Destined to swim

By Jeffery Kahn, Public Affairs


Natalie Coughlin

Sophomore Natalie Couglin
Nobah Berger photo

10 April 2002 | Scooting across campus, Cal sophomore swimming phenom Natalie Coughlin eyed a pod of prospective students touring the campus.

“I just don’t get it,” said Coughlin, slipping through the crowd. “Some of these kids are still in junior high and they already know where they want to go to school — even what they want to do in life. Me, when I was growing up, I wanted to be a doctor. But I grew out of that. No, even now, I really don’t know what I want to do.”

Coughlin (pronounced COG-lin) is not exactly dog-paddling through life. From the time she first hit the water as a 10-month-old baby in her parents’ Vallejo pool, first entered swim meets at the tender age of six, and first won state and national races at 13, Coughlin has been destined to swim.\ This past year, the world took notice as the 19-year-old repeatedly redefined just how fast a woman swimmer can torpedo through the water.

‘The complete package’
Few mortals can hold their breath long enough to complete a reading of Coughlin’s accomplishments and accolades. In abridged form, they include: world record times in the 100-meter backstroke and the 200-meter backstroke; 24 American records since coming to Cal in 2001; NCAA swimmer of the year for 2000 and 2001; Pac-10 swimmer of the year; first place in every race she entered at the 2002 NCAA championships and a record there as first woman to break 50 seconds in the 100-yard backstroke (drowning her own national record for the seventh time this year); and one of five finalists for the Sullivan Award, honoring America’s top amateur athlete.

Sports Illustrated spotlighted Coughlin in a recent issue, dubbing her “the future of U.S. swimming.”
“I haven’t seen anyone else like her, not even Ian Thorpe.… Put her in any event, and she might win it,” 1984 Olympic gold medal swimmer Rowdy Gaines told the magazine.

Cal women’s swimming coach Teri McKeever has mentored 28 All-American swimmers during her decade here — including the two prior Pac-10 Conference swimmers of the year (Marylyn Chiang in 1999 and Haley Cope in 2000). She calls Coughlin “the complete package.”

“This is a great example of the Cal student athlete,” said McKeever. “There is a willingness to make championship decisions in the pool and out — like balancing her social and academic demands. Natalie has made appropriate choices that allow her to reach her full potential.”

The swim coach said Coughlin’s expectations of herself are very high. “This is a young lady willing to be dedicated for an extended period of time.”

Hour by hour
A day in the life of Natalie Coughlin is a long day.

Said Coughlin: “The team is in the water at 5:45 a.m. and we work out for two hours. Then, we work out again for at least three hours in the afternoon — swimming, running, yoga, weights.

“There are not many sports where you are doing two practices a day; we have no off-season in this sport. There are always meets, never a time of year when you can just do conditioning. One whole week without training is huge; for me, it sets me way back.”

The demands of the sport cause many swimmers to burn out, Coughlin said. “You can’t back off from the 30 hours of week this takes. Back off and you will be left in the wake.”

Despite her rigorous schedule, Coughlin doesn’t see herself as unusually hard working or exceptionally disciplined. It’s hard, she says, when friends stay out late and she must go home in order to be up-and-at-’em by 5. A psychology major with good grades (she particularly likes her current class on “Brain, Mind and Behavior”), it’s a challenge to catch up with her studies after being away at a swim competition.

Modest and mature beyond her years, “You just have to do the work,” she says.

Great expectations
To quote Sports Illustrated, Coughlin wins many college races in “absurdly easy fashion.”

Expectations — what others expect from her and what she demands of herself — may be this 19-year-old’s most daunting obstacle. Three years ago, on pace to qualify for the 2000 Olympics, she injured her shoulder and, despite months of arduous rehab, just missed qualifying for the Games. Now, with the 2004 Olympics on the horizon, Coughlin is a swimmer to be reckoned with, and expectations are ramping up again.

“The pressure is hard and sometimes it is not fair,” said Coughlin. “No matter what I do, I can’t meet everybody’s expectations.

“And the celebrity,” she added, “it can be a pain. But there is the other side to all this attention, too. I guess it means I must be doing something right.”


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Copyright 2002, The Regents of the University of California.
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