Natalie Coughlin. (Photo credit JOE KLAMAR/AFP/GettyImages)
By David Leon Moore, USA TODAY
SANTA CRUZ, CA - If this is the end of the solid black line for veteran Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin, she probably can handle it.
If Coughlin, who will turn 30 in about a month, is ready to call it a career after swimming in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay at the London Olympics, chances are she's OK with it.
Because that's sort of what she did after the 2008 Olympics, when she won six medals, giving her 11 overall, and became one of the most celebrated U.S. Olympians of all time. She was the first American woman to win six medals in one Olympiad, and she was the first swimmer to claim back-to-back Olympic gold medals in the 100 backstroke.
She took the next year and a half off, staying fit by running and staying busy by traveling with her husband, gardening, cooking, taking photographs, modeling and appearing on Dancing with the Stars.
"I wanted to experience my life," she says. "I kept myself busy, and I kept myself fit. I just stayed out of the water."
She actually liked staying dry, and she might like to try it again.
But first, there's this business of winning a 12th medal, which would tie her atop the career medal list of U.S. female Olympians with swimmers Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres.
"Natalie has been at the top of her game for over a decade," says Teri McKeever, who is the U.S. women's swimming coach at the Olympics and has coached Coughlin for a dozen years, during and after her career at California. "She's had a career of longevity and consistency. She's been successful in multiple events and a great ambassador for the sport."
Before the Olympic trials in late June, Coughlin was considered likely to get at least two more medals and become the most decorated U.S. female Olympian in history. Now, she probably has just one shot to tie the record, and who knows if she will get another one?
"I have never really thought of it as a medal count," she says. "But this time around, everybody has been bringing it up, so obviously it's in the back of my mind." She says it's unlikely she'll still be competing in 2016.
She had hoped to qualify for individual events, too, but she didn't quite have enough speed in that 29-year-old body at the trials in Omaha.
She finished third - only the top two finishers win Olympic berths - in her signature event, the 100 backstroke. She started strong but faded and was passed by teenagers Missy Franklin and Rachel Bootsma.
She handled the disappointment with poise.
"I was proud of her," McKeever says. "She was able to keep her focus and handled herself well even after the setback of not qualifying in an individual event."
In her last shot at making the U.S. team, she finished sixth in the 100 freestyle, giving her the final spot in the freestyle relay pool. If she swims in the relay preliminaries, she will receive a medal even if she doesn't swim in the finals and the USA finishes in the top three.
(As a member of the relay pool, Coughlin is eligible to swim in another relay, but that would probably happen only if another swimmer were injured or unable to compete. More than likely, the 4x100 free relay will be her only event.)
McKeever says Coughlin will swim in the preliminaries of the 4x100 free relay, adding that she doesn't know until after prelims which swimmers will compete in the final.
"We will do whatever is best for the team."
Not surprisingly, Coughlin will be one of two team captains in London, along with Rebecca Soni. They were selected in a vote by teammates.
"Her guidance and leadership are great to have with the young group of girls we have," McKeever says.
Franklin, who idolized Coughlin growing up, said she is leaning on her as a leader in London. "Coming in here for the first time, I felt so prepared with everything I have learned from Natalie" and the team's other veterans, Franklin said.
"Just having that kind of support that I can lean back on means the world to me."
When she was away from swimming after the 2008 Olympics until early 2010, Coughlin did a lot of running, usually 6 to 8 miles a day. She got to thinking about running a marathon, but "not knowing how my body was going to react, I didn't want to create any injuries."
After a five- or six-hour training day ends about 3:30 p.m., she loves puttering around her house and garden in tony Lafayette, Calif., east of San Francisco Bay, with her husband Ethan Hall, a swimming coach. She has an extensive vegetable and fruit garden, with citrus trees, figs, stone fruits, tomatoes, carrots, beans, basil and other stuff. They also have five chickens for the eggs.
She also has spent time working with O'Neill 365, a women's active wear collection. She helped design a line and appears as a model in the advertising.
That's what she was doing on the beach in Santa Cruz, in Northern California, about three weeks before the Olympic trials.
The day before the photo shoot, she had competed in a small swim meet in Santa Clara, Calif., and didn't finish particularly well. She talked then about feeling rundown from high-volume training but that she hoped the rest and taper before the Olympic trials would pay off in a big performance.
"I don't think I've ever been this broken down at midseason in my adult career," she said. "But I know it will be there in three weeks."
But it didn't come back - not the way she hoped it would.
Now it is Franklin, the 17-year-old phenom who torpedoed past Coughlin in the 100 back in the trials, who is the young U.S. swimming star, carrying the big expectations.
Maybe too big, Coughlin says.
"All the focus and attention is on her, but people need to remember she's so young and this is her first Olympics," Coughlin says.
"I know what that's like."
Contributing: Erik Brady