Phelps, Coughlin star in Columbus

Associated Press  |  Last updated March 11, 2012
Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin worked harder after their races than they did in the pool. Both Olympic gold medalists set meet records and easily won their events at the Columbus Grand Prix on Saturday night. When they were done competing, they spent a long time signing caps, T-shirts, programs and pieces of scrap paper for a steady stream of young fans lined up along a metal railing some 10 feet above the deck at Ohio State's McCorkle Aquatic Pavilion. Phelps, the winner of 14 gold medals, knows it's all part of the job. ''It's awesome that if you would have had this meet eight years ago you wouldn't have had half this many people here,'' Phelps said after posting the fastest time in the world this year in the 200 butterfly. ''There are a ton of people who are out here supporting us. That's something that is amazing. People are excited to come out and watch us swim. It just shows that the sport is growing.'' Phelps recognizes his success on the world stage has made him the object of adulation by the youngest fans. And he accepts his responsibility by endlessly posing for photos, signing autographs and shaking hands. ''We try to sneak out side doors here and there,'' he conceded. ''But it's good. It's fun. The coolest thing is that every time I pop up out of the water, I hear a bunch of little girls or little guys screaming my name. It's kind of cool to see how excited they are. They're definitely out here having fun.'' Coughlin, a winner of three golds, patiently signed dozens of objects tossed her way after she, like Phelps, set a meet record for the second night in a row when she won the 100 backstroke in 1:00.81. She was asked if the Olympics this summer in London might be her last. ''Going into Beijing I wasn't sure if that was going to be my last Olympics. And then a couple of months before I was thinking about it and I decided I wasn't ready to retire,'' said Coughlin, who will turn 30 at the end of the summer. ''I don't know if I'm ready to retire yet. But whatever happens this summer in Omaha (at the trials) and in London, I'll definitely take another long break. Whether it's forever or just for a short period, I'm not really sure.'' Then she uncapped her permanent marker and went back to signing autographs. Other US Olympians had a big night as well. Christine Magnuson, who took silver in the 100 fly in 2008, raced to a meet record of 25.06 seconds in the 50 freestyle. ''I feel the best I have in two years -- and now is the time to feel that way,'' she said. ''I can't help but think that that's a good sign for me right now.'' But not every elite swimmer was happy. Matt Grevers, who won silver in the 100 backstroke in Beijing, had difficulty building up much speed during training recently. So he shook things up by going out as quickly as possible in the 100 back in Columbus -- and had difficulty on the return trip. He placed second to David Plummer in a time of 53.79 seconds but wasn't pleased with his performance. ''My last five 100 backs have all been real good. I jump out of the water, I feel energized about the event,'' he said. ''This one I could barely see. I was so oxygen-deprived there were like black spots in my vision. I haven't done that in a while. It's just not smart racing. So I kind of swapped smarts for training. It's great to see I can go out that fast, but 28.0 (seconds) on the second 50 is pretty much garbage for me.'' Phelps, a winner of a record eight golds in Beijing, continues to tinker with his training. He's coming off three weeks of altitude training in Colorado and is experimenting. ''We haven't done too much work in finishing the 200 fly,'' he said. ''We're just trying to sort of get my stroke back and I think we finally found that. Now it's time to sort of fine-tune some things.'' The next big date on his schedule is Monday -- when he shaves off the somewhat scraggly beard he's been growing. He's not doing it to make himself more streamlined in the water. Instead, it's for a photo shoot that day. He's OK with saying goodbye to his facial hair. ''It just gets annoying now. It's past the point where I like it,'' he said with a grin. ''It itches too much.'' Allison Schmitt, who won a bronze in Beijing, has trained with Phelps as part of swim teams in Baltimore and Ann Arbor, Mich. After winning the 400 free in 4:08.88 on Saturday night, she said her training partner hasn't been changed dramatically by his worldwide celebrity. ''He's one of the best athletes in the world in the sport and to be able to train with him every day and joke around with him, it's a lot of fun,'' she said. ''He's just another ordinary guy. It's kind of cool when you're watching him swim and he's got a meet where he breaks records or wins by body lengths. Yet he's just another ordinary guy.'' Phelps and Coughlin are each scheduled to compete in two events on Sunday, the final day of competition in Columbus.
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