ATHENS, Aug. 16 -- By the time Natalie Coughlin stepped to the starting block at the Olympic Aquatic Center here Monday night, the swim meet at the Summer Olympics could have been sliding through the apparently frail fingers of the Americans. A tumultuous Sunday -- highlighted by a disappointing performance in the men's 400-meter freestyle relay -- seemed to portend dark days ahead.
But when Coughlin emerged from her 100-meter backstroke, order may have been restored. Minutes later, when Aaron Peirsol stuck his head out of the water at the end of the men's version of the same race, he too blinked away the water, then smiled broadly. With two swims lasting less than two minutes of total time, the Americans, perhaps, were back on track.
Aaron Peirsol launches into the start of 100-meter backstroke final, which he won in 54.06 seconds. "We're a team that knows how to bounce back," he said.
(Rusty Kennedy -- AP)
An Aug. 17 Sports article should have listed Austrian swimmer Markus Rogan's high school as Mount Vernon.
Coughlin and Peirsol, both Californians, each took a gold medal Monday night, helping to right a U.S. team that at times appeared to be sinking to the bottom of the deep end of the pool. Coughlin, bubbly and effervescent, beat Zimbabwe's Kirsty Coventry and France's Laure Manaudou for her first individual medal at an Olympics. Peirsol, laid-back and full of surfer-dudeness, bested friend Markus Rogan of Austria -- a graduate of West Potomac High -- and young Tomomi Morita of Japan to accomplish the same feat.
With those two gold medals -- finally -- in the bag, the feeling around the U.S. team seemed to change immediately. The memory of the bronze medal in the men's 400 free relay, of a somewhat surprising silver by the women in the same event, and even the perceived disappointment of Michael Phelps's loss earlier Monday night in the 200 free -- it all quickly dissolved in the chlorine.
"It seems like out of eight days, one day's bound to be bad for any team," Peirsol said. "We're a team that knows how to bounce back. We've done it time in and time out. All the guys on this team, man, they're so stellar. They're so studly. This'll snowball. The rest of the meet will be great."
Coughlin came first, and this was her most prominent moment. By some measures as talented as Phelps, she stripped down her program after a tumultuous year in which she fell ill at the 2003 World Championships and took several months to recover.
Though Coughlin would have been a medal contender in both the 100 butterfly and the 200 freestyle, she had only Monday night's backstroke and the upcoming 100 freestyle as individual events. She has said all along the decision to pare back her slate, made because of scheduling overlaps, was "easy," and she reiterated it last night. But it put more pressure on the 100 backstroke, an event in which she holds the world record.
The nerves showed a bit when Coughlin shot from the starting blocks and made the turn at the midway point, 50 meters, a half-body length ahead of her nearest competition.
"I was definitely excited," she said. "I just had to hold it together over those last 50 meters."
She did, touching the wall in 1 minute 0.37 second -- far from her record time of 59.58 seconds, but golden still. Her failure to make the 2000 Olympic team by the slightest of margins, her shoulder surgery later, her illness last year -- all gone by the time she looked up at the lights on the scoreboard and realized what she did.
"I've been through a lot in my career," she said, "and it means so much, so much more, to have won an Olympic final and get an Olympic gold medal. No matter what happens in my career now, I'll always have an Olympic gold medal."
As will Peirsol, who was as prohibitive a favorite as Coughlin, and who was in the pool only moments later. Australia's Matt Welsh shot out early, leading everyone at the turn. But Peirsol charged from behind, Welsh faded, and suddenly, it was between Rogan, Morita and Peirsol. When Peirsol touched first in 54.06 seconds, .29 ahead of Rogan, he blinked several times while looking at the results before thrusting his fist into the air.
Once before, at a meet in 1999, Peirsol had celebrated in the pool, only to discover he had misread the results. He wasn't going to do that now. Not here. Not at the Olympics. The wait to celebrate was rewarded.
"Honestly, it was more than I could imagine to be up on that medal podium and sing the national anthem at the Olympic Games," Peirsol said. "It was more than anything anyone has ever told me. It meant so much."
Not everything went perfectly for the United States. Lenny Krayzelburg, the world record holder in the 100 backstroke, missed out on a medal by two-hundredths of a second, finishing fourth. Amanda Beard, in her third Olympics, failed to medal in the 100 breaststroke. Beard was fourth, trailing gold medal-winner Luo Xuejuan of China -- who won in 1:06.64 -- by eight-tenths of a second. Australians Brooke Hanson and Leisel Jones took silver and bronze, respectively.
Still, with everything that had gone wrong for the Americans thus far, it was time for something -- anything -- to go right. By the time Coughlin stood on the medal stand, listening to the "Star-Spangled Banner" -- occasionally mouthing the words, occasionally biting her lip, occasionally smiling -- something finally had.
"There was very little talk about turning things around," Coughlin said. "But I think we're a team that once we get momentum, we're going to keep building off of it. I think the next five days, we're going to get better and better."