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December 3, 2012
This interview is part of a weekly series that takes an inside look at how some of Cal's most memorable athletes ended up wearing the Blue and Gold.
A 2004, 2008, and 2012 Olympian, Natalie Coughlin has been carrying the Bears' torch for close to a decade. But before she became America's Sweetheart, Cal's "Golden Girl" was reducing Pac-10 foes to dog-paddlers.
Aquatics' most decorated athlete won 11 individual national championships from 2001-2004, was Sports Illustrated's 2004 College Female Athlete of the Year, and earned the NCAA's Female Swimmer of the Year honor a Matt Biondi-esque three-times.
After dominating stateside, Coughlin turned her attention to Athens where, not surprisingly, she collected even more hardware, leaving Greece as the Games' most decorated female. Not satisfied, she repeated the feat four years later in Beijing.
Yet, for all the glimmer, and despite her considerable celebrity, Coughlin's remained a devoted ambassador for the university. A proponent of renewable resources and an advocate for organically produced goods, she's become a model for athletes looking to leverage their achievements in responsible, productive ways.
Importantly, she's also not afraid to admit her mistakes. Asked how she could have possibly considered going to Stanford as a child, Coughlin volunteers: "I didn't know any better."
Rivals: You went to Carondelet High School in nearby Concord. Were you always expecting to go to Berkeley?
Natalie Coughlin: When I was growing up, it was Stanford's heyday for swimming. So as a kid, I thought that I wanted to go to Stanford. I was young and didn't know any better [laughs]. Then, in high school, I knew that I wanted to stay in California for college and I thought that I wanted to go to UCLA. Cal had great academics and a good swim team, so they were in my top three, but I didn't initially think that's where I'd end up.
Rivals: So what changed?
Coughlin: I felt so at home at Cal. I had a really good connection with [Bears Coach] Teri McKeever and I got along really well with the team. As soon as I visited all three places, I knew that Cal was the place for me.
Rivals: Was the pitch from the respective schools different or was it more just the general feeling that differed?
Coughlin: My UCLA visit was very similar to my visit at Cal. Obviously, they're both great academically and they both have a great athletic background. My Stanford trip was kind of like the blind leading the blind. I was one of only a few athletes visiting that weekend and I remember I had freshman students taking me around just asking me what I wanted to do. I was like, "I don't know. I have no idea what I want to do. This is your school." My Cal and UCLA trips were very organized -- every minute was planned. Stanford was very much up in the air. I think they just assume that everybody wants to go there because they're Stanford, but I didn't really like it.
Rivals: Sounds like classic Stanford hubris.
Rivals: And Teri -- why was she so compelling?
Coughlin: I saw that the team at Cal really was your family away from home. Plus, Berkeley was such a great school that I could major in anything and not go wrong. That was a big sell. More than anything, though, it was just the fact that I got along so well with Teri. I knew instantly that we would work well together. That was really important to me because when I came to Cal, I was coming off a bad shoulder injury. I had missed making the Olympics in 2000, and I was really burnt out on swimming. So she was exactly the personality I needed at the time, and I realized that right away.
Rivals: Was Berkeley what you expected?
Coughlin: Growing up in the Bay Area, you think Berkeley is hippies and People's Park. And while there is some of that, Berkeley is so much more. People in Berkeley are passionate about their beliefs, and they live those passions. I love that. Lots of people have their convictions but when things get difficult, they don't always stick by those convictions. But in Berkeley, people live and breathe what they preach and there's something very fulfilling about that.
Rivals: Given this was an Olympic year, we heard a good deal about Cal swimmers that were competing. But I'm not sure any of them arrived on campus with such high expectations as you. Did you feel that pressure coming in?
Coughlin: I felt a little bit of it -- more so toward my senior year (at Cal). It was an Olympic year and I was doing a lot of fun media stuff -- photo shoots, throwing out the first pitch at A's games, really cool stuff like that. I remember sitting in my linguistics class and I had just broken some sort of record over the weekend. The professor knew I was in the class but he didn't know what I looked like, so he just started addressing the whole class and congratulating me. I remember slumping down in my chair. I was so embarrassed! I know he meant well, but I definitely didn't want to stand up in class and wave.
Rivals: Sounds like you're the one doing the recruiting these days. From what I hear, you deserve the assist for Teri landing Missy Franklin -- you're her idol?
Coughlin: [Laughter] I'm really happy for Missy and so proud that she wants to go to college and experience it for at least a little bit. It really does teach you so much about swimming that you wouldn't learn if you didn't go to school and just turned pro. It'll make her a much better swimmer in the long run.
Rivals: I imagine you had the same sorts of considerations.
Coughlin: Yeah, there were times that I considered going pro, but I'm so happy that I stayed at Cal.
Rivals: What do you think you would have missed out on?
Coughlin: It's not just what I would have missed out on. It's that, when swimming becomes your job, it changes how your approach training. That's something a lot of people don't consider -- that your finances are tied into how you perform over the next week or two, or over the next two minutes.
Rivals: You're knotted up with Stanford alum Jenny Thompson for the most medals (12) of any American female Olympian. Please tell me you'll come back in four years to trump her?
Coughlin: [Laughter] I know I'm going to continue to swim. I just don't know if it's going to be for four years, two years, whatever. I'm going to take it slow, but I'm definitely not retired.
Rivals: I guess we'll be the first to know since you'll be training at Cal, right?
Coughlin: Oh yeah, I've been training at Cal ever since I went to school there, so I'm there every day. I love Berkeley and I really appreciate it more and more as I get older. I love it more every year.
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