Natalie Coughlin

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

Lindsey Vonn sets date for proposal to enter men’s race

ALTENMARKT/ZAUCHENSEE, AUSTRIA - JANUARY 15: Lindsey Vonn of USA celebrates during the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Women's Downhill on January 15, 2017 in Altenmarkt/Zauchensee, Austria (Photo by Christophe Pallot/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)
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The U.S. Ski Team plans to submit a proposal in the spring for Lindsey Vonn to be able to race against men in November 2018, according to the Denver Post.

“I know I’m not going to win, but I would like to at least have the opportunity to try,” Vonn said, according to the newspaper. “I think I’ve won enough World Cups where I should have enough respect within the industry to be able to have that opportunity.”

Vonn’s idea is to race in Lake Louise, Canada, an annual late fall stop on both the men’s and women’s World Cup schedules. The men generally race in Lake Louise one week before the women do.

Vonn’s greatest success has come at Lake Louise, with 18 victories in 41 downhill and super-G starts dating to 2001.

Vonn previously requested in 2012 to be able to race against men in Lake Louise, but that was denied by the International Ski Federation (FIS). The federation said then “that one gender is not entitled to participate in races of the other.”

It doesn’t look like the federation’s stance has changed.

“You can set up a day where a female racer can compete against men racers, just as a show, but it has nothing to do with competition,” FIS women’s race director Atle Skaardal said, according to the Denver Post. “I don’t see that it’s going to change in the next years — no driving forces to urge a change like that. This is something the teams could do also in training. But why would you want to have a competition in this direction?

“I just don’t see the interest. For me it’s a meaningless comparison. It doesn’t matter if she’s one second behind or a half-second ahead. We compete female against female and men against men. To me it doesn’t matter if one gender is faster or slower. It doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, just because it’s of interest to one racer. I haven’t heard of any other sport being dragged into this kind of position.”

Vonn raced for the first time in 322 days on Sunday, finishing 13th in a World Cup downhill in Austria. It was actually an encouraging result, as Vonn said she wasn’t skiing to her limit in her first race back.

Her upcoming goals are to compete in the 2018 Olympics, after missing Sochi due to injury, and earn 11 more World Cup wins to break Ingemar Stenmark‘s career record of 86 victories. She can overtake Stenmark next season if she stays healthy and continues to win at her usual pace.

Vonn said in the spring that she would postpone retirement by one year and compete in the 2018-19 season if it meant being able to race the men.

But Skaardal’s comments suggest that won’t be possible.

“It’s definitely frustrating to hear that he said that, because I respect Atle very much,” Vonn said, according to the Denver Post. “He does a great job on the World Cup, and he is a former racer, so he understands. It’s disappointing to hear he doesn’t support it. But maybe if we organize something and a plan is put in front of him, maybe he would change his mind. I think most of the men are supporting me.”

Vonn is expected to race this weekend in a downhill and super-G in Garmish-Partenkirchen, Germany, streamed live on NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app.

MORE: Bode Miller plans to race next season, U.S. coach says

Wayne Gretzky compares Hayley Wickenheiser to NHL legend

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The greatest male hockey player of all time paid the greatest female player of all time quite the compliment at her retirement ceremony Saturday.

“You played with heart, desire, finesse, speed, skill,” Wayne Gretzky said to Hayley Wickenheiser. “The only other person, the greatest player to ever live, I think he would be happy if I said you were the female Gordie Howe. Congratulations.”

The Canadian legend Wickenheiser announced her retirement Friday, after six Olympics and four gold medals. On Saturday, she was honored before a Calgary Flames-Edmonton Oilers game. A highlight was a speech by Gretzky, who now works in the Oilers’ front office.

Wickenheiser’s first Olympics, Nagano 1998, marked the only Winter Games for Gretzky. Gretzky played in the first Olympics with NHL participation in Nagano, finishing fourth with Canada, and retired in 1999 without an Olympic medal.

“You’ve opened so many doors for so many young girls to be able to one day win a gold medal,” Gretzky said to Wickenheiser. “To me, that’s more important than anything.”

Wickenheiser then took the mic at center ice and reciprocated.

“A big part of why I play the game is because of this man standing right here, Wayne Gretzky,” she said, later adding, according to Canadian media, “In Salt Lake City [2002] when we won the gold medal, the first two people I saw when we stepped off the ice were Wayne and [former Oilers All-Star defenseman] Kevin [Lowe] standing in our dressing room cheering for us.”

As part of the Wickenheiser ceremony, a tribute video was played including messages from Canadian Olympian and Hall of Famer Mark Messier, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

MORE: Amanda Kessel sets sights on 2018 Olympics