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Making a splash: Tracy Caulkins and Alex Walsh

Making a splash: Tracy Caulkins and Alex Walsh
Making a splash: Tracy Caulkins and Alex Walsh

Though they come from different eras in athletics, Olympic swimmers Tracy Caulkins and Alex Walsh are connected through the mark they have left on the world stage and at Harpeth Hall.

Alex Walsh’s eyes danced as she stood on the podium in Tokyo holding up her Olympic silver medal.

In that moment, the 19-year-old Harpeth Hall alumna reflected on all the people who had helped realize her Olympic dream. Her years of training and competing had been both exhilarating and stressful. Yet each time she dove into the pool in Tokyo, she focused on why she was there. She raced not only for herself, but also for her support system at home and for her country.

“Being a part of something bigger than myself, though daunting, actually directed my energy towards my pride and gratitude as opposed to my nerves,” Alex said in an interview for Hallways.

In the Olympic finals of the 200-meter individual medley, Alex touched the wall in 2:08.65 — just .13 seconds behind the winner — and claimed a silver medal. Later, as she stood on the podium and the American flag rose in front of her, she felt pride knowing that the very same flag appeared on television screens across the country where her family, teammates, friends, coaches, and school communities watched and celebrated.

“The medal ceremony in Tokyo was surreal,” Alex said. “For me, thinking about how hard I worked — especially in my first year at college — to get to that moment was very emotional.”

Alex, who is now a sophomore at the University of Virginia, first dreamed of being an Olympic medalist as a little girl. She started competing around age 8, and she remembers seeing swimmer Missy Franklin win gold at the London 2012 Olympics. “That made me want to go to the Olympics and win medals just as she did,” Alex said.

As Missy inspired her, the legacy of another Olympian — one from a generation prior — also began to align closely to Alex’s own

swimming career. That athlete’s name was Tracy Caulkins.

Like Tracy, Alex moved to Nashville as a young student and attended Harpeth Hall. Like Tracy, Alex excelled in the individual medley — arguably one of the most challenging disciplines as it combines all four swim strokes into a single race. And when Alex Walsh and her sister, Gretchen, trained for meets, they did so in the Tracy Caulkins Competition Pool in Nashville.

Though their experiences come from different eras in athletics, the stories of Tracy Caulkins and Alex Walsh intertwine through the mark they left at Harpeth Hall and the achievements they made and continue to make on the world stage.

The journey begins in 1969, just a few years before the passage of the landmark Title IX legislation that changed athletics for girls and women, when Caulkins’ family moved to Nashville from Winona, Minnesota, with 6-year-old Tracy in tow.

Harpeth Hall archivist Mary Ellen Pethel, Ph.D., captures what happened next, as told in an excerpt of her new book Title IX, Pat Summitt, and Tennessee’s Trailblazers: 50 Years, 50 Stories.

Talent pool of one

By Mary Ellen Pethel, Ph.D.
An excerpt from “Title IX, Pat Summitt, and Tennessee’s Trailblazers: 50 Years, 50 Stories,” available through University of Tennessee Press in fall 2022

A swimmer so versatile, so talented, so competitive in every stroke that she not only won but broke records in every event she entered, Tracy Caulkins is a talent pool of one.

Tracy first swam at Nashville’s Seven Hills Country Club with her older siblings, Tim (11) and Amy (8). The three Caulkins joined the club's summer league program, and Tracy did not immediately take to the water.

“I didn't particularly like to get my face wet, so I swam the backstroke so I could keep my face out of the water,” Tracy said with a laugh. “We just kind of drug her in there,” Tim Caulkins added, “They needed some bodies to fill the pool. But it was all glory (for Tracy) from there on out.”

By summer’s end, she flipped over and learned the other three strokes: butterfly, breast, and freestyle. Each stroke has its own event and set of distances, and Tracy's ability to do all four made her the perfect candidate for the individual medley (IM), which combines each stroke into a single event. The summer season culminated in a city meet, and AAU coach Paul Bergen was in attendance.

He immediately recognized Tracy's talent and asked her, along with her siblings, to join the AAU Westside Victory Swim Club, which later merged with the Nashville Aquatic Club (NAC). Caulkins would swim for NAC until 1981 and was coached by Bergen in Nashville and later at the 1984 Olympic games.

