Just How Good Is Natalie?

By Bill Bell

BERKELEY, Cal., February 5. NATALIE Coughlin must love records because she's collecting more than Carter has pills.

Just last weekend, for example, during Pac-10 dual meets at the Spieker Aquatics Complex against USC and UCLA, the Cal junior superstar — already American/ NCAA record-holder in the 100-200 yard freestyles, 100-200 yard backstrokes and 100-200 yard butterflys — swam the fastest 100 back ever in a dual meet (52.22 against the Bruins) and the fastest 100 fly ever in a dual meet (51.88 against the Trojans the previous day).

She almost equaled that 51.88 with a 51.96 against UCLA a day later.

In drag racing they have the "one percent" rule, i.e., for a run to count as a record a driver must back up his time via a second run within 1% of that time in the next race.

Certainly 51.96 falls within one percent of 51.88, so Coughlin gets to keep her record. She also has the second-best performance (51.90) from a dual meet against Georgia last November.

Coughlin's record spree is unprecedented. Perhaps the only similar feat — aside from Mark Spitz's seven golds and seven world standards at the Munich Olympics — is Tracy Caulkins' four American records in both individual medleys and the 100-500 frees. TC followed Spitz by seven years at the AAU Nationals during April of 1979 at East Los Angeles College.

Coughlin doesn't merely set records at championships. She's fast from opening-day. Aside from her American-collegiate marks in six events (and not even Caulkins did that!), she's got the fastest non-championship performance in the 50-100-200-500 yard frees plus the backstrokes and flys.

In the 50, her 22.21 from the 2001 Longhorn Invitational is the fastest non-championship collegiate time ever. Former Texan and Big 12 champ Tammie Stone went 21.84 at last year's American short course Championships in Austin, third-performer-performance all-time. Stone's swim is the fastest non-championship performance ever.

In the 100, Coughlin's 47.76 from that same Longhorn Invite is just off her American/NCAA-record of 47.47 from last year's collegiate championships at Texas, done leading off Cal's 400 free relay. She also has the dual meet standard (48.06) swum against Georgia last fall.

In the 200 free, aside from her American/NCAA-record of 1:42.65 from Auburn's Tiger Invitational in December, Coughlin's 1:43.30 from last year's Pac-10s at Belmont Plaza — fourth-performance all-time — is the best non-NCAA Championship swim. However, former American/NCAA record-holder Nicole Haislett of Florida has the dual meet record with her 1:44.99 against Texas more than a decade ago.

Coughlin's 4:37.62 for the 500, also swum at the Tiger Invite (where she set ARs and NCAA records in the 200 fly-200 free, first time that's been done by ANY woman in more than three decades, if ever) is fastest-ever for a non-title meet. She ranks fifth on the all-time performances' list and is fourth performer.

Similar to Caulkins, who only did the 500 once at a major competition, resulting in a then American record of 4:36.25, Coughlin has only swum this race once competitively since entering Cal. The results speak for themselves. That former Stanford All-America Janet Evans' American/NCAA record (4:34.39) from her freshman season on The Farm 13 years ago has stood the test of time — and in turn is less than two seconds faster than Caulkins' previous standard from 11 years earlier — also speaks volumes about American women's distance swimming.

While Coughlin has the American/NCAA record in the 200 back (1:49.52), she's never swum a fast 200 in a dual meet. Thus that record belongs to former Stanford star (and Sydney Olympic 200 fly gold medalist) Misty Hyman. She swam a 1:55.01 at Texas in a tri-meet against the Longhorns and SMU in January of '99

To set the American/NCAA record at Austin last March, Coughlin had to beat a pretty tough standard: her own 1:50.90 from last season's Pac-10s at Belmont Plaza a month earlier. That in turn eclipsed her 1:51.02 from the previous year's NCAAs, which in turn eclipsed her 1:52.73 from the '01 Pac-10s in her freshman season at Cal.

So…Coughlin has been the only woman to break the 1:53.0, 1:52.0, 1:51.0 and 1:50.0 barriers, and she's not done yet.

In the 100 fly, her American/NCAA record (50.01) from NCAAs broke her own 50.67 from the prelims. In turn, her prelim swim surpassed Jenny Thompson's American-record (51.07) from the Kerr-McGee Elite Meet in Oklahoma City four years earlier. [Thompson's time was not a collegiate record as she had long since left The Farm.] The collegiate mark Coughlin twice broke last season belonged — you guessed it — to Natalie Coughlin, with her 51.18 from the previous season's NCAAs at East Meadow.

In the 200 fly, Coughlin had never held the record until last December. Again, at the Tiger Invite, she put paid to Mary T. Meagher's 1:52.99 from the U.S. Nationals at Harvard 21 years ago with her 1:51.93. The old collegiate record was 1:53.23 by Stanford's Shelly Ripple from last season's NCAAs that won her her first individual collegiate championship gold. Ripple ranks fourth and third on the all-time performances-performers' list, No. 2 all-time college and holds the Cardinal record too.

That's just Coughlin's curriculum vitae short-course.

