ATHENS -- There is nothing quite as comforting as a mother's hug, and when Debbie Phelps and Zennie Coughlin saw each other in the lobby of their downtown Athens hotel early Tuesday morning, the matriarchs of American swimming royalty immediately locked one another in a long embrace drenched with emotion and empathy. A few hours earlier at the Olympic Aquatics Center, Debbie's 19-year-old son, Michael, had won a bronze medal in the 200-meter freestyle. And Zennie's almost-22-year-old daughter, Natalie, had captured the 100-meter backstroke, becoming the first U.S. woman to win a gold medal in any sport at the Athens Games.
"I'm so happy for you," Debbie said softly.
"I know," Zennie answered, momentarily suppressing her customary smile.
If Phelps' mother was somewhat protective of her son in light of his third-place finish to Australia's Ian Thorpe and the Netherlands' Pieter van den Hoogenband -- and his so-called "failure" to match or exceed Mark Spitz's record take of seven gold medals in 1972 -- that wasn't what concerned her now. Instead, she was genuinely overjoyed for a woman who, like her, had devoted a good portion of her adult life to indulging her children's competitive pursuits. Getting up before dawn to ferry them to practice, making enough sandwiches to feed a van full of hungry swimmers, pitching a tent and passing the time at swim meet after swim meet after swim meet -- Debbie and Zennie knew the drill thousands of times over. Now, as Debbie and daughters Whitney and Hillary stopped to join Zennie and husband Jim Coughlin at their ouzo-topped lounge table, it was time to celebrate the end to a long, choppy struggle.
Whereas Phelps' path to prominence has, at least thus far, been blissfully devoid of adversity, the similarly talented Coughlin had to fight through drama and trauma to realize her Olympic dreams. A teenage phenom whose expected ascent to the 2000 Olympic team was derailed by a severe shoulder injury, Coughlin was on the verge of quitting the sport four years ago. She wanted no more to do with her Northern California club coach, quarreling with both his overbearing style and over-the-top approach to training. Something in her heart told her that just as, say, Marion Jones wouldn't prepare for her sprints by running daily 10Ks, swimming success in sprints and middle-distance events could be attained by paying greater attention to technique and body awareness and stressing quality over quantity.
Against the strong sentiments of her parents, Coughlin chose a scholarship to Cal over one at Bay Area rival Stanford, where an innovative coach named Teri McKeever changed Coughlin's stroke and overall approach to the sport. When Coughlin seemed too stressed or wrapped up in her craft, McKeever would order her out of the pool for several days -- something elite American swim coaches just don't do. They also don't turn a washed-out teen star into a collegiate superstar (Coughlin, a three-time NCAA swimmer of the year, is arguably the greatest college swimmer of all time), a world-record holder and, as of this week, an Olympic champion with four medals and counting.
"We love Teri McKeever to death," Jim Coughlin says of the woman who, as part of the U.S. coaching staff in Athens, is the first person of her gender to serve in such a role. "She's a fantastic coach and an even better person, and best of all, she lets Natalie be Natalie."
That meant that, in the wake of Coughlin's miserable World Championships last summer in Barcelona (she won only relay medals while battling a sore throat and 103-degree fever), McKeever supported her decision to scale back her Olympic aspirations to two individual events. It meant that McKeever, while convinced the 200-meter backstroke gave Coughlin the best chance at multiple individual golds, ultimately gave into Coughlin's desire to instead swim the 100 free. And it meant that when Coughlin, gold medal around her neck, asked for an order of chicken nuggets and fries a few hours after winning the 100 back -- she wanted an omelette, but when it's just before midnight and you're in the main press center in Athens, who's quibbling? -- McKeever simply laughed and said, "Dinner of champions; I'll take some nuggets, too."
Natalie Coughlin's gold in the 100-meter backstroke is one of her four medals.
(Whatever she's eating, she might want to consider staying on that diet: On Wednesday, she led off the 800 free relay with a blistering 1:57.74, a time that would have won the 200 -- an event Coughlin chose not to swim because its semifinals were held just minutes before the 100 back final. On Thursday she captured a bronze in the 100 free, finishing behind world-record holder Jodie Henry of Australia and Inge de Bruijn of the Netherlands, a former world-record holder. With two golds, a silver and a bronze, Coughlin will probably win a fifth medal Saturday in the 400 medley relay. Expected to swim the leadoff backstroke leg, Coughlin will thus have another chance to eclipse her own world record in the 100 back.)
More than two hours later, the Phelpses and the Coughlins were saying their heartfelt goodbyes. I asked Whitney Phelps, a former standout swimmer forced out of the sport by injuries, whether she got more nervous for her brother's races than she had before swimming her own. "Oh God, yes," she said. "My pressure, I could internalize; his, I just sit there and feel so helpless. Now I really understand what pressure is, and I can't believe how well he's able to handle it."
Soon both families exchanged more hugs and went upstairs to prepare for yet another day of supporting their loved ones at the pool. This meet, of course, was a little more special than the rest.
"She worked so hard for this," Zennie Coughlin said of her golden girl.
"People said to us before the race, 'She'll win,' as if nothing could go wrong," Jim added. "But the thing is, things can go wrong -- trust me, we've seen that happen. The great thing is that now, no matter what Natalie does at the rest of the Olympics -- or for the rest of her career -- they can never take this away from her. She did it her way, and that's the thing we're most proud of."
The harsh hand of hype
Having spent the past year hanging with Coughlin in anticipation of writing a book, I've developed a decent enough understanding of the swimming world to appreciate just how improbable it was that Phelps could have captured seven or eight golds. That said, anyone who somehow believes that Phelps has been a disappointment needs an eye-opening squirt of chlorine to the pupils.
