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Natalie Coughlin Is Sprinting To Rio

By Peggy Shinn | June 19, 2013, 3:30 p.m. (ET)

Natalie Coughlin swims in the 50m freestyle finals at the Santa Clara Grand Prix on June 1, 2013 in Santa Clara, Calif.

Natalie Coughlin attends the NBCUniversal Golden Globes party held
at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on Jan. 13, 2013 in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Natalie Coughlin is heading to USA Swimming’s Phillips 66 National Championships & World Championship Trials next week in Indianapolis. But don’t look for her in the backstroke. The 12-time Olympic medalist, with back-to-back golds in the backstroke, has a new focus: freestyle sprints.

The 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle races are “something different” for 30-year-old Coughlin. But not that different. The legendary backstroker won seven of her 12 Olympic medals in freestyle events (the 100-meter free and freestyle relays), so “it’s not going that far outside my wheelhouse,” she told the San Jose Mercury News.

Her goal is to qualify for the 2013 World Championship team in both the 50 and 100 freestyle sprints and consequently be named to the U.S. women’s freestyle and medley relay teams.

Coughlin is quick to point out that her switch to freestyle sprints is not a result of age.

“I’m not old,” she said. Rather, her needs have evolved as she has gained experience in swimming. And she wants to keep the sport interesting.

“I am in a different phase of my career than my teammates last year,” she said by phone from her home in California. “That is the one distinction that I will make. I have more strength and more speed than I had when I was younger. But I don’t think I’m as equipped to handle seven events like I did when I was 24."

Coughlin made the decision to change her focus after the 2012 Olympic Games. Despite swimming the fastest split in the 4 x 100 freestyle relay prelim in London, the three-time Olympian was not named to the team competing in the finals — a coaches’ decision that left her surprised but gracious as always toward her teammates, who brought home a bronze medal. It was Coughlin’s 12th Olympic medal, tying her with Dara Torres and Jenny Thompson for the most Olympic medals won by a female U.S. athlete.

Even with the medal, she was disappointed to only swim in the prelims of one relay in London; it was a tough fall from four years earlier when she became the first American female to win six medals in a single Games. “I know that I’m a lot better than how I competed last year,” she said.

Natalie Coughlin competes in the 100-meter women's butterfly at
the Santa Clara Grand Prix on June 1, 2012 in Santa Clara, Calif.

But Coughlin, a former Dancing with the Stars contestant, had no plans to waltz into retirement.

“After London, I felt like I wasn’t done,” she said. “I love being an athlete and knew that there were areas that I could still improve and still be really competitive. It wasn’t a tough decision at all."

Looking back at 2012, she realized that she had not been getting the recovery she needed to swim her best. She had been training with swimmers a decade her junior and had not yet considered that her training plan should be different than a teenager’s.

She also changed coaches from Teri McKeever to Dave Durden. The head women’s swimming coach at the University of California-Berkley, McKeever guided her to those 12 Olympic medals. But Durden, the head men’s coach at Cal, also coaches Cal grads Nathan Adrian and Anthony Ervin, both Olympic gold medalists in freestyle sprints.

Adrian, 24, won three medals, including gold in the 100 free, at the London Games. Ervin, 32, won gold in the 50 free at the 2000 Olympics. He came back last year after retiring in 2003 and finished fifth in the 50 free in London. Both men are now Coughlin’s training partners.

“In the beginning, they kicked my butt,” she said, laughing. “But every day, I see myself making improvements."

Then her tone quickly became more serious, and she added, “I’m training with the best male sprinters in the world, two of the very best. That alone is a huge advantage."

She chases them in the pool every day and then keeps up with them in the weight room. She also asks them for advice on both training and technique.

This was particularly helpful during her transition to freestyle sprints. She had to change her freestyle technique to a more powerful stroke, which proved challenging.

“Muscle memory is a powerful thing,” she said. “I’ve been doing my freestyle a certain way for so many years."

But Coughlin has adapted quickly. At the Mesa Grand Prix in April, she won the 50 free in 24.90, a personal best and the eighth fastest time in the world this year. In the 100 free, Coughlin finished third, 0.34 seconds behind the winner, Missy Franklin.

Then at the Santa Clara Grand Prix in early June, Coughlin won both freestyle sprint races and beat Franklin in the 100 free.

“I had my first lifetime best in five years [in April],” she said. “Obviously, what I’m doing is working."

At World Championship Trials from June 25-29, Coughlin will most likely compete against Franklin again, and the veteran swimmer is looking forward to seeing how she does. Top two in each event at trials qualify for worlds. Her goal is to make the U.S. worlds team in both freestyle sprints and also represent the U.S. in the 4 x 100 freestyle and medley relays.

The 15th FINA World Championships take place in Barcelona, Spain, from July 19-Aug. 4, 2013.

Then in three years, Coughlin aims to compete in the same four events at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games. The sprints, Coughlin acknowledges, can be a crapshoot though. And should she make it to Rio in the 50 or 100 free, she risks sullying her record of medaling in every Olympic event that she has entered. Perpetually optimistic, she is not looking at it this way.

“I’m really enjoying doing something different and still competing and still improving,” she said, adding that consistent top finishes in both the 50 and 100 freestyle races over the next three years should increase her odds of medaling in those events.

If Coughlin wins even one more Olympic medal in 2016, she will surpass Torres and Thompson as the top American female with the most Olympic medals. And she would move into second overall among all women behind former Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina (with 18 Olympic medals).

But for now, the only numbers Coughlin is really looking at are the seconds on the clock.

Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.

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Natalie Coughlin