Will Natalie Coughlin (11 medals) tie Dara Torres and Jenny Thompson (12 medals each), the most decorated U.S. female swimmers in history?

  (Photo by Andrew Weber/US PRESSWIRE)

By Mike Tierney, Special to Universal Sports

Finishing sixth in an eight-person swim race is rarely cause for celebration, especially for Natalie Coughlin. She is accustomed to tapping the wall while others still are reaching for it.

But when she defeated only two foes in her specialty after leading the 100-meter freestyle, at the halfway turn, Coughlin, 29, would have jumped for joy had she not been submerged in water. Only first and second place at the U.S. Swim Trials warrant an invitation to the individual Olympics event, but three through six qualify for relays — in this case, the 400 meter free.

A medal in London wound be Couglin’s career 12th at the Games, matching the record for American women shared by Dara Torres and Jenny Thompson. Even better for the U.S., Coughlin’s light schedule will allow her to time to mentor younger teammates, notably Missy Franklin, the 17-year-old who will juggle seven events. Coughlin is old enough to have served as Franklin’s childhood idol, but young enough to keep pace with the kids in one last Olympics event.

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