Natalie Coughlin: Professional swimmer, amateur gorilla-watcher

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Fresh off her history-making performance in London that saw her tie Dara Torres’ and Jenny Thompson’s all-time Olympic medals total of 12 (the most for a U.S. female), Natalie Coughlin wants to keep swimming at age 30.

We caught up with Coughlin and talked about working out, her recent trip to Africa – where she proudly wore her Oakland Raiders hat in the jungle – and a whole lot more. Here’s a condensed version of our conversation:

How much swimming and training are you doing?
I’ve been lifting, running and swimming. I haven’t formally started training with the team yet, but I have been working out on my own. I’m swimming five days a week … not over 5,000 [meters a day].

When will you start competing again?
I have no idea. I’m still trying to figure out my meet schedule. But I’ll definitely be at Santa Clara [Grand Prix in early June] and World Championships Trials [in late June].

You do a lot of running. Ever think of going the Brendan Hansen route and doing triathlons?
The whole cycling thing freaks me out. Being on the road with cars … when I’m in my own car I don’t trust other drivers. If there were run-swims, I would do those.
Editor’s note: Natalie, try an aquathlon.

Did it really take you 45 hours to travel to Rwanda for your recent trip with Right to Play?
We ended up having mechanical issues in Chicago that ruined the rest of our flight. We flew from San Francisco to Chicago, then Chicago to Brussels. And originally we were supposed to fly from Brussels to Kigali [Rwanda] but because we missed that connection, and that connection only happens twice a week, we couldn’t get a flight. So we ended up having this 10-hour layover in Brussels, and then we flew Brussels to Paris, Paris to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and then Entebbe, Uganda to Rwanda.

We missed the first day of only a five-day trip. The day we landed, two hours later we had a press conference. Whenever I wasn’t speaking I was dozing off in front of all these reporters. I was at the point of absolute exhaustion.

Tell us about the gorillas you saw in Rwanda.
I will admit, there were times when I accepted that I might get completely mauled by gorillas. [laughs] A toddler gorilla kicked me and ran off. The alpha silverback came to me and brushed up against me. I was trying to look at the ground, look anywhere but in his eyes.

What else stood out during the trip?
I had my big camera and I’m taking all these photos of the kids. Everywhere we went, they were so excited to see us. They were signing and dancing and including us in all the Right to Play games. The kids … would ask me to take pictures of them so they could see their photos. It was because they don’t have mirrors; they don’t know what they look like.

If you retired tomorrow, would you be satisfied?
I don’t think I can ever be satisfied with my career, but I’m extremely proud of it. I’m proud of what I’ve done. But half the reason that I’m continuing is that I still have goals for myself. That being said, if this all gets taken away from me somehow I will continually be proud of it and I’ll be OK with moving on. I love doing this, so why not?

Right to Play is an international organization dedicated to using sport and play to empower children and youth to overcome the effects of poverty, conflict, and disease in disadvantaged communities. Read more at righttoplay.com.

Football takes significant step in Olympic push

Flag Football
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
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Football took another step toward possible Olympic inclusion with the IOC executive board proposing that the sport’s international federation — the IFAF — be granted full IOC recognition at a meeting in October.

IOC recognition does not equate to eventual Olympic inclusion, but it is a necessary early marker if a sport is to join the Olympics down the line. The IOC gave the IFAF provisional recognition in 2013.

Specific measures are required for IOC recognition, including having an anti-doping policy compliant with the World Anti-Doping Agency and having 50 affiliated national federations from at least three continents. The IFAF has 74 national federations over five continents with almost 4.8 million registered athletes, according to the IOC.

The NFL has helped lead the push for flag football to be added for the 2028 Los Angeles Games. Flag football had medal events for men and women at last year’s World Games, a multi-sport competition including Olympic and non-Olympic sports, in Birmingham, Alabama.

Football is one of nine sports that have been reported to be in the running to be proposed by LA 2028 to the IOC to be added for the 2028 Games only. LA 2028 has not announced which, if any sports, it plans to propose.

