Once a Rookie, Coughlin Returns to Beijing a Leader

Photo: Natalie Coughlin speaks to various members of print and television media
during Team USA's lone open practice.
Aditya Rohilla/File
Natalie Coughlin speaks to various members of print and television media during Team USA's lone open practice.

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Four years ago, Natalie Coughlin had just finished her Cal swimming career and was headed to her first Olympic Games in Athens.

She was the much talked-about rookie on an experienced team, and she didn't disappoint. In seven days, Coughlin claimed five medals -- two golds, two silvers and a bronze.

But now, four years later, Coughlin finds herself in the leadership position.

"The women's team is so young, and we have a lot of rookies," Coughlin said. "(Younger teammates) ask me, 'What do I pack?' because we only get to bring two bags with us. Sometimes it's just silly stuff like that."

But it isn't just her luggage expertise that sets Coughlin apart.

"I think she's changed a lot, just like anyone would, from 21 to 25 because that's a pretty formative point in your life," Cal head coach and U.S. assistant coach Teri McKeever said. "There is a sense of knowing now what to expect that I think helps her. I think there is a certain level of comfort now."

As a rookie to the Olympics in 2004, Coughlin was simply trying to digest the experience of being among the most talented athletes in the world.

"It was so overwhelming that I don't remember much." Coughlin said. "After the (100-meter) back, I remember looking up and trying to read what the scoreboard said. It felt like forever until I realized I had won."

But now the 25-year-old sees the Olympics through veteran eyes.

"The Olympics are just overwhelming because of all the attention it gets," Coughlin said. "They're the same races that you've swum your enter life, but it's just on such a larger stage, and there's more importance placed upon it, so sometimes you feel more pressure."

Today she seems completely comfortable on the world stage -- well, almost.

"Other than the attention, it's no different than any other meet, other than the fact that it's terrifying in some ways," Coughlin said.

Even if Coughlin were somewhat scared in Athens, it didn't seem to have had much of an effect. And with the 2008 Olympics less than three weeks away, Coughlin is on track to have a repeat of the same superb performance after qualifying in the 100m backstroke, 200m IM, 100m free and 4x100m free relay.

"I went into trials with three individual events and came out of it with three individual events, so I couldn't have seen it going any better," Coughlin said.

Alongside Coughlin at the U.S. Trials in Omaha, Neb., former Cal swimmer Jessica Hardy qualified in the 50m free, 100m breast and 4x100m free relay.

If recent graduate Emily Silver is able to recover from her broken hand, three of the four legs of the free relay will be raced by Cal alumni.

"I was teammates with Emily, and Natalie was on the (Cal) team, so we have that history and that friendship that goes deeper than other people," Hardy said. "It's a good dynamic."


Contact Caroline Ogawa at [email protected]

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