By John Lohn
BEIJING, China, August 12. AFTER the semifinals of the women's 100 backstroke, there were questions as to whether Natalie Coughlin could knock off Zimbabwe's Kirsty Coventry and retain her gold medal. Well, turns out that the American got the job done, setting an American record of 58.96 to stay on the top step of the medal podium.
Coughlin pushed the pace during the first lap, splitting 28.52 at the 50-meter mark, well under world-record pace. From that point forward, it was about staying strong to the wall and fighting off the closing charge of Coventry. Having set the world record of 58.77 in the semifinals, Coventry couldn't muster that performance again and touched for silver in 59.19. It was her second silver of the Games, along with one in the 400 individual medley.
For Coughlin, who has spent the past six years redefining the event long before the rest of the world realized the 59-second realm, it was a major boost leading into the remainder of her program. Later in the night, Coughlin was scheduled to race the semifinals of the 200 individual medley.
Margaret Hoelzer, the world-record holder in the 200 backstroke, continued her impressive form in the shorter backstroke by picking up the bronze medalin 59.34, just ahead of the 59.38 turned in by Great Britain's Gemma Spofforth. When the final of the 200 back rolls around, Coventry and Hoelzer appear headed for a sensational battle.
Russian Anastasia Zueva was the fifth-place finisher in 59.40 and Japan's Reiko Nakamura also broke the one-minute mark, going 59.72 for sixth. France's Laure Manaudou, who is having a poor meet by her standards, was seventh in 1:00.10 and the eighth-place slot was filled by Japan's Hanae Ito in 1:00.18.