- Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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OMAHA, Neb. -- Natalie Coughlin's competitive Olympic career will formally end on the first day of the London Games, but there's little doubt she'll transition to unofficial chef de mission for the swim team.
The widely admired 29-year-old veteran slipped into the last 4x100-meter freestyle relay slot by qualifying sixth in the individual 100 Saturday night. After falling short in the 100 backstroke and butterfly, this was her last shootout. Teams can bring as many as six swimmers and often race a different quartet in preliminary heats than they do at night, at the coaches' discretion.
"This isn't the meet I visualized or anticipated going into this year or even into this quadrennium, but right now I couldn't be happier," Coughlin said, pushing her long hair back over her shoulders as she spoke to a large group of reporters immediately after the race.
Swimming the relay on July 28 -- heats are the morning after the Opening Ceremony, and the final is that night -- will be "awesome, a huge honor," she said. "And then I'll be done, and I'll be there to support my teammates and the rest of Team USA, and I think that will be my bigger role at this Olympics."
Coughlin started in Lane 1 on Saturday, but that wasn't quite as much of a disadvantage as it usually is because she had an open lane next to her in the 10-lane pool. "I knew if I wanted to swim well, I had to be out fast," Coughlin said. "I just relied on my turn and tried to hang on the best I could in the last 35 meters. I got it done."
She theorized that she had over-trained this year, and called the buzz about whether she would surpass the women's U.S. Olympic medal record of 11 jointly held by swimmers Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres "a bit distracting," but said she'd love to get No. 12 to move into a three-way tie.
"My emotions this week have been pretty much in check," she said. "I definitely had those moments of panic, but that was two or three weeks ago. The waiting is the hardest part. During taper, when you can't do anything except think about your swim, drives me insane. I love being busy. To only think about this meet is horrible.
"Now that I know what the next four weeks are going to look like, what I'm training for, what to expect, I am much more at ease and I think I'll be better."