LONDON – Teri McKeever was in the worst possible position.
McKeever is the head coach of the U.S. women's Olympic swim team. She is also the personal coach of Natalie Coughlin and has trained her since she was a freshman in California 11 years ago. Those two duties did not easily coexist Saturday.
McKeever had to make the difficult decision to bench Coughlin -- an 11-time Olympic medalist -- for the final of the 400 freestyle relay. That was after Coughlin swam the fastest split in the preliminaries on Saturday morning. Given that, plus her experience, plus her ties to McKeever, most thought Coughlin was a lock to swim in the final.
[ Photos: U.S. swimmer Natalie Coughlin ]
Wrong. Upon close inspection McKeever probably made the right call, but that didn't make it an easy call.
"Personally? Yes, it was difficult," McKeever said. "As the U.S. coach, I think I made the right decision."
It was an entirely defensible decision in retrospect -- except for the fact that the U.S. finished third, its worst finish ever in the event, beaten by the Australians and the Dutch. That led to plenty of second-guessing.
With customary grace, Coughlin defused any controversy afterward.
"I was a little bit disappointed," she said, "because I tend to swim better as the meet goes on. But I don't envy the coaches, what they had to go through. They had a tough decision. They made a good one.
"I'm happy for the girls. They did a great job."
The four Americans who swam in the final -- Missy Franklin, Jessica Hardy, Lia Neal, and Allison Schmitt -- set an American record. And all four of them swam faster splits than Coughlin's 53.93 seconds in the prelims.
Neal was the surprising inclusion over Coughlin in the final, if you compare experience and splits. Neal is 17 years old and on her first Olympic team, whereas Coughlin is 29 and on her third. Neal swam a 54.15 Saturday morning -- but she also was the leadoff leg. The subsequent legs have the advantage of a relay start -- taking off as the previous swimmer is finishing -- that can trim several tenths of a second off the real split time.
Neal backed up her inclusion on the final foursome with a 53.65. And Coughlin still got her 12th medal (all members of the relay team receive a medal, whether they race or not), tying for the most-decorated female American Olympian.
"The medal count speaks for itself," McKeever said, holding Coughlin's medal in a black box in her hands. "I'm incredibly, incredibly proud of her. She raced with her passion, and she gave it her best. That's all anybody can do. I hope that she knows that and is proud of that.
"I hope she's just as proud of this medal."
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