Cal's Coughlin Created Power Shift In Collegiate Swimming
By Ann Killion
Natalie Coughlin is a California girl. She knew she was going to stay in California. She knew she was going to swim at a Pac-10 school.
But her choice of schools was a surprise to many. And it may have represented a power shift, not only in the Pac-10 but also in the nation.
"I love California, I'm born and raised, and knew I wanted to go to a California school," Coughlin said. "I didn't know if I wanted to swim very long, so I wanted to look at schools with good swim teams but also strong academics."
Toward the end of high school, Coughlin was battling injury and burnout. So she looked beyond just the pool when it came to choosing a school. She looked at UCLA, California and Stanford.
"After visiting each school for a recruiting weekend, it was really easy," she said. "Berkeley just suited my personality. It didn't have to be a top-three swimming school. That wasn't what I was looking at. Cal was a strong team, in the top ten, and it was a good academic school."
Coughlin had to battle with her parents, who leaned toward Stanford - an established swimming power and an expensive private school that made a full scholarship all the more coveted. But Coughlin knew herself and knew that, while she greatly admired former Stanford coach Richard Quick, his coaching style wouldn't be a great match for her.
Instead she found a place that felt like home in Cal, and a coach in Teri McKeever who was nurturing and supportive.
"There's a maternal aspect," Coughlin said. "I never thought I would want to swim for a female coach, and she's one of the few. But I love swimming for her. She honestly cares about her swimmers. She's supportive when it matters most."
The relationship was mutually beneficial. Coughlin became the most decorated swimmer in Cal history. She won 12 NCAA titles, was undefeated in her four-year Cal career and was named the NCAA Swimmer of the Year three times.
After completing her senior season, she made her first U.S. Olympic team, and won five medals in Athens - two gold in the women's 100 meter backstroke and the 4x200 meter freestyle relay, two silvers in the 4x100 meter freestyle relay and the 4x100 meter medley relay and bronze in the 100 meter freestyle.
Four years later, Coughlin eclipsed her Athens success in Beijing, by becoming the first American woman to win six medals in one Olympics. She defended her gold in the 100-meter backstroke, won silver in the 4x100 meter freestyle relay and the 4x100 meter medley relay, and bronze medals in the 200-meter individual medley, the 4x200 meter freestyle relay and the 100-meter freestyle.
The reverberations of Coughlin's ascendance as the most elite female swimmer of her era were felt at Cal. Though Coughlin's Cal team never finished better than sixth at the NCAA Championships, Cal and McKeever were now on the map. And the recruits came. The result has been two national championships in three years - in 2009 and most recently in March of 2011.
"It's crazy how much the team has evolved in 11 years," Coughlin said. "Now, they not only have the stars, but the depth top to bottom. It's a testament to the program and to Teri. I'm very, very proud to have been a part of this program."
Coughlin, an ardent Cal supporter, also takes satisfaction in beating Stanford. But she's particularly proud that Cal is continuing the strong tradition of Pac-10 swimming. The SEC was the dominant conference in the early 2000s, but the Pac-10 has won three of the past four NCAA championships (Arizona won in 2008).
"I might be biased, but I think we have a richer history," Coughlin said.
She continues to train at Cal every morning, a short commute from her home in Contra Costa County. Her high school, childhood home, college, training center and current home are all within a short distance of each other.
"I didn't think I'd want to be so close to home when I was choosing a school," Coughlin said. "But now it's a blessing, because I still train at Cal and have stayed involved for 11 years."
And helped to shift the power base in women's swimming.