All U. Natalie Coughlin
Unassuming, unshakable, undeniably the greatest underwater collegian of the last 20 years, the übertough, überbabe pool shark from Cal is SIOC's female athlete of the year
By Alan Shipnuck
Like an artist whose genius is recognized only after death, Natalie Coughlin had to lose for the sports world to finally recognize her extraordinary accomplishments in a Cal swimsuit. Heading into the final individual race of her collegiate career, at last month's NCAA championships, Coughlin had racked up a 61-0 record in dual meets and won 11 NCAA titles in as many attempts. She was less than 50 meters from immortality when the impossible happened: Coughlin sputtered and sank (metaphorically speaking, of course). In the lead, as always, heading into the final leg of the 200 backstroke, the 5'8" senior was beaten to the wall by not one but two competitors. It was the biggest upset since Iowa State's Dan Gable lost the 1970 NCAA wrestling 142-pound final, ending his college career after 117 straight victories. The utter disbelief was neatly summarized in a four-word text message from a Cal teammate to a reporter later that night: "Holy s---, Coughlin lost!"
The winner of the 200 back, Auburn's Kirsty Coventry, described her upset as "magical." Yet there was a bittersweet quality to Coughlin's defeat, voiced by, of all people, Coventry's coach, David Marsh. "To be honest with you, I'm a little sad about that," he said. "I would have loved to see her win. Natalie is the kind of person you want to see live out every dream."
Unbowed, Coughlin (pronounced COG-lin) set a U.S. record in the 100 freestyle in the meet's next event, as the leadoff leg for the Golden Bears' 400-free relay team. But what moved her to tears wasn't her individual loss or the highly personal way she bounced back, but rather a moment of collective joy. The night before she had swum the first leg of the 800 freestyle relay, launching Cal to an unexpected victory. Swimming is the most individual of sports, but Coughlin had helped turn the Golden Bears into a gritty, gutty band of overachievers, as they went undefeated in dual meets in 2003-04. That relay win was the culmination of one of the best seasons in school history. "I have never been so proud of my teammates as I was when we finished the 800," says Coughlin. "We were all crying and jumping around. It was pure emotion. It was definitely the best race I have ever been a part of."
As for the 200 back, she says, "I'm not as devastated over it as people assume I am. The fact that I won [NCAA championships in] the 100 fly and 100 back was no big deal to anyone, but people sure made a big deal about me not winning the 200 back."
Forgive her if she's a little peeved. Ferocious competitiveness is one of Coughlin's defining attributes. Truth be told, there is something ironic about that final loss. Had Coughlin ended her career with yet another win, all of her success may have been taken for granted, simply because she made it look too easy. She admits that "a tremendous burden has now been lifted."
Freed from the crushing weight of her winning streak, Coughlin can refocus on the U.S. Olympic Trials in July. With her vivacious personality and girl-next-door beauty, she is well positioned to be the golden girl of the 2004 Games. But while the swimming world looks ahead to the possibility of multiple gold medals, here at SIOC we look back and celebrate her college career. Coughlin's astonishing versatility has led to 17 American, 11 Cal, seven NCAA and five current world records, but it takes more than a stopwatch to measure her legacy. She is the winner of SIOC's first U. Award, our version of Sportsman of the Year, because she was a great teammate and an All-Pac-10 student (GPA: 3.46); because she left hundreds of thousands -- if not millions -- of dollars on the table to return for her senior year and work toward her psychology degree ("I wanted to honor my commitment to the school," she says); and because, no matter what happens from here, she will continue to bleed blue and gold. "I love Cal and I always will," she says. "This place changed my life."
In 1998, as a 15-year-old with the Concord (Calif.) Terrapins club team, Coughlin set the swimming world on its ear by becoming the first woman to qualify for all 14 individual events at U.S. nationals. But in the spring of '99 she tore the labrum in her left shoulder. Coughlin opted for physical therapy over surgery, but with her training schedule curtailed, she spent the next year and a half futilely chasing her former greatness. Coughlin arrived at Cal a couple months after bombing out at the 2000 Olympic trials. "What was my plan at that point?" she says. "To loathe swimming. I was miserable."
Enter Teri McKeever, Cal's coach and a former All-America at USC. McKeever had long been plotting what she calls a "coaching evolution," but she needed the right student to apply its principles. "It was akin to a new offense in football or a new swing in golf," says McKeever. "The traditional swimming stroke is up and down, all right angles, with the energy in front and behind you. You have to fight your way through the water. I believed a more rounded, cyclical motion would be more effective. Instead of starting over with every stroke, you could harness the energy of the previous one."
"Superopen-minded" because of her year-and-a-half slump, Coughlin embraced McKeever's radical new stroke, in part because it reduced the strain on her shoulder. As she relearned how to swim, however, Coughlin's times were initially so slow she thought about quitting the sport.
But by the start of competition, she had begun to master her craft. Her turnaround was stunning. Coughlin went on to win her three races at the NCAA championships, setting collegiate records in each and earning the first of three consecutive NCAA swimmer of the year awards. The Cult of Coughlin was born.
