Swimmer Natalie Coughlin finds it hard to believe that the countdown to the London 2012 Olympic Games has reached 100 days.
She says the time between the Beijing Games in 2008 — where she became the first American woman to win six medals in one Games — has zipped by at the speed of Usain Bolt.
“It is insane to me that we’re 100 days out,” Coughlin said Tuesday, a day before the 100-day mark. “I feel like I’m still decompressing sometimes after Beijing.”
Yet the countdown is on toward the July 27 Opening Ceremony. And on the eve of the U.S. Olympic Committee’s planned celebration of the milestone Wednesday in New York — where Times Square will be transformed into an Olympic Village for a day — Coughlin, tennis player John Isner (the top-ranked American male and now No. 9 in the world) and U.S. Olympic Committee Chief of Sport Performance Alan Ashley talked about their thoughts about the London Games in a national conference call with reporters.
Coughlin, still looking ahead to the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials June 25-July 2 in Omaha, Neb., said she’s “really strong” in training. Isner, who didn’t compete in Beijing, is eager to experience the Olympic Games for the first time, especially on the grounds of Wimbledon. And Ashley, who has seen the preparations in England, is excited that things are now “getting down to the wire.”
Here are some of the highlights from Tuesday’s conference call:
Do tennis players consider the Olympics the fifth grand slam?
Yeah, it is. It’s obviously such a huge event, and the tennis season revolves around the four grand slams and now, with this being an Olympic year, it only comes around once every four years, there are essentially five grand slams and there are essentially two Wimbledons, played at the same site, same exact surface, same everything, and they’re pretty close together. The Olympic field is going to be as strong as any tournament is going to be this year.
With two American men now in the top 10 (Isner No. 9, Mardy Fish No. 10), are the Olympic Games a chance for someone to step up as the “next great American” player?
Yeah, I think so. ... It’s been awhile since an American player has won a grand slam, but a lot of that has to do with the top three players in the world. I don’t think tennis has ever seen three guys as dominant as the top three guys are right now (referring to Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer). The game, in my opinion, now is so much deeper. There’s so much European influence now in the game, with players popping up from all over the world. But as far as the Americans go, we’re not doing that poorly. Both myself, Mardy and Andy Roddick’s still doing well, and there’s a bunch of guys behind us that are up and coming. I think we’ll see in the future, hopefully at Wimbledon and at the Olympic Games, some American guys do well and make a big statement.
Andy Murray is talking about playing singles, doubles and mixed doubles. Will you do the same?
Hopefully I’m over there playing three different events. It’s going to be a lot of tennis in a short amount of time, but you know, it’s a surface I can do well on. If I can find the right partner in doubles and mixed doubles — obviously Serena or Venus Williams would be ideal partners for that — I would look to jump at that opportunity and try to medal.
Do you have favorite memories of the Olympic Games? Do you have any Olympic champions you look up to?
My best memories come from the ’96 Games in Atlanta. For the most part I don’t really watch that much tennis, but I do know and I do remember Andre Agassi winning the gold medal in 1996 in the United States. For me growing up, obviously I was very young; I didn’t know what my tennis career held at that point. But just seeing him win that gold medal in the United States was very special to me. … Now that I get the opportunity to try to attempt to match his efforts, it’s pretty special to think about.
What are your chances of pairing with Venus or Serena Williams?
We’ve kind of joked about it. I know Andy Roddick wants to play with either Venus or Serena and I know one of the Bryan brothers wants to play with them as well, so I might be the odd man out. Who knows? I’m pretty good friends with Serena, so I can hopefully bribe her a little bit. Maybe I might send her a gift in the mail to try to get her to play with me, because she’s obviously one of the most dominant players ever in the game of tennis.
In the past you’ve been good about stepping away from the sport to get a mental break. How important is the mental side of performing, the ability to withstand the pressure?
The pressure at the Olympics is really, really overwhelming. Even if you’re incredibly experienced, the feeling of walking onto the pool deck, standing behind the blocks, knowing that the race you prepared for for the past four years, or the past decade, everything’s going to culminate … it’s quite stressful. But fortunately I’ve been there before and I’ve figured out strategies with my coach, Teri McKeever — and knowing that she’s going to be the head coach at the London Games is so comforting — and she more than anyone knows exactly what to say before my race and generally just picks one or two or three aspects of the race to focus on, something that I can kind of channel my nerves into.
From there you just rely on your experience and competitiveness and try to forget it all. The Olympics are just bigger than any other competition. They are the same competition as a World Championships, but there’s just so much surrounding them and there’s so much more pride surrounding them. … Everything’s heightened and they are crazy in every way, but really exciting at the same time.
Many countries already have had their swimming trials. Do you like where the U.S. Trials are on the schedule, or would you want them earlier?
I absolutely hate how late we have our Olympic Trials and always have. I’ve never experienced an Olympic Trials that were early; ’96, I think, was the last time we had a March trials. There are arguments for an early Trials and against an early Trials, partly being the college swimming season, it would interfere with our trials. And there’s this adage that a lot of old-school coaches have, that I really disagree with, that if you make the Olympics, if you pick the Olympic team too far in advance, that you become complacent.
And I think the way that swimming has gone over the past decade or so, especially in the U.S., having a lot more older swimmers, a lot more postgraduate and professional swimmers, I think that idea of having complacency is not something that would ever exist. We’re all mature adults. The Olympic team 20 years ago was quite a bit younger, so it was kind of a different group of people …
We’re having our Olympic Trials pretty much the same time as we did before Athens and before Beijing, except Athens (opening) was Aug. 13, and Beijing Aug. 8, and this (London) is July 27, so the time in between such big, stressful — emotionally, physically, everything — meets such as the trials and then another big physically taxing meet, the Olympic Games, that window is much smaller.
That being said, I think it’ll work out for the U.S. team. I think it just makes us all a bit more stressed out not knowing what we’re doing this summer …
For some of us who swim multiple events, we have to qualify in each and every single event and you don’t want to be training for an event that you’re not going to compete in at London. So it’s difficult. I would prefer it be earlier but there’s nothing we can do to change it this time around.
Looking at the world championships in the last year and some of the competitions this year, what are the chances of the United States topping what it achieved in the medal count in Beijing?
Well, the Beijing number was a big number for sure (110 total medals), and the athletes in Beijing did a really good job. I expect they’ll do equally as well in terms of quality of competition when we get to London, but the world has become more competitive over the last four years. … It’s going to be probably more competitive. I don’t know if anybody will rack up the same kind of medal numbers they did in Beijing.
What American sports might pop up in London as surprises? And what athletes should we be aware of in those sports?
The two I’m kind of excited about right now are archery and diving. We’re seeing really good progress. There’s a great group of athletes and good coaching and sort of all the dynamics are coming together. So those two will be fun to watch and aren’t ones where we recently had a lot of success in. In diving, David Boudia will be one person to watch. But also synchronized diving is something the team is really focused on. On the men’s side in archery, Brady Ellison’s basically No. 1 in the world right now and he’s shooting very well.
Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Doug Williams is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.