Natalie Coughlin

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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Natalie Coughlin misses Olympic team, not retiring

Natalie Coughlin
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Natalie Coughlin, who shares the U.S. female Olympic record with 12 medals, missed the Rio Olympic team but is not retiring at age 33, according to reports.

Coughlin finished eighth in the 100m backstroke and 14th in the 100m freestyle at the Olympic Trials this week. She scratched out of her final event, the 50m freestyle.

Coughlin has an impressive record of earning a medal in every single one of her Olympic events in three Games. Only she and Finnish distance running legend Paavo Nurmi have entered at least 12 Olympic events and earned medals in all of them.

After taking five medals in 2004 and six in 2008, Coughlin barely made the 2012 Olympic team, as a 4x100m free relay swimmer, and earned a bronze medal for competing in the preliminary heats. That tied her with Dara Torres and Jenny Thompson for not only the U.S. female record, but also the female swimmer record for most medals.

In 2014, Coughlin failed to qualify for the 2015 World Championships.

But last summer she swam a 100m backstroke (leading off a relay) in 59.05 seconds, the fastest by an American for the year and her best time since winning her second straight Olympic title in 2008.

She couldn’t replicate it in Omaha, clocking 1:00.46 and 1:00.48 in the semis and final.

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As gold medalists struggle at Olympic Trials, disappointment sets in

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OMAHA — At the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials, there is little room for error and, in some ways, less space to hide.

After finals races, those who don’t finish in the top two to make the Olympic team aren’t stopped for post-race TV interviews on the pool deck.

Instead, they trudge or limp past a green and gold flip-flop that will soon be autographed by those who have beaten them and made the Rio squad (in 2012, the canvas was a British phone booth).

Just beyond that is a U.S. Olympic backdrop with the hashtag #RoadtoRio.

And then, just before the swimmers descend two sets of seven-step metal staircases and out of view, they pass below another U.S. Olympic banner including a mini airplane. Presumably, the flight is headed to Rio de Janeiro.

These world-class athletes, many of whom have just failed in a four-year quest, must collect themselves in the minute or so between surfacing from the pool and reaching the end of those stairs.

At the bottom, they emerge from beside a small black curtain. They have now reached what’s called the mixed zone, the only area where both the athletes must pass as they exit the pool and the media are allowed access.

Many of these swimmers have decided in this short time span how to present themselves after not qualifying for the hardest team to make in the world.

“It’s really tough,” Missy Franklin said after finishing seventh in the 100m backstroke, an event she won at the 2012 London Olympics but will not race in Rio.

“I think I’m a little stunned,” Matt Grevers said after finishing third in the men’s 100m backstroke, an event he won in London but will not race in Rio.

“I know I could have done better,” Ryan Lochte said after finishing fourth in the 200m freestyle. He was the top American in the event in London, also fourth, but will not race it individually in Rio.

Lochte did, however, qualify for Rio in the 4x200m freestyle relay pool.

“I made it,” were among Lochte’s first words off that metal staircase. “I’m going to Rio.”

Not yet booked are Franklin, Grevers or 12-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin, who was eighth in the 100m back. Tuesday night saw a chunk of the 11 active individual U.S. Olympic swimming gold medalists come up short, but they will get more chances later this week.

Combined, Franklin, Coughlin, Lochte and Grevers own 104 Olympic and long-course world championships medals, with 57 of them gold.

Franklin, the four-time 2012 Olympic gold medalist who wants to become the most decorated female swimmer ever, came into this meet unsatisfied with the first half of her year. And largely the last two years since suffering back spasms at the August 2014 Pan Pacific Championships.

She was sluggish, rushed and nervous in her first two races here, the 100m backstroke preliminaries and semifinals. Coach Todd Schmitz hoped that Tuesday night’s schedule, having a 200m freestyle semifinal and then the 100m backstroke final 23 minutes later, would ease her. There was no time to worry. Just swim, recover and swim again.

Franklin swam well in the 200m freestyle, qualifying fourth into the final in an event she won at the 2013 World Championships. Franklin is no longer a favorite to make the Olympic team individually in the 200m free (Katie Ledecky and Leah Smith are), but Tuesday night’s result portends she will qualify for the Olympic team in the 4x200m free relay Wednesday night, as Lochte did.

