By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
She has become an icon, and after winning six medals in China, she went on Dancing with the Stars, yet came back to make the team and win gold again in London, and perhaps even more importantly provided a lot of leadership and wisdom to a young U.S. women’s team that became among the most successful and memorable in the current era. Natalie Coughlin talks about that, what London was like and what’s up next in her incredible, incomparable career in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
1. The “Call Me Maybe” video – with your incredibly choreographed airplane scene – has gone viral to the tune of almost 10 million views. Tell us, who is one or two of the women on the team who have good dance skills?
Natalie: (Laughs), Everyone I thought did a really good job but that was really Kathleen Hersey’s and Caitlin Leverenz’s brainchild. They were the ones forcing (laughs) everyone to participate in the video. I thought Lauren Perdue was awesome. And obviously, Missy is such a star in it.
2. What about when it comes to the guys?
Natalie: I thought Brendan Hansen did a phenomenal job in his underwater robot dance!
3. How fun was it making that video?
Natalie: It was fun. It made it easy being that we had a chartered flight (from France to London). It wasn’t like there were stages (laughs) on the plane. The reason we had the plane scene is because of the NBC rights issue; as soon as we got to London, we couldn’t show any videos. That was our last chance – we had 30 to 40 seconds of video to fill – it was all or nothing.
4. How was it different in terms of being on one relay this Games and not doing other events?
Natalie: Of course, it was different being on just a relay. I say “just” a relay not to downplay it, but in past meets I swam practically every session. This time I was done after the first session. It was strange, but at the same time I got to enjoy the meet a lot more. I didn’t have quite the pressure I had on me in the past. I got to actually see every race first-hand rather than watch from the warm-down pool, the massage table or in my room on my computer.
5. What does that medal mean to you?
Natalie: It’s hard to say. It’s great, and I am proud of being the most decorated American woman. But I didn’t have a great season – not a particularly great season last year. But that’s fine; I’ve come to terms with it. While I am proud of what I am able to do, I am not 100 percent celebrating because I did not perform my best.
6. What’s next – is 2016 on the radar?
Natalie: I don’t know. It’s hard to say. Four years is a really long time. But I haven’t retired. It was funny. I was in New York with Right to Play (a program Coughlin supports) for their Red Bull Gala and (NBC’s) Bob Costas was talking about my last races and retiring, and I said, “I have never retired.” I know everyone at NBC (laughs) is ready to retire me, but I am going to continue to swim; I just don’t how long yet. It’s November 2012; I have plenty of time to decide. I really enjoy the Right to Play program, and I am going to Rwanda on Friday with them.
7. Pretty awesome to see someone of Bob Costas’ stature so involved in swimming. Back to Olympic Trials – you were so close – what happened, and how did you refocus after it?
Natalie: Hindsight is 20/20 – always. Looking back, I swam way too much in training this year. I swam way more than I did in recent years, thinking that would be a good thing for me. I was never able to recover and never got that power or speed that I have had in the past. I was training like I’m 22, and I am 29! There is a difference in that and your training has to evolve. I got a little overzealous which is easy to do; I am a competitive person and I enjoy working hard. But at times you have to work on your recovery. I let that slip a little bit.
8. Tell us about the job Cal Coach Teri McKeever did at the Olympics, coming off another title at Cal, and then London and coming back and signing Missy Franklin – Cal is set up to extend this amazing run, isn’t it?
Natalie: Yeah, they are. Teri did a really nice job in London. I really respect that. She always rises to the occasion as a National Team coach, and as a coach of Cal. She is the best version of herself at the Olympics or World Championships, which is great, because that is when the stress is so high. And as far as being at Cal – I am so proud to call myself a Golden Bear; this is my 13th season at Cal. We have a phenomenal freshman class now as it is, and getting Missy next year is building quite a dynasty – on the men’s and women’s side. The men’s and women’s coaches here are geniuses and I am excited they are successful and being recognized for that success.
