An era in women's swimming met its end this week at U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha.
Out went Amanda Beard (30), Dara Torres (45), Janet Evans (40) and Natalie Coughlin (29).*
In came Elizabeth Beisel (19), Rachel Bootsma (18), Kathleen Ledecky (15) and, of course, Missy Franklin (17).
This kind of torch-passing happens every four years, but 2012 carried some extra heft.
Not only were the outgoing names bigger than usual, they departed under very different auspices than their predecessors.
Swimming used to be a young woman's game, the realm of adolescents who couldn't afford or weren't sturdy enough to stick for more than one or two Olympic cycles.
Early-to-mid-20th century swimming legends like Helene Madison, Donna de Varona, Debbie Meyer, Claudia Kolb, Martha Norelius and Sharon Stouder all ended their Olympic careers before age 20.
Thanks to advances in medicine, training and pay, that era has ended. Torres, Beard and Coughlin were proof that a female swimmer could remain competitive well past their college years. Heck, they might even peak after their college years.
To see them exit in one fell swoop is a reminder that, for the advances in women's athletics over the past 40 years, swimming is still a meritocracy. And youth matters.
Young legs recover better.
Young arms are more powerful.
And more often than not, young arms and legs can account for the lapses of young minds.
The signature moment of this sea change came in the women's 100-meter backstroke final, where Franklin and Bootsma held off Coughlin (their mutual idol) to deny her a spot in the event she'd won two Olympics running.
Thanks in part to victories like that, the women's U.S. Olympic swim team won't feature a single athlete over 26 in an individual event (and just seven over college age).
And the women that did qualify can in turn thank the women they beat for their long careers to come.
Coughlin and Co. helped open the door for profitable, career female swimmers. This week, Franklin and Co. walked through it.
*Coughlin did make the relay pool for the women's 400-meter freestyle, but she failed to qualify as an individual.
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