Exclusive interview with Natalie Coughlin – the Golden Girl
By Ivette Ricco
Wednesday August 9, 2006
I was looking forward to my interview with Natalie Coughlin the subject of the book, “Golden Girl” by Michael Silver. Natalie is a local girl; she’s a native of Vallejo California, a community just 10 minutes north of Pinole, where I live. Natalie is also a University of California at Berkeley graduate; the Cal Bears are merely 15 minutes south of Pinole. So clearly, Natalie, the Olympic Medallist, is practically my neighbor.
I had my list of questions for Natalie, many of them based on the book, but I wanted to ask Natalie questions she might not normally be asked by your run-of-the-mill media.
This is, after all, Femmefan.com
Further I wanted to learn for myself just how self-assured she was, a lasting impression from the book.
I delved into Natalie’s career and aspects of Golden Girl, but I took the opportunity to ask Natalie a few “outside the lines” type of questions. And when we spoke of things outside of competitive swimming I sensed her noticeably relax and heard, not the confident, articulate answers of a pro, but the honest feelings of a 24-year old young woman.
When I interviewed Michael Silver I asked him why he had chosen Natalie Coughlin as the subject of his book, he said, “The story I wrote isn’t the story I set out to write. What I had in mind was not nearly as compelling as what I wrote. I ended up with a better story about a sport, swimming, because of Natalie. This psychotic Cal alum’s original lure was Natalie who I had met and I was drawn to her likeability and cool personality. We met for lunch several times and it was Natalie who opened up to tell her full story.
I’m proud of Natalie for telling her story. She hopes it will be beneficial to the next generation swimmers.”
Natalie’s accomplishments are well documented in Golden Girl and her struggle to achieve success, her way, is the theme of Golden Girl.
“She came shooting off the wall like a human torpedo, gliding through the water with cold, relentless precision. Unleashing her incomparable, undulating dolphin kicks, Natalie Coughlin began to pull away from the field in the l00-meter backstroke, popping to the surface nearly a body length ahead of her closest pursuer. From that prime vantage point -- with a picturesque view of the Athens sunset, a mere 35 meters between her and redemption -- Coughlin was as good as gold.”
“The most talented female swimmer of her generation took a deep breath and closed in on the prize she'd been chasing for more than a decade. Six days shy of her 22nd birthday, Coughlin propelled herself backward through Lane 4, seven competitors and untold degrees of doubt, pain, and disappointment in her wake. Get to the wall, and she would forever be an Olympic champion, the haters and the traditionalists be damned. Just a dozen or so more strokes and she'd finish a 4-year struggle for self-determination that summoned every ounce of will in her being”.
“Athens and Coughlin's star began to shine, the healing process officially began. None of them, not even the people closest to her, could see the scars. But that didn't matter. Not now”.
Reprinted from: Golden Girl: How Natalie Coughlin Fought Back, Challenged Conventional Wisdom, and Became America's Olympic Champion by Michael Silver © 2006 Michael Silver. Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098. Available wherever books are sold or directly from the publisher by calling (800) 848-4735 or visit their website at www.rodalestore.com.
I now understand why he was so intrigued by this 24-year old athlete.
She is at once determined and open. She is confident but not brash, and very secure in her decisions. She knows what she wants and will go out and do what it takes to get it.
Natalie was all business and emphatic when I asked her about the way swimming coaches “grind” their young swimmers, and if the sport of swimming would benefit if there were more women coaches.
She firmly replied, “It can happen and it’s common but it’s not that way on every team”.
“ Having female coaches would not necessarily change the prevalent way of thinking. The “pain-working” mentality is ingrained in the culture of the sport and are long held, strong beliefs. What is needed is more innovative thinking, thinking outside the box. I’m 24 years old and I get bored with the routines”.
I came away from the book feeling that for many young athletes the sport becomes a job. Yet the reason kids might get involved initially is because it’s fun. Do you think that now, more than ever, young athletes are under a lot of pressure to excel and not only by their coaches but also because of their parents’ expectations?
Again, Natalie was honest and direct.
“I got into swimming because it was fun. It’s sad that it becomes a job and sad when sports become way too serious. Too many kids want to have fun but the parents push them to take it seriously, they have to remember that it’s important to have fun.
I have to remind myself to have fun”.
In Golden Girl I was struck by your obvious fear of losing as opposed to your joy in winning. Is that pretty normal for athletes under immense pressure to win?
“That’s not how I feel at all. There was a lot of media pressure when I was in college and it got frustrating because the goal is to help a team. It’s not as if you’re the only one out there swimming. The perception was created due to some bad experiences and injuries that I had suffered”.
After the 2008 Beijing Olympics, what’s next for Natalie Coughlin, have you given any thought to what career path you might follow?
“I won’t make any decisions beyond 2008. I am enjoying not being in school and enjoying this time. I was offered opportunities after 2004 and I intend to take advantage those opportunities and perhaps others opportunities after 2008. I might consider doing something within the sports broadcasting industry”.
Teri McKeever played a major role in your career and her coaching philosophy seemed to have reenergized and reinvigorated you. Is Teri still a big part of your career?
“Teri is still my coach and has been for 7 years. Teri’s career has also progressed, she is the first female head coach first woman ever to be named a coach of a U.S. Olympic swimming team, Teri’s role in my life can’t be overstated.”
Once we started discussing topics other than swimming I could sense Natalie relaxing and sounding less like the professional athlete doing an interview and more like a 24 year old young woman with her life ahead of her.
What is your favorite way to relax?
“A great meal and a glass of red wine.”
Will you attend any Raiders or Cal football games this season?
“Of course, both.”
What are your expectations for our Bay Area teams?
“I am very excited about the Cal football team this season, knock on wood.
The Raiders, well. I’m wishing them the best.”
As a Niners fan I always have to ask why, why are you a Raiders fan?
“I don’t hate the Niners. I became a Raiders fan because my boyfriend was a Raiders fan. I enjoy the passion and dedication of the fans. I’ll tell you a story that shows the difference in fans, I was invited to attend a Niners game in a luxury box, so I went. My boyfriend and I were checking the Raiders score on the TV screen in the box and drinking beer. A Niners fan said, “Look at those Raiders fans drinking beer”, as they drank their white wine.”
A Barney Burger or dinner at Chez Panisse?
“Oh, I love Barney Burgers especially the California Baja Burger, but Chez Panisse is an experience. I have been to the downstairs café several times and it is wonderful. I’ll take Chez Panisse.”
A Cal victory or a Raider victory?
“A Cal victory.”
A night at the Fairmount Hotel in San Francisco or a night at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley?
A big formal wedding or a simple wedding on the beach?
“(Laughs) Something in between.”
A date at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk or at Marine World?
“Hum…Marine World since it’s in Vallejo and I’m a Vallejo native.”
After the 20-minute conversation with Natalie I found myself reflecting on my conversation with this poised, mature and very talented young woman.
I wondered just how proud her mom and dad, Jim and Zennie must be.
I wish Natalie all the luck in all her future endeavors. Perhaps next time she’s in town she would consider letting this Niners fan buy her a Barney Burger and a beer.
Good luck Natalie…you make all of us proud.
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