The dream of a third consecutive Olympics bid seemed dead for Natalie Coughlin after being ousted from her signature event, the 100-meter backstroke. She had already pulled out of the 200-meter individual medley, and the field was stacked against her in her last gasp: the 100-meter freestyle.
She needed to make the team in this race. And the team—Team USA—needed her to make it.
This race was not about Coughlin being one of the two individual swimmers representing America in the 100 free. It was about her placing sixth, at worst, to make London as a member of the 4x100-meter freestyle team.
Coughlin warded off enough challengers to make the final, setting up a showdown for a spot on the team. Just like in the 100 back, the 29-year-old shot off the blocks and into the lead, and once again she was overtaken by her younger competitors. Her time of 54.44 seconds was not good enough to get her in the top two, but it was just enough to squeak by with a sixth-place finish.
The dream lives. Coughlin is going to London.
Chances are she will get in the water just once at the Games, but her impact will be felt across women's swimming.
“I will embrace that role of being a leader. The 4x100 free relay is on the first day, so I will do my best in that relay and then from there I will help everyone else as much as they need or want," Coughlin told NBC Sports' Andrea Kremer.
Coughlin's experience might prove to be pivotal for a team filled with young stars. Eight years ago she was in a similar position to Missy Franklin, though the latter is four years younger than Coughlin was when she broke out at the Athens Games. Franklin looks to star in the 2012 Games, but a mentor who has been in her position could be the difference between a record haul and relative disappointment.
Beyond the budding superstar is a field filled with Olympic inexperience. Pending results from the 50 and 800 free and 200 back events, this is a women's team that averages 21 years of age outside of Coughlin. Four teenagers are headed across the pond—Franklin, Rachel Bootsma, Elizabeth Beisel and Cammile Adams—and this will be the first time in the Olympic limelight for many of these swimmers.
There is no question this is a talented group for women's national team coach Teri McKeever, but a lack of experience could be a concern.
"McKeever told me this would be [Coughlin's] final gift to USA Swimming if she could just get on the team," said NBC announcer Rowdy Gaines when discussing Coughlin's importance to the team.
Indeed Coughlin's experience will prove invaluable to McKeever and the women's swimming team through the course of training over the next month and when the Olympics finally begin.
Her Olympic career might end after one heat in a relay, but Coughlin's leadership will help lead the women to dominance in London.