Under rules instituted before the Tokyo Games, Olympic hosts have successfully proposed to the IOC adding sports solely for their edition of the Games.

For Tokyo, baseball-softball, karate, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing were added. For Paris, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing were approved again, and breaking will make its Olympic debut. Those sports were added four years out from the Games.

For 2028, the other sports reportedly in the running for proposal are baseball and softball, breaking, cricket, karate, kickboxing, lacrosse, motorsports and squash.

All of the other eight sports reportedly in the running for 2028 proposal already have a federation with full IOC recognition (if one counts the international motorcycle racing federation for motorsports).

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Helen Maroulis stars in wrestling documentary, with help from Chris Pratt

Helen Maroulis, Chris Pratt
Getty
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One of the remarkable recent Olympic comeback stories is the subject of a film that will be shown nationwide in theaters for one day only on Thursday.

“Helen | Believe” is a documentary about Helen Maroulis, the first U.S. Olympic women’s wrestling champion. It is produced by Religion of Sports, the venture founded by Gotham Chopra, Michael Strahan and Tom Brady. Showing details are here.

After taking gold at the 2016 Rio Games, Maroulis briefly retired in 2019 during a two-year stretch in which she dealt with concussions and post-traumatic stress disorder. The film focuses on that period and her successful bid to return and qualify for the Tokyo Games, where she took bronze.

In a poignant moment in the film, Maroulis described her “rock bottom” — being hospitalized for suicidal ideations.

In an interview, Maroulis said she was first approached about the project in 2018, the same year she had her first life-changing concussion that January. A wrestling partner’s mother was connected to director Dylan Mulick.

Maroulis agreed to the film in part to help spread mental health awareness in sports. Later, she cried while watching the 2020 HBO film, “The Weight of Gold,” on the mental health challenges that other Olympians faced, because it resonated with her so much.

“When you’re going through something, it sometimes gives you an anchor of hope to know that someone’s been through it before, and they’ve overcome it,” she said.

Maroulis’ comeback story hit a crossroads at the Olympic trials in April 2021, where the winner of a best-of-three finals series in each weight class made Team USA.

Maroulis won the opening match against Jenna Burkert, but then lost the second match. Statistically, a wrestler who loses the second match in a best-of-three series usually loses the third. But Maroulis pinned Burkert just 22 seconds into the rubber match to clinch the Olympic spot.

Shen then revealed that she tore an MCL two weeks earlier.

“They told me I would have to be in a brace for six weeks,” she said then. “I said, ‘I don’t have that. I have two and a half.’”

Maroulis said she later asked the director what would have happened if she didn’t make the team for Tokyo. She was told the film still have been done.

“He had mentioned this isn’t about a sports story or sports comeback story,” Maroulis said. “This is about a human story. And we’re using wrestling as the vehicle to tell this story of overcoming and healing and rediscovering oneself.”

Maroulis said she was told that, during filming, the project was pitched to the production company of actor Chris Pratt, who wrestled in high school in Washington. Pratt signed on as a producer.

“Wrestling has made an impact on his life, and so he wants to support these kinds of stories,” said Maroulis, who appeared at last month’s Santa Barbara Film Festival with Pratt.

Pratt said he knew about Maroulis before learning about the film, which he said “needed a little help to get it over the finish line,” according to a public relations company promoting the film.

The film also highlights the rest of the six-woman U.S. Olympic wrestling team in Tokyo. Four of the six won a medal, including Tamyra Mensah-Stock‘s gold.

“I was excited to be part of, not just (Maroulis’) incredible story, but also helping to further advance wrestling and, in particular, female wrestling,” Pratt said, according to responses provided by the PR company from submitted questions. “To me, the most compelling part of Helen’s story is the example of what life looks like after a person wins a gold medal. The inevitable comedown, the trauma around her injuries, the PTSD, the drive to continue that is what makes her who she is.”

Maroulis, who now trains in Arizona, hopes to qualify for this year’s world championships and next year’s Olympics.

“I try to treat every Games as my last,” she said. “Now I’m leaning toward being done [after 2024], but never say never.”

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