Natalie Coughlin moves on after record 12 Olympic medals

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Natalie Coughlin believes she has swum at her last major meet, satisfied to move on after a U.S. female record-tying 12 Olympic medals.

“I don’t see myself competing for the national team again,” Coughlin said in a phone interview Friday, while not feeling the need to say she’s “retired.” “I think that part is in my past, which I’m happy about and grateful. I don’t see myself trying to go to a world championships or an Olympic team again, but at the same time you never know.”

Coughlin, 34, earned a medal in every event she entered across three Olympics, including back-to-back gold medals in the 100m backstroke in 2004 and 2008.

She earned her last medal at London 2012. Coughlin wasn’t able to qualify for the Rio Olympic team at last summer’s Trials and hasn’t done swim training in several months.

She made her NBC Sports debut at last weekend’s Pro Swim Series at Indianapolis and hopes to continue in broadcasting as one way to stay involved in the sport.

“Everyone thinks that they can do that job, and it is quite difficult,” Coughlin said. “I remember the producers beforehand asking me if I’ve ever worked with a telestrator, and I had no idea what they were talking about.”

Her 12 medals are tied for the most by a female swimmer and the most by any U.S. woman with Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres, her teammates at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, respectively.

Coughlin’s five medals at Athens 2004 and six at Beijing 2008 were second among all athletes at those Games, behind Michael Phelps each time. She is the only U.S. woman to earn six medals at one Olympics.

“One of the reasons I had such an amazing career and have been so successful is I never set a goal to be the most decorated female athlete,” said Coughlin, who also earned a female-record 20 long-course world championships medals. “I never went into an Olympics saying I want to get five medals, or I want to get six medals. I went into each Olympics and took each race one race at a time.”

Beyond the accolades, Coughlin swam with a powerful drive that belied her modest 5-foot-8 frame and welcoming smile. She was motivated by early career setbacks and, as she matured in front of the world, developed passions outside of the pool while still maintaining that desire to train, day-in and day-out.

Many of today’s top swimmers looked at Coughlin as a role model and then became her teammate, a testament to her staying power for nearly two decades.

“I really, truly enjoyed swimming and loved the pursuit, the daily pursuit, the daily grind,” Coughlin said. “There are many other athletes and many other swimmers out there that don’t necessarily enjoy it and enjoy the process, which is why they have a good Olympics or a good competition and swear they’ll never come back. I really enjoyed it, which is why I kept coming back.”

Coughlin was a Bay Area prodigy who began competing by age 6. As a 15-year-old, she became the first swimmer in history to qualify for the Summer Nationals in all 14 events in 1998.

Coughlin suffered a torn shoulder labrum in March 1999, which lingered all the way to the 2000 Olympic Trials, where she failed to make the team for Sydney.

Coughlin endured. She won her first world title in the 100m back in 2001 and then won five individual events at the 2002 U.S. Championships, when she became the first woman to swim the 100m back in under one minute.

Great expectations accompanied her at the 2003 World Championships in Barcelona. But so did a 103-degree fever. Coughlin didn’t make it out of the prelims in two individual events and finished eighth in the other.

Again, she came back. Coughlin made the 2004 Olympic team and earned five medals in Athens, including twice breaking the Olympic 100m backstroke record. She had finally fulfilled the promise placed upon her on her sport’s biggest stage.

“I was really overwhelmed with the pressure and expectations of being the world-record holder and trying to get the validation of that individual [100m back] gold medal,” Coughlin said. “My memories of that race are pretty foggy. The only thing that I can remember of that race was right before being announced, ‘In lane four, Natalie Coughlin,’ I remember thinking no matter what happens in the next couple of minutes, life will still go on. Whether you get a gold medal or you get eighth, it doesn’t matter as long as you give it your all.”

Coughlin continued, winning another five medals each at the 2005 and 2007 World Championships. She made the U.S. Olympic team in six events and again made the podium in every one at the Games in Beijing, taking three individual medals and three relay medals.

She took an 18-month break from competition following those Games, marrying Ethan Hall, pursuing her cooking interests and competing on “Dancing with the Stars.”

Though Coughlin earned 100m back bronze at the 2011 World Championships, she missed the 2012 Olympic team in that event by one spot, taking third at Trials. She made the London Olympics by the skin of her teeth overall, as the last qualifier for the 4x100m freestyle relay by finishing sixth in the 100m free at Trials.

Coughlin swam the 4x100m prelims at the London Games but was left off the final quartet. She still earned a medal as her teammates finished third in the final.

Coughlin’s last Olympic cycle was up and down. She changed coaches, dropped the backstroke and focused on sprint freestyles, but in 2014 failed to qualify for a world championships team for the first time since 1998.

Again, Coughlin rebounded. In 2015, she re-added the 100m back and swam her fastest time in seven years, leading the American rankings for that year. She also clocked her fastest 100m free in five years and her fastest 50m free ever.

Coughlin could not carry over that success to the Olympic year.

At the 2016 Olympic Trials, she finished eighth in the 100m backstroke and 14th in the 100m freestyle and pulled out of her final event, the 50m free. A heartbroken Coughlin emphasized then that she wasn’t announcing a retirement.

