Who Is The Greatest All-Around Female Swimmer of All Time?

Guest editorial by John Craig

PHOENIX, Arizona, September 7. THE recent analysis on this site about the second-best all-around male swimmer of all time raises the question regarding the best all-around female swimmer.

As with the men, this is not a discussion about the greatest woman swimmer, but merely the best all-around swimmer. The criteria are the same: Olympic glory will be counted, but not given primacy. Rather, the emphasis will be on how many strokes and what range of distances the swimmer was world class at, her longevity, the number of records she broke, and how much difference there was between her events.

Thus swimmers such as Dawn Fraser and Mary T. Meagher, who are on everyone's short list of the all-time greats, are not under consideration for this title, simply because they were specialists. This article will also disregard swimmers from the first half of the 20th century, since comparisons to that era are more difficult. Otherwise, Helene Madison and Ragnhild Hveger likely would have been included.

Likewise, women who were later found to have been doped will not be considered. Thus Kornelia Ender, Petra Schneider, and Kristin Otto, all of whom would otherwise have been contenders, are excluded. (One point worth making here – simply because it isn't often made – is that none of those three were morally culpable in the least. Unlike, say, a Michelle Smith, these girls were doped with neither their knowledge nor consent. Any anger on behalf of those whom they deprived of medals should be directed at their doctors and trainers.)

The candidates include Donna de Varona, Shane Gould, Tracy Caulkins, Krisztina Egerszegi, Yana Klochkova, Laure Manaudou and Natalie Coughlin.

De Varona held both IM world records from the early to mid-60's, and won the 400 IM at the 1964 Olympics (there was no 200 IM at the Tokyo Games). She was also a member of the US's victorious 4 x 100 free relay in Tokyo. She retired after the '64 Games simply because that was what women did back then, since there were no college scholarships available for women at the time. De Varona is not a prime contender for this title, but her versatility – she is the rare 400 IMer who was also an excellent sprinter – makes her worth mentioning.

Australian Shane Gould, as a 15 year old in 1971, simultaneously held every single freestyle world record from 100 meters to 1500 meters. This had never been done before, and hasn't been done since. Some press reports at the time said that she was the first woman to set every freestyle record, which actually wasn't true: Helene Madison had done it back in the early 1930's. But no woman since Gould has been able to set world records from 100 to 400 meters, or from 200 to 1500 meters. She won gold medals at the 1972 Munich Olympics in the 200 and 400 freestyles and the 200 IM, all in WR time. She also won bronze in the 100 free and silver in the 800 free. Gould undoubtedly ran into the Spitz/Phelps problem at those Games: there was only one of her. (She may have been spread too thin as it was.) Beside the five events she tackled, she would also have been competitive in both butterflies and the 400 IM. Gould was uncomfortable in the spotlight, and retired shortly after Munich. But before she retired, she etched her place in swimming history memorably.

Tracy Caulkins is best known for having set either world or American records in all four individual strokes (as well as the IM). This, too, had never been done before, and hasn't been done since. By the time she was finished, she had set five world records (including a pre-Meagher WR in the 200 fly) and a mind-boggling 63 American records. It's hard to say how many world records Caulkins would have set had it not been for the juiced up East Germans. It wouldn't have been close to the number of American records she set, but it certainly would have been more than the five that she got. She was well ahead of her time, swimming a 400 meter IM in 4:40.8 in 1978 (back when the rules stipulated a hand touch in backstroke and no submerging of the head in breaststroke, and swimmers hadn't yet discovered the underwater dolphin). Caulkins won both IMs at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. Those two gold medals seem almost like afterthoughts after her prodigious spate of record-setting.

Krisztina Egerszegi is one of only two swimmers (the other is Dawn Fraser) to have won the same event at three successive Olympiads: she won the 200 back in '88,'92, and '96. She also won the 100 back and 400 IM in '92, making her the only female swimmer to ever win a 100 and 400 at the same Olympiad. (Two males have done it, Don Schollander in '64 and Michael Phelps, in both '04 and '08.) Egerszegi also won silver in the 100 back in '88 and bronze in the 400 IM in '96. She set world records in both backstrokes; her 200 record lasted until 2008. She was versatile, and demonstrated longevity both in her own career and in the lifespan of her world record (which has yet to be beaten in a textile suit).

