- 18 Aug 2004
Coughlin crowned queen of the backstroke
Michael Phelps was such a dominant and impressive performer at the 2004 Games that it is easy to overlook some other spectacular performances in the pool in Athens. The leading women's swimmer also came from the USA, and she went home with a haul of five medals, at the age of just 21. Natalie Coughlin was a natural, who had started swimming when she was just 10 months old. She was strong across all strokes, once qualifying for a national tournament in all 14 of the events contested, and she broke the junior national record in the individual medley. However, it was in the backstroke that she truly excelled.
Natalie Coughlin was a natural, who had started swimming when she was just 10 months old. She was strong across all strokes, once qualifying for a national tournament in all 14 of the events contested, and she broke the junior national record in the individual medley. However, it was in the backstroke that she truly excelled.
In the three years leading up to the Athens Games, Coughlin had underlined her growing prowess on the international stage by winning gold medals at several world championships and at the Pan Pacific Championships. And, in 2002, she had made history by becoming the first women to swim the 100m backstroke in less than a minute. It was clear that she was going to be a formidable presence in Greece.
Coughlin was entered in five events, including the 100m backstroke in which she the hot favourite. Yet she proved her versatility by taking a bronze in the 100m freestyle and by helping the USA to a silver medal in the 4x100m freestyle relay.
She also contributed to a team gold as a member of the American quartet that produced a stunning display in the 4x200m freestyle relay to beat the long-standing record set by East Germany 17 years earlier, with Coughlin swimming a storming first leg. And then there was another silver in the 4x100m medley relay.
These performances helped set the stage for the 100m backstroke final. Having eased her way through the first round, Coughlin had then put down a marker for her rivals in the semi-final, breaking the Olympic record in a time of 1 minute 0.17 seconds to qualify for the final some 0.7 seconds quicker than anyone else.
The final turned out to be a close battle between Coughlin and Zimbabwe’s Kirsty Coventry. The American seemed to have a comfortable lead as the pair entered the closing stages, but then Coventry then put on a powerful surge as they headed towards the line. It was not quite enough to overhaul Coughlin, who touched the wall in 1 minute 0.37 seconds for gold.