Jan. 27, 2003
By John Crumpacker Class of '77
At halftime of the New Mexico State football game on Sept. 7, fans at Memorial Stadium stood and cheered for a fish out of water. Dressed in T-shirt and shorts, Natalie Coughlin looked like any 20-year-old college junior enjoying a day in the sun while watching the football team joust its way to victory.
In many ways, Coughlin is a typical college student at the University of California. She carries a 3.4 grade point average in psychology, loves photography and surfing, and watching cooking shows on television.
Nothing gets her going like a good workout in the gym or in the pool-she works up a sweat in both.
In other significant ways, however, Coughlin is unlike any of her 23,000 fellow undergraduates at Berkeley. Over the last two years, she's developed into one of the finest swimmers in the world and is poised to become a star at the Athens Olympics in 2004.
Coughlin was trotted out at the football game in recognition for her smashing achievements over the summer at the U.S. nationals and the Pan-Pacific Championships. In a dizzying list of accomplishments that will only grow, Coughlin-as of November-had broken 31 American records and six world records.
"From the alumni side, I got a standing ovation,'' she said of that September day. "That's awesome. They were proud in acknowledging me. That was fun.''
Significantly, she became the first woman in history to swim the 100-meter backstroke, long-course version, in less than one minute when she touched the wall in 59.58 seconds at last summer's U.S. nationals in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.
"In my opinion, she ranks in ability with Mark Spitz,'' said Stanford women's swim coach Richard Quick, who tried, and failed, to recruit Coughlin out of Carondelet High School in Concord. "The reason I say that is she's in the neighborhood of breaking the world record in the 100 free and the 100 back and she has a shot at the world record in the 100 butterfly.
"To have that kind of ability in three strokes is unheard of. She's the best I've ever seen. She's not only breaking world and American records, she's smashing world and American records.''
If a rival coach is that generous in his praise of Coughlin, imagine what Cal women's coach Teri McKeever has to say about her swim star.
"She embodies what this university is about,'' McKeever said. "That's what I'm proud of. She's a young lady who embodies the whole package because she's articulate and bright.''
While Coughlin's renown as a swimmer is both ongoing and escalating, her position in the Pantheon of great athletes at Cal has not been properly addressed. It's no stretch to suggest that when her eligibility is up mere months before the Athens Olympics, Coughlin might well be the most accomplished athlete in school history, a history that dates to the late 19th Century.
Chew on that for a moment: The greatest athlete ever at Cal. Greater than Brick Mueller or Chuck Muncie or Joe Roth in football; greater than Kevin Johnson or Jason Kidd in basketball; greater than Michele Granger in softball; greater than Don Bowden or Archie Williams or Eddie Hart in track and field.
"I have talked about it with other people,'' Coughlin said, meaning her fellow swimmers. "If we were football stars, we'd be millionaires. Other than that, I haven't thought about it.''
Or has hyperbole taken over and thrown a blanket over perspective?
After all, Coughlin has yet to make an Olympic team, the standard measure of excellence in most sports. She'll have to go to Athens and stand on the medals podium more than once to be held in the same company as great Cal swimmers like Mary T. Meagher, Matt Biondi and Coughlin's own contemporary, Anthony Ervin, who won a gold medal in the 50-meter freestyle at Sydney in 2000.
Meagher, known as "Madame Butterfly'' for her proficiency at that stroke, won three Olympic gold medals. Biondi swam in three Olympics, won eight gold medals, and was the aquatic star of the Seoul Games in 1988.
As a 17-year-old just out of Carondelet High, Coughlin competed in the Olympic trials with an injured shoulder and did not qualify for the Sydney Olympics. Since recovering from the injury with physical therapy instead of surgery, she's been nearly unbeatable.
Officials in the school's Athletic Department should clear space in the Hall of Fame room at Memorial Stadium for Coughlin. A lot of space. If her performance curve is still in ascent, as most swim experts believe, she'll need a wing in the Hall of Fame. An annex, maybe.
