By John Lohn
PHILADELPHIA, June 24. THE last time she competed at the World Championships, little went right. Not that it was her fault, just bad timing. Really bad timing. Two years ago, Natalie Coughlin was expected to tear it up in Barcelona, and head back to the United States with a fistful of medals. Instead, she was plagued by illness and managed to reach the final of only the 100 butterfly. Coughlin did, however, help the United States to gold in the 400 freestyle relay.
In less than a month, Coughlin will have her chance at redemption – as far as the World Champs are concerned. Since that unfortunate turn of events in Spain, Coughlin has continued to build her reputation as one of the finest female swimmers on the planet. Not only did she wrap up one of the grandest collegiate careers in NCAA history, she enjoyed a sterling showing at last summer’s Olympic Games.
Racing in Athens, Coughlin corralled a quintet of medals. Aside from snagging a pair of individual-podium finishes, Coughlin contributed to a trio of hardware-winning relays. Individually, she collected gold in the 100 backstroke and bronze in the 100 freestyle. In relay competition, Coughlin went for gold in the 800 free relay (world record) and silver in the 400 free and 400 medley relays. Along the way, she also assumed the role of team leader, what with Jenny Thompson waving goodbye to the sport.
So, when the United States heads to Montreal, Coughlin will again find herself playing a pivotal role in the United States’ exploits. There’s little doubt she’s going to excel, what with her vast talent and the fact that she’s been swimming well in preparation for the World Champs. This weekend, Coughlin is competing at the Santa Clara Invitational, a final tuneup for Canada.
Individually, Coughlin will contest the 100 back and 100 freestyle in Montreal, along with triple-relay duty. As long as Coughlin stays healthy through the competition, she’s a near lock to win the 100 backstroke, an event in which she holds the world record (59.58). Coughlin is the only woman in history to crack the one-minute barrier, and accomplished the feat in Athens on the medley relay.
As for the 100 free, Coughlin will look for an Australian upset, as she enters the meet as an underdog to Jodie Henry, the Olympic champ and world-record holder, and Alice Mills, who won the Aussie Trials. Coughlin, though, is such an exceptional talent that she may have the goods to pull off a gold-medal performance, and potentially go faster than her American record of 53.99, set three years ago. Coughlin, too, will be the hammer on the American relays, each expected to duel with Australia.
Two years ago, Coughlin found misfortune at the World Championships. Look for a big-time showing this time around, and some redemption.