Being a champion is not about winning every game in the season or placing first in every race. It is about overcoming setbacks and defeats and continuing to push forward.
A true example of a champion is Natalie Coughlin, a former Cal Bear and 12-time medaled Olympic swimmer who didn’t make the cut in the U.S. Olympic Trials to compete in the Rio Games in August.
Coughlin has been immersed in her passion for swimming since the age of six and holds an impressive resume of collegiate and Olympic achievements. She attended UC Berkeley, where she competed for Cal’s swimming and diving teams in the NCAA from 2001 to 2003, along the way winning 11 individual NCAA championships and a relay freestyle national title. Coughlin’s domination in a sport so demanding of the body and spirit led her to be recognized as the NCAA Swimmer of the Year for three consecutive years, as well as Sports Illustrated Magazine’s college Female Athlete of the Year.
The sport that Coughlin mastered required mental and physical strength, consisting of hard training, endurance and exhilaration. The most talented swimmers train several times per week, in ceremonial and technical sessions that contribute to their peak moments of their athletic year.
In 2004, Coughlin earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic swimming team, proving herself at the Olympic Games in Athens by winning gold in the women’s 100-meter backstroke event and 4×200-meter freestyle. In the year following her successful reign at the Olympics, Coughlin graduated from UC Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree in psychology.
Four years later, Coughlin’s form and motivation seemed to only improve with age when she became the first woman to swim the 100-meter backstroke in less than a minute at the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2008. She continued to gain momentum in the Beijing Games in 2008 when she set a new world record as the first woman to ever win gold in the 100-meter backstroke for two consecutive Olympics.
Coughlin was at the peak of her career and no one looked able to bring her down. She ruled the Pan Pacific Championships in 2010, setting a new Pan Pacific record in the finals of her signature event in the 100-meter freestyle and winning gold as the co-captain of Team USA.
At the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2012, however, Coughlin received stiff competition from the younger generation of American swimmers such as former Bears Missy Franklin and Rachel Bootsma. The Olympic veteran finished in third place behind both teenagers, failing to qualify in her signature event. She would eventually, however, earn a spot on the U.S. women’s team as a member of the relay team. In the 2012 London Olympics, Coughlin earned her 12th Olympic medal, setting the record for the most Olympic career medals won by a female swimmer.
On July 1, 2016, Coughlin, one of the most familiar faces in Olympic history, announced that she would drop out of the 50-meter freestyle at the U.S. Trials in Omaha, Nebraska — terminating her chances to earn a membership on what would have been her fourth Olympic team and bowing out of the final U.S. Olympic Trials of her career.
Coughlin’s momentum during her lifelong passion for swimming was just not enough to stand in the face of competition from the newest generation of swimmers, who carry the same youth and passion that she did early in her career and in many ways pattern their style after her. Coughlin finished a distant eighth place at the U.S. Trials in the event that she had once conquered for consecutive Olympics and global competitions. This time, Coughlin knew she wasn’t in the same lane as her female competitors who would gain membership into Team USA for the Rio Games in 2016.
Despite the heartbreaking setback that she will not be participating in this year’s Olympics, Coughlin is reluctant to announce retirement and believes that it’s not completely over — that the sport she devoted her life to since the age of six will always remain an omniscient presence in her journey as a champion in and out of the pool.