Like many Californians, Natalie Coughlin spent the months leading up to summer contemplating how much time to spend on her stomach and how much to spend on her back—all in an effort to make herself golden. But while she had been touted as a female version of Michael Phelps, capable of winning five events (three facing down, two facing up) at July's U.S. swimming trials, the unfavorable Athens Olympic schedule persuaded her to narrow her focus. The 100-meter backstroke, in which she has held the world record since 2002, was a no-brainer; what else she would swim became the subject of rampant speculation atop Olympic pool decks across America.
"It was a pretty big drama," says U.S. women's coach Mark Schubert. "Everybody was wondering what was going to happen and how her decision would affect their chances."
At the trials in Long Beach, Calif., one swimmer in the 100-meter butterfly, Dana Vollmer, hugged Coughlin upon learning that the versatile 21-year-old from Cal would skip that event. Others in the U.S. swim community weren't so thrilled when Coughlin also passed on the 200 freestyle (her best of 1:58.2 was second only to Lindsay Benko's entering the trials) and the 200 backstroke, in which she holds the American record. The poolside grumbling grew louder as Margaret Hoelzer won the 200 back in 2:11.88, 3.35 seconds slower than Coughlin's mark and well short of the time needed for Olympic medal contention.
Coughlin's performance in the 100 free triggered additional second-guessing. She qualified for Athens but finished second to Kara Lynn Joyce in 54.42, .43 off her American record, raising questions as to how she'll fare against an Olympic field that includes 2000 gold medalist Inge de Bruijn (her best: 53.77) of the Netherlands and two Australians, world-record holder Libby Lenton (53.66) and Jodie Henry (53.77), who sizzled at their country's trials in March.
Coughlin didn't back down. "The 200 back is a weak event internationally, but I don't care because I hate swimming it, and it's boring," she said. "I know Inge is there in the 100 free, and those two Australian girls went under [or tied] her world record—well, I can set world records, too. It's a tougher path, but I embrace it."
Knowing she could be a key swimmer on the three U.S. relays, Coughlin resisted the urge to overextend, even if, as her friend and former Cal teammate Marcelle Miller says, "People who only watch swimming at the Olympics won't realize how amazing she really is." Given Coughlin's history of physical breakdowns—a torn labrum in her left shoulder derailed her preparation for the 2000 trials, and a virus-induced 103� fever limited her to two relay medals at last summer's world championships-she believes she can best serve her country by getting ample rest.
"The United States needs Natalie to be at her best, badly," says 1984 Olympic gold medalist Rowdy Gaines, now an NBC analyst. "Otherwise, we could lose all three relays."
Adds Schubert, "It would be easy for her to be selfish because she is so incredibly versatile. I truly think she wants the team to be successful, and you've got to have a lot of respect for that." Schubert may affirm his admiration by allowing Coughlin to lead off the relays, affording her the possibility of breaking world records. He'll also lean heavily on the acumen of Cal coach Teri McKeever, 42, whom he selected as an assistant, making her the first woman to serve on a U.S. Olympic swim staff. Coughlin credits the intuitive, innovative McKeever with saving her as a swimmer after the burned-out former phenom arrived at Berkeley as a freshman just before the Sydney Games.
"Our philosophy has been that Natalie is in charge of her career," McKeever says, "and this is a time when it's vitally important that she follow her heart."
If all goes according to plan, Coughlin, be it on her back or stomach, will prove to have a heart of gold.