Natalie Coughlin moves on after record 12 Olympic medals

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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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Michael Phelps qualifies for first Olympics at age 15 in 2000

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In the biggest race of his young life, a 15-year-old Michael Phelps turned for the last 50 meters in fourth place of the U.S. Olympic Trials 200m butterfly final on Aug. 12, 2000.

His mom, Debbie, couldn’t watch. She turned away from the Indiana Natatorium pool and stared at the scoreboard. Both Debbie and Phelps’ coach, Bob Bowman, mentally prepared their consolation speeches for the rising Towson High School sophomore outside Baltimore.

Then Phelps, fueled by nightly Adam’s Mark chicken sandwich-and-cheesecake room service and amped by DMX on his CD player, turned it on. He zoomed into second place, becoming the youngest U.S. male swimmer to qualify for an Olympics since 1932.

Phelps had “come out of nowhere in the last six months” to become an Olympic hopeful, NBC Sports swimming commentator Dan Hicks said on the broadcast. True, Phelps chopped five and a half seconds off his personal best that March.

“He doesn’t know what it means to go to the Olympics and how it’s going to change his life,” Tom Malchow, the 1996 Olympic silver medalist who held off Phelps in that trials final, said that night, according to The Associated Press. “He’s going to find out soon.”

Phelps, who did his trademark arm flaps before the trials final, made Bowman look like a prophet. Four years earlier, the coach sat Debbie down for a conversation she would not soon forget.

“Told me what he projected for Michael,” Debbie said, according to the Baltimore Sun‘s front-page story on a local 15-year-old qualifying for the Sydney Games. “He said that in 2004, he would definitely be a factor in the Olympics. He also said that he could be there in 2000, to watch out for him. At the time, he was only 11.”

The trials were bittersweet for the Phelps family. Whitney, one of Phelps’ older sisters, withdrew before the meet with herniated discs in her back that kept her from making an Olympics after competing in the 1994 World Championships at age 14.

After Phelps qualified for the Olympics, one of the first people to embrace him was Whitney on the pool deck.

The next week, Phelps, still with bottom-teeth braces, did his first live TV interview on CNN, swiveling in his chair the whole time, according to his autobiography, “Beneath the Surface.”

The next month, Phelps finished fifth in his Olympic debut, clocking a then-personal-best time that would have earned gold or silver at every previous Olympics.

Following the Olympic race, gold medalist Malchow patted Phelps on the back, according to “No Limits,” another Phelps autobiography. What did Malchow say?

“The best is ahead of you.”

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Arnie the Terminator: Aussie rival to Katie Ledecky an unlikely swim story

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In August 2016, a 15-year-old Australian swimmer named Ariarne Titmus followed the Rio Olympics as she prepared to fly to Maui for the Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

Titmus paid special attention to her best events, the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyles. Katie Ledecky swept them, breaking two of her own world records.

“I remember watching her races thinking, like, this chick is nuts,” Titmus told NBC Sports in Australia early this year. “She’s just doing stuff that no one’s gonna get near.”

Three years later, Titmus stunned Ledecky at the world championships, chasing down the American in the last 50 meters of the 400m freestyle. She became the first woman to beat Ledecky in a distance race in seven years and a bona fide rival one year from the Tokyo Games.

Ledecky at first attributed her late fade to tight and tired legs. Then she spent seven hours the next day in a South Korean emergency room with what she believed was a stomach virus.

“She was sick,” said Dean Boxall, Titmus’ South African-born coach, “and we happened to pounce.”

Titmus’ time — 3:58.76, a personal best by .59 — was slower than Ledecky’s wins at her previous three major international meets — Rio Olympics, 2017 Worlds and 2018 Pan Pacific Championships.

“It wasn’t a good swim by Arnie,” said Boxall, a vocal coach known to shout Ledecky’s name in practices. “And I know it wasn’t a good swim by Katie. Definitely not. But there was things that Arnie did in that race I was pleased with, and there was a lot of things that she did that I was not happy with at all.”

The Olympic postponement to 2021 gives Titmus and Boxall another year to work on those inefficiencies down in Brisbane. Another year to mature, to turn 20 years old before the Games.

“I try not to dwell on that [beating Ledecky] too much,” Titmus, sometimes called “the Terminator” by Australian press, said of the world championships, where she also out-split Ledecky in the 4x200m free relay and took bronze behind the American in the 800m free. “Next year’s the big one at the Olympics.”