With four gold and two bronze medals as of Thursday night -- and with the 100 fly and 400 medley relay still to come -- Phelps is on his way to completing one of the greatest individual performances in Olympics history. The 19-year-old's impact has been so dramatic that even the great swimmers who defeat him must push themselves to even greater heights to do so. Ian Crocker, who defeated Phelps in the 100 fly at the 2003 World Championships, had to lower his own world record to repeat the feat at the U.S. Olympic Trials. The same goes for Aaron Peirsol in the 200 back, an event Phelps ultimately left off his exceedingly busy Athens schedule. And we know all about Ian Thorpe -- one of the greatest swimmers of all time -- and Pieter van den Hoogenband in the 200 free.
If anything, blame Phelps' agent for helping to foster unrealistic hype. When word leaked that Phelps' Speedo deal included a $1 million bonus for matching Spitz's seven golds, the swimmer, like Marion Jones and Matt Biondi before him, was doomed to have anything less be regarded as an anticlimax by outsiders not familiar with the sport. That said, it's the agent's job to create awareness, and the kid did land on the cover of Time magazine.
The bottom line is that this once-in-a-lifetime swimmer, like the great Thorpedo, should be applauded for his excellence. And remember: It's a good thing Phelps doesn't play football, or he'd have to wait two more years before cashing in on his success.
An interesting take
Speaking of blindingly fast clutch Olympians, I had the pleasure of hanging with Michael Johnson at a restaurant in the Plaka district of Athens last week. Johnson, a fellow Bay Area resident, was in the stands to watch Coughlin win gold in the 100 back. He had an interesting take on the eight-day-long swimming competition: "Too many events."
"Oh," I said, "you mean with all the prelims and semis?"
"No," he answered. "I mean, too many strokes. It'd be like if we ran the 100 meters, then ran 100 meters backwards, then 100 meters while skipping..."
After I nearly choked on my Mythos beer, I asked Johnson how he'd do in the "200 back" if that event were indeed to come to the track world. "Aw, man," he said, appearing to laugh off the question. Then he suddenly steeled his eyes and said: "I'd whip all their asses."
The world's team
"Quick, come down to the lobby," my unofficial Athens bodyguard Dan Pedone said as he barged into our room at the Athens Acropol Hotel in Omonia Square last Sunday night. "About 300 Iraqis are going nuts in the middle of the street!"
Unruly Iraqis? GREAT. Pedone and I have been best friends since we were four, and it occurred to me in the wake of that statement that he might have finally gone insane. Yet when I got out to the square I understood: Iraq had just won its second soccer game, ensuring its place in the medal round, and the ensuing street party was both unthreatening and universally acclaimed.
As a sports story alone, this ranked among the greatest underdog triumphs in recent Olympic history. It's the Jamaican bobsled team -- winning a medal, or at least competing seriously for one. Throw in the geopolitical landscape, and everyone in Athens seemed genuinely thrilled that the people of Iraq had something to celebrate. Even those folks whose cars became temporary trampolines couldn't help but smile, and the legions of young men (including my personal favorite, a guy wearing a throwback Olajuwon jersey) effectively straddled the line between physical release and disorderliness.
Athens, in general, felt safe to me, largely because the rampant rush of un-American feelings I expected never materialized. Early on, I scrapped a plan to impersonate a Canadian, partly because I quickly realized I could never do the costume justice. A USC fan on an October Saturday -- USC cap, USC shirt, USC pants, USC money clip -- has nothing on any Canadian who has ever set foot on another country's soil; these people represent.
Now that I'm safely home, I've concluded that Athens is actually a lot like the Bay Area -- once you proclaim your extreme dislike for George W. Bush, you get nothing but love.
The 51st state
The only strain of anti-American sentiment I sensed came when word spread of the U.S. basketball team's defeat to Puerto Rico, which is understandable: Guys, when you start getting blown out by one of your colonies, that's a bad look.
Now consider this scary thought: Tim Duncan isn't even an American by birth.
Come to think of it, the same goes for Martina Navratilova who, you might have noticed, stayed alive until Thursday in women's doubles.
What's great about being in Greece during the games: With events being broadcast on four channels I was able, while standing at the airport, to watch the breathtaking Lindsay James -- star left-fielder for the Cal softball team and one of numerous Americans playing for the host country in these games -- single-handedly start a rally against Taiwan with a bunt single, advance to second via sacrifice and steal of third.
What's not so great: Before I could see whether James came around, the channel abruptly switched to judo.
Do frat boys in Greece live in houses with American letters on the front? "So you want to rush the K-E-G house? Get on your knees and chug some warm Ouzo ..."
I'll leave you with the late-night tale of the Lit Brit, a pale, flabby reveler who enlivened an otherwise mellow bar in the Plaka early Tuesday morning by abruptly jumping onto a table and kicking off his sandals. In an apparent homage to the Olympic athletes featured in the current issue of Playboy, he proceeded to remove his shorts before continuing his awkward dance.
I happened to be speaking to basketball icon (and former Olympian) Rebecca Lobo at the time -- her husband, SI's Steve Rushin, had the courage to bring his lovely bride to a gathering of colleagues -- and saw her turn to watch the end of the Lit Brit's performance. I will never forget the look of horror and disgust on her face as he removed his tighty-whiteys and made like an ancient Olympian, minus the toned physique
Sports Illustrated senior writer Michael Silver sounds off weekly on SI.com.