U.S. has big night despite Phelps' bronze

ATHENS, Greece -- No one on the U.S. Olympic swimming team would admit it, of course, but the men and women of one of the world's aquatic superpowers were dragging a bit after Sunday's not-so-dominant performances and a haul of medals made of silver and bronze but not gold.

What they needed Monday night under the suddenly breezy, comfortable conditions sweeping across Greece was a pair of breezy personalities with killer swimming instincts standing on gold medal podiums wearing laurel wreaths on their regal heads.

And that is precisely what the U.S. was granted, courtesy of the wise-cracking, smirking Aaron Peirsol and the radiant, classy Natalie Coughlin -- two young American Olympians who fulfill every standard of an athletic role model and fill every opponent with a tinge of fear.

Peirsol, Monday's men's 100-meter backstroke Olympic champion, and Coughlin, the new 100-meter women's backstroke gold medalist, are Olympians who conducted themselves as if this were an experience they have lived before, being a champion. First and foremost, they prevailed against the world's premier opponents in their events as presumptive champions. They met expectation, in other words, which is not easy.

But both also brought an unrehearsed, even-keeled demeanor to the post-race scene, not always easy in an environment where you compete, warm-down in a side pool to protect your physical well being, spend excessive time in drug testing rooms, and then face a teeming pack of media from around the world armed with microphones, lights, cameras and irrelevant questions.

Despite enjoying parallel experiences Monday, Coughlin and Peirsol are different personalities, to be sure.

Peirsol, 21, is a self-described California beach guy -- despite migrating to the University of Texas -- who likes sand in his toes and a head of hair that does whatever it desires.

Coughlin, 22 next Monday, is a Cal-Berkeley psychology major, a bit buttoned-down, who speaks in measured sentences and entertains herself back home by trying challenging, new recipes in her kitchen.

On a night when American teen Michael Phelps earned a bronze medal against two of the greatest freestyle swimmers in history -- ending Phelps' quest for seven Olympic gold medals -- Peirsol and Coughlin prevailed at just the right place and time.

In addition to medal color, they shared a few moments of uncertainty about how, precisely, you react to the moment when it really happens, when you win in the Olympics.

Peirsol, who upstaged mentor and defending champion Lenny Krayzelburg, fourth on Monday, said he was a bit unsure about what to do after hitting the wall and turning around to eye the digital Swatch timing board. He would eventually see a time of 54.06 seconds, well off Krayzelburg's world record from 1999 of 53.60, and slower than the time of 53.72 that Krayzelburg recorded to defeat Peirsol for the Olympic title in 2000.

"I've made that mistake before, where I've looked up and thought I had won and I didn't," said Peirsol, who still awaits his signature race, the 200 backstroke, in which he set the world record in July at the Olympic trials in Long Beach. "I'd seen that I had won it, and it was a great relief."

Coughlin said she was able to activate only about 50 percent of her capacity for joy after touching the wall.

"It was about half and half," said Coughlin, one of the most dominant collegiate swimmers of her era who endured a nightmare event in 2003 when she was ill with a virus at the World Championships in Barcelona. "But after the awards ceremony, and then seeing my family and how excited they were, and hearing the (American) anthem, that's when it was pure joy."

Stanford swimmer and NCAA champion Markus Rogan, competing here for his native Austria, said he knew friend and rival Peirsol was likely to be in top form because he stuck with his ritual of showing up as late as possible ahead of the event.

"He was as calm as ever," said Rogan, the silver medalist with a time of 54.35. "You come to the ready (waiting) room and, no matter how late you are, Aaron's not there."

Peirsol pushed the limits in and out of the pool by being "as late as you can get (pre-race) without getting into real trouble."

Coughlin is hoping trouble stays in her past as she looks forward to the 100 freestyle later this week and three women's relays in which she is committed to contributing to medal-winning efforts.

"I worked really hard this year," Coughlin said later. "From January on, I really committed myself to changing my stroke, and it really paid off. No matter what happens, I will always have an Olympic gold medal."

Coughlin eventually moved the needle on her emotional meter all the way to 100 percent.

"This is something every kids dreams about when they are 6 years old," she said. "They have no idea how it is going to happen, but they believe. I was one of those kids."