When the 1972 Olympics rolled around, a 9-year-old Tracy watched in awe as U.S. swimmer Mark Spitz won seven gold medals on the men's side and Australian Shane Gould won five medals in women's competition (three gold, one silver, one bronze). She put up a poster of Spitz on her bedroom wall and convinced her parents to buy her the Speedo suit that Gould wore.

“I really identified with her,” Caulkins remembers, “because she was young [16 years old], walked around with a stuffed kangaroo, and a green and gold terry toweling robe. She also swam many of the same events I did.”

Tracy was already the top swimmer in her age group when, at 13 years old, she broke her ankle at a NAC team picnic near Nashville: “I was on a porch swing with two other people, and a teammate jumped on my lap. The whole thing collapsed, and my ankle was buckled under.” She was worried that the injury would hamper her burgeoning national career and international aspirations. In the end, the injury did quite the opposite — Tracy grew much stronger in her upper body while her ankle healed. The self- described “skinny child” emerged as a young teen ready to take on the world.

In 6th grade, Caulkins attended Harpeth Hall school, an independent, all-girls school in Nashville. Her teammate and best friend, Macie Philips, was also a student there. Head of School Idanelle McMurry assured her that the school would be supportive and accommodate any absences — provided Tracy kept up with her work. As Caulkins recalled: “I was serious at quite a young age, and my parents wanted me to have the opportunity without worrying about school policies.” It was a good decision, both for Tracy and for the school. Tracy qualified for the AAU national championship at 13 and won her first national title a year later, in 1977, as a freshman at Harpeth Hall.

Title IX affected private schools like Harpeth Hall differently than public schools. With less reliance on federal or state funds, private schools were not bound in the same way to comply with the legislation. That said, many independent schools invested heavily in their athletic programs, including girls sports. Harpeth Hall’s all-girls student body made competition or equity with boys sports a non-issue. At the time, Harpeth Hall did not have a swimming program, but longtime physical education teacher Patty Chadwell pulled together a team and entered them in meets. They borrowed warm-ups from the track team, agreed on a bathing suit, and ordered swim caps.

“Miss Patty,” as she was known, said, “I’ll be the coach, and you all just do what you do.” Tracy added, “It wasn’t very organized, but we did quite well. We had a group of really versatile swimmers, including Macie and Karinne Miller. Before a meet, we [students] would write the lineup. It was a bit ad hoc, but we pulled it together. We had different individual goals, but we loved representing our school.” And represent they did, capturing the Tennessee Interscholastic Swim Coaches Association (TISCA) state title in 1979, 1980, and 1981.

Making a splash

But it was in 1978 when the 15-year-old made her big splash on the world stage. While most swimmers specialize in one stroke, Tracy was phenomenally good in all four. She joked: “Because I trained for events in all four strokes, it was nice during practice. If I was tired of working on my breaststroke, I could switch to the fly or the free. It kept me from burning out.” At the 1978 World Championships in West Berlin, she won five gold medals (200-meter butterfly, 200-meter IM, 400-meter IM, 4x100-meter freestyle relay, 4x100-meter medley relay) and one silver (100-meter breaststroke).

Later that year, she was awarded the prestigious AAU James E. Sullivan Award, which annually recognizes the most outstanding amateur athlete in the United States. At only 15 years old, Tracy was the youngest recipient to win the award and fifth woman in its history — fellow Tennessean Wilma Rudolph was the first in 1961. From 1978 through early 1980, Tracy continued to improve her times in every event and in every stroke. She began training with Australian coach Don Talbot and dominated the American competition. Internationally, she won four gold and two silver medals at the 1979 Pan American Games in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Tracy qualified for seven events at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow while still a high school student. Going into the summer of 1980, Caulkins was the top swimmer in the United States with five American records (200m IM, 400m IM, 100m breaststroke, 200m breaststroke, and 500-yard freestyle). And then there were the world records she held in the 200m butterfly, 200m IM, and 400m IM. It was her moment and the chance to compete against the East Germans, who had commanded women's swimming for many years, albeit with suspicion of performance-enhancing drug use.

