Changed The Game: Tracy Caulkins could have set Olympic gold record had U.S. competed in 1980 Games

Henry Bushnell
·6-min read

"Changed the Game" is a Yahoo Sports series dedicated to the women who are often overlooked, under-appreciated or simply deserve more flowers for their contributions to women's sports history.

The story of Tracy Caulkins’ magnificent swimming career can be told, in part, by mind-blowing numbers.

Sixty-three American records.

Forty-eight national championships, in a dozen different events.

Five world championships as a 15-year-old.

Five world records as a teen.

Yet when Caulkins entered the final meet of that career in the summer of 1984, she owned zero Olympic medals. And that, four decades later, is why entire generations of sports fans don’t know her name.

Tracy Caulkins competes in the 400-meter individual medley competition at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles on July 29, 1984. (Photo by Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)
Tracy Caulkins competes in the 400-meter individual medley competition at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles on July 29, 1984. (Photo by Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)

Teen stardom

Caulkins began swimming at age 8. She followed her brother and sister into the pool at a country club summer league in Nashville. “I liked backstroke,” she remembered, “because I didn’t like to get my face wet.”

But she fell in love with the water, and quickly mastered all four strokes. At age 9, she watched the 1972 Olympics on a grainy TV, and dreamed. The 1976 Games came a bit too soon. But by the following year, at age 14, she was already breaking U.S. records. She was training, going to school, training, eating, sleeping, and training some more, day after day. She broke out at the 1978 world championships, and was well on her way to stardom at the 1980 Olympics.

In an interview last year, I asked Caulkins how many medals she expected to win that summer.

“Oh, god,” she said. Then she racked her brain, tallying her events, as humbly as one possibly could.

“I don’t know, probably six?” she said. She might have been underselling herself. And many, if not all six, would’ve been gold. Only Mark Spitz had ever won more.

Caulkins, though, didn’t go to the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. No American athlete did. The U.S. government, led by President Jimmy Carter, enforced a controversial boycott of the Games. Caulkins went off to college the next summer as one of the very best swimmers ever … and yet without the crowning achievement that history uses to measure all her peers.

“Tracy could’ve won seven gold medals, and people would still be talking to her,” said Craig Beardsley, a 1980 U.S. teammate. “But today, unfortunately ... most people have no idea who she is. Which is really a shame.”

Tracy Caulkins smiles after being presented with a gold medal.
Tracy Caulkins won three gold medals at the 1984 Olympics, but could have won many more had the Americans competed in the 1980 Games in Moscow. (Photo by S&G/PA Images via Getty Images)

The impact of the boycott

When Caulkins did go off to the University of Florida, after a year of energizing newness, her motivation began to wane. “A delayed effect of the boycott,” she said. The unrelenting grind hadn’t yielded its grandest reward. Caulkins saw three more long years in front of her, “and I think I probably took a little bit of an emotional break,” she said. “The intensity wasn’t there.”

Her performance slipped. She never returned to her teenage peak. And swimming careers rarely lasted beyond college in the 1980s. There was no professional path, like there has been in the 21st century for Katie Ledecky and Michael Phelps. Caulkins eventually retired at age 21. “I mean, at 21 I was considered old,” she said. So the boycott removed her from many GOAT conversations.

“It hurt Tracy,” said Rowdy Gaines, a 1980 teammate and now the voice of U.S. swimming. “And that’s not her fault.”

But those who experienced her greatness still include her in the conversation. “A lot of people still argue that she's the greatest female swimmer in history,” Gaines said. He’d argue it’s Ledecky, but “I would certainly not argue real hard against” anybody who states Caulkins’ case.

“There's no denying that the most versatile swimmer in history, outside of Michael [Phelps], is Tracy,” Gaines said.

“A lot of people thought she was the greatest swimmer ever,” Beardsley said. “And ’80 was her Olympics.”

The feel-good ending

Caulkins, though, persisted. She made it to 1984. Those Olympics became hers as well. On the first day of competition in Los Angeles, excitement built. Prior to the 400 individual medley final, she huddled with her coach. She expected a galvanizing, emotional pep talk. About the years of dedication and the extended wait. About the opportunity that had finally arrived.

Instead, her coach kissed her on the cheek and said: “Trace, go have fun.”

And in that moment, she remembered something that had faded in 1982 and 1983. She hadn’t delved into this sport as an 8-year-old to win national titles and break records. She hadn’t braved cold mornings and the discomfort of water in her nose because she wanted Olympic gold. She swam because she loved it.

That’s what she thought about as she sped ahead of seven others, as the stands at USC shook above her, as teammates who’d suffered through the boycott together urged her on. My goodness, this is fun. She finished in 4:39.24, a full nine seconds ahead of her nearest challenger. She stepped up to a podium. An official draped a gold medal around her neck, the first of three she’d win that week.

She looked into the crowd and picked out her parents, the ones who’d driven hundreds of miles to every one of her swim meets. She saw her sister, and her high school PE teacher, too. She waved. Hundreds of people she’d never met waved back.

She didn’t need Olympic medals to make her the greatest female swimmer ever. She went out and won a few anyway.

She also didn’t need them to make her remarkable career worthwhile. And she certainly isn’t bitter that the boycott robbed her of more.

“Now, when I think back on my swimming, it’s not the medals I remember, or the world records,” she told Yahoo Sports last year. “It’s the silly things we did on the bus, or with the team, and the friends that I’ve made. … What I remember was the overall general positivity that swimming has placed in my life.”

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