From all outward appearances, Natalie Coughlin was a picture of tranquillity and composure as she strode to the starting blocks for Tuesday night's 100-meter backstroke final at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials.
Somewhere inside the Qwest Center, though, her parents weren't feeling so collected. Instead, Jim and Zennie Coughlin were glued to their seats, battling a raging case of the jitters and hoping for the best. Never mind that their daughter is one of the premier swimmers in the world. Never mind that she's the current world-record holder or defending world champion. When a trip to the Olympic Games is on the line, there is little relief.
"I hate this meet," Jim Coughlin said with a smile. "I love it, but I hate it."
In a matter of seconds, Coughlin gave her parents - and, perhaps more important, herself - a big reason to exhale. Coughlin, a Cal graduate, qualified for her second Olympic Games in world-record fashion, powering to the wall in 58.97 seconds and lowering the bar on a record she set the day before.
"This is such an emotional meet," said Coughlin, already donning a dark blue USA hat. "It feels so good to finally be on the team. Now I get to take a breath and enjoy the rest of the meet." Aaron Peirsol broke his own world record in the 100 backstroke, finishing in 52.89, and former Cal star Jessica Hardy qualified for the Olympics by winning the 100 breaststroke.
Six years ago, Coughlin became the first woman to break one minute in the 100 backstroke. On Tuesday, she became the first to break 59 seconds."That's amazing," Zennie Coughlin said. "She's been in the 59 club for so long. Now she's the leader of the 58 club." Margaret Hoelzer also earned a spot in Beijing by finishing second in 59.21. Hayley McGregory, who temporarily stripped Coughlin of her world mark Monday before she swiped it back, finished third, one spot shy of securing an Olympic berth.
Cal's Lauren Rogers was fourth in 1:00.78. "People assume if you're the world-record holder you're going to go to Beijing, no problem," Coughlin said. "Anything can happen at this meet. It's just the nature of the beast. I think having so many experiences helped me get through." Chances are those experiences will serve her well when it comes to defending her gold medal in China. No swimmer has won back-to-back gold medals in the 100 backstroke since the event made its debut at the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Then again, no swimmer has been quite as dominant in the event as Coughlin.
Staking her spot on the Olympic team in the 100 backstroke was just a part of Coughlin's quest Tuesday. She also advanced to today's final in the 200 individual medley, an event she once disliked. In 2000, Coughlin came to the trials nursing a nagging shoulder injury but was still regarded as a favorite to make the U.S. team in the event. She finished fourth. "Is there baggage around the 200 I.M.?" Cal Coach Teri McKeever asked. "Yes."
That Coughlin is in Omaha actively engaged in the event proves she's shedding that baggage, one piece at a time. The warming process began in April at the Stanford Invitational when Coughlin threw her hat into the ring for the first time in three years. Then, last month, she set an American record at the Janet Evans Invitational. Katie Hoff, owner of the previous record, is the top qualifier for today's final. "I only really considered doing the 200 I.M. a week ago when too many people told me I should," Coughlin said. "I gave in."