Twelve-time Olympic medalist in swimming Natalie Coughlin announced she will return to competition in October, ending a three-year hiatus that began shortly after she missed the 2016 United States Olympic Team – what would have been her fourth.
But instead of gunning for a national or Olympic team berth as she did for so many consecutive years, Coughlin, 36, will return as a member of the D.C. Trident, a team in a newly-formed professional swimming endeavor: the International Swimming League.
The league features eight teams with home bases in the U.S. and abroad that will compete in a series of seven meets, with an emphasis on the fan experience, clean sport (the league has a zero-tolerance policy for previous doping violations) and hefty paydays for competitors; 50% of revenue is set to be distributed back to athletes.
Coughlin had no plans to stage any sort of comeback until D.C. general manager Kaitlin Sandeno inquired in March, she told Sports Illustrated, and had looked publicly to be running the retired athlete route: doing color commentating, making speaking appearances and serving as a mentor to current athletes.
“I didn't consider it at all,” Coughlin says. “It was my main goal the past year or so was to get in the water once a week. And I couldn't even get that done without having some sort of formal goal in the pool.”
The timing was as if Sandeno, a fellow gold medalist and Coughlin’s teammate from the 2004 Games, could simply sense the opportunity at hand. While on an early trip to DC to lay the foundation for her team, including recruiting athletes and getting the word out around the city, the idea struck.
“It just hit me like a ton of bricks. I'm like, 'This league would be so amazing for Natalie. It'd be so cool to have her on a team – specifically my team,’” Sandeno, 36, said. “It kind of made me laugh, but knowing Natalie, she's the most competitive person I know. She's so iconic for the sport, she's a legend.”
No other team reached out to Coughlin, who had never formally retired from the sport, she said. After a few text exchanges regarding mostly logistical questions, the deal was done.
“I’m in,” Coughlin wrote. “If you're not kidding, I'm not kidding.”
Coughlin was understandably hesitant initially, but the league’s format is amenable to the level of commitment she can give. Races will be swum in a 25-meter “short course” pool, as opposed to a 50-meter, Olympic-sized facility, and meets will include 50-meter races of butterfly, breastroke and Coughlin’s specialty backstroke, as opposed to the Olympic lineup that only offers the 50 freestyle.
“If this was a long course 100 back, there was no way I would have agreed to do this. The fact that I'm just currently just focusing on the 50 back, that's manageable,” Coughlin said. “I'll be in good race shape by October, but training shape is a different animal.”
While she trained through the last Olympic cycle with UC Berkeley men’s head coach Dave Durden, already named a head coach of the 2020 Games, Coughlin is working out on her own this time. Unlike her last go-around, she now has a seven-month-old daughter, Zennie Mae, and structures her training accordingly.
“I love training with those [Cal] guys so, so much. Hopefully, I'll be able to figure out something where I could go visit them a few days a week,” she said. “But I'm just training on my own at my local gym, just because they have childcare and it really fits into my daughter's sleep schedule. So that's the challenge… I can't justify formally getting childcare for this, yet. So it's really kind of at her whim when I can fit it in.”
Coughlin noted that she is also still breastfeeding and has to limit her workout routine compared to what it once was.
“It's just a whole challenge and trying to get into shape without putting yourself at such a deficit that your milk supply goes down – like there's all these things that you would never consider it unless you're in the throws of it,” she said.
But of all people, Coughlin seems up for the challenge. She did not intend for her career to end in 2016 and had planned to ride out at least 2017 by racing at some destination international meets – but life just got in the way.
She has multiple business ventures outside the sport, including a winery and a cookbook, and additionally is heavily involved in USA Swimming as a board member, among other things. With the ISL’s timing, Coughlin will now get to play perhaps an even larger role in legitimizing swimming as a sustainable professional option for athletes.
Coughlin and American distance swimming star Katie Ledecky will headline the half-women, half-men Trident team, and the genders will earn equal pay and prize money. In swimming, however, women and men have long earned equally for their talents, eschewing the standard of major sports. Regardless, Sandeno has embraced her position as a platform for women’s empowerment.
“I have [Coughlin] and Katie Ledecky, and just give me a more iconic duo as far as women that have changed the sport, or have elevated this sport,” Sandeno said, adding with a laugh: “I mean, can we get Janet Evans on my team?”
“The last vestige of any sort of differences is the women's mile now being added to 2020 in Tokyo, and the men's 800. And that was really the only vestige of the inequality in my perspective, at least,” Coughlin said. “I was very, very fortunate to have been supported by my sponsors and the media. I didn't get 28 medals like Michael [Phelps], I've got 12, so obviously, he got a lot of attention that was all very well-deserved. That had nothing to do with the fact that he's a male and I was a female; it was the fact that he's the greatest of all-time.”
While many ISL participants will be Olympic hopefuls or former stars curious about the format (and the payouts), the league is also giving the opportunity to a handful of swimmers who otherwise would not make money through competition. There are plans for competitions to air on television with the intent of drawing worldwide attention back to swimming more than once every four years.
“I think what we're witnessing right now is truly furthering our sport. Is she trying to go for the Olympics? That's Natalie, only she knows that right now, but she still wants to race. She still wants to compete. She loves swimming,” Sandeno said.
But for the record, that’s not Coughlin’s plan.
“No, not at all. I don't want to say 'never,' but [going to the Olympics] is not in my mind at all,” Coughlin said. “I know what I need to do to be successful at the Olympic stage and Olympic Trials, and right now I just don't have the time – or frankly the desire – to do it.”