Natalie Coughlin has done it all. In 2004, the first-time Olympian earned five swimming medals and left Athens with more medals than any other U.S. woman there. Four years later in Beijing she became the first U.S. woman to earn six medals in a single Games, as well as the first woman ever to defend her title in the 100-meter backstroke. Earlier this year, Coughlin solidified her place in history by earning her 12th Olympic medal (a bronze in the 4x100m freestyle relay) and tying Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres for the most Olympic medals by an American woman.
And she’s not done yet. After returning from a trip to Rwanda with international humanitarian organization Right to Play, which works to transform children’s lives through sports, Coughlin recently resumed training after what she considered a “disappointing season” and says she will likely return to competition at a USA Swimming Grand Prix meet in Spring 2013.
Amidst her hectic schedule, Coughlin took the time to answer questions that fans submitted via Facebook, Twitter and Google+.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
@jaredcruzaedo on Twitter asks: If you could do any other summer Olympic sport that does not involve water, what would it be?
Beach volleyball because I think that’s an awesome sport! And it’s still near the water. I did indoor volleyball in middle school but have no beach volleyball experience. I’m sure I would be terrible at it.
@CptRolandBreezy on Twitter asks: How many hours a day and days a week do you train?
Six days a week, between four and six hours a day depending on what day it is. It’s always a combination of running, weights, swimming, pilates, yoga — we keep it interesting.
@rikmaa on Twitter asks: Will you be competing at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games?
I am not sure. If I’m gonna be swimming for four more years I would love to be there in Rio. I’m really excited about continuing to train and I just started training again and I look forward to the next few years, but I’m not 100-percent sure what I’m doing just yet.
Jordan S. on Facebook asks: What is your favorite Olympic memory?
Oh gosh. I have so many great memories; it’s impossible to choose just one. It was pretty cool being able to go to the Closing Ceremony this time because I’ve never been able to go to closing before, so that was great. I’ve never stayed the whole time (at my two past Games). I’ve always been so exhausted between training camp and the actual Games that I never felt the need or desire to stay an extra week or so; I was always so homesick. But this time I really wanted to experience everything that I could and took advantage of staying for the full 17 days.
Emily S. on Facebook asks: Any advice for beginning swimmers?
I would say to use your time wisely. You’re gonna’ be spending anywhere from an hour to five hours a day in the pool and it’s very easy to get distracted or daydream or sing a song in your head, but if you’re going to be there anyway, you might as well pay attention to what you’re doing and always ask yourself how you can make yourself better.
Mary P. on Facebook asks: How do you stay motivated?
I love what I do. I love doing this as my job and I know how fortunate I am to be able to call this my job. I love the lifestyle. It’s a blessing to be able to train as a profession. It’s nothing I ever planned on but it’s something that came along, and I want to take advantage of it for as long as I possibly can and as long as I’m healthy and I still enjoy it.
Hanaa M. on Facebook asks: How do you see the sport of swimming evolving in the future?
That’s a good question. I think people will continue to figure things out about the water and about technique. The water is constantly moving and when you have a sport that can come down to one one-hundredth of a second as the difference between gold and silver, or medaling or not medaling, or making the Olympic team or not making the Olympic team, every little technical advantage or efficiency makes a big, big difference. I think people will continue to figure things out about starts and turns and breakouts and we’ll all learn from each other.
Brian T. on Facebook asks: Was there a specific drill that helped you figure out your butterfly stroke technique?
I really like doing vertical butterfly, where you push off the bottom of the pool vertically and you do your pull and it works on rounding the corners of your finish to make sure that you’re not finishing too far back, because that’s oftentimes what a lot of novice butterflyers make the mistake of doing. So it really works on your catch and rounding the corners of your finish.
Rhett B. on Facebook asks: What is your favorite music to listen to before a race?
I don’t listen to music before a race, but in general my go-tos are ‘90s rap like old school Snoop Dogg, (Dr.) Dre, Tupac, or ‘90s rock like Foo Fighters, Black Crows, something like that. I could also be into teeny-bopper type stuff. It always changes but those are generally my go-tos.
Johnna K. on Facebook asks: What is your favorite thing to do on your days off?
Usually it involves food of some sort. Since we live in the Bay Area we have so many great places to go, so many wonderful day trips. So it either involves a trip to Napa or a trip to the coast and some good food.
Johnna K. on Facebook asks: What is on your Christmas list?
I want a new pair of UGGs because it gets cold in northern California and those are the coziest shoes ever. I wear a Helen Ficalora charm every day — it’s an “N” for my name — so I want a horseshoe one. Those are the things at the top of my list.
Brian W. on Google+ asks: What is the coolest place you have traveled to for a meet?
It wasn’t technically a meet, but it was an open-water swim and it was Fiji. I swam from the mainland of Fiji to Beachcomber Island as part of a relay. It was an 18-kilometer relay and it was straight off the coast of the mainland, and at the end we were swimming over reef and these amazing, gorgeous fish. The natural beauty combined with the racing aspect was a unique thing and at the end of it we stayed on Beachcomber Island for five days or so, and it was pretty cool to get there by swimming there.
TeamUSA.org asks: How was your trip to Rwanda with Right to Play?
It was awesome. Right to Play is an organization I’ve been involved with since 2004, but this is the first time I went into the field and got to see the programs in action. It was such an amazing, wonderful, life-changing experience so I was very excited to be able to have some time to go there. I was mainly just visiting the programs and seeing how they work. I’ve worked with them and raised money before but I’ve never seen the day-to-day and so I got to see how the games work and how it affected the kids and got to hear testimonials. It was incredibly rewarding as well as inspiring; it makes me want to continue to work for them in the future and perhaps expand my work for them.
TeamUSA.org asks: How did it feel to earn that 12th medal and tie Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres for the most Olympic medals by a U.S. woman?
It’s something I’m obviously extremely proud of, but it’s kind of strange because honestly I didn’t have a good season, and while I’m very proud of that 12th medal, it’s kind of hard to celebrate it because I know I could have been so much better. At the same time I feel like I learned a lot from this past season that I’ll take forward going into the next few. So it’s something I’m proud of, but it also makes me want to improve. That doesn’t necessarily mean more medals; I just know I can be better than what I did last time.