Gary Shelton: Swimmer Natalie Coughlin's legacy is immune to time

OMAHA, Neb.

Her back is not what it used to be. Then again, neither is her freestyle.

There comes a time when a person slows. One day you are young and in the prime of your life, and the next, some kid has taken your spot and it is time for you to go home and tend to your garden.

Poor Natalie Coughlin.

It's so hard being, well, 29.

That's the thing about swimming. It will make an athlete look old while she is still young. If a swimmer is not perfectly tuned, it will threaten to turn off the lights on even the brightest career.

All of which is why Coughlin, one of the greatest swimmers in United States history, is on the verge of being shut out of the 2012 Olympics.

For a night, at least, Coughlin hung on. She pushed hard enough in the 100-meter freestyle semifinals Friday to make her way into tonight's final. (St. Petersburg's Megan Romano was 10th and would need two swimmers to scratch to make the final). Still, Coughlin qualified seventh behind six younger swimmers. If she is to reach the Olympics, even as a relay-team member, she has to finish at least sixth tonight.

"I'm really happy to have one more race in this meet," said Coughlin, who missed out in two other events and is entered in Sunday's 50 free. "I'm going to give it everything possible. I really want to make this team, but if I don't, I don't. Life goes on. That's why you don't see me freaking out. After (finishing third in) the (100) backstroke, a lot of people expected me to throw a hissy fit. That's offensive. It's just a race."

Oh, it is more than that. From the looks of things, it might be a goodbye to Coughlin. She is one of the most decorated swimmers of all time, the one who was referred to as "the female Phelps" after winning six medals in Beijing. In all, Coughlin has won 11 medals in 11 events. One more would equal the U.S. record for women held by Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres.

Such is the unforgiving nature of swimming, where everything goes quickly, even the careers. It doesn't take a lot of time for a young swimmer — one such as Missy Franklin, 17, for instance — to surpass a legend. The more established a swimmer is, the quicker she can be chased from the pool by younger ones. A second or two off your best times and the sport is suddenly in the hands of a fresher, faster swimmer.

Consider the image Friday, when Coughlin looked up at the scoreboard, trying to decipher the standings. Not far away, Franklin, who finished second, did the same. It was a symbolic passing of the torch, one swimmer handing the sport over to the other.

"It's impossible to take Natalie's spot," said Franklin. "I mean, she's the best women's swimmer the sport has ever seen and probably ever will. No one can really fill her spot."

No one wants to, it seems. Other swimmers seem to be openly pulling for Coughlin.

"I'm happy for her," said Dana Vollmer. "I'm glad our heat was so quick that she got into the final.

Perhaps that is true. On the other hand, they don't refer to Missy as "the Missile" for nothing. From the time she was an age-group swimmer idolizing Coughlin, it was clear to many she would be a very big deal in this sport. Now, as a junior in high school, it seems she has arrived.

That was clear earlier in the week, when Franklin won the 100 backstroke, an event in which Coughlin had won back-to-back gold medals, and broke Coughlin's U.S. record in the process. Even then, Coughlin managed to smile. "I'm a little bummed but not nearly as much as people are expecting me to be," Coughlin said at the time. "I'm walking around the pool deck and people think I'm dying."

Dying? No. Down to her final race? Perhaps.

In this sport, it happens fast. If Coughlin was a tennis player, or a golfer, or a point guard, 29 would not seem ancient. Even in swimming, there are Torres, 45, also competing in the 50 free, and Janet Evans, 40, competing today in the 800 free. But it is hard to lay off for a year and a half, such as Coughlin did. She got married. She co-wrote a book. She appeared on Iron Chef America. She danced with the stars.

Give this much to Coughlin. If this is the end of her swimming career, she has remained gracious to the end. Even now she talks about the leadership she would like to provide to the young swimmers on the team. There are worse ideas, to tell the truth.

Soon, other stars will be in the pool. Younger swimmers will be in the water.

Still, Coughlin's legacy is intact.

That, at least, is immune to time.

Gary Shelton: Swimmer Natalie Coughlin's legacy is immune to time 06/29/12 [Last modified: Friday, July 20, 2012 8:51am]

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