Natalie Coughlin is a perfect 12 for 12 in Olympic races. Only this time, she earned a medal without swimming in the final, with some help from a Brooklyn teenager making her Olympic debut.
Coughlin tied Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres for most career medals by an American woman with 12 when the United States won a bronze in the 4x100-meter freestyle relay on Saturday night.
"I really have no idea what to think of it so far," Coughlin said. "I'll have to let that one sit and I'll have to take it all in. I'm very proud of it, but I've never been on a morning relay before."
She swam a leg in the preliminaries, helping the U.S. qualify second-fastest. But for the evening final, the Americans went with teenager Missy Franklin and Jessica Hardy, and brought back Brooklyn's Lia Neal and another Olympic rookie, Allison Schmitt, leaving Coughlin to play cheerleader.
They finished in 3 minutes, 34.24 seconds, an American record.
"I was a little bit disappointed just because I tend to get better as the meet progresses," Coughlin said, "but I don't envy the coaches, what they had to go through this morning. They really weighed the decision and I think they made a good one."
But Neal, a scholarship recipient at Asphalt Green on the Upper East Side, was only grateful for the opportunity to swim and represent the U.S.
"To even medal, that's just like everything and more," she told NBC 4 New York in London.
Coughlin, whose six medals in Beijing were the most by an American woman at one Olympics, didn't qualify for an individual event in London. She finished sixth in the 100 free at the U.S. trials to put herself in the relay mix.
U.S. women's coach Teri McKeever, who is also Coughlin's personal coach at California, considered each swimmer's split times and their relay exchanges in deciding to leave Coughlin out.
"As the head coach, I think I made the right decision," McKeever said. "As her coach, it was difficult."
McKeever carried two boxes containing bronze medals that she planned to present to Coughlin and Amanda Weir, the other morning swimmer, in their rooms at the athletes village.
McKeever said experience was one factor taken into account, and at 29, Coughlin had the most among any of the relay swimmers.
"We all gave our opinion," she said. "It was not unanimous."
Added U.S. men's coach Gregg Troy, "She wasn't quite as fast as she needed to be. She's certainly a little disappointed. She should be. We want all of them to want to go."
Coughlin was gracious about being dropped, saying, "I'm supportive of the coaches and what they did."
Neal said she was aware that Coughlin needed one more medal to tie Thompson and Torres.
"I'm just so happy we all chipped in to help Natalie achieve this accomplishment," she said. "She's such a great teacher. I've learned quite a lot from her."
The executive director of Asphalt Green, the Upper East Side swim site where Neal trained, released a statement Saturday, saying "Lia Neal embodies the best qualities of Asphalt Green. Not only is she an excellent, determined swimmer, she is a lovely young woman."
"Year after year, we hear the words, 'I want to be an Olympian!'" continued Carol Tweedy. "Lia shows us that all together, we can do it."
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