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Natalie Coughlin
Slide show: UC Berkeley sophomore Natalie Coughlin

Berkeley's Natalie Coughlin: destined to swim
4 April 2002

By Jeffery Kahn, Public Affairs

BERKELEY -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 treading water, not 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 the physical limits of just how fast a woman swimmer can torpedo through the water.

Mortals cannot 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; the setting of 24 American records since coming to Cal in 2001; NCAA swimmer of the year for 2000 and again in 2001; Pac-10 swimmer of the year; first in every race she entered at the 2002 NCAA championships while becoming the 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," '84 Olympic gold medal swimmer Rowdy Gaines told the magazine.

Cal woman's swimming coach Teri McKeever has had many a big fish in her program. In fact, she has helped develop 28 All-American swimmers during her decade here including the two prior Pacific-10 Conference Swimmers of the Year - Marylyn Chiang (1999) and Haley Cope (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. Her expectations of herself are very high. She is consistent in her dedication. This is a young lady willing to be dedicated for an extended period of time."

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

Related 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. And 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. That's why so many kids dropout, why so many swimmers burnout. You can't back off from the 30 hours of week this takes. Back off and you will be left in the wake."

Within the Cal community, Coughlin does not see herself as being exceptionally disciplined or unusually hard-working. She acknowledges that it is hard when friends stay out late and she must go home in order to be up-and-at-'em at 5 a.m. A psychology major with good grades — she particularly likes her current "Brain, Mind, & Behavior" class taught by professor David Presti — Coughlin admits it is a challenge to catch up with class material after being away at a swim competition.

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

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 — might 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, the 2004 Olympics are coming up, Coughlin is more dominant than ever, and the expectations again are ramping up.

"The pressure is hard and some times it is not fair. No matter what I do," said Coughlin, "I can't meet everybody's expectations. And the celebrity — 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."