Jim and Zennie Coughlin sat in the stands at a Barcelona
natatorium on Sunday morning watching their daughter begin her
quest to conquer the swimming world. After 20-year-old Natalie
advanced easily in her heat of the 100-meter butterfly, her
first event at the world championships, Zennie turned to her
applauding husband and made a halting motion with her hands.
"Save your cheering," she said. "Long, long way to go."¬∂ Indeed,
the Coughlins knew that their daughter--who'd hoped to win seven
medals in three different strokes at the worlds--had a headache,
a sore throat and a 102¬∫ fever. That night, remarkably, in her
third race of the day, the still-ailing Natalie swam a
blistering leadoff leg to propel the U.S. to victory in the
women's 4x100-meter freestyle relay. But on Monday, her body
drained, she failed to qualify for the final of the 100-meter
backstroke, an event in which she holds the world record, and
finished eighth in the 100 fly final. "I felt weak again this
morning," she said afterward. "I was hoping I could advance [in
the 100 back], but that was the best that Icould do. It just
With six days of competition left in Barcelona, Coughlin hoped to
rebound, but regardless of how the week unfolds, there is little
question that her illness was but a temporary setback. On the
brink of a stardom that was deferred by injury four years ago,
Coughlin is the most versatile American female swimmer in two
decades. The Cal senior-to-be owns 17 American records, five
world marks and more NCAA titles (nine) and records (six) than
Georgia coach Jack Bauerle cares to count. "She has changed
swimming," says Bauerle. "She doesn't break records just by
hundredths, she breaks them by body lengths. Thanks to her, what
we thought was fast is no longer."
She's also camera-ready and poised. When the Today show asked her
to do a cooking segment with Al Roker last November, she jumped
at the chance to prepare a pork tenderloin and persimmon risotto.
When Roker responded with a heavy hand to her cue for him to
"cover it with wine," Coughlin betrayed no alarm; she just kept
smiling as she said, "Measurements don't matter."
She is equally smooth in the pool. In one jaw-dropping month last
summer she became the first woman to win five individual events
at a U.S. nationals since Tracy Caulkins did so in 1978, the
first American woman to break 54 seconds in the 100-meter
freestyle, and the first woman anywhere to break a minute in the
July 27, 2003
Coughlin could also set new standards in the marketing of
swimmers when she turns pro--either after the worlds or when her
NCAA eligibility ends in March--"to the point where SportsCenter
covers her apparel deal," says Evan Morgenstein, who represents
about 90% of the postgraduate swimmers on the national team.
Whether it's Speedo, Nike or TYR Sport that inks the deal,
Morgenstein expects it to be the largest ever for an American
Add to that the expectation that in Athens next summer she could
challenge the record for Olympic medals won by a female swimmer
at one Games (six, by Kristin Otto in 1988), and Coughlin could
feel some deep-fathom pressure. "It can be tough," she says. "A
lot of people say, 'You're a psychology major--does that affect
how you handle pressure?' I have never worked with a sports
psychologist. I think pressure is something you have to learn to
deal with yourself. No one else can tell you how to deal with it.
If I become a sports psychologist in five years, you can repeat
that to me."
While Coughlin hoped to use the worlds as a test run for the
Olympics, the seven events she entered in Barcelona--the 100 fly,
the 100 and 200 back, the 100 free and three relays--may not be
the ones she'll tackle in Athens. Coughlin is the rare swimmer
who is a threat in nearly every event. Though she excels at the
shorter distances now, she grew up swimming distance freestyle
and the individual medley, along with the occasional
breaststroke. Last December she swam a 500-yard free "just to
prove I can still do it, that I'm not a wimp," she says. (For
those who aren't convinced, her time of 4:37.62 was the fifth
fastest in history.)
Such versatility hasn't been seen since Caulkins, who held an
American record in every stroke at some point in her career
during the 1970s and '80s and messed with heads just by showing
up at meets. "As it was with Tracy," says USC coach Mark
Schubert, "whenever Natalie swims, everybody else is guessing
what event she isn't going to swim, because that will be the
event they might have a chance in."
Like a lot of top swimmers, Coughlin has some unusual physical
attributes, including a wingspan that is five inches longer than
her 5'8" body, hyperextensive knees and elbows, and flexibility
that would make Gumby envious. (Coughlin can bend at the waist
and touch her elbows to the floor.) But beyond that, there is
little about her physically that indicates swimming dominance.
She is considered short by elite swimming standards, and she
isn't naturally very strong. ("I don't think I was supposed to
have any muscle, because I lose it within a week if I stop
working out," she says.) Her cardiovascular capacity isn't
extraordinary either, nor is her feel for the water--"It's not
even the best on the team," says Cal coach Teri McKeever.
