Sunday, December 17, 2017
Sports

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.

Comments
Lightning wins at Avalanche with four-goal second period

Lightning wins at Avalanche with four-goal second period

DENVER — The Lightning left for Las Vegas Saturday for the first of four nights in Sin City.But Tampa Bay’s first regret came before it boarded the charter flight; the Lighting lamented making Saturday’s 6-5 win over the Avalanche much more thrilling...
Updated: 22 minutes ago

Joe Smith’s takeaways from Lightning-Avalanche

Could tell just how much Ryan Callahan meant in the Lightning dressing room by hearing teammates talk about his latest injury. Steven Stamkos said he was "sick to my stomach." Brayden Point called him a "heart and soul player." Teammates all saw how ...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Lightning journal: No easy answers on replacing injured Ryan Callahan

Lightning journal: No easy answers on replacing injured Ryan Callahan

The good news for the Lightning is that GM Steve Yzerman is hopeful RW Ryan Callahan will be ready to go in 3-4 weeks when his upper body injury is re-evaluated. The hard part, however, is finding someone to replace the veteran wing. "I don’t know if...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Melo cheered, then booed as Knicks spoil his return

Melo cheered, then booed as Knicks spoil his return

NEW YORK — Carmelo Anthony got the cheers but the Knicks got the win, shutting out their former All-Star in the second half and beating the Thunder 111-96 Saturday night for their fourth straight victory. Michael Beasley tied his season high with 30 ...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Rangers stay hot against a favorite opponent, the Bruins

Rangers stay hot against a favorite opponent, the Bruins

BOSTON — Mats Zuccarello scored a power-play goal 1:56 into overtime to lift the Rangers to a 3-2 victory over the Bruins on Saturday. Michael Grabner and J.T. Miller also scored for the Rangers, who won for the ninth time in 13 games (9-3-1) overall...
Updated: 2 hours ago

Sports in brief

MLBTRADE SENDS KEMP BACK TO L.A.OF Matt Kemp was reacquired by the Dodgers on Saturday as part of a five-player trade with the Braves. The Dodgers sent 1B Adrian Gonzalez, LHP Scott Kazmir, RHP Brandon McCarthy, INF Charlie Culberson and cash to Atla...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Mistakes doom Ducks in new coach’s debut

Mistakes doom Ducks in new coach’s debut

LAS VEGAS — Cedrick Wilson caught 10 passes for 221 yards and a touchdown, safety Kekaula Kaniho returned an interception 53 yards for a score and No. 25 Boise State beat Oregon 38-28 in the Las Vegas Bowl on Saturday. Brett Rypien threw for 362 yard...
Updated: 3 hours ago

Bucs’ Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David out for Monday’s game vs. Falcons

TAMPA — As if containing All-Pro Julio Jones and the Falcons offense isn’t challenging enough, the Bucs will try to do so Monday night without perhaps their top defensive players, tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David.On Saturday, Bucs coa...
Updated: 3 hours ago

Sunday’s sports on TV/radio

TODAYCollege basketballWomen: Florida State at Texas12:30 p.m.FS1Women: Georgia Tech at Georgia1 p.m.SECStony Brook at Providence2:30 p.m.FS1North Carolina at Tennessee3 p.m.ESPNSavannah State at Baylor3 p.m.Fox SunWomen: USF at Florida International...
Updated: 3 hours ago

Cabreras team up for first-round lead at Father/Son Challenge

ORLANDO — Two-time major winner Angel Cabrera and Angel Cabrera Jr. birdied their last three holes for 13-under 59 to take a one-shot lead Saturday in the Father/Son Challenge. Cabrera, a Masters and U.S. Open champion, is making his debut in the pop...
Updated: 5 hours ago