American swimmer Natalie Coughlin, a 12-time Olympic medalist who missed qualifying for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, says she was surprised at the American decision to leave Amanda Weir out of the finals foursome in the women’s 400 free relay that earned a silver medal earlier this week.
“I was really, really surprised (Weir) wasn’t on the relay,” Coughlin said to the Gwinnett Daily Post. “And this is in no way disparaging the people who were on the relay. The four girls who were on the night relay did a fantastic job and got a silver medal. Relays are always a really touchy subject because they are at the coaches’ discretion. Nothing in our swimming by-laws says that if you’re in this place at Trials you are on the night relay. There’s really nothing like that.
“However, Amanda’s entire season has clearly showed she earned that spot. The prelims, the semifinals and the finals at Olympic Trials, her leadoff swim (in the Olympics) were consistently fast and should have got her that spot. … I was texting with her and just assumed she was on the night relay. There was no doubt in my mind. As someone who’s been there and knows the process, Amanda earned that spot and proved her worth. And she’s someone who’s been there numerous times and has that experience. She won her first (Olympic) medal in 2004 alongside me in Athens.”
Coughlin swam with Weir at the 2004 and 2012 Olympic Games. In 2012, both swimmers raced on the prelims 400 free relay, and neither were chosen for finals – Coughlin had the fastest split, but Lia Neal, who was only two-tenths back despite leading off; and Allison Schmitt, who was a tenth slower than Coughlin, were chosen instead. That relay earned a bronze medal.
At the 2004 Olympics, Coughlin swam the leadoff leg in the final of the women’s 800 free relay – where even without the benefit of a relay start she had the fastest American split. Coughlin didn’t swim that race at the 2004 Olympic Trials. In effect, in 2004 in the 800 free relay, Coughlin was in the same position that Dana Vollmer was this year.
On the first morning of competition, Weir led off Team USA’s second-qualifying 400 free relay with a split of 53.60. When adjusted for reaction times, as is the tradition to discourage risky exchanges in prelims, here’s how the “from the blocks” times stacked up:
- Weir – 52.86
- Lia Neal – 53.34
- Allison Schmitt – 53.21
- Katie Ledecky – 52.61
Those results gave clear indication that Ledecky had earned a spot in the finals to swim alongside Abbey Weitzeil and Simone Manuel, who finished in 1st and 2nd place, respectively, in the 100 free at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials.
That left only one spot available – and based on prelims swims, that spot seemed destined for Weir. Instead, the swim went to another American veteran, Dana Vollmer, who happens to train with the same California Aquatics as Coughlin does.
Vollmer wound up swimming a time of 53.18 on a reaction of .21, for a net from-the-blocks time of 52.97 – about a tenth slower than Weir swam in prelims.
“I was shocked,” Weir said. “I immediately started crying. I was so mad and upset because I really was shocked. I thought if I had gone 54 (seconds) flat or even 54 high, they may put Dana on (the relay), but not with my season best and not being faster than I did at Trials. I was emotional for sure, not angry or disrespectful. That’s not how I operate. … It took awhile to put the pieces together and I still don’t have that much information on (the coaches’) thought process. If you put it down on paper, I can’t make any sense of it.”
“It made me think there’s one of two things going on here,” Weir continued. “One was after the prelims session and maybe Australia didn’t have as great of a race as we thought they were going to. Going into the meet, that was the biggest challenge and on paper we were going to be fighting just to get any medal. After Australia’s swim, maybe they got that taste of gold. If we have the swims of our life, maybe it can happen. I worry that the taste for gold clouded the decisions of the people in charge at the expense of the integrity of our Olympic Trials and why our sport is fair. And with the way everything happened was odd. Nobody came down to my warm-down pool. Normally a coach would come over to me and speak about my race. … None of that happened.
“I never got any feedback from coaches. All eight of them went into a huddle, plus the national team director, and talked for 25 minutes. They never asked me how I felt, if I could go faster. Of course I would have said yes because it was the best-feeling swim I’ve had in 10 years. It makes me think it was already decided a long time ago the way it happened.”
Weir will still receive a silver medal from her prelims swim, and the Americans were about a second away from gold or bronze, so the decision likely didn’t have much impact on the final outcome. Still, there’s a certain honor that comes from actually swimming on the relay in the finals that gets a chance to stand on the podium, and that’s where Weir feels robbed.
- See the Gwinnett Daily article for more comments, including those from Weir’s long-time coach, and father-in-law, Chris Davis; and National Team Director, Frank Busch.