Jim and Zennie Coughlin sat in the stands at a Barcelona natatorium on Sunday morning watching their daughter begin her quest to conquer the swimming world. After 20-year-old Natalie advanced easily in her heat of the 100-meter butterfly, her first event at the world championships, Zennie turned to her applauding husband and made a halting motion with her hands. "Save your cheering," she said. "Long, long way to go."
Indeed, the Coughlins knew that their daughter—who'd hoped to win seven medals in three different strokes at the worlds—had a headache, a sore throat and a 102� fever. That night, remarkably, in her third race of the day, the still-ailing Natalie swam a blistering leadoff leg to propel the U.S. to victory in the women's 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay. But on Monday, her body drained, she failed to qualify for the final of the 100-meter back-stroke, an event in which she holds the world record, and finished eighth in the 100 fly final. "I felt weak again this morning," she said afterward. "I was hoping I could advance [in the 100 back], but that was the best that I could do. It just needs time."
With six days of competition left in Barcelona, Coughlin hoped to rebound, but regardless of how the week unfolds, there is little question that her illness was but a temporary setback. On the brink of a stardom that was deferred by injury four years ago, Coughlin is the most versatile American female swimmer in two decades. The Cal senior-to-be owns 17 American records, five world marks and more NCAA tides (nine) and records (six) than Georgia coach Jack Bauerle cares to count. "She has changed swimming," says Bauerle. "She doesn't break records just by hundredths, she breaks them by body lengths. Thanks to her, what we thought was fast is no longer."
She's also camera-ready and poised. When the Today show asked her to do a cooking segment with Al Roker last November, she jumped at the chance to prepare a pork tenderloin and persimmon risotto. When Roker responded with a heavy hand to her cue for him to "cover it with wine," Coughlin betrayed no alarm; she just kept smiling as she said, "Measurements don't matter."
She is equally smooth in the pool. In one jaw-dropping month last summer she became the first woman to win five individual events at a U.S. nationals since Tracy Caulkins did so in 1978, the first American woman to break 54 seconds in the 100-meter freestyle, and the first woman anywhere to break a minute in the 100-meter backstroke.
Coughlin could also set new standards in the marketing of swimmers when she turns pro—either after the worlds or when her NCAA eligibility ends in March—"to the point where SportsCenter covers her apparel deal," says Evan Morgenstein, who represents about 90% of the postgraduate swimmers on the national team. Whether it's Speedo, Nike or TYR Sport that inks the deal, Morgenstein expects it to be the largest ever for an American swimmer.
Add to that the expectation that in Athens next summer she could challenge the record for Olympic medals won by a female swimmer at one Games (six, by Kristin Otto in 1988), and Coughlin could feel some deep-fathom pressure. "It can be tough," she says. "A lot of people say, 'You're a psychology major—does that affect how you handle pressure?' I have never worked with a sports psychologist. I think pressure is something you have to learn to deal with yourself. No one else can tell you how to deal with it. If I become a sports psychologist in five years, you can repeat that to me."
While Coughlin hoped to use the worlds as a test run for the Olympics, the seven events she entered in Barcelona—the 100 fly, the 100 and 200 back, the 100 free and three relays—may not be the ones she'll tackle in Athens. Coughlin is the rare swimmer who is a threat in nearly every event. Though she excels at the shorter distances now, she grew up swimming distance freestyle and the individual medley, along with the occasional breaststroke. Last December she swam a 500-yard free "just to prove I can still do it, that I'm not a wimp," she says. (For those who aren't convinced, her time of 4:3762 was the fifth fastest in history.)
Such versatility hasn't been seen since Caulkins, who held an American record in every stroke at some point in her career during the 1970s and '80s and messed with heads just by showing up at meets. "As it was with Tracy," says USC coach Mark Schubert, "whenever Natalie swims, everybody else is guessing what event she isn't going to swim, because that will be the event they might have a chance in."
Like a lot of top swimmers, Coughlin has some unusual physical attributes, including a wingspan that is five inches longer than her 5'8" body, hyperextensive knees and elbows, and flexibility that would make Gumby envious. (Coughlin can bend at the waist and touch her elbows to the floor.) But beyond that, there is little about her physically that indicates swimming dominance. She is considered short by elite swimming standards, and she isn't naturally very strong. ("I don't think I was supposed to have any muscle, because I lose it within a week if I stop working out," she says.) Her cardiovascular capacity isn't extraordinary either, nor is her feel for the water—"It's not even the best on the team," says Cal coach Teri McKeever.