Ye Shiwen, Katie Ledecky, Ruta Meilutyte and Missy Franklin – all teenagers, and all already Olympic champions.
American Katie and Lithuania’s Ruta, both 15, made their breakthrough at the London Games with a gold medal each. China’s Shiwen, 16, collected two, while, US darling Missy, the oldest of the quartet at 17, plundered four – the same number as Michael Phelps.
The Aquatics Centre was a playground for teenage girls to make a big splash at the 2012 Games, but swimming great and 12-time Olympic medallist, Natalie Coughlin, was not taken by surprise.
Speaking to The New Paper, the 29-year-old American said: “It has been the norm for a long time. It’s not that unusual that younger swimmers are winning and breaking world records – I was 19 when I broke my first world record.
“Swimming is just one of the sports where you can have big drops in time during that age and breakthroughs in competitions because of years and years of training. I really don’t think it’s that unusual.
“Breaking world records at 15 is very unusual, but look at Missy – not many 17-year-olds are 1.85m tall. She’s been blessed with some physical traits and that’s what you get when you combine that with years and years of hard training and dedication.”
Coughlin held court at the Omega House in Soho, London last Tuesday.
She is an ambassador for the luxury watch brand and it is no surprise, when you consider her resume.
In 2002, she became the first woman to go under a minute for the 100 metres backstroke when she clocked 59.58 seconds at the US National Swimming Championships.
She won six gold medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics – the first American woman to do so, and tied Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres for most career Olympic medals by an American woman with 12 when she was part of the American team that won a bronze in the 4x100m freestyle relay at the London Games.
Coughlin also spoke about the retirement of Phelps, whom she describes as a “younger brother”.
While he is walking away from competitive swimming, she is undecided about her own future.
“I am still trying to decide what the future holds for me. I am not necessarily going to retire, I love swimming and fortunately I love the day-to-day training. That’s the hardest part – waking up very early in the morning and pushing through that physical training,” she said.
“I need to have a long talk with my coach and my family and we’ll decide what we’re going to do.” While former Russian Olympic champion Alexander Popov said he struggled to fill the void when he retired, Coughlin does not envisage a similar problem when she does decide to call time on her career.
She said: “After Beijing I took a year-and-a-half off swimming and not being tied to a schedule was actually very, very nice.
“I still trained a bit, I wasn’t swimming but I was running and lifting weights. I stayed physically fit and I’ll probably do that for the rest of my life. “I missed swimming but I was okay without it. At this point I really can’t make a decision and there’s no reason to.”
Coughlin is married to Ethan Hall, who is a swimming coach. They plan to open a swim school when she is done with competition.
She said: “It’s a sport that has given me so much and been part of my life for so long. It’ll be hard to remove it from my life completely.”
The American dominance in swimming looks set to be challenged like never before at the Rio Olympics in 2016, especially with Phelps no longer around.
China’s growing strength, along with the fact that more and more countries are churning out talent – including smaller nations like Lithuania – suggests the US will face a big challenge.
Ironically, America have a hand in the development of such talent, because young swimmers from around the world revel in the US collegiate system, flourishing in the world-class swimming programme. Some may say the Americans are shooting themselves in the foot, but Coughlin has no problem with such an open system.
“Anytime you improve the overall competition, you improve yourself,” she said.
“As long as you are continually being pushed, it will make everyone better. For instance, you look at the great rivalry between Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, them both being so successful only made them better, and made them train harder.
“That’s how it made them achieve their goals.” firstname.lastname@example.org
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