With the 2012 games in London likely her last, Natalie Coughlin will go down as one of the greatest American female athletes in Olympic history. Going into London, the 11-time Olympic medalist needed just one more to pull even with Dana Torres and Jenny Thompson as the most decorated female Olympian of all time.
Coughlin got that illustrious 12th medal July 28 in the 100-meter freestyle relay team, coming with just one small asterisk—while Coughlin competed in the preliminary 4x100-meter teams that led team USA to the medal race, she did not swim in the final heat that brought home the bronze medal for Team USA.
Longtime Team USA swim Coach Terri McKeever (who also happened to coach Coughlin in her days at UC Berkley) opted to go with her young talent in Missy Franklin, Jessica Hard, Lia Neal and Allison Schmidt for the final relay, leaving Coughlin to watch the action poolside. The Olympic committee rewards all members of the relay team medals regardless of the extent of their use throughout, so while Coughlin did not stand on the podium as the four received the bronze for their efforts, Coughlin was awarded the medal after the ceremony.
This leaves Coughlin’s legend in a state of flux. While she reigns atop the all-time medal count, her status as greatest female Olympian ever alongside Torres and Thompson must always come with a bit of caviar. It’s not a question that Coughlin deserves the medal, she helped Team USA make the final in the first place and was part of a team regardless of her participation in the final, but mentioning her along side greats like Torres and Thompson seems like a bit a stretch at this point.
Thompson, famous for her elegant butterfly stroke, won eight gold Olympic medals (compared to Coughlin’s three) stretching from 1992 to 2004 Summer Olympic games. Thompson set world records in the women’s 100-meter butterfly and 100-meter individual medley when she was competing (both have since been broken).
Torres, meanwhile, is the only US Olympic swimmer to qualify and compete in five Olympic games (1984, 1988, 1992, 2000 and 2008) and the oldest swimmer to ever place on a U.S. Olympic team, winning silver three times at the 2008 games in Beijing at age 41. She has four gold medals total, one more than Coughlin, and she set a world record in the 100-meter free style twice in the 80s before being succeeded by Annemarie Verstappen of the Netherlands.
So while Coughlin’s Olympic resume (three golds, four silver, five bronze) is one of the most impressive ever and will rank her in the upper echelon of Olympic swimmers, she sits just a step below all time greats like Torres and Thompson. The Bay area native and Berkley graduate has had one hell of a run at the international level, but the games in London have signaled her declining talent to the rest of the world in the midst of the dénouement of her career.