She had just completed the most decorated performance by a U.S. woman in a single Olympics, and Natalie Coughlin wanted a break. One morning last September, a little more than a month after returning home from Athens with two gold medals, two silvers and a bronze, she was back at Spieker Pool on the Cal campus, grudgingly getting ready to enter the chilly water. Her plan was to compete in the world short-course championships in October before taking a swimming sabbatical, and this would be one of her last practices. In keeping with a ritual she established early in her record-setting college career, she sprinted 15 yards across the pool deck and dived in.
Immediately, her left foot began to tingle. Then came a throbbing pain. Five minutes later, when Coughlin climbed out of the pool she couldn't put any weight on the foot. She'd suffered a stress fracture--not exactly the kind of break she had in mind.
Had Coughlin injured her foot a couple of months earlier, her Olympic heroics would never have been possible. But while slightly disappointed at having to miss the short-course worlds, she relished the three-month break that awaited, even if she'd have to spend some of it tooling around Berkeley with a cane. "In a way it was perfect timing," recalls Coughlin, who has since recovered and will lead the U.S. women into the FINA long-course worlds in Montreal starting this weekend. "During my time off I'd planned to run and do Pilates, but with the broken foot that wasn't an option. The only workouts I could've done would have been in the pool. So I decided to be lazy until January."
Suffice it to say that the former Golden Bear is now out of hibernation. Though she was well shy of peak condition at the U.S. nationals in April, Coughlin won the 100-meter backstroke and the 100-meter freestyle, and she has gotten stronger since then. "She's in much better shape than she was in April," says Cal coach Teri McKeever, who'll serve as an assistant to U.S. women's coach Jack Bauerle in Montreal. Coughlin will swim three individual races: the 100 back, in which she won gold in Athens and has held the world record (59.58 seconds) since 2002; the 100 free, in which she earned Olympic bronze; and the 50 butterfly, a non-Olympic event she says she's swimming for fun.
"Natalie has a completely different role to play than she did in Athens," Bauerle says. "Without Amanda Beard, Jenny Thompson and Lindsay Benko on this team, she becomes even more of a leader than she was. We're definitely an underdog to Australia, and a lot of our hopes depend on Natalie."
Bauerle expects to use Coughlin in all three relays, including the 800 free, for which she provided a sizzling leadoff leg in Athens to help the U.S. shatter the 17-year-old world record. Coughlin's 200-free split that night (1:57.74) would have won the individual 200 in Athens, but she chose not to swim that event because its semifinal was held shortly before the 100-back final. There's a similar conflict next Tuesday night, the third evening of the meet, meaning Coughlin will once again miss out on an event in which she possesses tantalizing potential. "I really, really, really want to do the 200 free," she says. "I honestly feel it's my second-best event, behind the 100 back. It just never works out with the format they use."
Since her return to the water last January, Coughlin's workouts haven't been as frequent or as lengthy as in past years. She's had happy distractions--appearances for Speedo and other sponsors; playing with her border terrier, She-ra, whom she brought home to her East Bay condominium shortly after breaking her foot; a party to celebrate her graduation from Cal with a psychology degree last May--and her field of vision extends well past Montreal.
"I'm in a really good place right now," she says. "I'm having fun and not worrying about the pressure so much. My main focus is on 2008, and I'm trying really hard not to get too serious too soon."