Natalie Coughlin had been asked about the timing of the US Olympic swim trials, which begin Monday in Omaha, mostly about how poorly positioned they are for the most accomplished American swimmers.
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“For people like myself, Ryan Lochte, Missy Franklin, Michael Phelps,” Coughlin said, immediately catching herself on Phelps. “. . . I am not saying we are equivalent.”
This is the phenomenon that is Michael Phelps.
Here is a swimmer in Coughlin who has won a medal in every single event she has swam in the Olympics and who is two medals shy of surpassing Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres as the most decorated American female swimmer of all time — and she is almost apologetic at even the inference she is in Phelps’ stratosphere. It is charming and maddening at the same time; charming because there is not even a hint of insincerity in her voice and maddening because not enough people know how wrong she is about her equivalency.
We have been confused into thinking eight gold medals is not simply an amazing feat of individual achievement by Phelps but rather a standard to judge everybody else by, almost to the point where four or two or even a gold medal seems unimpressive. We have been lulled by Coughlin, her girl-next-door good looks, her tales of organic gardening and her turn on "Dancing With The Stars."
As a result, we underestimate Coughlin. And we do so at our own peril.
This is Phelps, only more inspiring for an entire generation of young female swimmers.
“If you are looking strictly at the subjective opinion of her teammate about how incredible she is, then absolutely, she belongs in that category,” US freestyle sprinter Nathan Adrian said. “She is different, I guess, a different athlete. While Michael and Ryan fit the more masculine, Natalie fits the cool-pretty-nice-but-fierce competitor.”
Of all the descriptions I heard people use with regard to Coughlin — kind, funny, good teammate — “fierce” came only from Adrian, and it’s also most fitting.
Coughlin won six medals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing (the first American woman in modern Olympic history to do so) and decided to come back four years later because “I knew I could improve off that — not necessarily get more medals, but I could swim better than I did in Beijing.” This is why she finds herself back in Omaha four years later, despite thinking she is done. She did not want to walk away knowing she was leaving medals on the table.
If that is not Phelpsian, well, then what is?
“I don’t see myself that way,” Coughlin said. “I have medals. I have many medals, and I have them in different events, and in the last couple of Olympics I have been able to get on the podium. But in this wonderful way, Michael has taken a lot of the attention, and I’ve gotten to just focus on my swimming.”
OK, I am going to stop right there. I know what you readers have to be thinking. We live in cynical times so, of course, the logical conclusion is Coughlin was being snarky. It was a little swipe at Phelps; had to be, right? All of the swimming world must feel this way, right?
I am not saying there is no “It’s always Michael, Michael, Michael” among swimmers from time to time. They, too, must tire of swimming and winning and medaling and being viewed as an entourage in the Michael Phelps show. What they also know is Phelps is not to blame and he is just that good. They know better than anybody how incredibly hard it is to win a gold medal, much less eight.
“I am still in awe of the fact he came back to the sport after Beijing,” Coughlin said, “because that was perfect. . . . He is under a tremendous amount of pressure (about how he performs four years later), and I don’t think I would be able to handle that. So we are similar but not the same.”
Does she ever think, “Hey, what about me?” when her accomplishments get lost in all things Phelps? Or wonder how her life might be different if she had been medaling in non-Phelps years?
“I think my bank account would be different,” Coughlin said. “But other than that, I am happy. I really am. . . . As I get older, I realize more and more of my friends have to sit in an office and a cubicle, but I am in the sun. I get to see the sun rise. I get to travel the world and take care of my body. That is my job, and that is really cool. That alone keeps me coming.”
Coughlin is just about everything we want in the face of Olympic swimming except one. She is not Michael Phelps.
And this is OK. There can be only one Phelps.
But whether she wants to admit it or not, in many ways, Coughlin is his equivalent, deserving of much of the same awe and admiration and attention this week at trials.