Katie Ledecky’s competition is near, far for best U.S. female swimmer ever
Moments after Katie Ledecky disappeared from the front of the stage at last month’s Golden Goggles, her record sixth Female Swimmer of the Year trophy in tow, the woman long known as the greatest female swimmer in U.S. history approached the microphone.
“Tray-cee Caul-kins, Tray-cee Caul-kins, Tray-cee Caul-kins,” crowd members chanted at USA Swimming’s annual dinner and awards event. Tracy Stockwell (née Caulkins) smiled and blew a kiss as her fellow presenter, NBC Sports swimming voice Dan Hicks, stepped to the side and bowed toward her.
They bantered before naming the next award’s candidates inside a Midtown Manhattan hotel ballroom.
“For the last six years, we’ve been hearing Katie, Katie, Katie, Katie, Katie,” Stockwell said in jest. “I mean, she’s great, she’s great, but I’m just saying, will Katie ever set an American record in every stroke?”
“True, but I don’t believe you ever won one of your races by more than 15 seconds,” Hicks replied.
“OK, you got me there,” Stockwell said. “Only 9.5 seconds in the 400m IM in the Olympic final ... but again, all four strokes.”
Stockwell ended the amusement there.
“Katie, you know I love you,” she said. Hicks and Stockwell moved on to read the Male Swimmer of the Year candidates.
Is Ledecky the greatest U.S. female swimmer in history?
Longtime NBC Sports analyst Rowdy Gaines, a close friend of Stockwell’s on the 1980 and 1984 Olympic teams, introduced Stockwell as “simply the greatest” at a 2013 panel where the two iconic women met for the first time.
Back then, Ledecky was just 16 years old and had competed at one Olympics (one gold medal) and one world championships (four gold medals).
Stockwell earned five golds and a silver at the 1978 World Championships, missed what would have been her first Olympics due to the Moscow boycott, then earned three golds at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
Other U.S. women earned more medals since, but none had the all-stroke mastery of Stockwell, who swept the medleys at the Olympics and worlds.
“I love the bar-room talk of who the greatest is of any sport,” Gaines said. “It’s not a competition on the men’s side, so it’s nice to have a little battle back and forth about the greatest woman.”
Ledecky joined the discussion in the last Olympic cycle. She earned four titles in Rio and last year upped her biennial world championships gold-medal count to 14, most for a woman from any country.
Granted, worlds were held every four years in Stockwell’s era, when swimmers rarely competed beyond college age.
“I know some of the old guard might want to argue with me here, but [Ledecky] is the greatest female swimmer in history,” Gaines told the Golden Goggles crowd while helping auction a 24-by-36-inch painting of Ledecky training for $5,000. “Tracy Caulkins, I know, is like 1A.”
Neither Stockwell nor Ledecky is of the public disposition to much care of owning the label. It’s for others to talk about, and the chatter is good for the sport.
“It’s nice to be remembered. It’s a nice thing to include we has-beens, I guess,” Stockwell said with a laugh when asked about the debate. “I’m flattered that people would say I’m considered one of the greatest. It brings back a lot of good memories. It makes me proud of my versatility. Back then, at 21, when I finished swimming, that was considered old.”
Stockwell speaks with a mix of her native Nashville twang and an Australian accent from living in Queensland for nearly half of her 55 years. She met Aussie swimmer Mark Stockwell at the Los Angeles Games. She retired that year despite having one season of eligibility left at the University of Florida.
“I kind of felt like I had done everything that I wanted,” she said. “I wasn’t really prepared to give it the effort that I had for so long, and I didn’t think that would be fair on me or the team.”
They married in 1991 and raised five children in Brisbane, the youngest now 15. Stockwell spent much of that time in roles championing women’s sports within Australia. She now serves on Swimming Australia’s board.
“Part of the deal was, if I ever had to get back to the USA or Nashville, then I could,” said Stockwell, who also flies to Gainesville, to present a scholarship endowed in her name, and to Southern California or New York City for Golden Goggles, supporting USA Swimming. “Next year I will be half and half, 28 years in America and Australia 28 years.”
Stockwell realized that her allegiance was torn as she watched the famous 4x100m men’s freestyle relay at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The air guitar-strumming Aussies handed the Americans their first defeat in the event in Olympic history.
