While Michael Phelps was singlehandedly rewriting the Olympic and world record books in the pool, it was a relatively quiet start for America’s women in the swimming events at the Olympic Games in Beijing. The iconic Water Cube venue at the heart of the Beijing Olympic Park was producing some terrific times and the women’s 100m backstroke was no exception.
Zimbabwe’s Kirsty Coventry, Japan’s Reiko Nakamura and Anastasia Zuyeva all broke the Olympic record in the heats but most observers knew the battle for gold would likely be between Coventry and American Natalie Coughlin. Coughlin and Coventry had been building a formidable rivalry over the years.
Coughlin, after narrowly failing to qualify for the Olympic Games at Sydney in 2000, had won the battle of wills in the final of the 100m back in Athens, holding off the fast-charging Coventry for her first gold medal.
No woman had ever defended the Olympic title and when Coventry smashed Coughlin’s world record, set in the U.S. Olympic trials earlier in the year, it seemed the Zimbabwean had the slight upper hand.
You could hear a pin drop as the eight swimmers awaited the start, and once the race was under way Coughlin effectively settled the matter within the first 20 metres.
She had such a phenomenal start that she had a 0.34sec-lead by the halfway turn, almost half a body length over the rest of the field.
Coventry made her trademark surge in the final 25 metres but perhaps tired from her world-record breaking exploits in the semi-final the previous day, could not make up the lost ground.
Coughlin touched home in 58.96secs, 0.19 secs outside Coventry’s world mark set the previous day. She initially seemed unsure of what she had achieved, but a huge smile soon emerged as it dawned on her she had become the first woman ever to defend the 100m backstroke gold.