Nowhere is swimming closer to a national sport than in Australia, but none of its Olympic champion Dolphins hail from Tasmania, an island 150 miles south of the mainland.

Notable Tasmanian sports persons include cricketer Ricky Ponting, retired NASCAR driver Marcos Ambrose and woodchopping world champion David Foster, but no listed swimmers.

Stephanie Rice, the last Australian female swimmer to win an individual Olympic title in 2008, visited “Tassie,” the state a little bigger than West Virginia, nearly a decade ago. She met a young Titmus, who still remembers what Rice scribbled: “Be the best you can be.”

“I say it’s my favorite quote,” Titmus said. “She wrote it on my shirt, so it has to be my favorite quote.”

Titmus was born a week before the Sydney Olympics — “She loved watching Thorpie,” her mom said — and grew up on 16 acres of country land. The family — parents Steve and Robyn and younger sister Mia — had horses, a trampoline and a swimming club just down the road in Launceston.

They also had an indoor pool (areas of Tasmania approach freezing in the winter). One evening more than 15 years ago, Robyn was chopping vegetables and peered to see her elder daughter, then a toddler without formal swim lessons, doing the breaststroke.

“We didn’t know anybody at the swimming club,” said Steve, a longtime TV journalist. “And we turned up and said, hi, we’re the Titmuses. We’ve got a daughter called Ariarne, and she wants to race. Tuesday nights they had club night, and she jumped in the water, and away she went.”

Titmus wasn’t the fastest at first, but by the time she won a third Australian junior title, she became too big for the Apple Isle.

“[My coach] said, look, you can’t really do anything else down here,” Titmus remembered. “There’s no one for you to train with. There’s no one for you to race. It’s all up in Queensland. And he said, if you really want a shot at this, you should really move.”

The family relocated to Brisbane when she was 14 or 15, following Titmus’ coach.

We packed up the car, got on the boat, sailed to Melbourne,” said Robyn, a former national-level track sprinter. “We even stopped at Albury on the way for a training session because the coach she had at the time was a hard task master.”

Right around that time, she first met Boxall while with the Australian junior national team.

“I originally thought this guy is nuts,” Titmus said. “He gave us this speech about the New Zealanders or something were trying to be better than us. His veins were popping. It was crazy. I was like, I’m never ever going to have a coach like him.”

Boxall became her coach about a year later.

“I’ve got great athletes here that hurt themselves, and they enjoy going through the pain,” he said, “but you want to try and get that little bit extra from someone. You have to actually go there with them a little bit.”

In a sitdown, on-camera interview, Boxall first told how he met Titmus, his first impression of her and a bit about their relationship. He first mentioned Ledecky, umprompted, when asked the fourth question, about Titmus’ progression.

Boxall noted that Titmus swam the 400m freestyle in 4:09.81 at the August 2016 Junior Pan Pacific Championships.

“Ledecky went 3:56:46,” Boxall said, correctly noting Ledecky’s Rio Olympic world record to the hundredth, “so we’re 13 seconds off [at] that stage.”

Titmus raced Ledecky for the first time at the 2017 Worlds and finished fourth in the 400m, closing the gap to six seconds. In 2018, she took second to Ledecky at Pan Pacs, 1.16 seconds behind, becoming the first Australian to break four minutes in the event.

At 2019 Worlds, Boxall needed to be alone during the 400m free final. He left the Australian team box and snuck into a VIP area. As Titmus reeled Ledecky in, Boxall stood up and ran.

“Like a shot of adrenaline,” he said. “I couldn’t contain myself, but I was calmer as I’d ever been as well.

“That’s the first race that Arnie has raced Katie and actually was in the race. … Prior to that, it was just Katie.”

Titmus swam 10 seconds faster than when Boxall first compared her to Ledecky in August 2016.

“She’s 2.4 seconds off [Ledecky’s] world record,” Boxall said. “We know what the benchmark is, and we’re still a long way off.”

Titmus recorded the eighth-fastest 400m freestyle in history. Ledecky owns the top seven times.

“The greatest thing apart from obviously winning, I think, [is] being able to actually race someone who has been on her own for so long,” Titmus said. “I find it so crazy that now I’m in this situation where she’s my main rival.”

Scroll down the list, and you’ll see that the top 27 times in history (aside from the now-banned suit era) are shared by Ledecky (23) and Titmus (four).

“She’s certainly special,” Boxall said of his pupil. “Special enough? We’ll see.”

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