Our Elliott Almond filed this report on Cal legend Natalie Coughlin, who tied the record for most Olympic medals by a woman with 12 but still had a hard-to-swallow Saturday:
By Elliott Almond
LONDON – Natalie Coughlin’s historic 12th Olympic medal rested in a black box held by her long-time coach Teri McKeever.
Coughlin didn’t receive it during the medal ceremony Saturday night at the Aquatics Center after the United States set an American record to earn the bronze medal in the 4X100 freestyle relay.
Only the four women who swam in the final got the privilege of having their medals draped around their necks.
The former Cal great had an impressive swim in the morning preliminaries to help the U.S. women advance to the final. But for the first time in her illustrious career, she was relegated to a reserve role.
As a result, Coughlin, 29, felt the sting of disappointment despite joining Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres as the most decorated female Olympians in U.S. history.
“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 what they had to go through.””
On a night the United States won four medals in swimming, the one earned by Coughlin was perhaps the most bittersweet of her career.
“I have no idea what to think of it so far,” she said a half hour after the Americans finished behind Australia and the Netherlands. “I’ll have to take it all in tonight. I’ve never been on a morning relay before so it’s a little different.”
It also was bittersweet for McKeever, the coach who has guided Coughlin to greatness since 2000. They have been a team through 12 years but McKeever had to wear her U.S. coach’s hat in making a decision based on the times of the morning swims.
“We all gave our opinions,” McKeever said. “It wasn’t unanimous.”
Her staff decided to go with Lia Neal, 17, of Brooklyn over one of the world’s greatest swimmers in history, an athlete known for a ferocious competitive streak that raw data cannot predict. Coughlin’s London Games probably are over though there is a miniscule chance she could be called upon to swim in the medley relay later this week.
Coughlin promised to be ready for whenever she is needed.
The coaches perhaps were vindicated when Missy Franklin, Jessica Hardy, Allison Schmitt and Neal set a U.S. mark of 3 minutes 34.24 seconds. But the anticipated showdown against Australia never materialized as the Aussies won in an Olympic-record time of 3.33.15. The Dutch also broke the 3.34 barrier to earn a silver medal.
Coughlin’s success always has been overshadowed by Michael Phelps’ because they both shined in Athens and Beijing. Lost among Coughlin’s accomplishments, though, is the fact she has won a medal in every Olympic event that she entered.
McKeever planned to deliver the latest medal to Coughlin in her room at the Olympic Village. The coach hoped her swimmer will appreciate as much as the others.
But it’s easy to understand the disenchantment for someone who won six medals in Beijing four years ago. She became the only woman to successfully defend her Olympic title in the 100-meter backstroke.
After the 2008 Olympics Coughlin took a needed break from the pool. She and husband Ethan Hall moved to Lafayette where Coughlin enjoys working in her urban garden. She also appeared on “Dancing With the Stars” and “Iron Chef.”
Coughlin said she might try for a fourth Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in four years. She probably won’t go about her training the same way as this time, however. Coughlin learned from the current approach, a suggestion that she and McKeever didn’t get it quite right for London.
McKeever, though, would not diminish the latest milestone.
“The medal count stands for itself,” the coach said. “She raced with her heart and passion and she gave it her best, and I hope she knows that.”