Olympics’ Golden Girl

Gold-medalist Natalie Coughlin with the other medalists.

By Brendán Cummings, Contributor
October / November 2004

Natalie Coughlin, an Irish-American swimming champion, came back from a shoulder injury and a career hiatus to win five medals for the U.S.A. in Athens.


Natalie Coughlin took the swimming world by storm at this summer’s Centennial Olympics. The Concord, California native won a gold medal for the women’s 100 meter backstroke and a bronze for the 100 meter freestyle in individual competitions. She helped set an Olympic and World Records with her teammates for the 4 × 200 freestyle relay, where they won gold medals. And she won silver medals for the women’s 4 × 100 meter freestyle relay and the 4 × 100 medley relay, becoming only the sixth American woman to win five medals in a single Olympics.

Coughlin, who celebrated her birthday during the Olympics – she turned 22 on August 23 – said of the wins, “The first moment after [I felt] half [relief] and half [happiness]. But after seeing my family and how excited they were, then walking by the team area and seeing how proud my teammates were, at that point it was pure joy.”

Coughlin after hearing of her win.

The medalist started swimming as a baby, making a major splash when she was just 10 months old. By the time she was five she was swimming competitively. Previous coaches described her as enthusiastic and fast, but lacking the technique. At 15, when she became the first swimmer to qualify for the Summer Nationals in all 14 events, people began to notice her. It was only a matter of time before “Olympian” would be added to her résumé.

Swimming isn’t Natalie’s only forté. She is a gifted student as well, having recently earned a degree in psychology from the University of California at Berkeley while maintaining a 3.5 grade-point average.

Coughlin is in the unusual position of having been a top contender in her sport for several years but only now becoming a focus of the Olympics. In 1998, Coughlin qualified for nationals in every event at every distance and was hailed as a promising star for U.S. swimming but she suffered a shoulder injury prior to the 2000 Olympic trials causing her to miss a spot on the team. After making the team at the 2004 U.S. Olympic trials (considered by many American coaches as the most competitive swim meet in the world), she was set to make a splash in Athens.

Coughlin doing her award-winning backstroke.

Coughlin is also a major record breaker. These feats are particularly notable, considering that swimming is a sport that trains its stars to specialize in one or two strokes and Natalie’s achievements include all four strokes (freestyle, butterfly, backstroke and breaststroke, her weakest stroke).

At the games, Coughlin did not compete in three of her strongest events: the 200m freestyle, the 100m butterfly, and the 200m backstroke, because of the scheduling in Greece. The semifinals of the 200m backstroke are held only 12 minutes after the 100m freestyle final. “It was just not really plausible,” Coughlin said.

Natalie is Irish on both sides of her family, her father, a police officer in Vallejo, California confirmed. Her mother’s family are McFaddens from Donegal and her dad’s family, the Coughlins and Corcorans, hail from Counties Cork and Limerick respectively. She also has a grandfather who played football for that venerable Irish-American institution, Notre Dame.

True to her Irish roots, Coughlin is a born fighter. Her personal racing strategy is “Go out hard. Come back hard.” ♦

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