OMAHA, Neb. — She hugged coaches and teammates and friends, mustering a thin smile for each embrace. “The hardest part is seeing the look on the faces of everyone,” she said to one of her friends. “I just don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me.”
Then, at just past 1:30 p.m. local time Friday in the lower level of the CenturyLink Center, the 12-time Olympic medalist grabbed her bag, slung it over her shoulder and said it was time to go. She turned and walked down a darkened concrete corridor, passing near the pool where everything went so wrong during these U.S. Olympic trials for Natalie Coughlin.
“I just didn’t have it for these trials,” Coughlin told Bleacher Report. “I don’t know why. I can’t explain it. I’ve just been off in my swimming for a few months. It’s just...just heartbreaking. That’s the word. Heartbreaking.”
It ends for everybody. It ended for Jenny Thompson in 2004, at the age of 31, after she had won eight golds. And now it appears it has ended for Coughlin, at age 33, after she failed to qualify for the Olympic team in Omaha.
In preparing for another Olympics run, Coughlin had appeared on track to earn a spot in her fourth Games. Less than seven months ago, with no tapering, she finished the 100-meter freestyle in 54.50 seconds at a meet in Austin, Texas. The U.S. Olympic Committee was so confident that Coughlin would make the team that it then sent her to Beverly Hills, California, in the spring to meet with media at an event promoting the Rio Games. Alas, the too-good-to-be-true script couldn't be written as she was never a factor at the trials.
On Tuesday in the 100-meter backstroke, the event in which she won Olympic gold in 2004 and 2008, she finished eighth, a full 1.46 seconds—a country mile in swimming—behind winner Olivia Smoliga. That night Coughlin struggled to sleep in her hotel. One thing all veteran swimmers know: The demons start whispering louder when you’re slow in your first event.
On Thursday in the 100 freestyle, she failed to advance to the finals. After finishing fifth in her heat in the 100 free with a time of 54.87 seconds, she climbed out of the pool. And that was when the realization hit her like a punch to the gut: She was done.
Instead of moving to the warm-down pool after that race, she spoke to her coach, Dave Durden. It wasn’t a discussion as much as it was Coughlin making a declaration: Her spirit was willing, she explained, but her body wasn’t responding. She then withdrew from her final event, the 50 freestyle. At her moment of reckoning, the decision came easily to Coughlin: She knew, intuitively, it was time to stop.
“I’m not saying I’m retiring, because swimming will always be a part of my life,” said Coughlin, who stands tied with Thompson and Dara Torres as America’s most decorated female Olympic swimmers. “But I can’t wait to get home to my husband and begin to discover a life outside of the pool. I’m not going to be so focused on every ache and pain in my body. I’m going to spend a lot of time in my kitchen, which I absolutely love. I’m a Type A personality with OCD. So I love the prep work in the kitchen and the chopping and all that goes into that. I can’t wait to see my garden.”
Coughlin has been the rare swimmer who has enjoyed crossover appeal. Smart, telegenic and possessing a melt-your-heart smile, she appeared on ABC’s Dancing with the Stars in 2009. She’s written a book, Golden Girl, and she’s graced the cover of several magazines, including a nude pose on the 2015 Body Issue of ESPN The Magazine. Just last month, in a testament to her lasting relevance, she appeared on the cover of Self.
“One of the things Natalie did was to show how swimmers could be beautiful out of the pool,” said Bonnie Brandon, a 22-year-old University of Arizona graduate who was participating in her third Olympic trials. “She brought people to our sport because she’s so personable. And in the pool, she was the female Michael Phelps of her generation. And that is really amazing, because she’s small for a swimmer. She did it all on guts and hard work. Natalie can teach all of us a lot of lessons.”
“I grew up looking up to Natalie,” said Claire Adams, a 17-year-old from Carmel, Indiana, who was competing in her first Olympic trials. “She’s influenced a generation of swimmers. Her focus has almost been unmatched. To make three Olympic teams is something I could only dream about. Her legacy is already set. She’s one of the all-time greats in our sport.”
So now Coughlin will retreat to her mini-farm in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she grows figs, collard greens, kale, tomatoes and various fruits and herbs. She also raises chickens. Over the last few years, her chickens have supplied her with a near-endless supply of eggs, which she normally ate during her second breakfast of the day after her 6 a.m. workout.
“I’ll watch the Olympics and cheer on all the newbies on the team,” Coughlin said Friday afternoon. “I’ll wish I was there, but I’m proud of my consistency over the years. I earned 12 medals. And I never stopped learning. Never.”
Moments later, Coughlin headed down that dark hallway. She smiled at a few fans, shook a couple of outstretched hands and then continued to move farther away from the pool.
It ends for everybody. Natalie Coughlin pushed open an exit door and stepped outside into the warm prairie afternoon.
Immediately, she was drenched in golden sunlight.