Veterans Coughlin, Peirsol help U.S. swim team save face in Beijing

8/12/2008 - Olympic Sports

BEIJING -- Natalie Coughlin, in her own words, cried "like a baby." Aaron Peirsol gave an aw-shucks smile.

Two gold-medal winners experiencing two medal ceremonies 20 minutes apart. Two completely different reactions, from two fairly polar personalities.

But the bottom line is the same: When USA Swimming acutely needed someone other than Michael Phelps or his miraculous relay mates to step up and perform like an Olympian, two backstrokers had America's back. In this case, back-to-back, repeating as Olympic champions in events spaced eight minutes apart.

For the first time at the Water Cube, they played "The Star-Spangled Banner" without Phelps standing on the top step of the medal podium. Initially for Coughlin, the emotional 25-year-old from the Bay Area. Then for Peirsol, the placid 25-year-old from Southern California.

Each won the 100-meter backstroke. And each did what has become expected of both when the stakes are highest: They came through with huge races right on time.

If Phelps is the king of clutch, Peirsol and Coughlin are the prince and princess. And given some tight, underachieving swims by Americans earlier in a meet they expected to dominate, this was a needed course correction.

"The way we swam this morning was like us," said U.S. national team coach Mark Schubert. "That's the way we're supposed to swim."

Riding the adrenaline supplied by Jason Lezak's epic relay leg the previous morning -- "It really moved me inside," said backstroker Matt Grevers -- the U.S. overwhelmed the rest of the world Tuesday. It won three gold medals, as Phelps joined Coughlin and Peirsol by adding his third gold and third world record by routing the field in the 200-meter freestyle. But that wasn't all -- four other swimmers won the first individual Olympic medals of their careers: silver for Grevers in the 100 backstroke and Rebecca Soni in the 100 breaststroke; bronze for Margaret Hoelzer in the 100 backstroke and Peter Vanderkaay in the 200 free.

Creeping concerns were replaced by rising confidence.

"The U.S. team is absolutely snowballing right now," Peirsol said.

Phelps is the human avalanche, but he needed some backup Tuesday. He got it from a pair of veterans who looked as if they might join the roll call of Americans who couldn't swim back to the lofty level they reached at the U.S. trials in Omaha, Neb., earlier this summer.

Coughlin went into the water for the final seeded second in her best event. She was spanked in the semifinals by a fat .66 seconds by Zimbabwe's Kirsty Coventry, who had been a collegiate rival of Coughlin's at Auburn (Coughlin went to Cal). Coventry broke Coughlin's world record in the semis, the first time in six years that record had been out of Coughlin's possession.

Coughlin didn't reclaim the record Tuesday, but she swam fast enough to reclaim gold -- becoming the first female repeater in the 100 back. In fact, it was pretty much a no-doubter of a race. Coughlin started alertly, powered out underwater and led by four-tenths of a second at the turn. She held off Coventry in the final meters to win by a fairly comfortable .23 in an event that has become blisteringly fast.

"Natalie gets a little more emotional [than Peirsol]," Schubert said. "But when she comes through like she did in backstroke, I think the rest of the meet will fall into place for her."

Given where Coughlin was mentally heading into the start of competition here, this gold-medal swim was a major accomplishment.

"I didn't feel great going into this meet," Coughlin said. "The last few days, I wasn't feeling as strong as I was hoping to mentally. Regardless, I was able to get my head together and perform today.

"The 100 back has been progressing faster than any other female event, I think. For me to win gold in such a strong, strong event, I was really proud. I think that's why I was crying like a baby on the medal stand."

Peirsol, as is his custom, betrayed no such emotion. He's so calm under pressure, it's eerie.

In fact, it was downright scary for the American coaches at one moment Tuesday morning. Schubert said he heard on his earpiece that swimmers had one minute left to report to the ready room for the men's 100 back -- and there was no sign of Peirsol.

"He was still in the warm-up pool," Schubert said. "He's one cool customer. Without a doubt the best backstroker ever."

What Peirsol did Tuesday was even more impressive than Coughlin's step up. He was seeded a vulnerable fifth going into the final, .59 seconds behind top seed Hayden Stoeckel of Australia. Stuck out in Lane 2, even Mr. Cool admitted to being a little stressed.

"I had my doubts after yesterday," he said. "… I had to get my head on straight."

He was ready when the bright lights came on. Peirsol cruised through the first 50 meters in second place, then sizzled in the back half to beat Grevers by .57 seconds and break his own world record in the process.

"He keeps saying it was close," Grevers said. "But really, he kind of killed us. … He's got the right mind for it. He's always up to race, and he always performs when it matters."

Ask Peirsol why he's probably the world's best big-meet swimmer not named Michael Phelps and he shrugs. He compliments his training with Texas Aquatics, where he works with a handful of Olympians and a slew of national-caliber competitors.

"I train to win on my worst day," he said. "Honestly, I don't know what goes on in these other guys' heads. I know what I have to do to get my hand on the wall."

And his feet on the highest level of the medal podium. Coughlin knows, too. When USA Swimming needed it, the back-to-back backstrokers came through again.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.