She could be a millionaire already, and she is not. She might well have won world championships in droves, but she didn't. She could be the pre-Olympic buzz of Athens, the one American not named Michael Phelps whose smile becomes the signature of the summer. But not yet. Not yet. Natalie Coughlin has taken this long to swim her way into America's consciousness. Waiting a little longer hardly matters.
"She seems like she's bursting at the seams to let her talents out," said Jenny Thompson, the 10-time Olympic medalist. "We've all been waiting to see what she'll do."
People would know her already, it seems, had she not woken one morning in 1999, pain shooting through her left shoulder. Torn labrum, it turned out. Too much rehab, on her shoulder and her stroke and her confidence, to fully regain her form over the next year. No Olympics in 2000. Outside of swimming, no fame.
People would know her, perhaps, had she done what she figured to do at the 2003 World Championships, winning three, four -- heck, why not five? -- titles. But on the night before the meet, wouldn't you know it, she was stricken by a fever -- "And I never get sick," she said. It reached 103 degrees before falling back down. First-place finishes turned into struggles to survive the preliminary races, to reach the finals. She saw more of the inside of a hotel room than the underside of the water.
People might know Coughlin had she delayed her senior year at the University of California and turned pro, as so many in swimming wanted her to do. She could have concentrated completely on training, they said, and not muddled her life with classes and friends and collegiate swimming -- a level at which she had never lost a race. Turn pro, and the endorsements -- which analysts predicted could have reached several hundred thousand dollars, if not more -- would be right there. But no.
"I like college -- a lot," she said.
So when the U.S. Swimming Trials begin Wednesday in Long Beach, Calif. -- about the same time a summer's worth of headlines really begin to ratchet up for Phelps, the boy wonder from Baltimore who is going after six, seven, maybe eight gold medals -- Coughlin could seem off to the side, under the radar.
"I don't think so," Coughlin said. "Maybe other people do."
People in the general sporting public, those who are familiar with swimming only through Phelps's well-publicized pursuit of Mark Spitz's record seven golds in 1972, might think that he is the U.S.'s lone beacon in the pool. He is not. Through all her adversity, Coughlin (pronounced COG-lin) has become versatile, determined, focused. She is technically perfect, the most multidimensional female American since Tracy Caulkins, and that was 20 years ago. She is . . . well, maybe she's what people who know swimming keep suggesting: the female Michael Phelps.
No thank you. Not for her.
"He's a boy; I'm a girl," Coughlin said. "I don't know why people lump us together."
The pursuit -- and probability -- of gold lump them together, almost by default.
"Natalie's the kind of swimmer who comes along once in a generation," said Rowdy Gaines, the former Olympic gold medalist and a swimming analyst for NBC. "She could win almost any event she enters. She's that good."
That's the kind of praise that seemed predetermined for Coughlin, now 21, when she was in her mid-teens. She grew up in Vallejo and Concord, Calif., with chlorine seemingly coursing through her veins. Coughlin's parents, Jim and Zennie, first threw her in their backyard pool as an infant, mostly as a safety measure should she fall in herself. By 5, she was on a swim team. By 15, she became the first swimmer ever to qualify for all 14 events at nationals.
But then, the shoulder injury. Her best finish in the 2000 Olympic trials was fourth, in the 200-meter individual medley. She didn't make the team. And she didn't watch the Olympics.
"I didn't think it was that big of a deal," Coughlin said.
Yet how couldn't it be? By 12, her parents were seeking coaching to match her abilities. Three years later, she was, in some ways, the future of American swimming. So even at 17, not making the Olympics would seem to be devastating.
"I think she internalized it a lot," Jim Coughlin said. "That's her makeup. We wanted to help her as much as you could, but after a while, the worst thing you could say was, 'How do you feel?' That got old."
Yet in listening to Natalie, the frustration passed more easily because she understood why.