“For me, it doesn’t matter if it was a great last meet or a mediocre last meet,” Coughlin said Friday. “I have 12 Olympic medals, and no female has ever achieved more. I don’t really need to feel the validation of having that perfect last meet. It doesn’t take away or add to my accomplishments in any way.”

Coughlin has plenty to keep her busy. She plans to publish a cookbook in spring 2019 and is starting a small wine label with her friend.

The future may well hold more swim meets, but not on the national or major international level. Coughlin has swum in the fall, typically the offseason, in Italy and Tahiti in recent years.

“Beyond world championships and nationals and the Olympics, there are lots of really fun and incredible competitions out there,” she said.

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Kyle Dake repeats as world wrestling champ; next challenge: Jordan Burroughs

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Kyle Dake recovered from an unspecified freak accident that required surgery, and not wrestling in a meet for eight months, to repeat as world champion at 79kg, a non-Olympic weight class, on Sunday.

The next six months will bring another challenge — beating Jordan Burroughs for an Olympic spot.

“Every year I have a goal of being the best guy in the world. Last year, I proved it. This year, I proved it,” Dake told Trackwrestling.com. “I’ve got my work cut out for me, coming up.”

Dake, a four-time NCAA champion at Cornell who considered quitting after finishing second at U.S. trials year after year, is now in his freestyle prime. He backed up going unscored on at worlds last year by beating his four opponents in Kazakhstan this week by a combined 27-4, capped by topping Azerbaijan’s Jabrayil Hasanov 4-2 in a final rematch.

Kid Dynamite is unquestionably one of the world’s best pound-for-pound wrestlers.

That was not the case four years ago. Then, an internationally inexperienced Dake moved out of the 74kg division, and up to 86kg for the Olympic year, to avoid facing Burroughs because Burroughs had a bye into the Olympic trials final as the reigning world champion. Dake ended up losing the 86kg trials final to J’den Cox, who on Saturday repeated as world champion himself.

The four-year difference would seem to favor Dake over Burroughs at April’s trials, where Dake has a bye into the semifinals and Burroughs into the final.

Burroughs, at 31 years old, is on the back end of his career. He just missed the finals of back-to-back world championships for the first time, though he came back for bronze medals. Burroughs has made every U.S. world or Olympic team at 74kg dating to 2011 and earned a medal every time, save his tearful Rio Olympic exit.

Dake, reluctant four years ago to detail his decision to move out of 74kg, determined before this week’s worlds that he would choose 74kg over 86kg (where Cox likely waits again).

“74 seems like a good spot for me,” Dake told Trackwrestling last month.

The number of weight classes drops from 10 at worlds to six at the Olympics, ensuring that at least two of these Americans will not make the Tokyo team:

Burroughs — 5x Olympic/world champion
Dake — 2x world champion
David Taylor — 2018 World champion (missed 2019 while injured)
Cox — 2x world champion
Kyle Snyder — 2x Olympic/world champion

Later Sunday, Snyder rallied from being upset in the 97kg semifinals on Saturday to snag a bronze medal with a 5-0 win over Georgian Elizbar Odikadze. A potential third straight world final between Snyder and Russian Abdulrashid Sadulayev was the most anticipated match of the championships, but Snyder was beaten one match early by Azerbaijan’s Sharif Sharifov.

Sadulayev, meanwhile, blanked Sharifov 4-0 to complete a 30-3 romp through his four matches to repeat as world champ.

“The hardest part about it I would say is just the fact that I didn’t get to wrestle Sadulayev again,” said Snyder, a Rio Olympic champion and a 2015 and 2017 World champion who shared bus and elevator rides with Sadulayev on Saturday and Sunday. “I felt prepared for him.”

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Israel is first nation to qualify for 2020 Olympic baseball tournament

Margo Sugarman
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Israel’s baseball team, which captivated at the 2017 World Baseball Classic, is headed to its first Olympics next summer.

Israel won a joint European-African tournament to become the first nation to qualify for baseball’s return to the Games after the sport was voted off the program after Beijing 2008.

It joins host nation Japan. Four more countries will qualify — two at the global Premier12 in November, another from the Americas and one more from a last-chance qualifier next year.

Israel, ranked 19th in the world, advanced via its best opportunity in Italy this week. It upset the highest-ranked European nations — the Netherlands (No. 8) and host Italy (No. 16) — and wrapped it up with an 11-1 win over South Africa on Sunday.

Its run came two years after Israel, then ranked 41st, beat South Korea, Chinese Taipei, the Netherlands and Cuba before bowing out of the World Baseball Classic. And one week after Israel finished fourth at the European Championship.

Israel’s roster at this week’s Olympic qualifier lacked many of the MLB veterans that it had at the World Baseball Classic. Israeli citizenship was not required at the WBC.

Its most recognizable player is Danny Valencia, an infielder who played parts of nine MLB seasons from 2010-18. Joey Wagman, its starting pitcher for its first and last games this week, plies his trade for the independent-league Milwaukee Milkmen.

MLB players are unlikely to feature at the Tokyo Games, but minor leaguers are expected to be eligible as in the past.

The rest of the Olympic field is likely to be nations from North America (such as the U.S., Cuba, Mexico or Canada) or Asia (South Korea, Chinese Taipei) or Australia.

Baseball will not be on the 2024 Olympic program but could be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games.

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