The next swimmer on the list, Yana Klochkova, won both IMs in 2000 and 2004. She is the only woman swimmer to have ever won an Olympic double-double. But she is more than the female Tamas Darnyi: in 2000 she also won the silver medal in the 800 free, and at the World championships in Fukuoka in 2001 she won the 400 free title. Her world record in the 400 IM lasted from 2000 until 2007. Klochkova has to be considered one of the two greatest female IMers of all time. (Tracy Caulkins would undoubtedly have won both IMs in 1980 as well as 1984 had the U.S. not boycotted and had the East Germans not seen fit to dope their swimmers.)

Laure Manaudou was tremendously versatile but didn't quite seem to realize her full potential. At the Melbourne World championships in '07, she won the 200 and 400 freestyles, and also won silver in both the 100 back and 800 free, becoming the second woman (after Gould) to medal on a major stage at that range of distances. She set WRs in both the 200 and 400 free. But after Melbourne, her life unraveled. We all remember the highly publicized splits with various coaches and boyfriends and the general disorganization of her life in the year leading up to the 2008 Olympics. (Most of us get to be young and naive in private; Laure was never afforded that luxury.) She was also treated as a rock star in France during that period. None of this helped her training schedule. By the time Beijing rolled around, she was a shadow of the athlete she had been the year before, so her Olympic gold is confined to the 400 free title she won in Athens. She didn't accomplish enough to seriously contend for the title of best all-around. But at one point in time she was as versatile and talented as just about anybody.

(Note to Laure: it's not too late to make a comeback. You're only 23, no one has beaten your 400 record in textile, and look at what Amanda Beard has done after motherhood.)

The final candidate is Natalie Coughlin, whose inclusion is based partly on what she has done in short course yards competition. International comparisons should probably not take yards times into account, but if you're going to talk about all-around ability, it's impossible not to mention Coughlin. At one point, she simultaneously held the American records in the 50, 100, and 200 yard freestyles, the 100 and 200 back, and the 100 and 200 fly. She has swum an early season 500 free in 4:37, at a point when the AR was 4:33+; she might have gotten that record had she ever made a serious run at it. When she was in high school she qualified for senior nationals in the 100 breast with a 1:02+, so she obviously could have gotten both IM records had she gone for those as well. Long course she has two individual Olympic gold medals to her credit, both in the 100 back, as well as five world records in that event. At the Athens Olympics, she also won a bronze in the 100 free, and her leadoff leg of the 4 x 200 relay would have won the gold in the individual 200 free as well. In Beijing, she also won bronzes in the 100 free and 200 IM. Her biggest advantage as a swimmer is her underwater dolphin, so she is not as dominant long course as she is short course; but her absolute mastery of three strokes merits mention here.

The women's picture is, unfortunately, a little murkier than the men's, since a fair analysis must take into account circumstance. For instance, it was not de Varona's fault that there were no resources available for her to keep swimming past her teenage years. And it was not Caulkins' fault that the U.S. boycotted in 1980, or that she was swimming against the steroided East German women.

If you do take into account circumstance, and take a glance at yards times, the crown for best all-around female swimmer goes to Tracy Caulkins, who set records in all four strokes. If you don't make these allowances, then it goes to Shane Gould, who simultaneously held every freestyle record. Both women did things which had never been done before, and in all likelihood will never be done again.

It's hard to choose between these two. It'd be nice to call it a tie; but that would be a little bit of a cop-out. So who wins?

While yards times shouldn't be taken into account when comparing American with foreign swimmers, it's still safe to say that no other swimmer in the world has ever been at American record-level in all four strokes. And since juiced competition and an Olympic boycott should be taken into account, this fan calls it for Caulkins.

Thanks to Bob Seltzer and Skip Thompson for help with this article.

John Craig's (nonswimming) blog is justnotsaid.blogspot.com