Last Friday night, only hours after turning in what Stanford
coach Richard Quick called "one of the greatest performances in
one night" he'd ever seen, the Future of U.S. Swimming dissected
a plateful of chicken cordon bleu at an Austin hotel while her
Cal teammates cracked jokes, as college kids do, about bodily
functions--in this case, the real meaning of the song Peaches n'
Laughing and flashing a Wheaties-box grin, Natalie Coughlin
looked and acted exactly like the 19-year-old college sophomore
she is. There was no talk of U.S. records--though she had set two
of them that day at the NCAA women's championships and would set
two more the next--or national awards, though she had been
nominated for one of the most prestigious. Instead she preferred
to talk about her family's boxer puppy, Jake, school (where she
has a 3.5 GPA in psychology) and her current obsession, cooking
shows, which she admits to watching incessantly.
Coughlin, with her modesty, sunny disposition and wholesome good
looks, comes off so meet-the-parents perfect that one starts to
search for some faults. No luck with her teammates (they love
her), or Cal coach Teri McKeever (she says she learns from
Coughlin, not the other way around), or even rivals (men's
coaches joke about "borrowing her" for their meets). It takes
talking to Natalie's parents to finally dig up some dirt. "Well,
there was this one time," says her father, Jim. "She made
dinner, and the recipe called for two cloves of garlic, but she
put in two heads."
"Whoooh! It was strong!" says her mother, Zennie.
Adds Jim, "I was like, I don't see any vampires around here!"
O.K., so it's not exactly John Rocker on the controversy meter.
In fact, if Coughlin is analogous to anybody, it's Janet Evans,
the four-time Olympic gold medalist and media darling of a decade
ago. Evans was the last swimmer to win the Sullivan award, given
annually to the nation's top amateur athlete, when she received
the honor in 1989. Coughlin is one of the five finalists this
year, along with figure skater Michelle Kwan, Chicago Cubs
pitching prospect Mark Prior, gymnast Sean Townsend and
middle-distance runner Alan Webb. Last week she bought a white
lace dress for the awards presentation on April 9 in New York
City. "That was my biggest worry, what to wear," says Coughlin,
"though I do want to win."
She surely helped her cause with her performance at the NCAAs.
Though Auburn took the team title (Cal finished eighth), Coughlin
won every individual race she entered, often in absurdly easy
fashion. In the 100-yard backstroke on Friday, she not only
became the first woman to break 50 seconds, finishing in 49.97,
but also broke her own national record for the seventh time in
the last year. (No other woman has gone under 52 seconds.) The
standing ovation she received was her second in less than an
hour--41 minutes earlier she had won the 100 fly in 50.01, setting
another American record.
On Saturday night Coughlin capped her weekend by winning the 200
backstroke in 1:49.52 and finishing the first leg of the 4x100
freestyle relay in 47.47 to set two more U.S. marks. (The reason
she didn't set world records in the individual events--of which
she already holds two--is because only marks set in meters are
recognized internationally.) "I haven't seen anyone else like
her, not even Ian Thorpe," says '84 Olympic gold medalist Rowdy
Gaines, now an ESPN commentator. "Put her in any event, and she
might win it."
Coughlin has been in the water since she was 10 months old, when
her parents plunked her into their backyard pool in Vallejo,
Calif., 35 miles northeast of San Francisco. By age six she was
competing in meets, and at 13 she was winning state and national
age-group races. The next year her family moved to nearby Concord
so she could join a top swimming club, the Concord Terrapins.
By 16 Coughlin had set several national age-group records and was
seen as a top prospect for the 2000 Olympics. Then, in March
1999, she tore the labrum in her left shoulder during practice in
the butterfly. Not fully recovered, she placed fourth in the 200
individual medley at the Olympic trials in the spring of 2000,
missing the cut for the Games. (The top two finishers qualified.)
"It was frustrating and depressing," says Coughlin, "especially
because my earlier times would have made the team."
To some, Coughlin's golden glow had faded. "She was under an
amazing amount of pressure to go to the Olympics," says McKeever.
"Then she finishes fourth--fourth, not last--and it was as if
people thought she was washed up at 16."
Coughlin has done a fine job of "resurrecting" her career. Opting
for physical therapy over an operation--she feared surgery would
cause her to lose flexibility in the shoulder--she focused on
regaining her strength and shortening her stroke. She was back in
form as a Cal freshman last year, when she won the college title
in the 100 fly and the 100 and 200 backstroke and was named NCAA
Swimmer of the Year, an honor for which she's a lock again this
Always exceptionally strong on the turns and underwater, Coughlin
worked on her power strokes last summer. It paid off at the World
Cup in New York in November, when she set world records in the
100-meter backstroke (57.08) and the 200 backstroke (2:03.62),
won four golds and one silver, established three American marks
and broke four meet records. "The problem I have is figuring out
how to teach her," says McKeever. "It's a matter of, How do you
Though Coughlin prefers not to look too far ahead, when pressed
she says she hopes to swim the 100 and 200 free and backstroke at
the 2004 Olympics. Should she follow in the footsteps of swimming
sweethearts Evans, Summer Sanders and Amy Van Dyken, she'll be
ready. Coughlin has been practicing her autograph since the fifth
grade, when she thought her impending career as a movie star
would require it. She also makes sure to smooth down her eyebrows
before any shutters click. "She thinks they're huge, like big
caterpillars," says McKeever, smiling, "so she wipes them down
after she takes off her goggles, real nonchalantly. She thinks we
don't notice, but we do."
It's a comfort to know that one day soon, when the Future of U.S.
Swimming becomes the Face of U.S. Swimming, that face will not
only be smiling but also have very neat eyebrows.
faults. No luck.