- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 8, 2004

LONG BEACH, Calif. — Natalie Coughlin is taking a low-profile approach to her first Olympics. Once given equal billing with Michael Phelps in the pursuit of multiple gold medals, Coughlin will swim two individual events in Athens. She hopes to be placed on three relays, giving her a chance to win five medals.

“I feel it’s better for me to do really well in two or three events rather than mediocre in four or five,” she said.

Her scaled-down schedule still puts the most versatile American female swimmer in good position to make history. No American woman has ever won more than four swimming golds in one Olympics. Amy Van Dyken won two individual and two relay golds in 1996.

Coughlin owns five world records and 18 American marks in all four strokes — freestyle, butterfly, backstroke and breaststroke — making her an anomaly in a sport of specialists. But the Olympic schedule of preliminaries, semifinals and finals forced her to narrow her focus.

Besides the 100-meter backstroke, she qualified in the 100 freestyle at the recent U.S. trials in Long Beach. She opted for the 100 free over the 200 backstroke because the 200 back semifinals are scheduled 12 minutes before the 100 free final in Athens.

“It’s not a plausible way to go,” she said.

Coughlin will be the favorite in the 100 back. She’s the world record holder and the first and only woman to break the 1-minute barrier. Her greater challenge will be the 100 free, where world record holder Lisbeth Lenton of Australia, Inge de Bruijn of the Netherlands and Hanna-Maria Seppala of Finland await.

“I love the 100 free,” Coughlin said. “Out of the top six fastest people ever, five of them are going to be in that final. I just want to be a part of that. I know that a world record is going to be broken there — it’s just a matter of who. That’s going to be such an exciting race.”

With two individual races, Coughlin’s profile is lower than if she had attempted what Phelps will in Athens — five individual races and possibly all three relays. But she’s comfortable with her decision.

“It’s good I’m not getting a lot of the attention he’s getting. He does really well with that attention, and I don’t think I would do as well,” said Coughlin, who once lived alone for three years. “I’m a very private person. I need my own space.”

That extends to eating alone or with fellow swimmer Keiko Price at meets because it takes too long if her parents, sister, boyfriend and other relatives join her.

The self-professed neat freak relaxes by doing yoga and cooking, a skill she taught herself by watching the Food Network. She once whipped up a pork and persimmon risotto dish with Al Roker on NBC’s “Today” show.

Coughlin goes to bed most nights by 10 p.m., but that doesn’t mean the 21-year-old woman with the toothy smile is boring. She plans to graduate from California next spring with a psychology degree, she owns her own condo near her hometown of Concord in Northern California, and she is a world-class shopper.

Unlike a lot of athletes, Coughlin isn’t superstitious.

“It’s kind of impossible,” she said. “There’s going to be that one time that you can’t do it, and it’s going to bite you in the butt. What if it’s at the Olympics?”

Coughlin doesn’t crave the spotlight, but her success as the nation’s dominant college swimmer — winning 11 of 12 possible NCAA titles in her career — opened doors. She’s done photo shoots for Vogue, Glamour and Vanity Fair and shot commercial spots for a cellular phone company and NBC.

After concluding her career as a three-time NCAA swimmer of the year last spring, Coughlin signed an endorsement deal with a swimsuit manufacturer that runs through 2009. She plans to swim through the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“What’s the point of getting all these opportunities if you’re not going to take advantage of them?” she said. “I’ve been able to do a lot of cool things. I got to work on my acting skills, which are nonexistent.”

Coughlin developed her swimming ability in her parents’ backyard pool and was competing for a local club by age 6. In 1998, she became the first swimmer to qualify for the U.S. nationals in every event and every stroke, tagging her as a potential star at the 2000 Olympics.

But Coughlin never got to Sydney. In 1999, she woke up after a grueling workout with excruciating pain in her left shoulder. It was diagnosed as a torn labrum, the cartilage rim that surrounds the shoulder joint.

The injury plunged Coughlin into what she described as “1 years of hell.” She decided against surgery, opting instead for endless rehabilitation. She struggled through training, often crying while swimming laps, and meets. She failed to qualify for Sydney.

“I’ve always had a very competitive spirit, but at that point I thought I was beaten,” she said. “If I didn’t have a college scholarship, I would have quit. I wasn’t swimming for anything except a ticket to a great university.”

At Berkeley, Coughlin swam for Cal coach Teri McKeever, who brought in a stroke coach to recommend adjustments. The injury had flawed Coughlin’s stroke, so she learned new ways to move through the water.

The results were stunning. In 2002, she became the first swimmer since Tracy Caulkins in 1978 to win five U.S. national titles at one meet.

“Natalie has the ability to reframe a negative experience and that happens right after the experience,” said McKeever, the first female coach selected for a U.S. Olympic swim team. “She’s someone who enjoys the subtleties of the sport, and that’s something that’s going to keep her in the sport.”

Coughlin experienced another setback at last year’s world championships in Barcelona. She got sick with a viral infection, spiked a 103-degree fever and couldn’t sleep. She helped the United States win gold in the 400 freestyle relay on the first day, then finished 22nd in the 100 back preliminaries — her best event. She withdrew from her other events.

“At the time it was awful,” Coughlin said. “In order to appreciate the medals and records, you have to experience those other times. I appreciate everything I have.”

She’d be grateful for some Olympic medals, too.

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