Exclusive Interview: An Olympic moment with Fil-Am swimmer Natalie Coughlin

PINOY Newsmagazine
October 2004

By Ted Regencia

CHICAGO — Good things come to those who wait. But for Olympian Natalie Anne Aguillion Coughlin (pronounced COG-lin), winning five medals in Athens was more than just a waiting game. It required “very hard work”, determination and lots of grit to confront her misfortunes.

For this 21-year old Filipino-American swimming sensation, the path (or should we say the watercourse?) from her native Vallejo, California to the world stage, was like swimming against strong currents. But swim against all odds she did, on her way to collecting two golds, two silvers and a bronze in the recently-concluded Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece.

“The reality (of being an Olympic champion) hasn’t sunk in yet,” Natalie coyly admits, in an exclusive telephone interview. “I have yet to step back and really absorb everything that happened,” she said, adding that she has been very busy keeping up with overflowing requests for media interviews and school, which started soon after the Olympics. With five Olympic medals, it sure would take some time for her to absorb “reality.”

Sydney 2000

Her splash to the world stage was meant to take place in Sydney four years ago, but in early 1999, the then swimming prodigy tore her shoulder muscles due to intense practice, thus slowing down training.

“I was working very very hard. I wanted to be the best. But the intense training backfired,” Natalie recalled.

And backfire it did. She failed to make it to the 2000 US Olympic squad.

The 17-year old Natalie, then a freshman scholar at University of California in Berkeley, was “devastated.” “It was a terrible time for me. I was frustrated. I wanted to quit.”

Wanting to keep her university scholarship, Natalie persevered. And with the help of her coach, Teri McKeever, she was in fighting form again. Natalie credits McKeever for formulating a unique program for her, that would keep her in shape without straining her shoulders too much.

Not long after, she was setting new records again and collecting gold medals in international swimming events. In 2002, she set a new world record in her “best” event, the 100-meter backstroke, posting 59.58 seconds. It was the first time for a woman to break the 1-minute barrier. The record remains up to this day.

Another disappointment
Then, in 2003 at the World Championships in Barcelona, Natalie suffered another setback when she was hit by a viral infection. She finished 22nd in the backstroke, and lagged behind her closest world rivals in other events.

Later, she would tell The Australian newspaper that the incident was a blessing in disguise as “it took a lot of pressure off the Olympic year.”

Hello Athens
But Natalie was not about to give up on another Olympic moment. As a kid, she “dreamt of competing in the Olympics.” Athens opened that opportunity for her to fulfill that dream.

Natalie did not only turn that dream into reality, she did it five times over, becoming only the sixth American woman to win five medals in a single Olympics.

“It was a bit tough because of high expectations. I have to deal with a lot of pressure,” she said. “But later, I just told myself that I’m going out there and do it for myself.” Developing camaraderie with her equally-famous teammates such as Jenny Thompson and Amanda Beard also helped ease the tension.

With her feat, Natalie’s name now sits alongside swimmers Dara Torres and Shirley Babashoff, gymnasts Mary Lou Retton and Shannon Miller and track star Marion Jones. No U.S. woman has ever won more than six medals in one games. How’s that for a first-time Olympian?

Family: A constant
Throughout her bumpy ride to Olympic stardom, Natalie referred to her parents, Jim and Zenny, her sister, and her extended Filipino family in California for their constant support.

“I have such a huge extended Filipino family. And you could just imagine when all of us get together,” Natalie said. “And yes, they are very proud of me.”

While talking about her family, Natalie could not help but mention, with a chuckle, her lola’s home-cooked lumpia [fried meat roll]. “She makes the best lumpia and I can always tell when it’s not my grandma who prepares it.” Natalie’s grandmother hails from the province of Cavite in the Philippines.

Sports Broadcasting
At present, Natalie is finishing her psychology degree at Berkeley. After graduation, she hopes to work as a sports broadcaster. Recently, she did broadcasting work for Fox Sports. She will also continue her training in the pool, paid for by her sponsor, Speedo.

Yes, Natalie is far from being finished. She hopes to compete again in Beijing in 2008. By that time, she will only be 25 years old and at the peak of her physical form.

To aspiring young Fil-Am athletes, Natalie has this to say: “Do it not because you are being forced to. It is important that you love and enjoy what you are doing. Then work hard to excel in it.”

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