a 15-year-old entering her sophomore year of high school. She was presented the Sullivan Award as the nation’s top amateur athlete.
But the American boycott of the Moscow 1980 Olympic Games meant that it would be four more years until Caulkins stepped foot on an Olympic pool deck.
By that time – the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games – Caulkins had added tons of college accolades, including 21 All-American honors, and three times had been presented the Honda Sports Award as the nation’s top college female swimmer.
So there was plenty of buildup for Caulkins to make her debut at the Olympic Swim Stadium. Because the 400-meter individual medley race was scheduled for the first day of competition, Caulkins and some fellow competitors stayed behind to watch the Opening Ceremony on television, not wanting to stand outside for three hours.
The wait, though, was worth it. Caulkins blew away the field by more than nine seconds to win her first Olympic gold medal.
“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,” Caulkins said 30 years later. “When I touched the wall, I looked for my family and my coaches. It was like a dream come true.”
A few days later, Caulkins set an Olympic record in winning the 200-meter individual medley by more than 2 ½ seconds. And she swam the breaststroke leg as the U.S. also took gold in the 400-meter medley relay. She completed her competitive swimming career and left Los Angeles with three gold medals, making sure she had as much fun as possible at the Closing Ceremony.
“I wanted to celebrate as much as I could,” Caulkins said. “It was a party.”