Coughlin wins 12th medal in bittersweet fashion
by Ann Killion
LONDON - Athletes can never plan their farewell. Rarely does it turn out the way they envisioned.
Of all the things athletes can't control, the end is the most elusive.
It certainly was for Natalie Coughlin on Saturday. The swimmer who put Cal swimming back on the map and became one of the greatest Olympians in American history, had a dramatic and emotional first - and almost certainly last - day at the London Olympics. And it's hard to imagine that it's not the end of her legendary Olympic career.
When the U.S. 4x100-meter freestyle relay team won the bronze medal on Saturday, Coughlin won her 12th-career Olympic medal. With that feat, she matched Stanford's Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres as the most decorated females in U.S. Olympic history.
Coughlin won her medal. But she wasn't in the pool to do it.
Coughlin knew her third Olympics would be a brief event. At the U.S. swim trials last month, she didn't make the team in an individual event, only qualifying for the 400-meter relay. The race was scheduled for the first day of the Olympics and Coughlin, at 29 the senior member of the team, seemed unlikely to swim in the evening finals.
But then on Saturday morning, she swam the fastest split of anyone on the team, powering the U.S. to a win in the prelims. And it seemed possible that coach Teri McKeever - who mentored Coughlin at Cal and throughout her tremendous Olympic career, in a successful 12-year relationship - might ask her to swim the final.
Instead she was left off the team for the finals. The four U.S. swimmers selected to swim the finals were Cal's Jessica Hardy, Allison Schmitt, and teen phenoms Missy Franklin and Lia Neal. They finished behind Australia and the Netherlands.
"I was a little bit disappointed because I tend to get better as the meet progresses," Coughlin said. "But I don't envy the coaches and what they had to go through."
No one knows Coughlin's strengths and abilities better than McKeever - their relationship dates back to 2000. McKeever indicated it was a difficult decision, and that her entire staff weighed in and did not come to a unanimous agreement.
"As the head coach, I think I made the right decision," McKeever said. "As her coach, it was difficult."
Coughlin laid the foundation that McKeever built into a three-time NCAA champion. Coughlin is a captain at these Olympics and is intent on mentoring the young swimmers - her competition may be over but she's sticking around. She has a wealth of experience to impart.
Burnt out before she arrived at Cal in 2000, she worked with McKeever to rebuild her confidence, enthusiasm and competitive spirit. At the 2004 Olympics she won five medals, including two golds, and in 2008 she won six medals - one gold, two silvers and three bronzes. She made herself into a great Olympian and the twelfth medal shouldn't be diminished in any way.
"The medal count stands for itself," McKeever said. "She raced with her heart and passion, and she gave it her best."
Before the games began, Coughlin said she wasn't prepared to say goodbye, no matter what happened here. She hasn't ruled out trying to make the 2016 team in Rio de Janeiro, but it's clearly a long shot.
Athletes never can plan the way they'll say goodbye. Saturday's events have not been in Coughlin's script.
But her body of work is one for the ages.