Meet Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin. She is a 12-time Olympic medalist and 20-time World Championship medalist. If you’re keeping score at home, this means she’s just one medal shy of becoming the most decorated American female Olympic athlete in history. As she begins her road to the Rio Olympics, we grabbed her during a breather to find out why she’s so great. She told us some surprising things about her life and about professional athletes that both scared and inspired us.
When we think of Title IX we usually think of women’s basketball and how many opportunities were created when this law was first passed, but Title IX has changed all sports for all women. Coughlin is a major beneficiary whose life would not have been what it is without that legislation. “In the context of women’s sports, Title IX has only been around for 30 years,” she says, “and if it weren’t for that, I wouldn’t have competed [in swimming] beyond high school.” Title IX was the reason Coughlin not only got a college scholarship but was able to nurture talents and abilities that helped to prepare her for three Olympics. “I feel so fortunate to still be a professional athlete,” she says. She's training for her fourth Olympic trial.
So, what makes an Olympic athlete? Is it training like a mad woman until you succeed or must you have that natural ability in your DNA? For Coughlin, it’s both. “I dreamt of going to the Olympics since I was 6 years old, and I’ve been competing since then. But I have put in thousands upon thousands of hours in the pool and in the gym.” She also focuses on nutrition and sleep. “You have to be mindful of every choice [you make] every day, because it affects your goals.”
Coughlin grew up in California with a pool in her backyard. Her parents got her swimming lessons at 8 months old, just so she’d be safe if she ever fell in accidentally. She tried gymnastics and dance, but those didn’t quite pan out. “I was just more natural in the water,” she admits, “so I joined the local swim team just to meet [other] kids.” But kids can be cruel. “I was chubby and uncoordinated,” Coughlin says. “I just wanted to beat everyone, so I trained harder than everyone else.”
As we have established, Olympic success is a combination of things. A natural ability helps, but according to Coughlin, “The thing that delineates people who are athletic from those who are at the top of their game is the mentality.” These are highly, highly completive folks by nature — in whatever they do. “If you ever get a professional athlete together with other professional athletes, we will make a competition about everything. Darts. Pool. Or we’ll make up our own games and it’ll be crazy competitive. A normal group of people doesn’t have that same mentality.”
If you’re a female Olympian about to make history, you’ll need to step up your game to literally train with the big boys, which Coughlin does, “I actually train with all men. I train with a men’s team at a college.” She did have a female coach for 12 years, and women do dominate the sport as of late. Coughlin says swimming has become such a big sport, “There are now more women than men.”
Coughlin’s number one training tip is not about bench pressing your weight or swimming a certain number of miles per day. It’s all about, “having healthy smoothies!” She says that for many of us, getting nutrition on the go is a must. Her secret to the perfect après-workout smoothie? Frozen dark cherries. “Yeah, the dark cherries help repair your muscles.” Her perfect smoothie has five simple ingredients: “Almond milk, almond butter, chia seeds, frozen dark cherries and frozen banana.” The milk, butter and chia provide a great source of protein, the banana adds natural sweetness, and well, you know about the cherries.
Coughlin’s plan for a lean, strong and competitive body is more focused on nutrients than it is on exercise. “In general, it’s important to have protein throughout the day. Most studies show that if you have protein, you have better muscle repair.” On-the-go protein is her best tip, because if you can snack on some protein over the course of the day, that will serve you best. “Make sure you have almonds and hard boiled eggs. I raise chickens, so [eggs] are always around.” She also grabs some Greek yogurt when she can.
Little by little, women have dominated at the Olympics because we were finally given the opportunity to do so. From 1900, when women first entered the Olympics, to record breaking athletes like Picabo Street, Bonnie Blair and Jill Bakken and Vonetta Flowers, we see equality in this domain. Coughlin sees it firsthand. “I think the Olympics is one of the few places that women get just as much publicity as men. I feel very fortunate since that isn’t the case of sports, in general.”
If all of this has inspired you to go jump in a pool, Coughlin has a hot tip to make you a better swimmer and get more out of your workout — swimming is all about posture.
“The number one thing that I see newer swimmers do is [not know] their body position.” She says that many swimmers will look forward so they can see the wall coming. “It’s a strain on your neck and body. You want to have the same posture in the water that you do on land.” She describes it as, “That beautiful ballet posture.” Coughlin says you want to take that into the pool. Don’t worry about the wall. “Learn how to use the lines on the bottom of the pool to guide you.”
We wish Coughlin luck at the Rio Olympics (where there will be 136 women’s events and 161 men’s). We also hope that she medals and makes history. Of course, her next goal is to qualify, but as a competitive woman, the person she competes with most is herself. “Oh yeah, my goals are getting some personal best times.”
The Rio Olympics start Aug. 5, 2016.
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