“People would ask me, who are you going to cheer for,” she said. “I was like, oh gosh, I hadn’t even thought about that. I kind of feel like I have two teams to cheer for.”
One child, son William, swims for Australia, ranking fourth in the nation in the 50m backstroke this year. It’s a different age from the complicated one that his mom dominated.
She swam against East Germans during the country’s state-sponsored doping days, missed what would have been her peak Olympics due to a boycott and then starred at the 1984 Games that those East Germans sat out.
“Even though I probably had a shorter career than many swimmers, and we didn’t have the opportunity to go to the 1980 Olympics, to go to one Olympics was the highlight of my career and what I dreamed of since I was a little girl,” she said. “A lot of my friends who made the ‘80 team tried again in 1984 and didn’t make it or just missed out. I remember those Olympic Trials being quite emotional because of that. Now I see so many athletes are going to two or three or four Olympic Games, and I think isn’t that wonderful that they’ve got the support mechanisms. They’re not considered old and washed-up at 21 years of age.”
When Gaines introduced Stockwell at that 2013 panel (titled “Swimming Through the Decades,” along with Janet Evans, Matt Biondi, Lenny Krayzelburg and Ledecky), he reeled off some of her accomplishments:
- 63 American records, most by any swimmer in history
- Youngest athlete to win the Sullivan Award at age 15 in 1978
- Only swimmer to have an American record in every stroke at the same time
Stockwell and Ledecky sat, separated by Krayzelburg, while the gold medalists compared eras and took questions from a small crowd.
“I had followed her a bit and seen what she did in London,” Stockwell said of Ledecky, who at age 15 became the youngest U.S. Summer Olympic gold medalist in any sport in 16 years. “She was so young, and it kind of took me back to my career.
“What really impressed me [at the panel] was how together she was for such a young athlete and how she was the whole package. Not only a great swimmer, but she spoke really well, was really well-balanced, nice, very smart. Just delightful.”
Stockwell caught up with Ledecky’s family at the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships in Australia.
In 2016, she flew to the States for the Honda Cup presentation to the top NCAA female athlete (another accolade: Stockwell is the only woman to win the Honda Cup twice outright).
She tacked on a trip to Omaha for the Olympic Trials. Ledecky had a dinner at the end of the event where she thanked her supporters.
“I popped in to see her, congratulate her and wish her good luck [in Rio],” Stockwell said.
Asked what stuns her the most about Ledecky, Stockwell says all of it. The dominance (winning the Olympic 800m free by 11 seconds), the range (world titles from 200m to 1500m) and what recently put Ledecky in the minds of many atop U.S. female swimming: the longevity.
Gaines noted that Ledecky’s golden streak is now at six years, matching the length of Stockwell’s elite international career from 1978 to 1984.
“The ability to keep improving, because I know that’s a real challenge,” said Stockwell, who dropped to a pair of bronze medals at the 1982 Worlds. “I know that was hard for me. It’s easier on the way up, but once you get there and you’re Olympic champion and you’re world-record holder, you’re the standard and everyone’s aiming to beat you. It’s more difficult to stay motivated, to continue to improve.”
If there is still an argument that Caulkins is No. 1 and Ledecky 1A, it’s her conquering of all four strokes.
In track and field, the Olympic decathlon champion is known as the world’s greatest athlete. The 400m IM is swimming’s decathlon. Watch Caulkins’ 400m IM from the 1984 Olympics, and you will think of Ledecky as the camera pans out to fit the trailing swimmers in the frame.
“Katie and Tracy are not equally versatile, but Katie is a lot more versatile than we give her credit for,” Gaines said. “I think if she concentrated on the 400m IM, she would be extremely dangerous [Ledecky briefly held the American record in the 400 IM in short-course yards while at Stanford]. The versatility also, even though it’s one stroke [freestyle], the versatility of that stroke is amazing.”
There’s another U.S. swimmer that Ledecky could try to chase in the greatest-ever debate. That’s Michael Phelps, whom Gaines can’t see being caught.
“She would have to kind of repeat what she did in ‘16 at the next two Olympic Games,” he said. “She’d have to almost triple her number of world records (Ledecky has 14; Phelps 39).”
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