9. We heard a lot about the amazing Missy Franklin, but who were one or two other female stars who impressed you, and why?
Natalie: Oh, without a doubt, Katie Ledecky was so awesome. Not only did she win the 800 free in the most ridiculous fashion ever – we were hoping she wasn’t going to fade because she went out so aggressive, but that’s how you swim (laughs) when you are 15 years old, and we were all on our feet cheering. It wasn’t just her swimming that was impressive, but how she carried herself and held her own on that team with her personality. For rookie skits, she had a spot-on impression of Tyler Clary that was hilarious. She was fun to be around, and obviously swam very well. These younger swimmers are outstanding athletes, but they are also great personalities, and very intelligent
10. How was this women’s team different from 2004?
Natalie: Oh gosh, in 2004, I was not the youngest, but I was definitely not the oldest. I was just out of college. We had people like Jenny Thompson on the team. We were strong, men and women, but at this past Olympics in London we were pretty dominant. It’s hard to say how we were different but I do think we have more depth now than we’ve ever had before.
11. How was this women’s team different from 2008?
Natalie: This team was pretty young, and not just because (laughs) I’m four years older! The team was very, very young this year, even if you compared it to the men’s team. And that’s exciting – that’s the future of USA Swimming. I think a lot of it has to do – I am not saying by any means things were bad in ’04 or ’08 – but the environment was so relaxed this time. A lot of that had to do with Frank Busch and the environment he created in training camp and in London.
12. What was it like being a captain for this team?
Natalie: Whenever you are a captain, you definitely have to lead by example. Also, you have to be a good liaison between the team and the coaches. I knew all the coaches quite well so being that liaison was quite easy for me. Since my swimming was done the first day, my job was to be supportive and cheer as loud as I could – I promise you I cheered very loudly and my screeching voice (laughs) could be heard across the pool deck! I had been to two Olympics before London so I knew what to expect, and I wanted to be there for this team. Caitlin Leverenz was my roommate in London and as you would expect – everyone gets nervous – she was pretty nervous, so I just told her, “Do exactly what you trained to do and you will be fine. Be calm and stay calm throughout your race.” She did, and won a medal – she did a great job.
13. Are you/how much are you swimming now?
Natalie: I’m swimming about three times a week, maybe five times a week just on my own. I’ve been running quite a bit and lifting; just staying in the water. I’m swimming way more than I did after ‘04 and ’08, and part of that is because the weather is so amazing; it’s 85 or 86 here today, so going outside is pretty easy! I have to swim long enough to keep that feel for the water, plus I lose muscle very quickly.
14. Being Michael’s teammate again – you certainly are the women’s torchbearer for this era with all your accomplishments – so with that in mind, how impressed are you with what Michael has done?
Natalie: I am so proud of Michael for many reasons. In a lot of ways, he feels like a brother to me; I have known him since he was 15 years old. To be his teammate for so many years and watch him grow up has been amazing. He did a good job being a leader on this team. He wasn’t a captain but he played more of a leadership role than he ever did in the past. If you looked at his face and watched him swim in London, he was really being present in the moment and enjoying the moment. I enjoyed seeing him be recognized at the end of the meet – that special presentation, and the trophy for being the most decorated Olympian ever. I thought that was special and he deserved all the recognition he got. He has helped our sport tremendously.
15. The leadership on this team was incredible for the men and women – how important is that, and is that something that led this team to be so memorable for so many of the right reasons, from Michael’s wonderful articulation and class to Missy handling the pressure with such grace, and so many veterans and new teammates stepping forward?
