Natalie Coughlin hung on to make her third Olympics with a sixth-place finish in the 100-meter freestyle on Saturday night, giving her a chance to win a record-tying 12th Olympic medal in London.
But it won’t be in an individual event.
The 29-year-old Californian had already missed out in the 100 backstroke, where she is the two-time defending Olympic champion, and the 100 butterfly. Coughlin was down to her last chance in the 100 free, needing a top-six finish in the eight-woman final to earn consideration for the 400 free relay team.
She got it.
Coughlin beat out Dana Vollmer by 17-hundreds of a second for the sixth and last spot.
”Yes, it’s a relief to make my third Olympic team, but going into this race I just wanted to be proud of myself afterwards,” she said. ”I went for it and I gave the best effort that I could.”
Jessica Hardy also found redemption on Saturday night with a surprising win in the same race that Coughlin was in. The Californian better known for her breaststroke beat out a loaded field in the 100 free to make the Olympic team four years after she had to sit home because of a positive drug test.
Hardy touched in 53.96 seconds, edging out teenager Missy Franklin, who was second, and Allison Schmitt, who took third.
”I’m on a different planet now, and I think that swim for me was 100 percent emotional,” said Hardy, who clapped her hand to her mouth in shock as she checked the scoreboard. ”It was heart the whole time. It wasn’t so much physical capacity, just staying calm and enjoying it. That’s what made the difference.”
While Hardy was in lane six, Coughlin swam in lane one on the far outside, where there’s less turbulent water. She went out fast, exploded off the first turn and then hung on with one thought in her mind over the last 25 meters.
”Get my hand to the freakin’ wall,” she said, smiling.
Coughlin’s results at the eight-day trials weren’t what she had been expecting, especially in her signature event. She was under world-record pace at the turn of the 100 back on Wednesday, but she couldn’t hold off Franklin and Rachel Bootsma. Coughlin finished third.
Coughlin was setting standards in the 100 back when many of her current rivals were age-group swimmers.
She was the first woman to win back-to-back titles in the same event in consecutive Olympics in 2004 and 2008, and the first woman to swim the event in under 1 minute.
”I got a little overzealous in training and didn’t focus on the recovery nearly as much,” she said. ”I swam a lot more this year than I ever have or at least in the past 10 years thinking that would be a really good thing, and for me apparently that wasn’t it. But it’s fine, I’m at peace with it.”
Coughlin has been remarkably consistent in the Olympics, winning a medal in all 11 of the finals in which she’s appeared since her first games in 2004, including three gold, four silver and four bronze. She won six medals four years ago in Beijing.
If the U.S. women medal in the 400 free relay in London, Coughlin would tie Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres as the most decorated female Olympians in U.S. history.
”That was a bit distracting,” she said of people constantly reminding her about the record. ”I would love to be on that podium once again.”
With only the relay on her schedule in London, the veteran captain of the U.S. women’s team anticipates more leadership duties.
”I’ll be there to support my teammates and the rest of team USA,” Coughlin said. ”That will be my bigger role this Olympics.”
Hardy was looking to rebound from her loss in the 100 breaststroke, an event that she and training partner Rebecca Soni were favored in.
”Going through the heartbreak of my 100 breast this week rekindled that emotion, what I went through in 2008, and for a 24-hour period I was pretty sad and upset,” she said about her year-long suspension that was proven to be triggered by a tainted nutritional supplement. ”I think it brought out a better swim in me.”
Franklin powered through another successful night, gaining her third individual event for London with her second-place finish in the 100 free. She is on track to swim seven events at her first Olympics, including all three relays. She swims the 200 backstroke final on Sunday, an event in which she is the world champion.
”The goal coming in was to make the team,” she said. ”I could have never dreamed of doing seven events and the fact it’s a possibility is unbelievable.”