Amanda Beard checks the scoreboard for her time after swimming in a semifinal… (Al Bello / Getty Images )
OMAHA -- This is a different kind of endurance swim, this race to hold off a new generation.
Natalie Coughlin, Amanda Beard and Dara Torres have won a total of 30 Olympic medals. The next three days will determine whether — for the first time since 1976 — the United States will field a team with none of those three women on it.
Coughlin and Beard staved off elimination at the U.S. Olympic trials Friday night. Those two veterans return Saturday night, with Torres swimming Sunday, to the applause of an audience that does not need a program to identify them.
"It's kind of a lonely sport," said Beard, 30, citing the support every four years for a sport in which she has trained for 26 years. "We really appreciate the love and attention we get at events like this."
Coughlin, 29, appeared in the greatest danger of an early checkout, in a week in which she already had failed to make the team in the 100-meter backstroke and the 100 butterfly. With eight spots available in Saturday's final of the 100 freestyle, she squeaked into the field with the seventh-best time.
"Good enough," she said.
That was a comment she would not have made four years ago, or eight. Coughlin has won 11 Olympic medals, one shy of Jenny Thompson's record, and her personal website is frank about her goal: "With plans to compete in the London 2012 Olympics, Natalie would have the opportunity to become the most decorated American female swimmer of all time."
Coughlin is beloved among the U.S. swimmers. Missy Franklin, 17, who appears far more likely than Coughlin to make the team in the 100 free, said she was delighted that Coughlin advanced.
"I am so happy to be able to race her again," Franklin said.
The two swimmers shared a light moment Friday night.
"I asked to use her kickboard," Franklin said. "She has had her kickboard longer than I have been swimming."
It is with that positive spirit that Coughlin said she has approached what has been a less-than-positive week.
"I'm actually pretty calm," she said. "There is stress, but what I have been saying for the last three years is true: This is all icing on the cake."
So no despair if she doesn't make the Olympic team?
"If I don't, I don't," she said. "Life will go on. That's why you don't see me freaking out.
"After the backstroke, a lot of people expected me to have some big hissy fit. That was a little offensive. It's just a race."
U.S. women's national team coach Teri McKeever, who coached Coughlin at California, said she had watched her grow from "a broken little girl" on the pool deck a dozen years ago to a confident woman whose interests range from raising chickens to appearing on "Dancing with the Stars."
"In a lot of ways, we've grown up together in this sport," McKeever said.
Beard will swim Saturday in the finals of the 200 breaststroke, in which the next-youngest competitor is 25 and the rest are no older than 21. Torres, 45, is set for the 50 freestyle, with preliminary heats Sunday.
Did Coughlin believe it keeps getting harder to keep up with the kids?
"No — I mean, yes," she said. "That's the nature of the sport."