Natalie: It’s hard to say why we were so successful. I think leadership and the environment definitely played key roles because when you are at the Olympics, everyone has trained hard and prepared for the moment. But it comes down to who executes when it matters, so that feeling and inspiration you get from good teammates and a great environment is certainly among the intangibles that you want to be only positive. I keep coming back to Katie Ledecky, but her Olympic swim was just five weeks after Olympic Trials. And it wasn’t like she got all that much training after Trials; it was about performing when it matters. When you have teammates around you who care for you and make you feel good, and you are part of something so special, absolutely you want to step up. We saw a lot of that. We were really happy as a group: We had a water slide at our training camp in Vichy (France), and I went down it every day. It wasn’t because I wasn’t taking training camp seriously, it was because I was having fun. That goes back to having a good training environment, and that has a lot to do with Frank Busch. We had fun and we were relaxed. We were stressed when it mattered in terms of having focus, but for the most part we were laid back.
16. We talk about the younger women stepping up but how about the veteran guys – Brendan Hansen, Peter Vanderkaay – how did that affect or buoy the U.S. team?
Natalie: I think it’s really important for people like Brendan and Peter to do well, not just for themselves, but it set a great tone for the team, because everyone was cheering for them and knew what great champions they had been for so many years already. Those are a couple of guys who are exciting to watch swim – they have such a love for the sport. That’s something where maybe they stepped away from the sport or made a change, and came back with more excitement and a different perspective – a refreshed perspective to share with the younger swimmers. When you are 18, 19, even 20, you can take things for granted. To see Brendan and how excited he was to medal from an outside lane, that was incredible. Pete did such a wonderful job and performed so well. Everyone was proud of them.
17. Tell me honestly, Lochte wins five medals this time, and takes all kinds of heat in the press – how is that possible?
Natalie: It’s sad some people had that perspective, especially when he dominates the 400 IM and wins gold there, and was part of so many amazing performances. He would be the first to tell you part of that comes with all the media and sponsor attention, but he did his best and was very successful. Sometimes you just have to tune out the haters and remember, “Hey, I just won five medals at the Olympics,” because that is amazing. Anyone who doesn’t see it that way does not have their own priorities straight.
18. You are such a good measure of culture and balance – what was it like having these Olympics in such an open, history rich city as London, and how did you rate the training camp in France?
Natalie: It was horrible (laughs) because we weren’t allowed to have any wine in France and I couldn’t enjoy half the culinary stuff! Seriously though, the training camp was awesome because Vichy was so beautiful. I loved the food we had, so fresh and plant-oriented, fruits and vegetable, which is similar to how I eat at home – but we had a greater variety at camp. We had this wonderful outdoor area where I would just sit for two or three hours eating my lunch, eating slowly and enjoying my conversations with my teammates. Being in London was so much fun too – much different than Beijing and Athens, because the Tube made it so easy to get around, and for us it helped to be in a country where English is the primary language. I thought the British people put on such a good show.
19. So many records, swims, medals, memories, places – I realize time will gave great perspective, but at this point after accomplishing so much, how do you rate your career at this point?
Natalie: it is overwhelming. Like I said, I am really proud of my 12 medals at the Olympics. And swimming 12 events – earning a medal each time, certainly I am proud. Yet I didn’t have a very good season this year, and I can say that – I get offended (laughs) when other people say that – I guess I’m the only one who is allowed to say that! I just know that I am better than what I did last summer. So it’s hard to enjoy that accomplishment without seeing the need to improve.
20. Golden Goggles is coming up – what’s the key to be aware of for those who are walking the carpet for the first time, and seriously, what kind of time and thought goes into choosing a dress for this event?
Natalie: Unfortunately, I will not be able to be there this year – it’s the first time I am missing it. I am coming back from Rwanda and I am in a wedding in San Francisco that weekend, so I can’t make it to New York. But some people, and I am generally speaking – some (laughs) girls – plan their outfits months in advance and go over the top, which I think is awesome! When you get older, you don’t have a lot of black-tie events, so they get their hair and makeup done and get excited about it. I plan usually at the last second, but that’s just how I am when it comes to black tie events. It’s fun to see them pose on the carpet, so attractive and physically fit. One piece of advice to the women: Practicing posing in heels if you aren’t used to them, because that can be tricky if it’s (laughs) the first time. Other than that, smile and enjoy that amazing night!