Jul 28 12 in '12: London hopeful Coughlin

By Brandon Penny | July 28, 2010, 11:35 a.m. (ET)
The 12 in ’12 series celebrates the fact that the London 2012 Olympic Games are just two years away.  The series previews 12 athletes who have proven themselves as true competitors in past Games and look to win medals for Team USA in London. The series kicks off with a gold medalist swimmer from the Athens and Beijing Games, Natalie Coughlin. 
 
 

Three Olympic gold medals.  Four Olympic silver medals.  Four Olympic bronze medals.

As if these Olympic accomplishments are not reason enough to watch Natalie Coughlin at the London 2012 Olympic Games, here is yet another: She only needs two more medals to become the most-decorated American female athlete in Olympic history, and is more than capable of doing that in two years.

Winning one more medal would tie Coughlin with Olympic greats Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres as being the most-decorated female Olympic swimmers, and a second medal would make her the most-decorated female swimmer ever, as well as most-decorated American female athlete.  In almost exactly two years’ time, Coughlin has the potential to rewrite Olympic history.

 
Coughlin

Athens, 2004
  
“In 2000, I was so close to making the [Olympic] team and yet so far,” Coughlin said.  “It’s such a weird thing for swimming to choose our team so close to the Olympics, because it’s so tough to turn around your mental attitude in six weeks, from just qualifying for the Olympics to actually winning a medal.”
 
The California native did make the team in 2004 and headed to the Athens Olympic Games a few short weeks later with one goal in mind: to win the 100-meter backstroke.  She did indeed win that race, earning her first individual Olympic gold and following in the strokes of a list of eight well-known American women who had dominated that event at previous Olympic Games. 
 
“What I remember about the 100 back was just telling myself over and over seconds before the race was that no matter what happens, it’ll be over in a few seconds and life will still go on,” Coughlin said.  “My attitude in that race was just “fly and die,” and I did!”
 
Looking back, Coughlin remembers the medal ceremony for that race as the most nerve-wracking one of her Olympic career.  “When I realized that I had won and I realized at that moment how many people around the world were watching me on television, I was really nervous,” Coughlin said.  “And I was worried if I looked fine.”
 
One gold wasn’t enough for Coughlin, who competed in four more events in Athens and managed to take home medals in all of them, making her the most-decorated female athlete at those Games.  One can only imagine that an athlete’s first individual gold medal would be their most gratifying race, but not for Coughlin.
 
“I would say the 800 freestyle relay was my favorite race,” Coughlin said.  “The entire thing was a celebration – the start of the race to the finish to the awards ceremony, we were all so proud of ourselves and so happy.”
 
She may remember erasing that world record, and the 100 back awards ceremony, but the rest of Coughlin’s first Games is a blur to her now.  “It was really, really weird because I have this ridiculously good memory,” said Coughlin.  “But for some reason I was in a dreamlike state when I was there and it’s all so fuzzy.”
 
 

Beijing, 2008

Four years later, Coughlin was determined to remember her Olympic experience and soak in all that the Games had to offer.  And she was able to do that after her performance in Athens took the pressure off of her. 

“It was a very different approach going into Beijing than going into Athens,” said Coughlin.  “I just remember before the Athens Games it was like, ‘Well, she’s one of the best college swimmers of all time,’ but you’re not validated as a swimmer until you have an Olympic gold.  But I had that monkey off my back going into Beijing.” 

She had the support of the nation and the eyes of the globe on her as she headed to Beijing to wow the swimming world once more.  Her plans to compete in the same five races as Athens came with expectations to medal in all five events once again.  But what Coughlin herself never expected was the possibility to compete in a sixth race.

"I was just kind of messing around with the 200 IM at a couple meets over the summer,” Coughlin said.  “I ended up breaking the American record and got talked into doing it at (Olympic) Trials even though I really didn’t think I had any room in my schedule to accommodate it.  So I did it at Olympic Trials, actually qualified in it, and I didn’t think I was gonna do it at the Olympics, but my coach, Teri McKeever and head coach, Mark Schubert, talked me into it.”

Six events would mean that Coughlin had a chance to make history.  No American female athlete had ever won six medals in a single Games before, and with the success she had in the past there was no reason why Coughlin wouldn’t be able to.  Those six medals also made her the most-decorated female at those Games.

“Honest to God that was not on my mind at all,” Coughlin said.  “I didn’t even really think I was in six events, and it wasn’t until after my medal in the 200 IM and my medal in the 100 free that I was like, ‘Oh my God, I really have a shot at getting six medals in one Olympics.’  It didn’t even approach my mindset, which is probably why I was so successful.”

