The most common phrase that is found when describing swimming phenom Natalie Coughlin is that she was “born to swim”. An unbelievably precocious talent, Coughlin was swimming by 10 months old, competing at 6, and breaking national swimming records at 16. As Coughlin’s legend grew, so did the desire of colleges across the country to recruit her to their swimming programs. As the 2000 Olympics approached, expectations around Coughlin reached fever pitch. However, tragedy struck, as she injured her shoulder in the build up to the Olympics and was unable to qualify. This left her with some peace and quiet, and a decision to make: where was she going to attend college? Who was going to be lucky enough to sign Natalie Coughlin, college swimming superstar?
The Cal Golden Bears
After much debate, Coughlin signed with the University of California, Berkeley’s Golden Bears. She paired up with legendary head coach Tara McKeever, who had proven championship credentials. Coughlin brought with her a huge reputation: she had become, at age 16, the first person in history to qualify for all 24 events at the summer national swimming championships. She had also set national high school records in the 200-yard Individual Medley and the 100-yard backstroke. Joining up with Coach McKeever was the perfect way for Coughlin to build on her already exceptional foundation, and studying at Cal was a great opportunity to receive an education while perfecting her craft.
A Freshman Season For The Ages
Coughlin flew out of the gates her first year, having what was arguably the greatest freshman swimming season of all time. With Coach McKeever’s brilliant guidance, Natalie won NCAA national titles in the 100-yard butterfly and the 100-yard and 200-yard backstroke. At the same time, she set NCAA records in all three events. She won a further three medals at the NCAA championships when she helped her relay teams to three second-placed finishes. Her efforts in the pool were recognized when she was awarded the NCAA Swimmer of the Year as a freshman – an exceptional achievement. She had arrived, and been crowned: Natalie Coughlin, college superstar.
Coughlin’s sophomore year, however, was where she cemented her status as a legend. Natalie became the first woman to swim a sub-1 minute time in the 100-metre backstroke. This was the first time she broke the world record in this event – something she would go on to do another 5 times in her career. She also set an American record when she became the second woman in history to swim the 100-metre freestyle in under 54 seconds. Medals continued to pile up, and in both her sophomore and junior years Natalie was named NCAA Swimmer of the Year. She became the first NCAA triple titlist in the 100-yard butterfly and 100-yard and 200-yard backstroke in history. As a kicker, she broke the two oldest records in NCAA women’s swimming. She finished her college career with 11 individual NCAA titles, and a twelfth relay title.
Natalie graduated from Cal with a degree in psychology, proving her hard work and single-mindedness. “This is a great example of the Cal student athlete”, said Coach McKeever. “This is a young lady willing to be dedicated for an extended period of time.” Natalie’s commitment to making herself great was evident from her school years, and her degree proved her ability to maintain the balancing act of a student-athlete. She enjoyed her classes and managed to achieve good grades. Although her training regimen was onerous, she recognized that this was what it took to reach the top level. “You can’t back off from the 30 hours a week this takes.”she said. “Back off, and you’ll be left in the champions’ wake.”
Natalie then began her Olympic career in the 2004 Games in Athens. Over the next three Games, she would become one of the swimming world’s foremost stars. She became the USA’s most decorated female Olympian after winning a bronze in the relay at the London 2012 Games, joining Dara Torres and Jenny Thompson on 12 medals. She was the first woman to win consecutive golds in the 100m backstroke, at the 2004 and 2008 Games. In 2008, she became the first woman to win six medals at a single Olympiad. Her career eventually netted her a total of 60 medals in international competition, placing her in the pantheon of swimming greats in the modern era.
The College Effect
But Natalie didn’t achieve all of this alone; she had the expert coaching, teaching, and support of the Cal Golden Bears facilities and coaches. Her time at Cal saw her catapulted into celebrity status, with other students recognizing her from television. She had appeared on Letterman and The Today Show and done countless interviews even before the first Games in Athens. However, she approached her studies with dedication and a rare conscientiousness that saw her graduate with a degree. There is no doubt that Natalie Coughlin’s time at college helped write her story, that this swimming superstar was molded in a college swimming pool.
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