Natalie Coughlin's loss to a kindred soul from Australia presages a bigger challenge from Down Under swimmers
This is an article from the May 26, 2008 issue
IN ADDITION to being a five-time Olympic medalist, Natalie Coughlin is a budding wine aficionado who counts Australian Shiraz among her favorites. Cate Campbell, a 16-year-old Aussie pool prodigy, is too young to share a bottle of her country's finest with Coughlin, but she just might share the podium with her at an Olympic medal ceremony.
Coughlin, 25, broke her own American record by swimming the women's 100-meter freestyle in 53.39 seconds at the Toyota Grand Prix in Santa Clara, Calif., last weekend, an indication that she should be in peak form for Beijing in August. But Campbell, who edged her to win the 100 in 53.30, showed why Coughlin can't afford to be anything less.
Campbell is a member of a typically deep Australian team that will challenge the American women in Beijing, and Coughlin is something of a target for the Aussies. When 15-year-old Emily Seebohm won the 100-meter backstroke at the Australian Olympic trials in March, she boldly issued a warning to the event's defending gold medalist. "Natalie Coughlin," she said, "I'm coming."
There was no such brashness last weekend from the bubbly Campbell, who seemed as surprised as anyone by her victory. "Everyone in the swimming world knows her name," she said of Coughlin. "To go faster than her, it's like, where did that come from?" There are those who must be wondering the same thing about Campbell, who emigrated from South Africa to Austalia when she was nine, and has earned 2008 Olympic berths in the 50- and 100-meter freestyles and a spot on the 4√ó100 freestyle relay team.
Although Campbell's victory broke Coughlin's streak of seven straight wins in the 100 free at the Santa Clara meet, the American was unfazed. Coughlin's goal was to gauge her progress as she prepares for the U.S. trials, beginning June 29 in Omaha. "I'll take an American record any time," she said. "I'm very happy with where I am now, and where I'm hopefully heading in the next several weeks." Even more encouraging for Coughlin was her win in the 100-meter backstroke the next evening—her time of 59.44 was just a hair off her world record of 59.21.
If they weren't opponents, Coughlin might have made an ideal mentor for Campbell, because they are each dedicated to their sport without being obsessed by it. In addition to indulging her love of wine when she's not in training, Coughlin supplements her workouts with nontraditional regimens like hip-hop ballet, and she disdains the spartan diet of many Olympic athletes. "I'm not the kind of person who goes for skinless chicken breasts, rice and vegetables every day," she says. "Swimming can be tedious and repetitive, but that doesn't mean my life has to be." Campbell, meanwhile, has said that one reason she's excited to be an Olympian is that "the shopping in Beijing should be great." She's Coughlin's kind of girl.
Given the speed of Campbell's improvement and the steadiness of Coughlin's preparation, their next meeting should be like a fine Shiraz—something to savor.
ONLY AT SI.COM More coverage of the U.S. team from Brian Cazeneuve.