Her sights set on gold, Caulkins heard talk that President Jimmy Carter was considering an Olympic boycott. The 1980 Olympics were to be held in Moscow, Russia — the governing heart of the Soviet Union and bitter adversary of the United States. When Carter made the announcement that Team USA would not participate in the games, “[Tracy’s] eyes filled with tears, but that was more from anger. [She] didn't really cry,” said her mother, Martha Caulkins. Sports journalist E.M. Swift captured the moment in an interview on July 21, 1980, “Tracy's views on the Olympic boycott have gone from anger to disappointment to acceptance.” She was only 17 years old, but Caulkins worried that she might be “over the hill” by the time of the 1984 Olympics.

Her Olympic dreams deferred, Caulkins graduated from Harpeth Hall in the spring of 1981 but not before she competed in the U.S. Short Course Championships. She broke an American record in the 200-yard backstroke, swimming a 1:57.02. That race made her the first person to win a national title and set an American record in every stroke. Caulkins accepted a swimming scholarship to the University of Florida. There were some differences between the men’s and women’s teams: “We practiced together, but the men’s swim team had an athletic dorm and dining hall. We had to get up early for practice, and so people in our dorm could be a bit loud at night but, overall, I didn't mind.” Caulkins loved her college experience: “We averaged 10 practice sessions a week, some in the pool and some dry land workouts. It was a big commitment, but I really enjoyed the team dynamic. My favorite memories are the silly moments, the fun road trips, and the friendships I made.”

‘Title IX was a gamechanger for me’

Even though she did not know the details of Title IX, Tracy knew she was a beneficiary of the legislation. “I knew that for my older sister Amy, there was a big question about what she could do with swimming after high school,” she and continued, “Title IX was a gamechanger for me; I just didn't understand all the politics of it.”

Tracy also became active in the Women's Sports Foundation (WSF), founded in 1974 by women’s tennis trailblazer Billie Jean King. She met King and many others at the WSF: “They shared their experiences and what they fought for, which made me appreciate [Title IX] even more.” Caulkins credits the work of the WSF as a positive force in her life: “Athletes focus on performance, but because of Title IX and Women’s Sports Foundation, I had an equal opportunity to compete.”

Caulkins admits that the Olympic boycott affected her motivation in her freshman and sophomore years at the University of Florida. In a 2020 interview with Mel Stewart she said, “For two years I didn’t have a personal best. I was going through the motions. When the opportunity to go to the Olympics was taken away, I just kind of stalled.” The University of Florida did well against NCAA competition, but in the 1982 World Championships, Caulkins was off her game. She was five seconds off her personal best and finished third to Petra Schneider, from East Germany, who won gold in both the 200m IM and 400m IM. “That meet woke me up. It made me realize that I wanted to get back to the Olympics. Everything clicked, and I knew I wanted to be the best I could be at the trials and the 1984 games,” Tracy explained.

She doubled down in her training with Coach Randy Reese and began winning again in dominant style. In 1983, she competed in the Pan American Games and won four individual and two relay titles at the NCAA championships. The 21 year old qualified in four events for the Olympics and was named team captain. Held in Los Angeles, the games were electric, but Caulkins did not attend the opening ceremony. Her first event, the 400m IM, was scheduled for the next morning and she needed to reset. Sportswriter Amy Rosewater summed it up, “She could sense the Olympic spirit but had to wait one more day to feel it.”

Caulkins did not have to wait long. The next morning, she won the 400m IM by over 9 seconds with a time of 4:39.24. “When I touched the wall, I looked for my family and my coaches. It was like a dream come true,” Caulkins said. In the stands with her family was her Harpeth Hall teacher and “coach” Patty Chadwell. Five days later, Tracy won the 200m IM, set an Olympic record, and won gold with the 400m medley relay with teammates Theresa Andrews, Mary Meagher, and Nancy Hogshead.

Caulkins retired from swimming after the 1984 Olympics and did not swim her senior season at the University of Florida in order to focus on completing her degree. In hindsight, Caulkins believes that the 1980 boycott may have been a blessing in disguise: “If I had gone to the Olympics in 1980, I might not have gone to the Florida, which is where I met my husband (Mark Stockwell). He swam in the 1984 Olympics for Australia, but we met while swimming at the University of Florida.” They married and moved to Queensland, Australia, in the late 1980s and have five children.

