Last Friday night, only hours after turning in what Stanford coach Richard Quick called "one of the greatest performances in one night" he'd ever seen, the Future of U.S. Swimming dissected a plateful of chicken cordon bleu at an Austin hotel while her Cal teammates cracked jokes, as college kids do, about bodily functions—in this case, the real meaning of the song Peaches n' Cream.
Laughing and flashing a Wheaties-box grin, Natalie Coughlin looked and acted exactly like the 19-year-old college sophomore she is. There was no talk of U.S. records—though she had set two of them that day at the NCAA women's championships and would set two more the next—or national awards, though she had been nominated for one of the most prestigious. Instead she preferred to talk about her family's boxer puppy, Jake, school (where she has a 3-5 GPA in psychology) and her current obsession, cooking shows, which she admits to watching incessantly.
Coughlin, with her modesty, sunny disposition and wholesome good looks, comes off so meet-the-parents perfect that one starts to search for some faults. No luck with her teammates (they love her), or Cal coach Teri McKeever (she says she learns from Coughlin, not tine other way around), or even rivals (men's coaches joke about "borrowing her" for their meets). It takes talking to Natalie's parents to finally dig up some dirt. "Well, there was this one time," says her father, Jim. "She made dinner, and the recipe called for two cloves of garlic, but she put in two heads."
"Whoooh! It was strong!" says her mother, Zennie.
Adds Jim, "I was like, I don't see any vampires around here!"
O.K., so it's not exactly John Rocker on the controversy meter. In fact, if Coughlin is analogous to anybody, it's Janet Evans, the four-time Olympic gold medalist and media darling of a decade ago. Evans was the last swimmer to win the Sullivan award, given annually to the nation's top amateur athlete, when she received the honor in 1989. Coughlin is one of the five finalists this year, along with figure skater Michelle Kwan, Chicago Cubs pitching prospect Mark Prior, gymnast Sean Townsend and middle-distance runner Alan Webb. Last week she bought a white lace dress for the awards presentation on April 9 in New York City. "That was my biggest worry, what to wear," says Coughlin, "though I do want to win."
She surely helped her cause with her performance at the NCAAs. Though Auburn took the team title (Cal finished eighth), Coughlin won every individual race she entered, often in absurdly easy fashion. In the 100-yard backstroke on Friday, she not only became the first woman to break 50 seconds, finishing in 49.97, but also broke her own national record for the seventh time in the last year. (No other woman has gone under 52 seconds.) The standing ovation she received was her second in less than an hour—41 minutes earlier she had won the 100 fly in 50.01, setting another American record.
On Saturday night Coughlin capped her weekend by winning the 200 backstroke in 1:49.52 and finishing the first leg of the 4 x 100 freestyle relay in 47.47 to set two more U.S. marks. (The reason she didn't set world records in the individual events—of which she already holds two—is because only marks set in meters are recognized internationally.) "I haven't seen anyone else like her, not even Ian Thorpe," says '84 Olympic gold medalist Rowdy Gaines, now an ESPN commentator. "Put her in any event, and she might win it."
Coughlin has been in the water since she was 10 months old, when her parents plunked her into their backyard pool in Vallejo, Calif., 35 miles northeast of San Francisco. By age six she was competing in meets, and at 13 she was winning state and national age-group races. The next year her family moved to nearby Concord so she could join a top swimming club, the Concord Terrapins.
By 16 Coughlin had set several national age-group records and was seen as a top prospect for the 2000 Olympics. Then, in March 1999, she tore the labrum in her left shoulder during practice in the butterfly. Not fully recovered, she placed fourth in the 200 individual medley at the Olympic trials in the spring of 2000, missing the cut for the Games. (The top two finishers qualified.) "It was frustrating and depressing," says Coughlin, "especially because my earlier times would have made the team."