Natalie Coughlin still has... hope
OMAHA -- Hope, they say in sports, is merely disappointment delayed.
The great Natalie Coughlin now finds herself in the unusual position of hoping she makes the 2012 U.S. team that goes to London.
She is by no means a certainty, which seems almost incredulous, given that she has raced in 11 Olympic finals over the past two Games and won 11 Olympic medals. She needs one more medal to join Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres as the most decorated American female Olympic athletes in history.
But there it is.
Time has a way of doing this to everyone, even the great Natalie Coughlin. She is now 29, and finds herself trying to beat back teen-agers like Missy Franklin who saw Natalie Coughlin on their living-room television screens when they were little girls and dreamed of one day being just like her.
That day is this week, here, now, at the U.S. Trials. Except here is the difference: All these teens are not just younger. They are bigger and stronger than Natalie Coughlin.
In the women's 100-meter backstroke Wednesday night, Franklin, who is 17, touched first in 58.85, an American record. Rachel Bootsma, who is 18, came in second, in 59.49.
Coughlin finished third, in 1:00.06.
Of Coughlin's 11 Olympic medals, two are individual golds. Those two are in the 100 back.
The cruel fact of the Trials, of course, is that third doesn't get you onto the Olympic team.
Here is some basic math from the 100 back Tuesday night. Of the five others in the race besides Franklin, Bootsma and Coughlin, one was 21, another 22. The others: 18, 17, 16.
"… There is such a young heat and amazing heat, there are so many incredible backstrokers that will be in that final …," Franklin had said beforehand, adding, "So I'm excited to get out there and race and see what we can do."
Here is another set of facts, and it is revealing:
Franklin swam the 100 backstroke final, set that American record, qualified for her first U.S. Olympic team, did all that -- roughly 20 minutes after swimming a semifinal heat of the 200 free.
Franklin is the next big thing in American swimming for a series of very good reasons. She is immensely talented, competitive, cheerful, the complete package. But it all starts with her considerable physical attributes. She stands 6-1. She has broad shoulders. She was built to swim, and she swims exceedingly well.
Coughlin is 5-8. Swimming is not basketball, of course, and it's not that giving away five inches means that Missy is going to dunk on Natalie. But the longer a swimmer is, the more stable he or she can be in the water -- like the keel on a sailboat.
Take a look at the best male swimmers. They're all tall:
Michael Phelps (6-4), who defeated Ryan Lochte (6-2), in the 200 freestyle final Tuesday night by five-hundredths of a second, a reversal of positions from last year's world championships in Shanghai.
Matt Grevers (6-8), who on Tuesday won the 100 back. He was the silver medalist in that event in Beijing.
And many, many more.
Enter Missy Franklin.
Everyone understands what's going on. But no one wants to say so directly. Especially Franklin, who genuinely -- and appropriately -- reveres Coughlin.
"I think it's impossible to take Natalie's spot," Franklin had said after the backstroke semifinals. "I mean, she's the best women's swimmer the sport has ever seen, and probably ever will, so she has done her job, and no one can ever really fill her spot."
Asked after the semis how she felt about her own self, Franklin said, "I love how I feel right now -- strong and powerful. It's so awesome to feel this way and to be able to come here and do what I came to do."
This is just how it is.
Coughlin had finished seventh Tuesday night in the 100 butterfly, a distant 2.16 seconds behind Dana Vollmer, who flirted with the world record before touching in 56.50. Claire Donahue took the second Olympic spot in 57.57.
Coughlin had been entered in the 200 individual medley but scratched out of it to focus on the 100 back.
Now she has only the 100 free left; prelims for that get underway Friday.
Asked if it entered her mind that she would likely have to displace Natalie Coughlin to make the U.S. Olympic team, Bootsma said, of course.
"She's Natalie Coughlin, right? The most amazing female swimmer, ever. It was unbelievable to be in the same heat with her. Making the team is a huge deal to me. I wish she could be there to kind of show everyone the ropes and stuff. But she'll make it in other events. And I'm looking forward to London."
Coughlin herself, gracious as ever after coming in third in Wednesday night's final, called Franklin and Bootsma "awesome, awesome girls."
She also said of her two Olympic golds, "I'm very proud of that." Even so, she said, "It's time for Missy and Bootsma."
Of these Trials, Coughlin said, "It's not exactly what I was hoping for, coming into this. I've done everything I could possibly do this year. My training has been, frankly, amazing. The races haven't been quite there. So I'm a little bummed but not nearly as much as everyone is expecting me to be. You know, you're walking around the pool deck and people are acting like you're dying or something."
The Trials are not over, certainly.
"I am praying and hoping for her because I would love to be on another team with her," Franklin said.
You never know about hope. Sometimes, in the end, champions have a funny way of making hope come alive.
"She is in a place she probably didn't anticipate. That's not a happy place," Frank Busch, the U.S. national team director said, quickly adding, "I certainly would not count Natalie out. Great champions can pull off great performances at any time: 'World -- watch this.' "