To some, Coughlin's golden glow had faded. "She was under an amazing amount of pressure to go to the Olympics," says McKeever. "Then she finishes fourth-fourth, not last—and it was as if people thought she was washed up at 16."
Coughlin has done a fine job of "resurrecting" her career. Opting for physical therapy over an operation—she feared surgery would cause her to lose flexibility in the shoulder—she focused on regaining her strength and shortening her stroke. She was back in form as a Cal freshman last year, when she won the college title in the 100 fly and the 100 and 200 backstroke and was named NCAA Swimmer of the Year, an honor for which she's a lock again this year.
Always exceptionally strong on the turns and underwater, Coughlin worked on her power strokes last summer. It paid off at the World Cup in New York in November, when she set world records in the 100-meter backstroke (57.08) and the 200 backstroke (2:03.62), won four golds and one silver, established three American marks and broke four meet records. "The problem I have is figuring out how to teach her," says McKeever. "It's a matter of, How do you top that?"
Though Coughlin prefers not to look too far ahead, when pressed she says she hopes to swim the 100 and 200 free and backstroke at the 2004 Olympics. Should she follow in the footsteps of swimming sweethearts Evans, Summer Sanders and Amy Van Dyken, she'll be ready. Coughlin has been practicing her autograph since the fifth grade, when she thought her impending career as a movie star would require it. She also makes sure to smooth down her eyebrows before any shutters click. "She thinks they're huge, like big caterpillars," says McKeever, smiling, "so she wipes them down after she takes off her goggles, real nonchalantly. She thinks we don't notice, but we do."
It's a comfort to know that one day soon, when the Future of U.S. Swimming becomes the Face of U.S. Swimming, that face will not only be smiling but also have very neat eyebrows.