Natalie Coughlin faces do or die in splash and dash

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IRVINE, Calif. — Natalie Coughlin has entered 12 Olympic events and won 12 Olympic medals. She has made the U.S. team for 12 straight major international meets, excluding her 2009 sabbatical.

She has 50 seconds in the pool Sunday to keep the latter streak going.

Coughlin, 31 and the oldest woman at the U.S. Championships, will swim the 50m freestyle — the splash and dash — on the final day of the meet.

It is her last chance to make the U.S. team for the biggest international meet of 2014, the Pan Pacific Championships. If she does not make the Pan Pacs team, she cannot qualify for the 2015 World Championships team, either.

Coughlin has said the 2016 Olympics are her hopeful goal, but would she reassess if she finds out Sunday she will be out of the two biggest meets between now and Rio de Janeiro?

“That’s not something I really want to think about right now,” Coughlin said outside the warm-up pool at Woollett Aquatics Center on Friday. “There’s really no point in thinking about it until it happens.”

Coughlin finished seventh in her only other event in Irvine, the 100m freestyle Wednesday, when top four would have made the Pan Pacs team.

The top two in the 50m free will definitely make the Pan Pacs team. Third place will likely make the team. Fourth is still possible.

The Pan Pacs roster is a set 26 women over all events, taking the top finishers across the board. The more swimmers who qualify in multiple events, the more roster spots open up for lower-placing swimmers.

Coughlin is the third-fastest American woman in the 50m free this year. Right on the bubble.

She knows the pressure, but she feels ready. The nerves will be calmed by her experience when she walks on the deck for prelims Sunday morning and, likely, the final Sunday night.

“It’s not my first rodeo,” Coughlin said.

Many thought Coughlin would retire after the 2012 Olympics, after she made her third Games by the skin of her suit at the Olympic Trials. She was sixth in the 100m free, squeezing into the Olympic relay team.

In London, she swam in the 4x100m free relay prelims but was not selected for the final quartet. Her teammates were third in that final, and prelim swimmers also earn medals.

So Coughlin won a bronze, tying fellow swimmers Jenny Thompson (Coughlin’s suite mate at her first Olympics in 2004) and Dara Torres with her 12th career medal.

Coughlin agreed she kept swimming after London due partly to unfinished business.

“I wasn’t happy with how London went,” she said. “I know that I’m better than the year that I had in 2012. I made the changes that I think are good for me.”

In Rio, Coughlin could become the first Olympian — Summer or Winter — to enter at least 13 Olympic events and win a medal in all of them. She is currently tied with Finnish distance legend Paavo Nurmi at 12.

She could also break her tie with Thompson and Torres for the most medals won by a U.S. woman.

“It would be great to win another medal,” Coughlin said. “Being tied with Jenny and Dara is pretty incredible.”

She switched coaches but not training bases after London. She left Cal’s women’s collegiate program coach, Teri McKeever, who helped guide her to those 12 medals. She joined Cal’s men’s coach, Dave Durden.

That means her intense training comes with men’s stars, too — Olympic 100m free champ Nathan Adrian and 2000 Olympic 50m free champ Anthony Ervin, who is the only swimmer older than Coughlin of nearly 1,000 at the U.S. Championships.

“I’m getting my butt kicked every day,” said Coughlin, who has shed her signature stroke, backstroke, and her experimental one, the butterfly, to focus only on sprint freestyles. “I’m drowning in waves.”

But the swimmer most ask Coughlin about is Missy Franklin, a rising sophomore at Cal under McKeever. Coughlin was a three-time NCAA Swimmer of the Year with McKeever at Cal from 2001-03.

Coughlin said neither Franklin nor any up-and-coming swimmers ask her for much sage wisdom. Coughlin was the same way.

“There’s a wonderful naivety when you’re young,” she said. “You generally don’t ask for advice. A lot of times younger swimmers have such an inherent confidence. That’s why they’re as good as they are.

“I’m always here for advice if anyone ever needs it. I know from when I was young, you never like unsolicited advice. You wait for when you’re asked.”

In Rio, Franklin could try to become the first female swimmer to win seven medals at a single Games, breaking a record jointly held by Coughlin.

If there’s anything Coughlin could help Franklin with out of the pool, it may be cooking.

“We were going back and forth on Twitter,” Coughlin, a noted foodie, said, remembering a Q&A when she took over a sponsor’s account and Franklin cheekily asked a question.

“She hasn’t taken me up on it,” Coughlin said. “The invitation is still out there.”

Mishaps emerge at U.S. Championships

US women’s hockey agreement could have far-reaching impact

AP
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Cammi Granato‘s biggest victory in hockey came 12 years after she retired.

When USA Hockey and the women’s national team agreed to a contract Tuesday night that ended a wage dispute, Granato couldn’t put her happiness into words.