“Right now I need to make the team,” Franklin said. “In whatever way.”

That would be a shocking statement for anyone to read if they haven’t followed Franklin since the 2012 Olympics, or better yet since she won six gold medals at the 2013 World Championships.

She has not been the same since the 2014 back spasms, and increased preventative care since, and transition from college to professional swimmer with a move from California back to her parents’ basement in Colorado in spring 2015.

She earned zero individual gold medals at the 2014 Pan Pacific Championships and 2015 World Championships, though she had gritty efforts for silver and bronze and encouraging relays.

Franklin said Tuesday night that she’s feeling more pressure than ever before.

“There’s more expectation,” Schmitz said of the now-professional Franklin, who has sponsors including GoPro, Minute Maid, Speedo, United, Visa, Wheaties, plus a book to be published for the Christmas season. “You know what, in 2012, there wasn’t commercials playing on the jumbotron like there is now.”

Frankin’s seventh-place time in the 100m back — 1:00.24 — was well off her 2015 World Championships best of 59.40. But 59.40 would have gotten her fourth place Tuesday night.

Earlier, Schmitz said he saw “the signature Missy” at the end of her 200m freestyle semifinal, the most encouraging sign of her Trials so far. She made up three tenths of a second on third-place Allison Schmitt in the final 50 meters.

“The good thing is that it’s only day three,” Schmitz said. “She’s got three more days of swimming. We’ve got three really good events coming up. We’re still rolling.”

Those events are the 200m free, where, again, Franklin is the fourth seed going into the final and not a favorite for an individual Olympic spot.

Then there’s the 100m free, which has always been the weakest of Franklin’s four events.

And finally the 200m backstroke, which is Franklin’s signature event. She is the world-record holder and 2015 World silver medalist.

“She has the ability to go into game mode and out of game mode,” Schmitz said. “Is she disappointed? Of course she is. There’s disappointment that can motivate you, which is different from the disappointment where you’re sulking around.”

Lochte was not sulking but limping after he made it past the flip-flop, hashtag and airplane, down the stairs and emerged from the black curtain.

The pain from an off-and-on groin injury that flared up Sunday was at “a seven or eight” out of 10.

Lochte gathered to smile and repeat a few times that he was proud to make the most elite team in the world.

“That time (1:46.62) was really bad for me,” he said (Lochte’s 2015 Worlds semifinal time of 1:45.36 would have won Tuesday). “I know I could have done better, but I’m proud I made the team.”

Would he have been disappointed with fourth place had he been healthy?

“I’m representing my country at the highest stage in sports, it’s a beautiful feeling,” Lochte answered, again not giving away frustration, if there was any.

This is certain: Lochte feels from different than in 2004, when he also finished fourth in the 200m free at Trials but was ecstatic to make his first Olympic team as a relay-only swimmer (he later made the Athens team in the 200m individual medley, which he will also hope to do here Friday).

“I feel great, but still kind of shocked,” Lochte, then 19, said in 2004, according to his hometown newspaper in Daytona Beach, Fla. “I’ve been waiting for this since I first started swimming.”

Coughlin and Grevers are more familiar than Franklin or Lochte with not making the top two.

Coughlin, who shares the U.S. Olympic female record of 12 medals that Franklin chases, was third in the 100m back at the 2012 Trials and sixth in the 100m freestyle. She went to London as a relay-only swimmer.

Her hopes this week are down to the 50m and 100m freestyles, where she is not favored to finish in the top two.

Grevers, after a breakout 100m back silver at the 2008 Beijing Games, failed to qualify for major international meets in 2010 and 2011.

The 100m back is the only individual event he has ever contested at a world championships or Olympics. Grevers is not injured like Lochte. He hasn’t had especially frustrating recent years like Franklin or Coughlin.

Grevers was near his best in this Olympic cycle in Omaha. He simply got beat by faster swimmers Tuesday.

Ryan Murphy and David Plummer swam 52.26 and 52.28. Grevers’ fastest time since the 2012 Olympics is 52.54.

Of the Olympic champions who came up short Tuesday, Grevers appeared the most emotionally affected. Or at least he chose to present himself that way more than the others.

“I think if I let it sink in,” he said, “I’ll be more distraught than I currently am.”

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