Admired for her compassion as well as her talent
Proficient in all four strokes, Caulkins had just turned 14 when she won her first national title; at 15, she took five gold medals and a silver at the 1978 world championships and won that year's Sullivan Award (she was the youngest winner to date). At the 1979 Pan American Games she took another two golds (in 200-, and 400-meter individual medley) and two silvers (in 100-meter breaststroke and 400-meter freestyle), and she was superlatively ready for the 1980 Olympics, where she was confidently expected to win several gold medals.
The U.S. boycotted. Caulkins was hit hard. She continued to win: she was named Sportswoman of the Year in 1981 by the Women's Sports Foundation, and by 1982 she had won more national titles than Johnny Weissmuller. She won the 1982 Broderick Cup for outstanding college female athlete. But she finished no higher than third in any event in the 1982 world championships Her times were slower, and she simply was not swimming so well. She won the gold medal in the 400-meter individual medley at the 1983 Pan American Games, but her time (4:51.82) was 11 seconds slower than it had been five years earlier at the world championships; she also won the 200-meter individual medley, in 2:16.22. The U.S. Swimming International meet in January 1984 seemed to signal a turnaround: Caulkins won the 200-meter and 400-meter individual medleys by defeating powerful East German swimmers whom she had not previously been able to hold off. After that meet she said, "I think a lot of people have counted me out. They better watch out."
Two months later, at the national indoor championships, she won the 200-meter individual medley, and that summer, at the Los Angeles Olympics, won three gold medals and placed fourth in the 100-meter breaststroke. Her victory—by 15 meters—in the 400-meter individual medley set an American record of 4:39.24, and her 200-meter individual medley in 2:12.64 was an Olympic record. She was also a member of the winning U.S. team in the 4 x 100-meter medley relay. Captain of her team, Caulkins was respected and admired by her teammates for her understanding and compassion as well as for her talents. She retired after the Los Angeles Games, having won 48 national titles and set 61 American and five world records in her career.