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‘The Best Ever’ — Maybe Forever

Tracy Caulkins, highly decorated as a swimmer at Florida, captured three gold medals at the 1984 Summer Olympics. University Of Florida photo

Florida phenom Tracy Caulkins dominated all four strokes during her college swimming career and left the NCAA record book in her wake.

And unless the NCAA reverses a rule put in place since Caulkins — now Tracy Caulkins Stockwell — competed, no one will ever surpass her records.

As a freshman at the first Division I Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships in 1982, she won all five individual events in which she competed — the 100-yard butterfly, 200 butterfly, 100 individual medley, 200 individual medley and  400 individual medley. She also was a member of the winning 400 medley relay team, enabling Caulkins to win the national team title alongside her older sister, Amy, who won an individual title in the 100 freestyle.

The following year, Caulkins delivered more of the same as she repeated in the 100 individual medley, 200 individual medley and 400 individual medley, while once again leading the 400 medley relay team to a second consecutive national title.

As a junior, she swept the 200 and 400 individual medleys (there was no 100 individual medley competition) in addition to winning the 200 butterfly and the 100 breaststroke and participating on the victorious 400 and 800 freestyle relays.

All told, Caulkins finished her collegiate career with 12 individual NCAA titles, four relay championship titles and the 1982 national team title. The records of five individual titles in 1982 and 12 career titles still stand nearly 35 years later.

Meet rules have since been put in place that allow a student-athlete to compete in no more than three individual events per year, ensuring the Florida graduate’s record will stand for years to come.

“There is no question in my mind that she is the best ever — male or female,” says Randy Reese, her coach at Florida and the current director of aquatics at the Clearwater Aquatic Team in Clearwater, Florida.

Caulkins also excelled in the classroom. She was a two-time first-team Academic All-American as a telecommunications graduate. In addition, she was inducted into the CoSIDA Academic All-American Hall of Fame in 1997.

 “Both of my parents came from a teaching background, so education was very important to me from an early age,” says Caulkins, who is married to former Australian Olympian Mark Stockwell and lives in Australia with her husband and five children.

Caulkins’ success was no surprise as she entered the Gainesville campus as the most decorated swimmer in the nation. She qualified in five individual events for the 1980 Olympics but was unable to compete after the U.S. boycotted the games in the Soviet Union. After her junior year in 1984, she captured three gold medals at the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

After her return to Gainesville from the Olympics, she had to make what she calls one of the toughest decisions of her life up to that point: deciding to retire from competitive swimming.

“When I got back from the Olympics, I had been training at a high level for a really long time. So after I thought about it, I realized I had accomplished everything I wanted to in the sport,” Caulkins says. “There wasn’t really an opportunity to turn professional back then, so it really came down to the fact that I didn’t really have the motivation to train at the level I knew I needed to anymore. It was a very difficult decision because I really loved the team aspect of the sport in college, and I didn’t want to let my teammates down. But I just wanted to concentrate on my studies.”

Swimming Championships

Individual NCAA Division I titles in a career
12 - Tracy Caulkins Florida, 1982-84
11 - Natalie Coughlin California, 2001-04
10 - Martina Moravcova SMU, 1996-99
9 - Jenny Thompson Stanford, 1992-95
9 - Kara Lynn Joyce Georgia, 2004-07
Individual titles in a single NCAA Division I meet
5 - Tracy Caulkins Florida, 1982
4 - Tracy Caulkins Florida, 1984
About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.