It is Coughlin's focus on technique that has made her one of the
most efficient swimmers on the planet. "In the backstroke
specifically, there isn't anyone in the world who has her
efficiency level in terms of technique," says Jonty Skinner, a
former freestyle world-record holder who is the chief physiology
data collector for U.S. Swimming. "If you compared her [stroke
cadence] with the rest of the backstrokers in the world, male and
female, Natalie would look like she is on a Sunday afternoon
stroll while everyone else is sprinting downhill."
A more dramatic comparison can be made below the surface, where
Coughlin torpedoes through the water using an underwater
butterfly kick for the full allowable 15 meters on every start
and turn. "Everyone tries to teach it, but I don't think any
female swimmer has ever done it as well as Natalie," says
Bauerle. "It gives her a great setup for a swim. She is explosive
right from the start, and it puts her in a winning position and
everyone else back on their heels almost immediately."
Coughlin developed her world-beating kick after her stroke failed
her at what seemed to be the most inopportune moment in her
promising career. As a 15-year-old with the Concord (Calif.)
Terrapins in 1998, she had wowed the aquatics world by becoming
the first person in history to qualify for all 14 women's
individual events at the nationals. At the U.S. Open later that
year she won four of the five individual events she entered. "I
was really setting myself up for an amazing Olympic trials in
2000," she says. "I was kind of the golden child who had so much
But after completing a particularly long butterfly set just weeks
before the nationals in the spring of 1999, she awoke in the
middle of the night with a throbbing left shoulder. Doctors
diagnosed a torn labrum, the only remedy for which was an
operation that was likely to severely limit her range of motion.
She opted for physical therapy instead, and though it helped, she
could do solid training only intermittently. At some meets she
swam seconds slower than her best times. "The whole experience
was incredibly trying," says Coughlin. "I ended up hating
swimming." To get her cardiovascular work in, she did laps and
laps holding onto a kickboard, propelling herself only with her
kicking, which became ever more powerful.
Despite her compromised training, she came in fourth in the 200
IM at the 2000 Olympic trials, not bad, but not good enough to
make the team. "I didn't care. I wasn't happy, I wasn't upset. I
was indifferent," she says. "I just thought, Well, that's over
with. I just wanted to go to college and have a different
environment, a different everything."
She had chosen Cal over Stanford and UCLA in part because she had
felt a bond with McKeever, a former two-time All-America at USC
who emphasizes technique-driven pool workouts along with
cross-training sessions of spinning, running, yoga, weights and
the occasional game of sharks and minnows. "Teri made swimming
fun again," says Coughlin. McKeever also made adjustments to
Coughlin's stroke that protected her shoulder so that by the fall
of 2000 she could withstand full training again. As a freshman
Coughlin won her first three NCAA titles and the first of her
three NCAA swimmer of the year awards. She and McKeever continue
to refine her stroke, and she still kicks far more than her
teammates. "Her willingness to be coached and try new things
amazes me," says McKeever. "A lot of people who are successful
think, Why change anything?"
Besides forcing her to develop a killer kick, the shoulder injury
gave Coughlin a new perspective. "I feel like it's easier for me
to just let swimming go now," she says. "I don't obsess about it
like I used to."
According to Jim and Zennie, neither of their two daughters
(Megan, 17, will attend UC Davis in the fall) has ever been
particularly obsessive about swimming, though they have been
doing it since infancy. Jim and Zennie set the example. They
don't bring stopwatches to meets. They don't necessarily care if
their kids win. "People are always asking, 'What's Natalie's best
time in this?' and I'll say, 'I don't know. It's pretty fast,'"
says Jim, a sergeant in the Vallejo Police Department. "I have
friends at work who say, 'Don't you know her time is a
one-double-oh-whatever?' Her time isn't important. Did she have
fun? Did she think she did well? If those are covered, I don't
care about the rest."
When Natalie decides to learn something new, she dives in deep,
reading books and magazines and taking instruction, if necessary.
She has become a superb cook, whipping up dishes in her north
Berkeley studio apartment, sometimes for boyfriend Ethan Hall, a
former UC Santa Barbara swimmer. "If she makes her mind up to do
something," says Zennie, "she will perfect it." Thus, someday we
can expect Natalie to be fluent in Tagalog, the language in which
her maternal grandmother and her Filipino relatives joke and
gossip during family reunions, and in pro football, the sport in
which she, an Oakland Raiders fan, would most like to test her
She loves boxing, too--"probably because I never got into a fight
as a kid, and I always wanted to," she says--and was hugely
disappointed to miss the Lennox Lewis-Mike Tyson heavyweight bout
last year. "I was at a meet in Charlotte and staying with a
family, and I couldn't really say, 'Hey, could you guys order
this $50 pay-per-view event so I can watch the fight?'"
She could have asked if she were a typical star athlete. The fact
that she didn't--and isn't--may be the best reason to cheer her
on, in sickness and in health.
With flexibility that would make Gumby envious, she can bend at
the waist and touch her elbows to the floor.
Hampered by a career-threatening shoulder injury in 1999,
Coughlin says, "I ended up hating swimming."