In 1990, Nashville's Metro Parks opened Centennial Sportsplex — a multi-use athletic complex featuring both a pool and an ice rink. The Tracy Caulkins Competition Pool was dedicated to one person, but the pool that bears her name is now a “talent pool” for many.

The competitive Nashville Aquatics Club trains at the Sportsplex, as does Harpeth Hall’s swim team, which has won 12 state championships (TISCA) and two national titles (Swimming World) since Caulkins graduated in 1981.

Among the next generation of world-class swimmers who trained in the Tracy Caulkins pool are two sisters who also happen to be Harpeth Hall alumnae, Alex and Gretchen Walsh.

The legacy continues

The Walsh sisters’ swim genes could be attributed to their mom, Glynis, who swam at Boston College — but more than just athleticism propelled them through the pool. From an early age, they developed a drive and self-confidence that gave them the discipline needed to succeed.

“My teachers at Harpeth Hall always told me that I could succeed in school, swimming, and other extracurriculars without sacrificing one or another — as long as I worked for it,” Alex said in an interview for Hallways. “This kind of mindset taught me how to manage my goals in all aspects of my life, which is a big reason why I am able to thrive as an elite athlete.”

The girls first took to the water as toddlers, swimming around age 4, and developing their strokes as they grew. When the Walsh family moved to Nashville in 2014, they arrived with “a pair of young swimming phenoms,” Dr. Pethel wrote. It took no time at all for Walsh to become well-known name in the swimming world.

As their talent emerged, competitive swimming became the pursuit. Pinned to the bulletin board in the Walsh kitchen hung a poster showing the levels of achievement. Juniors. Nationals. Olympic Trials. That path guided their goals.

At age 14, Alex broke two national age group records in the 100-yard backstroke and the 200-yard IM.

The previous 200 IM record, Dr. Pethel wrote, was held by none other than Olympian Missy Franklin — Alex’s role model growing up. “Missy totally changed the way that swimming was perceived for the whole country,” Alex told Dr. Pethel. “She made it cool. She was clearly having fun, and obviously Missy was very successful. All of that came across for people and really boosted the sport’s popularity.”

Inspired by Franklin, Walsh took her talents to Harpeth Hall and continued breaking records. In 2018, she set the national (NISCA) record in the 100-yard breaststroke and as part of the 200-yard medley relay. With Alex on the swim roster, Harpeth Hall’s swimming and diving team captured state titles in 2016 and 2017 and was named national champion by Swimming World in both 2018 and 2019.

Also in 2019, Alex committed to continue her swim career in college at the University of Virginia (UVA) and she traveled to Peru to participate in the Pan-American Games where she won three gold medals. Then, as a freshman at UVA, Walsh was part of UVA’s NCAA National Championship where she won individual gold in the 200 IM. Later that year, Alex earned a spot representing the United States at the Olympic games in Tokyo.

On July 27, 2021, Alex won silver in the 200m IM. “For USA Swimming, the Tokyo Olympics reflected a generational shift from Millennials to Gen Z athletes (born 1997-2012),” Dr. Pethel writes in her book Title IX, Pat Summitt, and Tennessee’s Trailblazers: 50 Years, 50 Stories. “In fact, Walsh’s win was an early birthday present — she celebrated her 20th birthday four days later on July 31.

“The original Title IX era was primarily comprised of athletes and coaches who were Baby Boomers, born in the years following World War II,” Dr. Pethel continues. “The second generation, Gen X (1965-1980) were the first to grow up with girls sports and college scholarships. Events such as the women’s World Cup win (1991), Lady Vols four basketball championships (1991, 1996-1998), and Atlanta Olympics (1996), signaled the impact of Title IX. Millennials (1981-1996) continued to raise the bar for girls and women’s sports at every competitive level. Alex Walsh represents the fourth generation of female athletes since Title IX.”

Alex, speaking for herself, also speaks for many: “We’re heading in full force. . . . I've come a long way, but I’ve still got a long way to go.”