OMAHA - It was a little offensive, Natalie Coughlin said, that some people anticipated a diva moment from her when she finished third in the finals of the 100-meter backstroke at the U.S. Olympic trials on Wednesday. "They expected me to throw some big hissy fit," she said. "It's just a race. I was truly happy for Boots and Missy."
That would be Rachel Bootsma of Eden Prairie and Missy Franklin of Colorado, who snagged the two Olympic berths in play for that event.
Coughlin, 29, immediately swam over and embraced them both, telling them how proud she was to see them step up to the pedestal she used to own. Then one of the greatest swimmers in American history turned her mind to her next event -- the 100 freestyle -- which represented her final hope of making her third Olympic team.
Before an adoring crowd Friday night at CenturyLink Center, Coughlin gave herself one last chance. She recorded the seventh-best time in the semifinals of the 100 free, slipping into the eight-person finals Saturday night. Though she must finish first or second to swim that event in London, finishing in the top six would put Coughlin on the Olympic team as a relay swimmer.
Bootsma and Franklin have said this week they are rooting hard for their idol, because they crave her guidance and leadership in London. As much as Coughlin wants to be there with them -- and perhaps add to her trove of 11 Olympic medals -- she seems prepared to accept whatever may come.
"I'm just really happy to have one more race in this meet," said Coughlin, who is entered in Sunday's 50 freestyle but is not a favorite in that event. "I'm going to give everything I possibly can, so hopefully, it's enough.
"I'm actually pretty calm. Yeah, there's stress, but what I've been saying for the past three years is true. This is all icing on the cake. I really want to be there representing my country, but if I don't, I don't, and life will go on. That's why you don't see me freaking out."
While Coughlin shifted her focus to Saturday, six other swimmers made the Olympic team, and the Michael Phelps-Ryan Lochte saga continued with the semifinals of the men's 200 individual medley. Lochte topped the qualifying for Saturday's finals with a time of 1 minute, 55.51 seconds, with Phelps second in 1:56.66.
In the women's 200 breaststroke, Gophers senior Haley Spencer claimed the last spot in Saturday's finals with a time of 2:27.21.
With two more Olympic medals, Coughlin, of Lafayette, Calif., would surpass Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres as the most decorated American female swimmer in Olympic history. The first woman to break the 59-second mark in the 100 backstroke, she also is the first to win back-to-back Olympic golds in that event. Coughlin has medaled in all 11 Olympic events she has swum.
In the past two years, though, she has not been as dominant as she once was. Coughlin lost out to a much younger crowd at the Olympic trials; of the eight swimmers in the final, five were 18 or younger. Franklin, 17, won it with a time of 58.85, breaking Coughlin's American record of 58.94. Bootsma was second in 59.49.
Coughlin began the meet by placing seventh in the 100 butterfly. On Friday, Franklin and Bootsma were among a throng of supporters pulling for her to advance to the 100 free final.
"I am absolutely praying for her [to make the team], because I want to learn more from her," Franklin said. "I don't think I'm ready for Natalie to go. I'll miss her so much, and I think she still has so much left in her."
Coughlin got it done. Her time of 54.48 was well off her personal best, but it gave her one more opportunity for an Olympic encore.
"There's so much stress and anxiety in the air at this meet," she said. "I just want people to enjoy it as much as possible and just look for their personal best. That's what I'm doing."