McKeever marvels at how Coughlin balances things in her life when it would be easy for swimming to become like a tsunami and wash over everything else. In that regard, Jim and Zennie Coughlin did an admirable job of keeping their daughter grounded.
"She likes just hanging out with her family,'' McKeever said. "What really helps her is having a perspective in all this and how that's part of being a world-class athlete also. It all contributes to the excellence she is as an athlete.''
So here she is, two years after one Olympics and two years before the next, a position not unlike a teeter-totter resting momentarily at 180 degrees, neither teetering nor tottering.
"The big goal every four years is the Olympics,'' Coughlin said. ""From there you have steps, and that's what I try to see goals as-little steps along the way: Pac-10, NCAA, World Championships. It's building on each little time period.''
Looking ahead to Athens, Quick, the Stanford coach, said of Coughlin, "She has the potential to be the cornerstone of the U.S. Olympic team. I do think Natalie is poised to take advantage of that opportunity.''
While the summer is given over to the national and international meets (at the Pan-Pacific Championships in Japan, fans were charmed by Coughlin's radiance and greeted her with chants of ""Nat-a-lie! Nat-a-lie!''), the fall is time for the team. Rather than miss her team's annual retreat in the foothill town of Arnold in Calaveras County before school started, Coughlin said no to a USA Swimming awards banquet.
"I'm really glad I went to the retreat,'' she said. "We use the retreat to bond. It's really fun to get away from Berkeley.''
And fun to return as well, according to Coughlin. After taking only a week off at the end of the summer, she was energized to be back in the pool, training for the fall college season.
"This year I was really excited to get back into swimming,'' she said. "Normally, I'm really tired. This year I took a week off and began training again. It says something about my summer. I had a really good time this summer. I didn't need that much of a break.''
Truth is, Coughlin couldn't stand to be away from the pool and the gym. If there is a secret to her success, it's in the work she puts in before her races.
Coughlin is actually a workout fiend. She lives for the burn and burns enough calories to indulge her palate now and then without worrying about adding extra pounds to the 130 she carries on her 5-foot-8 frame.
She takes pleasure in reciting the meal she ate at Chez Panisse in Berkeley with her family last year and grows excited talking about a recent dish she prepared, scallops with lemon shallots.
"That was really good," Coughlin said. "This was from Cooking Light, my new favorite cooking magazine. It has simple recipes and gourmet recipes. They're really good and easy. Most of them don't take much time.''
Then there was the time she made something called "crab pillows,'' doughy material stuffed with crab and deep-fried in peanut oil. Not recommended for those watching their weight. But for someone like Coughlin who swims, runs, lifts weights, rides a stationary bike and practices yoga, a few crab pillows are a way of saying, job well done.
"They're really bad for you,'' she said. "Usually I eat healthy, but sometimes I indulge myself.''
To be an elite swimmer means putting in the necessary hours in the pool doing the back-and-forth thing, but Coughlin credits McKeever's training regimen for keeping things interesting.
"That's something Teri is great at,'' Coughlin said. "She mixes it up. You're not just staring at the bottom of the pool for five hours.''
McKeever has her Bears doing yoga, working with medicine balls, riding stationary bikes, lifting weights and running, in addition to pool work. And even in the pool, the coach has her swimmers play a game of water-tag called "Sharks and Minnows'' to break up the monotony of laps.
"I can't imagine being out of shape,'' Coughlin said. "I love being in shape. First and foremost, I love it so much. I like doing well in meets. In order to do that, I have to train well. The swims I had this summer, I want to keep having them and go faster. That motivates me.''
From his vantage point at Stanford, Quick called Coughlin and McKeever an "outstanding partnership'' and said, "To be honest, as much of a rival Cal is, I admire both of them. I sit in awe of what she's done. She's so well balanced. She's one of the nicest people on the face of the Earth.''
And by the time Coughlin graduates-to Quick's great relief-she might well be the most accomplished athlete in school history. Something to chew on, certainly-like one of her crab pillows.