Natalie Coughlin taking the plunge again
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The withdrawal pangs came unexpectedly to 11-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin. The competition that had consumed her was suddenly over, and she found herself missing it -- a little too much.
Swimming? Hardly. One of the most decorated Olympians in U.S. history, Coughlin took an 18-month break from the pool after winning six medals in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing on top of the five she had won in Athens in 2004. It was a sweet indulgence Coughlin knew she needed after years of focus and dedication.
Dancing. That's what she suddenly couldn't live without.
Coughlin had become a contestant on the ninth season of "Dancing With the Stars," one of the great leaps outside her comfort zone she embraced in her time away from the pool. But Coughlin couldn't dance her way past Donny Osmond, Kelly Osbourne and the rest. She was voted off in the middle of the competition and was crestfallen.
Until she realized how ridiculous that was.
"When you're doing that show, you think it's so important," she said, laughing at her own emotions. "And then you get kicked off and you're like super depressed for a few days. And then it hits you about a month later that it's only a TV show!
"It was just funny how much it affected me. And then one day I just woke up and I'm like, 'Natalie, snap out of it. It's not a big deal.'"
No, she wouldn't give up one of her medals for that prized mirror ball trophy. In fact, now that she's out of the heels and back on the blocks, Coughlin is hoping to make the 2012 Olympics in London and add to her collection of three gold, four silver and four bronze medals. Turns out that break, including her marriage to youth swim coach Ethan Hall and some much-needed time off to reduce the muscle in her arms for the wedding pictures -- she said with a laugh -- was just what Coughlin needed to refocus on competition.
"I figured I earned six more medals, I have 11 total, what do I have to lose?" she said of her time off. "I have the opportunity to take the year off; I stayed physically fit. I got to do 'Dancing With the Stars'; I got to travel and do all these fun things knowing that I was going to get back.
"You know, I didn't know I was going to be good again. I believed I was going to be. But you never know when you take a year and a half off. But fortunately, I rebounded, and I feel in many ways stronger than I ever have."
It shows. Coughlin already has qualified for the world championship in July in Shanghai, the last major competition before the Olympic trials and the 2012 Games. At a recent USA Swimming Grand Prix event in Charlotte, N.C., Coughlin won the 100 freestyle and her signature event, the 100 backstroke. She has won the gold in the 100 backstroke in each of the past two Olympics.
"We've never had a conversation about this, but I know in my mind I would love to be part of helping her defend her Olympic title in the 100 backstroke and do that for three consecutive Olympics," said Teri McKeever, Coughlin's longtime coach. "I mean, that would be pretty exceptional."
Coughlin also can become the most decorated female swimmer in U.S. Olympic history in London. She is one medal behind Dara Torres and Jenny Thompson, who have won 12 apiece. Coughlin points to the 11 medals as one of her greatest achievements. She has competed in 11 events in the Olympics in her career, which means she has medaled in every event she has attempted.
Not that anyone noticed. Although Coughlin became the first American woman to win six medals in a single competition and the first woman to win the backstroke in back-to-back Olympics, her accomplishments in Beijing were largely overshadowed by Michael Phelps and the eight gold medals he won in eight events.
"I didn't even hear about it, and I was on the team," four-time Olympian Amanda Beard said of Coughlin's performance. "I was like, 'Oh, damn, that's almost as many medals as I've won in my whole career.' That's unheard of. It's so sad when it's like you have to win eight golds to get media attention or to get noticed."
If Coughlin was snubbed, she refuses to be angry about it.
"I don't even think they realized I was going to win six until I had five in my pocket," she said. "I mean, who cares? I wouldn't have lasted this long if I got so caught up in details like that."
How much longer will she last? As long as she wants, McKeever believes. Coughlin has overcome two significant shoulder injuries in her career, but said she is as healthy as she has been in years. Still, her coach would be surprised if Coughlin stuck around long enough to compete for a spot on the 2016 team in Rio de Janeiro.
As would Coughlin, who will turn 30 shortly after the 2012 Games. She hopes to start a family and is already focused on life after swimming, from gardening and cooking -- she raises chickens for the fresh eggs -- to possibly broadcasting.
But you never know.
"In 2004, if you would have told me that I'm still swimming in 2011, I would have laughed,'" she said.
There is one small downside to her return to swimming, though. She won't be dancing anytime soon. Coughlin couldn't even bear to follow this season's "Dancing With the Stars," which ended recently with Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward taking home the mirror ball trophy.
"I don't watch it because I do miss it terribly," Coughlin said. "I'm like, 'Oh, I wish I was dancing again.'"