Long course, the Cal Wonderwoman is defending World Champion in the 100 back, and last summer she became the first (and only) female ever under 1:00.0 for the 100 meter backstroke. She swam 59.58 at the Nationals in Ft. Lauderdale during early August; then went 59.72
— second-fastest performance ever — at the Pac-Pac Championships in Yokohama a couple of weeks later. She also swam a 1:00.09 leadoff leg on the gold medal winning U.S. 400 medley relay and now has history's three-quickest centurys.

(The previous world record-holder was China's He Cihong with her 1:00.16 leading off the medley relay at the 1994 World Championships in Rome. But that record is believed by virtually all knowledgeable observers to be tainted.

Coughlin also swam an American- ecord 53.99 in the 100 free, No. 1 globally in 2002 and fourth performance all-time. Only Holland's "Little Dutch Girl," triple world record-holder and triple Olympic gold medalist Inge de Bruijn (53.77 from the Sydney semis) has been faster. Inky also has the top two other performances: 53.80 from the Speedo Grand Prix in England in May of Y2K plus her 53.83 that won the Big O's gold.

In the 100 fly, where Inky reigns supreme with her 56.61 wr from Sydney (Spitz won at Munich in 54.27), Coughlin went a pr 57.88 last summer at the Pan Pacs to win the gold and rank No. 1 on the domestic list. She was No. 2 globally behind former SMU star Martina Moravcova's pr-NR 57.20 that won her her first major international gold in August at the European Championships in Berlin. Double M — who represents Slovakia internationally — now ranks second on the all-time performers list and fifth (performances).

(Interestingly, the 200 yard free U.S. Open/NCAA record Coughlin broke at Auburn in December — along with Haislett's American-record — belonged to Moravcova.)

Coughlin ranks third all-time on the U.S. 100 meter fly list behind record-holder Dara Torres and Jenny Thompson. She's fifth all-time world among performers (14th-performance). Torres' record is 57.58, so Coughlin's got a good 10 years ahead of her to surpass that time.

How so? Well, Torres was just a "wet-behind-the-ears youngster" of 31 when she "flew" to the record at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Indianapolis three years ago. Torres, now-retired and a recent bride, was Olympic 100 fly co-bronze medalist with Thompson and she's the oldest U.S. record-setter ever.

In the 200 free, Coughlin's pr of 1:58.20 last summer ranked her No. 2 globally to Germany's Franzi van Almsick's 1:56.64 world-record from the European Championships. Van Almsick in turn broke her old wr of 1:56.78 from Rome, same meet as Mlle. He's "record."

Coughlin's 200 boosts her into No. 2 on the all-time U.S. list, trailing only Nicole Haislett's 1:57.90 that won her the gold at the Barcelona Olympics a decade earlier. Not bad for a "backstroker."

(Of course, another "backstroker," a certain Mr. Naber, set wrs in the 100-200 at the Montreal Olympics, "allowed" his USC teammate Bruce Furniss to win the gold in the 200 free while taking the silver, and was a part of the U.S.' gold medal-winning and world record-setting 800 free relay. Naber won the Sullivan Award the following spring and Coughlin's a finalist this year.)

For good measure, Coughlin also erased Betsy Mitchell's name from the U.S. record-book with her 2:08.53 AR in the 200 meter backstroke. Mitchell's old record was a 2:08.60 from the U.S. World Championship Trials at Orlando in July of '86. (coughlin, however, had the advantage of being able to use the faster, new style turns.)

Coughlin's time ranks her 10th-fastest (performances) and fifth (performers) all-time. The only active swimmer faster is Romania's Diana Mocanu, who won the Olympic gold at Sydney with her pr-NR 2:08.16. However, she's been a non-factor since the Olympics and it will be interesting to see how she swims this summer at the World Championships in Barcelona.

The world 200 back record is 2:06.62 by Hungary's leading lady, now-retired Kristina Egerszegi, who swam her time during the 1991 European Championships in Athens. She also has the next three-fastest clockings: 2:07.06 that won the Olympics the following year; 2:07.24 that won her gold at the European Championships in Vienna a decade ago and her 2:07.34 from the Barcelona Olympics prelims.

No other woman swimmer of this or any other generation has had the versatility or the record-breaking ability of Coughlin. Not Caulkins (although she's close), not Evans, not Debbie Meyer, not Kornelia Ender or even Kristen Otto (both of whom had a propensity for sprinkling a little something more than strawberries and cream on their Wheaties for breakfast!).

Certainly Spitz was non-pareil long course, but at NCAAs he was basically "just a flyer" and never won a national collegiate 100 freestyle title. He also lost some races while at Indiana. Coughlin's unbeaten in every collegiate race she's swum, dual meets, invitationals, conference and NCAA Championships. And she's swum every event in the program save the 1650 free and the breaststrokes.

Only the great Albatross, then West Germany's Michael Gross, could be considered to have close to Coughlin's versatility, and even he lost The Big One. At the Los Angeles Olympics, Gross was world record-holder in the 200 fly and 200 free and favored to win both events plus the 100 fly. He won the 200 free-100 fly but came up short in the 200 fly, where the gold went to Australia's Jon Sieben.

That was the the only significant international victory of Sieben's career. However, an Olympic gold and world-record — even in this case if it was by just .01 — can go a long way towards making one's day. And Sieben did win the NCAA 200 fly title while at Alabama under Don Gambril.

As Coughlin's favorite record goes, "I've only just begun."

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