The Hockey Hall of Famer and her teammates staged a similar fight in 2000 without success, and she hopes the current team’s progress paves the way for the future of women’s hockey and even other sports.

“It’s bigger than any victory that we’ve had in USA Hockey,” said Granato, who won the gold medal in 1998 with the U.S. at the first Olympics with women’s hockey. “I just think it’s such a positive, positive day for women’s hockey, women’s sports and women in general.”

Granato and lawmakers, lawyers and experts see the U.S. national team’s agreement as a precedent-setter for other hockey teams around the world and other men’s and women’s athletes in this country.

As the U.S. women’s soccer team continues to work out a labor contract, the women’s hockey team showed how it could leverage solidarity and timing into a multiyear agreement that satisfied all parties involved and pushed gender quality in sports forward.

“I’m hoping it will create a wave across the country of more equity in pay,” said Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar, one of 20 senators to write to USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean encouraging him to end the dispute.

“We know that it’s not going to be exactly the same. We know the viewership numbers for some of these sports, but at least you have to try. When you try and you give them more funding, it’s kind of a chicken-and-egg problem.

“Once they’re able to actually support themselves and it’s more lucrative, you get more women going into the sport, then you have better sports and you have more people watching them.”

In that way, women’s hockey has taken the first step toward following women’s soccer, almost 20 years after the World Cup-winning team led by Mia Hamm, Brianna Scurry, Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain inspired Granato and her teammates to challenge USA Hockey.

Members of the U.S. women’s hockey team will now make $3,000-$4,000 a month with the ability to earn around $71,000 annually and up to $129,000 in Olympic years when combined with contributions from the U.S. Olympic Committee.

That’s still less than what women’s soccer players bring in, but now players won’t have to work second or third jobs – and half did – or retire to start a family because the new contract guarantees that protection along with insurance and other improvements.

Lawyer John Langel of Ballard Spahr, who represented soccer players from 1998-2014 and the hockey players in this negotiation, said hockey “shouldn’t necessarily take the same long journey” depending on how many strides are made in professional leagues, programming, marketing and sponsorships.

One immediate impact is lengthening careers, which has already shown to be the case in soccer and could transfer over to other sports.

Granato retired in 2005, but still felt as if she had “more to give” and finds it incredible that players in the current generation won’t have to hang up their skates as early as she did.

With a deal in place, the U.S. opens its world championship gold-medal defense Friday against Canada. Players had threatened to boycott the tournament over the wage dispute, which Pepper Hamilton labor and employment lawyer Matt DelDuca considers the most interesting aspect of the case.

“It shows other groups a path for trying to negotiate and use their leverage to negotiate a deal that’s favorable to them or that they’re satisfied with,” DelDuca said.

“It does really require solidarity though. You really need to have everybody together to make it work, and in this case they really seemed to have had that. In all those ways it is a benchmark for other groups to use.”

USA Hockey said all along its priority was to get a deal done, but did reach out to replacement players. Very few accepted the invite as star forward Hilary Knight and other top players espoused the solidarity of the entire player pool.

“There wasn’t any poaching of other players,” said North Dakota senator Heidi Heitkamp, another senator who wrote to Ogrean.

“They were all united in this common goal, and I think that competitive, athletic spirit really showed up in terms of fighting for your rights. I thought they deserved the support of people here who say that they support equality in pay and equality in opportunity.”

Susan Kahn, a University of Buffalo professor of women’s history, said the Senate’s involvement made it clear this wasn’t just a financial dispute, but “a political issue around equal treatment and fighting gender bias in amateur sport.”

Within hockey, the agreement allows for future expansion in the professional and amateur ranks.

“It sets the stage for a major growth in the game,” Granato said. “I think there’s a potential here to take this team and have it be followed similar to other women’s sports and where they’re at right now.”

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Russian pairs skater slices leg in worlds practice, needs 10 stitches (video)

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Russian pairs skater Yevgenia Tarasova needed 10 stitches after her partner’s skate sliced her leg in practice Wednesday.

Hours later, Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov skated to third place in the short program at the world championships in Helsinki.

“We were thinking about withdrawing because after this incident we left the ice immediately, there was a long break off the ice, we didn’t know how I would feel in skates,” Tarasova said afterward. “But when I was asked, ‘Will you skate?’ I said, ‘I will!’ And I wasn’t thinking about the pain during our performance.”

Morozov called her “a hero.”

In Thursday’s free skate, Tarasova and Morozov will be largely tasked with keeping Russia from going three straight years without world championships pairs medalists, which would be the longest drought for Soviet and Russian pairs since their dominance began in the 1960s.

Tarasova and Morozov trail Chinese leaders Sui Wenjing and Han Cong by 1.86 points and second-place Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot of Germany by .47.

Another Russian pair is in fifth place going into the free skate (1 p.m. ET, NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app).

Full worlds short program results are here.

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MORE: U.S. pairs skater back from life-threatening condition