Can't Miss Race at the Santa Clara Grand Prix


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Every 400 medley relay is divided into stereotyped personalities. The backstroker is the leader, the first combatant, the tone-setter, the one everyone trusts: consistency is everything. Next, the breaststrokers: the weird, smaller, oddly-angled sidekick. Butterfliers hit the water with enough venomous energy to terrify the competition; they are part-human, part-torpedo. Finally, the freestylers, Mr. Rockstar, confident and charismatic.

Of these, backstrokers are the most important. A legendary swim coach once said that backstrokers set the tone of the relay: they are the vital organ. A strong lead-off swim makes the rest of the relay feel like racing downhill. You get into clean water. Fast walls. Let the rest catch you if they can.

Backstrokers are the backbone.

For the United States’ medleys, change is in the air. Take the men’s medley. For the first time in my lifetime, the U.S. could enter the finals of the men’s 400 medley with a relatively “new face” leading us off. I scanned previous lead-off names to gauge just how important this position was. Listen to these previous Olympic lead-off names: In 2008 & 2004, Aaron Peirsol. In 2000, Lenny Krayzelburg. In 1996 & 1992, Jeff Rouse. In 1988, David Berkoff. In 1984, Rick Carey. (I was born in 1983, so I’ll stop there.) In other words, our relays had some of the greatest backstrokers of all-time. It’s no question why the USA men have had so much Olympic success with lead-offs such as these. (The U.S. men have never lost the 400 medley relay.) Yet, in 2012, with Aaron Peirsol enjoying the calmer waves of competitive retirement, we will see a new face. While an Olympic veteran like Matt Grevers or Ryan Lochte could assume these reins, the position is very much vacant for perhaps the first real time in my lifetime.

The women’s side is a bit more complicated. Having played second-fiddle to Australia in the previous two Olympics, on paper, the U.S. could win back the Olympic medley relay title. The only question is: Who will be the lead-off leader? The first combatant? The tone-setter? The backbone backstroker?

It’s difficult to imagine a medley relay without the aid of Natalie Coughlin, one of the undisputed greatestNatale Coughlin (medium) swimmers of all-time. She led-off the previous two Olympic medley relays in 2004 and 2008 -- relays that scored consecutive silver medals. Nothing wrong with silver. But after dominating the 2011 World Championships, the U.S. women have their eyes on Olympic gold in the medley. Coughlin led off that World Championship relay, and you’d think she’d be a lock for 2012. But a couple younger swimmers are itching for the lead-off torch.

Missy Franklin and Rachel Bootsma are two teenagers who could feasibly go 1-2 at the Trials in the 100m backstroke. That would give us, potentially, the youngest lead-off since 15-year-old Beth Botsford splashed us to gold in 1996. Should Coughlin qualify in ANY event, we could see a relay-themed game of musical chairs. Coughlin in back, Franklin in free. Franklin in back, Coughlin in free. Bootsma in back, Coughlin in fly, Franklin in free. (Though Dana Vollmer may take issue with that.) Coughlin is so dynamic and versatile, she could swim 3 of the 4 legs on the Olympic medley relay this summer.

Still, it’s hard not to appreciate Coughlin as one of the greatest lead-off backstrokers in U.S. Olympic relay history -- though she doesn’t have the hardware to prove it.

In the 400 medley relay at the 2004 Olympics, Coughlin led-off just slower than her own WR time, yet nearly a second FASTER than her individual 100m gold medal performance at the same meet. At the 2008 Olympics, she set an American record and swam the fastest split in the finals of any backstroker (swimming, once again, faster than when she won individual gold.) Though both relays came up short, Coughlin has been one our best and most consistent lead-off backstrokers. In both Olympics, Coughlin swam faster in the relay than her two individual gold medal performances. Can’t ask for more than that.

And yet, anything can happen at the upcoming Trials. A veteran can assume the reins of lead-off responsibility once more. Or an eager teenager could shock the world and declaratively say, “I belong here, too.”

This weekend at the Santa Clara Grand Prix, we’ll see the articulate Coughlin compete in the 100m backstroke against superstar Aussie Emily Seebohm. It’s the Can’t Miss Race of the meet. Coughlin will use it as a last and final chance to gauge, tweak, adjust, and refine. She’s accomplished so much in the sport, and is such an inspiring role model, it’s hard not to root for Coughlin in that backstroke. Just so she can get one more lead-off shot. Just so she can march us to Olympic gold, like she’s capable, like she’s shown us she can do, like she did at the 2011 World Championships. It’s difficult not to root for someone who puts 110% into every relay performance -- someone who swims faster for teammates than she does for herself.

If swimming were scored on personalities, I nominate Coughlin to be our all-time backstroker. She’s consistent. Mentally tough. Strong-willed. Unflappable. But it’s not. Swimming is scored on times. In which case, I still nominate Coughlin to be our all-time backstroker.

But we’ll see, starting this weekend, and more specifically, 28 days from now.

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