Natalie Coughlin believes she has swum at her last major meet, satisfied to move on after a U.S. female record-tying 12 Olympic medals.
“I don’t see myself competing for the national team again,” Coughlin said in a phone interview Friday, while not feeling the need to say she’s “retired.” “I think that part is in my past, which I’m happy about and grateful. I don’t see myself trying to go to a world championships or an Olympic team again, but at the same time you never know.”
Coughlin, 34, earned a medal in every event she entered across three Olympics, including back-to-back gold medals in the 100m backstroke in 2004 and 2008.
She earned her last medal at London 2012. Coughlin wasn’t able to qualify for the Rio Olympic team at last summer’s Trials and hasn’t done swim training in several months.
She made her NBC Sports debut at last weekend’s Pro Swim Series at Indianapolis and hopes to continue in broadcasting as one way to stay involved in the sport.
“Everyone thinks that they can do that job, and it is quite difficult,” Coughlin said. “I remember the producers beforehand asking me if I’ve ever worked with a telestrator, and I had no idea what they were talking about.”
Her 12 medals are tied for the most by a female swimmer and the most by any U.S. woman with Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres, her teammates at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, respectively.
Coughlin’s five medals at Athens 2004 and six at Beijing 2008 were second among all athletes at those Games, behind Michael Phelps each time. She is the only U.S. woman to earn six medals at one Olympics.
“One of the reasons I had such an amazing career and have been so successful is I never set a goal to be the most decorated female athlete,” said Coughlin, who also earned a female-record 20 long-course world championships medals. “I never went into an Olympics saying I want to get five medals, or I want to get six medals. I went into each Olympics and took each race one race at a time.”
Beyond the accolades, Coughlin swam with a powerful drive that belied her modest 5-foot-8 frame and welcoming smile. She was motivated by early career setbacks and, as she matured in front of the world, developed passions outside of the pool while still maintaining that desire to train, day-in and day-out.
Many of today’s top swimmers looked at Coughlin as a role model and then became her teammate, a testament to her staying power for nearly two decades.
“I really, truly enjoyed swimming and loved the pursuit, the daily pursuit, the daily grind,” Coughlin said. “There are many other athletes and many other swimmers out there that don’t necessarily enjoy it and enjoy the process, which is why they have a good Olympics or a good competition and swear they’ll never come back. I really enjoyed it, which is why I kept coming back.”
Coughlin was a Bay Area prodigy who began competing by age 6. As a 15-year-old, she became the first swimmer in history to qualify for the Summer Nationals in all 14 events in 1998.
Coughlin suffered a torn shoulder labrum in March 1999, which lingered all the way to the 2000 Olympic Trials, where she failed to make the team for Sydney.
Coughlin endured. She won her first world title in the 100m back in 2001 and then won five individual events at the 2002 U.S. Championships, when she became the first woman to swim the 100m back in under one minute.
Great expectations accompanied her at the 2003 World Championships in Barcelona. But so did a 103-degree fever. Coughlin didn’t make it out of the prelims in two individual events and finished eighth in the other.
Again, she came back. Coughlin made the 2004 Olympic team and earned five medals in Athens, including twice breaking the Olympic 100m backstroke record. She had finally fulfilled the promise placed upon her on her sport’s biggest stage.
“I was really overwhelmed with the pressure and expectations of being the world-record holder and trying to get the validation of that individual [100m back] gold medal,” Coughlin said. “My memories of that race are pretty foggy. The only thing that I can remember of that race was right before being announced, ‘In lane four, Natalie Coughlin,’ I remember thinking no matter what happens in the next couple of minutes, life will still go on. Whether you get a gold medal or you get eighth, it doesn’t matter as long as you give it your all.”
Coughlin continued, winning another five medals each at the 2005 and 2007 World Championships. She made the U.S. Olympic team in six events and again made the podium in every one at the Games in Beijing, taking three individual medals and three relay medals.
She took an 18-month break from competition following those Games, marrying Ethan Hall, pursuing her cooking interests and competing on “Dancing with the Stars.”
Though Coughlin earned 100m back bronze at the 2011 World Championships, she missed the 2012 Olympic team in that event by one spot, taking third at Trials. She made the London Olympics by the skin of her teeth overall, as the last qualifier for the 4x100m freestyle relay by finishing sixth in the 100m free at Trials.
Coughlin swam the 4x100m prelims at the London Games but was left off the final quartet. She still earned a medal as her teammates finished third in the final.
Coughlin’s last Olympic cycle was up and down. She changed coaches, dropped the backstroke and focused on sprint freestyles, but in 2014 failed to qualify for a world championships team for the first time since 1998.
Again, Coughlin rebounded. In 2015, she re-added the 100m back and swam her fastest time in seven years, leading the American rankings for that year. She also clocked her fastest 100m free in five years and her fastest 50m free ever.
Coughlin could not carry over that success to the Olympic year.
At the 2016 Olympic Trials, she finished eighth in the 100m backstroke and 14th in the 100m freestyle and pulled out of her final event, the 50m free. A heartbroken Coughlin emphasized then that she wasn’t announcing a retirement.
“For me, it doesn’t matter if it was a great last meet or a mediocre last meet,” Coughlin said Friday. “I have 12 Olympic medals, and no female has ever achieved more. I don’t really need to feel the validation of having that perfect last meet. It doesn’t take away or add to my accomplishments in any way.”
Coughlin has plenty to keep her busy. She plans to publish a cookbook in spring 2019 and is starting a small wine label with her friend.
The future may well hold more swim meets, but not on the national or major international level. Coughlin has swum in the fall, typically the offseason, in Italy and Tahiti in recent years.
“Beyond world championships and nationals and the Olympics, there are lots of really fun and incredible competitions out there,” she said.
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