Like many Californians, Natalie Coughlin spent the months leading
up to summer contemplating how much time to spend on her stomach
and how much to spend on her back--all in an effort to make
herself golden. But while she had been touted as a female version
of Michael Phelps, capable of winning five events (three facing
down, two facing up) at July's U.S. swimming trials, the
unfavorable Athens Olympic schedule persuaded her to narrow her
focus. The 100-meter backstroke, in which she has held the world
record since 2002, was a no-brainer; what else she would swim
became the subject of rampant speculation atop Olympic pool decks
"It was a pretty big drama," says U.S. women's coach Mark
Schubert. "Everybody was wondering what was going to happen and
how her decision would affect their chances."
At the trials in Long Beach, Calif., one swimmer in the 100-meter
butterfly, Dana Vollmer, hugged Coughlin upon learning that the
versatile 21-year-old from Cal would skip that event. Others in
the U.S. swim community weren't so thrilled when Coughlin also
passed on the 200 freestyle (her best of 1:58.2 was second only
to Lindsay Benko's entering the trials) and the 200 backstroke,
in which she holds the American record. The poolside grumbling
grew louder as Margaret Hoelzer won the 200 back in 2:11.88, 3.35
seconds slower than Coughlin's mark and well short of the time
needed for Olympic medal contention.
Coughlin's performance in the 100 free triggered additional
second-guessing. She qualified for Athens but finished second to
Kara Lynn Joyce in 54.42, .43 off her American record, raising
questions as to how she'll fare against an Olympic field that
includes 2000 gold medalist Inge de Bruijn (her best: 53.77) of
the Netherlands and two Australians, world-record holder Libby
Lenton (53.66) and Jodie Henry (53.77), who sizzled at their
country's trials in March.
Coughlin didn't back down. "The 200 back is a weak event
internationally, but I don't care because I hate swimming it, and
it's boring," she said. "I know Inge is there in the 100 free,
and those two Australian girls went under [or tied] her world
record--well, I can set world records, too. It's a tougher path,
but I embrace it."
Knowing she could be a key swimmer on the three U.S. relays,
Coughlin resisted the urge to overextend, even if, as her friend
and former Cal teammate Marcelle Miller says, "People who only
watch swimming at the Olympics won't realize how amazing she
really is." Given Coughlin's history of physical breakdowns--a
torn labrum in her left shoulder derailed her preparation for the
2000 trials, and a virus-induced 103° fever limited her to two
relay medals at last summer's world championships--she believes
she can best serve her country by getting ample rest.
"The United States needs Natalie to be at her best, badly," says
1984 Olympic gold medalist Rowdy Gaines, now an NBC analyst.
"Otherwise, we could lose all three relays."
Adds Schubert, "It would be easy for her to be selfish because
she is so incredibly versatile. I truly think she wants the team
to be successful, and you've got to have a lot of respect for
that." Schubert may affirm his admiration by allowing Coughlin to
lead off the relays, affording her the possibility of breaking
world records. He'll also lean heavily on the acumen of Cal coach
Teri McKeever, 42, whom he selected as an assistant, making her
the first woman to serve on a U.S. Olympic swim staff. Coughlin
credits the intuitive, innovative McKeever with saving her as a
swimmer after the burned-out former phenom arrived at Berkeley as
a freshman just before the Sydney Games.
"Our philosophy has been that Natalie is in charge of her
career," McKeever says, "and this is a time when it's vitally
important that she follow her heart."
If all goes according to plan, Coughlin, be it on her back or
stomach, will prove to have a heart of gold.