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Cal's Natalie Coughlin
Cal's Natalie Coughlin and her number one admirer, Oski  (Jeffery Kahn photos)

Natalie Coughlin, five Olympic medals in hand, returns and learns to swim in the spotlight

– Fresh from her Olympic triumphs and direct from New York, where she appeared on the Dave Letterman and Today shows, the pride of Cal returned to campus Wednesday morning. Natalie Coughlin, a natural in the water who has had to learn how to tolerate the celebrity spotlight, was welcomed back by an ebullient Cal Straw Hat Band and a large and adoring press corps.

Cal women's swim coach Teri McKeever was at her side during the press conference, as she was throughout Coughlin's career here. McKeever, who in Athens became the first female U.S. Olympic swim coach, pointed out that Coughlin had remained a Cal student this past year while concurrently preparing for the Olympics. Coughlin (and McKeever) were second-guessed by many experts about this; conventional wisdom had it that the Olympics and Coughlin's professional career came first, and that being a Cal student would get in the way. At the Olympics, Coughlin won five medals, including two golds. No American woman has ever won more medals.

"It just goes to show you," said McKeever, "that when you listen to your heart, good things can happen. Natalie gave up a lot of endorsement money by staying in school. But this was never about the money."

Coughlin, who has maintained better than a 3.0 grade point average, is a psychology major. She is about 15 units short of a degree. After taking a semester off, she said she plans to finish her academic program during spring semester. And in the meantime, that endorsement deal that she would not and could not sign while swimming for Cal has come her way. Coughlin has inked a deal with Speedo, one of that gives five percent of her earnings to the Cal swim team.

The fame that earned Coughlin the Speedo contract has its price. Modest by nature, she confessed her discomfort with being a public persona: "I spent a lot of time in New York in the past week. It was very surprising to be recognized in restaurants and on the street. People pointing at me on the street is very weird." Topping that, said a mortified Coughlin, on two separate plane flights "the flight attendants felt the need to announce that I was on board. At the baggage area, there were 100 people staring at me. Getting my bags took forever!"

Coughlin does her best to please admirers. Cal band members lined up for her autograph, and she signed one straw hat after another until being hauled away for television interviews. Anticipating that the media would want to photograph her five medals, she had brought them to the press conference. Asked to put all five around her neck, she drew the line. "I've never done that," she said. "No. One at a time is just fine."

The 22-year-old athlete was asked what she planned to do now that the Olympics are over. Her response: Swim, and swim some more.

Three weeks from now, starting on October 7, the world championships begin in Indianapolis. Coughlin will be there. After October, she said, "I'm going to take a couple of months off, and for me, that represents a really long time. Right now, I just want to be at home and relax."

Coughlin does not plan to make dry land a way of life. "No, I am not retiring," she said. "I plan to swim at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. After all, I'm still improving."

Natalie Coughlin and Teri McKeever Natalie Coughlin and Cal women's swim coach Teri McKeever