US Olympic Swimming Team 2012: Is the U.S. Trials Natalie Coughlin's Last Stand?

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US Olympic Swimming Team 2012: Is the U.S. Trials Natalie Coughlin's Last Stand?
Al Bello/Getty Images

A youth movement is underway in the U.S. national women's swimming program. As a result, Natalie Coughlin, one of the sport's most accomplished athletes, needs a strong showing during the remainder of the U.S. Olympic team trials in order to ensure she remains a preeminent part of the group headed to London for the Summer Olympics.

Coughlin, an 11-time Olympic medalist, qualified for the final in the 100-meter backstroke in less-than-extraordinary fashion. She secured the seventh-fastest time in Tuesday's semifinal competition at 1:00.71 to advance into Wednesday night's final round for the event.

Coughlin, who once held the women's world record in the 100-backstroke, trailed a talented group of young swimmers. Missy Franklin, swimming's rising star and prodigy of the pool, earned a first-place finish in the event at 59.06, more than two seconds ahead of Coughlin. 

Franklin and Coughlin swam alongside each other on Tuesday, and it wasn't hard to tell who had the edge. The youngster simply had more in the tank.

This was a glaring trend realized at the end of Tuesday's race. The kids have grown up, and they're ready to chase down gold with the vigor of youth on their side.

Now, the question is whether or not can Coughlin keep up.

Amazingly, the top four qualifiers for Wednesday's final are 18 years old or younger. The 29-year-old Coughlin suddenly finds herself staving off elimination against a group of supremely talented first-time Olympic trial participants. 

She will need to place among the top two finishers in the final in order to qualify for the chance to defend her Olympic title. Coughlin grabbed gold in the event at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

She also earned gold in the 100-meter backstroke at the 2004 Games in Athens. Coughlin's global reign on this particular race can't be overstated, as no other swimmer has earned gold in the event in a dozen years.

She surged to a time of 58.96 to earn a spot atop the podium in '08. Coughlin will need to perform at that level in order to punch her ticket for a return trip to the event this summer. 

Overall, Coughlin is a perfect 11-for-11 when it comes to winning medals in Olympic races. She competed in each of the past two Summer Olympic Games. 

Her performance on Wednesday night will certainly be worth witnessing. Coughlin told the Associated Press that she just wanted an opportunity to compete in the final race of her signature event.

"That was the main goal," Coughlin said of making the final. "We'll see what happens. That's all I can do right now."

If she can rebound and reach London, an opportunity to match or eclipse Jenny Thompson's mark for most medals won by an American female swimmer would await her. Thompson won 12 between 1992 and 2004.

Coughlin's road to the record books isn't an easy one. She already failed to qualify in the 100-meter fly and was left behind by the elite youngsters in the backstroke, her best race. 

Should Coughlin fail to qualify, it would be a blow to her potential Olympic teammates. Many of the country's top female swimmers, including Franklin, grew up idolizing Coughlin.

"It's impossible to take Natalie's spot," Franklin told the AP. "She's one of the best women swimmers the sport has ever seen and probably ever will, so she's done her job, and no one can really fill her spot. Hopefully we do an okay job with kind of helping USA with this backstroke."

In a sport where late-twenties is considered approaching "over the hill" status, it's time to see how much fight Coughlin has left. 

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