Part of what makes Coughlin's success so astounding is her body type. In a sport of powerfully built women, she is willowy, almost delicate. Her speed comes from an obsessive desire to refine her technique. "She'll spend an entire practice working on hand placement in the water," says teammate Lisa Morelli, a junior. "She's so efficient, so graceful, so effortless, it's like she's dancing through the water."
And yet even as she made it look so easy, Coughlin felt the strain of living up to her achievements. "The fact that so many people made such a big deal out of my winning streak made it much more difficult," she says. "The focus on the streak made me focus more on winning, rather than just swimming my race and enjoying it. People expected me to win and it was no longer exciting."
When she won the final race of an amazing junior year -- one in which she set three world, seven American and three NCAA records -- Coughlin had only one thought: Thank God it's over. She had all but decided to turn pro, which would allow her to concentrate exclusively on training for this summer's Olympic Games in Athens.
Ultimately she found it impossible to leave what she calls the "protective bubble" at Cal. The Golden Bears are like family, and Coughlin's parents, Jim and Zennie, helped nurture that atmosphere. For every home meet they would make the hour drive to Berkeley from their home in Concord to sell concessions poolside. The money was used to buy goody bags for each swimmer that they passed out before meets; the booty comprised fruit, PowerBars, cookies, lip gloss and photographs, among other things. Coughlin's grandfather, Chuck Bohn, was also a regular at her meets, often wearing a hat featuring a stuffed bear.
Over time Coughlin and her teammates became more like sisters. They bonded over shopping sprees in San Francisco -- a powder blue Coach bag was one of Coughlin's big splurges -- and at her famous dinner parties. "Everything with Natalie involves food," says senior Micha Burden. Classmate Keiko Amano adds, "That's all we do with her -- eat."
A typically decadent menu: portobello fritters, crab dip, fondue and various soufflés. Owing to popular demand, Coughlin put together a book of recipes for friends. In November 2002 she went national with her cooking jones, preparing a pork tenderloin and persimmon risotto on the Today show. Back in Berkeley her teammates gathered to watch. Says Morelli, "We were all screaming, 'Omigod, Natalie's on TV with Katie Couric!'"
Coughlin would have been mortified to hear the squealing. She always took great pains to blend in with her teammates, even as she was growing into swimming's supernova. "I tried my best to separate the worlds," she says. "I didn't want it to seem like I was different or bragging." She finally made peace with her celebrity during her senior year, during a Glamour magazine photo shoot. Coughlin was dolled up in a flowing gown and glittery jewels, standing on the edge of the Cal pool while her teammates swam laps and offered gentle heckling. "I thought they'd be pissed because I was missing practice, but they loved it," she says. "It was so much fun for them to be included."
Coughlin's unrelenting success has always served as a touchstone for her teammates, in part because she is as excited for their accomplishments, however modest. "She cheers so hard for all of us at meets, and in practice she's incredibly motivating because she gives her all in everything she does," says Morelli. "I remember one time I was thinking about using fins for a drill, because it makes it easier. She looked at me so seriously and said, 'Lisa, don't do it.' So I didn't."
All of the intangibles that Coughlin brought to Cal -- leadership, camaraderie, motivation -- were evident at what she considers the highlight of her senior year, the Feb. 14 dual meet at Stanford. Cal hadn't defeated its bitter rival since 1978, before any members of the 2003-04 team were born. Nearly 1,800 fans turned out for the competition, and when the Cal team burst out of the locker room, more than half the crowd joined in singing the fight song. Cal was facing a substantial deficit with two races to go -- Coughlin had already won her three races, as usual -- but her teammates rallied to all but sweep the final events and give the Golden Bears a narrow victory. Coughlin describes the scene poolside as "delirious hugging and crying," and upon returning to Berkeley the team partied like rock stars.
This is one of the experiences Coughlin would have missed had she turned pro early in the single-minded pursuit of Olympic gold. "The team has a piece in Natalie's success, just as Natalie has a piece in the team's success," says McKeever. "They have helped make her who she is."
Which, at the moment, is a very hot commodity. Coughlin finally turned pro following last month's NCAAs, and the bidding between Nike and Speedo is so intense that her apparel deal is expected to be a record for a female swimmer. She's looking forward to having the funds to spruce up her recently purchased loft condominium in nearby Emeryville, where she can often be found cooking for her longtime boyfriend, Ethan Hall, a former UC Santa Barbara swimmer. But even as she ramps up for Athens, little has changed in Coughlin's world. She still trains every day with her (now former) teammates, under the watchful eye of McKeever, who remains her personal coach. Regardless of how these Olympics play out, Coughlin figures to remain a fixture around Berkeley, which will remain her training base until the 2008 Games.
"Some keep their school ties forever, and I know I'm going to be one of those people," says Coughlin. "Who knows, if I get bored between Olympics, maybe I'll become an assistant coach for the team. If they'll have me, that is."
Issue date: April 22, 2004