En route to winning those record-breaking six medals, Coughlin accomplished yet another feat.  She became the first woman in Olympic history to defend her title in the 100 back.  As grand as an achievement as that is, the more memorable part of that race just might be Coughlin’s bleeding lip seen on post-race interviews.

“I have plenty of blood blisters – it looks like I’m wearing red lipstick,” Coughlin said.  “My coach, when I was 11 years old, told me that if you bite on your lip, your lip will hurt and you won’t feel your legs.”

Is this the secret of an Olympic champion or a swimmer’s myth?

“It’s the stupidest thing ever – I did it and now it’s just a horrible bad habit that I can’t get rid of,” Coughlin said.  “It makes me look ridiculous and I don’t think it helps but I really can’t get it out of my system.”

 

Post-Beijing

“I wanted to experience what my life would be like away from the pool, because I had been competing for 21 years.”
 
That’s right – Coughlin stopped swimming altogether after the Beijing Games.
 
Don’t worry though – she finally returned to the pool this past January, after not touching the water for close to 18 months.
 
Oddly enough, Coughlin gained more recognition out of the pool when she signed on to compete on Season Nine of the reality television show “Dancing with the Stars,” last fall.  Though the sport and the exposure were new to Coughlin, she did not hesitate to join the show.
 
“I’ve wanted to dance my entire life,” Coughlin said.  “Knowing what a ‘Type A’ personality I am, that’s kinda the way I need to do it.  I need to do it in front of people, hold myself accountable and train eight hours a day in a dance studio at the highest level possible.
 
Coughlin was an immediate hit on the show with her humble, charismatic personality and, of course, her impressive dancing skills.  While she continued to improve week after week on the show, her dancing career proved to be short-lived compared to her swimming career.  After learning the salsa, quickstep, rumba, bolero and Paso doble, she unexpectedly was kicked off the show in her fifth week.
 
“It was one of those things that it was so weird to have it out of your control,” Coughlin said.  “To have half of it be your performance, then half of it be a popularity vote - that’s something that swimmers don’t have to deal with.  The whole popularity thing was weird, and the whole reality TV portion of it was strange.”
 
Coughlin said she would return to the show in a heartbeat.  She still talks to some of her fellow celebrity castmates, mainly “Entourage” actress Debi Mazar, as well as the show’s professional dancers, including her partner, Alec Mazo, and his wife Edyta Sliwinska.  Coughlin has tried to keep dancing in her life by starting a ballet class with her University of California, Berkeley swim team.
 
She graduated from UC Berkeley in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, but continues to train with her college team.  “I have a great situation that I could still train with a college team,” Coughlin said.  “I have a wonderful relationship with Teri McKeever and with the University, and it’s right by where I grew up, so it’s the perfect situation.
 
Now that she’s back with her ‘Cal’ team, Coughlin is training as hard as ever and has quickly managed to get her times close to what they were in Beijing.  The veteran said she’s feeling prepared for USA Swimming National Championships, Aug. 3-7, in Irvine, Calif., where she will need to do well in order to qualify for Pan Pacific Championships, as well as the 2011 FINA World Championships.
 
These meets are crucial for Coughlin to prove that she’s still at the top of her game and will be a force to be reckoned with at her ultimate destination – London 2012.  “That’s why I’m training right now,” Coughlin said.  “If it wasn’t for London, I don’t think I’d be back in the water.”
 
As far as the small amount of time she’ll have away from the pool at the Games, Coughlin is most looking forward to being able to speak her own language.  “As much as I love experiencing different languages and cultures, there is something nice about it being an English-speaking country,” said Coughlin.  “Trust me, it’s my favorite game when I go travel, learn 10 words and see how far that gets me – but it is easy when they speak English.”
 
Coughlin’s teammates at ‘Cal,' as well as the USA Swimming coaches, swimmers, and staff could not be more excited to see her back in the water, ready and able to continue competing.
 
“As a veteran of the U.S. National team, Natalie is a leader both in and out of the pool and we look forward to seeing her continue in the sport through 2012,” said Schubert, USA Swimming’s National Team head coach and general manager. 
 
Entering these Games with the ease and confidence needed to succeed will be more realistic than ever for Coughlin.  “I feel like I have less pressure on me now,” Coughlin said.  “I’ve had two very successful Olympic Games, and if I retire today, I’d still be very proud of my swimming career.”
 
 

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