John Naber ranks among history’s great backstrokers. With his background in media broadcasting no real surprise he was chosen to be the U.S. Olympic Trials master of ceremonies. It seems some of his banter, however, rubbed people the wrong way. Apparently a lot of them. Since I wasn’t there I can’t really comment on this, though my natural inclination is to give people the benefit of doubt and assume they’re not trying to be nasty. For example one quote which was repeatedly used by the blogging community was the question he asked Natalie Coughlin, “What does it feel like to lose to a forty one year old?” It took a little digging to find out her answer but it evidently was a terse “That’s not a nice question” and an end to the interview. If true that’s a very interesting response. Leaving out the obvious reference to Dara Torres the question was a pretty basic variation of the standard “What does it feel like to lose” probe every champion faces when finally beaten. For example Brendan Hansen had a full blown press conference to answer this very thing after failing to qualify in his favorite event the 200 breast. A consummate professional Hansen handled it all with aplomb. He admitted he had an inexplicably bad race and then gave out the equally standard reply – praising the winner (or in his unfortunate case, the winners) as tremendous athletes and champions in their own right and declaring there was no shame in losing to such great competitors.
Coughlin has certainly shown over the years she’s at least Hansen’s equal in public relations. And yes, even Coughlin loses on rare occasion. So why was she offended? She must have faced this question before. Please allow me to speculate. I think Naber created the 'nastiness' by throwing in “... by a forty one year old” and in doing so moved the question’s emphasis from Natalie losing to Dara Torres winning. In a single, unmistakable gesture, Naber clearly indicated where he thought was the real story of the race was – Torres absolutely phenomenal, unprecedented swim – and was prodding Natalie to talk about Dara. I believe he wanted her to say what a giant she was in the sport and how inspiring to everyone around her, including the great Natalie Coughlin herself. That is, Naber wanted her to give the standard response. It was the only answer she could give standing there in front of thousands, knowing they would be teammates in Beijing, and even sharing some sponsors with her. But it didn’t happen did it? Why not? Because I think Natalie Coughlin, faced with an instantaneous decision, couldn’t bring herself to say those words. And that’s where the “that’s not a nice question” came from. She seems to be sure Naber, another great individual gold medalist, would know she’d be reluctant to praise Torres. But Naber went ahead and asked anyways. She was right – it wasn’t nice. But it was ever so revealing.