"I had a really difficult year leading into the Games last time," Coughlin said. "I was a freshman in college. I wasn't worried about that kind of thing. . . . I had a lot of new experiences, a whole new set of friends."
For someone with extraordinary ability, Coughlin seems to yearn for the ordinary. At Cal, she somehow managed to achieve it -- in bits. After Cal Coach Teri McKeever helped her overhaul her stroke to place less strain on her shoulder, she racked up win after win after win -- 61 straight in dual meets, 11 NCAA titles in 11 attempts before she lost in the final individual race of her college career. Even with that -- with being named the college swimmer of the year as a freshman, sophomore and junior -- she yearned to fit in with her teammates, her buddies.
"She's made the people around her better, but the people here have made her better, too," said McKeever, who continues to serve as Coughlin's personal coach. "She allowed that. This is a young lady that, because of her personality and her demeanor, doesn't create a lot of I-need-to-be-treated-special or I'm-above-you attitude. And my job was to create an environment where everyone understood that what Natalie does is just as important, but no more important, than something [teammate] Haley Cope does. But the exposure Natalie brought was good for the program -- and the school."
So they struck a balance. If Glamour or Vogue or another magazine wanted Coughlin for a photo shoot -- as they have with increasingly frequent regularity -- she and McKeever tried to schedule it so it didn't interfere with the team's training.
"There were some anxious moments," McKeever said, "but it worked."
So even as the accolades rolled in, Coughlin was just as happy hanging out with, and cooking for, her teammates. And not just macaroni and cheese in the microwave. We're talking full-on gourmet meals, spreads that became so noteworthy she was asked to prepare something on the "Today" show -- persimmon risotto. When the Cal swimming team needed to raise money for a training trip to Australia, they auctioned off a dinner for eight, cooked by Coughlin. Butternut squash and ginger soup. Spinach salad with warm shallot vinaigrette. Pork roast stuffed with cognac, cranberries, apricots and butter with a creme fraiche dijon sauce. You get the picture.
That's all well and good, fun college stuff. But with her scheduled senior year of 2003-04 also the prelude to an Olympics, there was a logical line of thinking that said Coughlin should drop school for a while to concentrate on training. Had she blown away the field at the World Championships last July in Barcelona, maybe that would have become more of a possibility, maybe not. The fever, the nausea, set in instead. Barely able to get the pool, and unable to swim well when she arrived, she was suddenly thrust into a world with which she wasn't familiar, one where a European reporter asked how it felt to "disgrace" her country.
"It was miserable," Coughlin said. "No one wanted to be around me, even though they did care about me. I was kind of an outcast. I wanted to really stay positive and cheer for the team, but it was really hard."
Coughlin is very direct in proclaiming that she's over the experience now and, actually, thankful it didn't happen in an Olympic year. But it did reshape her line of thinking. In fact, it reshaped her life.
"Where it had impact was in looking at what the goals were for this year," McKeever said. "Do you stay in college? Do you turn pro? How many events do you do? What's important? . . .
"It affected her outlook and her training all the way through January. It's been a thing that we've been able to reframe into something positive. That's my job, and that's who Natalie is. We both operate under the framework that things happen for a reason."
Which is a healthy approach to take to the trials. Because Coughlin holds five world records -- including becoming the first woman to break one minute (59.58 seconds) in the 100-meter backstroke -- her most significant problems stem from looking at a meet schedule and determining what she can and can't swim.
"Sometimes it is more difficult to have so many events," Coughlin said. "But it's also good to have options. Maybe my fly's not feeling so good, but I can do the 100 freestyle. Or maybe my backstroke's not feeling so good, but I can do the 100 butterfly. You can look at it as a problem or you can look at it as an advantage, and I look at it as an advantage."
This week, she's almost certain to swim the 100 backstroke and the 100 freestyle, and she'll likely swim on three Olympic relays. That's five potential gold medals. Forget Phelps, for a minute.
"She can do it," Gaines said. "She has the ability to be one of the all-time greats."