By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Thursday, May 25, 2017
If Natalie Coughlin had made her first Olympic team in 2000 as expected, that might have also been her last.
Missing that team taught her valuable lessons and motivated her more than she ever imagined to prove that her performance in Indianapolis was an aberration – and she’s been proving it ever since.
“If I had made that team, I think I would have been satisfied and wouldn’t have had the same drive I did throughout the rest of my career,” she said from her home in California. “That humbled me and forced me to listen to what Teri (McKeever) was telling me. It changed my whole approach to and perspective about swimming.”
While she was swimming, Coughlin never really had the time to focus on her personal interests beyond the pool.
But now that she’s taking an indefinite break from training and competition, she is pursuing some outside endeavors – allowing her innate entrepreneurial nature to drive the ship.
Whether or not she competes again for the United States, Coughlin is living a life she has always wanted – one of relative privacy and solitude that allows her normalcy despite having won 12 medals at three Olympics over the past 12 years.
It’s one she’s worked hard to maintain even though she’s one of the most recognizable faces in the sport.
“I love that I can go to the grocery store without being recognized too often; that is a very important part of my life,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine not being able to have my own day-to-day life, and I’m very appreciative of it.”
She’s also very appreciative of several projects she currently has in the works, most notably writing and producing her own cookbook and starting a wine label with a good friend.
As someone who has had a love affair with cooking for two decades, Coughlin is writing a book with recipes geared toward healthy but tasty foods that anyone can make and enjoy.
“A lot of athletic-based foods can be boring and tasteless – a chicken breast and steamed broccoli, for instance,” she said. “But healthy food can be inventive, creative and tasty. That’s the purpose behind the cookbook.”
Coughlin said the book was born from her own creativity and experimentation with food and recipes from her own competitive training table and family meals.
While she admits she’s not a writer by trade, Coughlin said she is intrigued by the prospect of this endeavor and expects the cookbook to be published in the spring of 2019 if not sooner.
“It’s a very long process, and I’m still in the early stages of creation,” she said of the yet-to-be-named project. “The finished product will show that healthy doesn’t have to be boring. It’s exciting.”
Coughlin’s other major entrepreneurial enterprise is a new wine label called Gaderian, an Old English word that means “to gather or bring together.” She’s teaming with an experienced wine-maker and friend to release the wine label next spring.
Even while she was training for competition, Coughlin said she would occasionally have a glass of wine with dinner, and she knows it fit into her own athletic pursuits.
She said she’ll include the proper wine pairings like the pinot noir and chardonnay included with her new label with the meals in the cookbook.
“As soon as I could drink legally, I’ve been interested in wine, and living 40 minutes from the Napa Valley, the opportunity to pursue this is in reach,” she said. “While some athletes choose not to drink alcohol during training and competition, the cookbook will not only talk about the right combinations of wine with food but also will address that it doesn’t necessarily have to be all or nothing with food and drink when it comes to training.”
When she’s not flexing her entrepreneurial muscles, Coughlin said she lives a relatively “regular” life. During an arena Pro Swim Series meet earlier this spring, she did some on-air commentary and really enjoyed it.
It’s something she would like to continue exploring as future opportunities arise – but it’s not a priority.
Regardless of what happens next beyond her own non-swimming interests, Coughlin said she can’t imagine working for anyone else but herself.
It talks to her deep roots in swimming and the sincere discipline she has gleaned as a result.
“I can’t see myself working for someone else; I just can’t picture being in an office setting or tied to a desk or a set schedule,” she said. “I love the freedom I have to explore my own interests, my own projects.
“Swimming gave me discipline and structure that I naturally have in my life, and that serves me well in my own endeavors and pursuits. I know how to set goals and stay on task – roll with the punches – and I can apply that to almost anything in my life.”
She also doesn’t see a need for declaring that she is or isn’t retired or retiring from swimming.
After what she calls disappointing results last summer at Olympic Trials in Omaha that kept her from making the 2016 Olympic Team, Coughlin said she is content to just take things day-by-day and decide what makes the most sense for her as she moves forward.
“It will work itself out as it’s meant to, as it supposed to,” said Coughlin, who swam in an exhibition last year in French Polynesia but hasn’t been training or competing since, although she does many things to stay fit and said she always will.
“As for the Olympics last year, I was bummed I didn’t make the team for myself but also because I knew I wouldn’t be there in person to cheer on my training mates who made the team. I wanted to be there with them because I wanted to celebrate their accomplishments. I just did it from my couch at home instead.”
And what has she learned throughout her 20-plus years as a world-class competitive athlete? Too many to narrow to just a few, but Coughlin said she acknowledges the journey she has taken over the years as the greatest learning experience she could have ever imagined.
“I’ve always wanted to be – tried to be – a great representative for USA Swimming and the athletes I swim with and those who are coming up through the sport,” she said. “Addressing and overcoming challenges and obstacles along the way is part of the process, and I always tried my best to come back better and stronger each time.
“Having a life of balance was always very important to me; I didn’t want my life to just be about swimming. Because I was able to do that, I know that I will be equally successful and happy in this next part of my life as I was in the pool.”