Exclusive: Natalie Decides What Events She Will Swim in Athens

By Tito Morales

THE verdict is in…

In one of the most eagerly-awaited decisions of the year, superstar Natalie Coughlin’s coach revealed over the weekend that Natalie will focus on the 100 meter backstroke and the 100 meter freestyle events at next month’s U.S. Olympic Trials.

In an exclusive interview with SwimInfo, Teri McKeever, Coughlin’s long-time mentor and head coach of the women’s team at the University of California, Berkeley, explained that the choice Coughlin has been wrestling with was whether she wished to pursue either the 100 meter freestyle or the 200 meter backstroke.

The former event finally won out.

The Olympic Games swimming schedule was released in the summer of 2003. This, in turn, led directly to the scheduling of the July 7-14, 2004 Trials — which faithfully attempts to reproduce what U.S. athletes will be facing at the Games.

For the vast majority of swimmers who compete at the elite level, the subject of how many and which events to enter at a meet of the caliber of the Trials, is moot. Most are only able to achieve one or two of the very challenging qualifying standards.

When it comes to someone with Coughlin’s uncanny versatility, however, the release of the Olympic and Trials schedules set into motion a series of dilemmas that had need to be addressed and resolved.

The Beginning of the Process
“I think the very first decision was, ‘How many events are you comfortable swimming?’” says McKeever. “Is it better to swim multiple events, or is it better to swim less events and be fresher, more confident and less distracted?”

One of the biggest factors in Coughlin’s event selection was the issue of relays.

“At Trials, you don’t need to worry about the relays,” explains McKeever. “But you have to look at where the relays fit in to the entire Olympic program if they’re going to be a priority.”

It’s clear from her illustrious career at Cal that Coughlin has long been a proponent of the team aspect of the sport. She readily admits, in fact, that one of her proudest moments as a collegian was being a member of the Golden Bears’ victorious 800 meter freestyle relay team at the 2004 NCAA championships.

And, true to form, Coughlin indicated to McKeever early on that she wanted to try to be a part of as many U.S. relay teams as possible in Athens.

With that in mind, coach and athlete went to work devising various schemes that would enable Coughlin to do that.

As Coughlin is the world record-holder in the 100 meter backstroke, her participation in that event was always a given. Using this piece of information as an anchor, she and her coach began to search for potential overlaps.

“If you look at the Olympic schedule, the 100 fly and the 100 back conflict,” McKeever says. “There’s less than 15 minutes between them on the second night. And then, if you look at the 200 free — it conflicts with the 100 backstroke on the other end. There are only 20 minutes from the time the first race starts to the time the next race is scheduled to start. You don’t know, though, what semifinal heat you’re going to be in, so it could potentially be even less.”

FINA’s scheduling of heats in the 100 meter backstroke, in a sense, had helped to narrow Coughlin’s options. There would be no 100 fly, and there would be no 200 free.

This left Coughlin’s second individual event either being the 100 free or the 200 back — her next best opportunities for success.

“They overlap as well,” McKeever points out. “That’s really the issue we’ve been trying to figure out.”

The Final Piece of the Puzzle

McKeever’s training over the past several years has been designed, in part, to allow Coughlin to take her swimming in any number of directions.

“I’ve never told her what to do,” McKeever says. “My job is to facilitate and help manage her career, not dictate it. I just present her with options and she makes the ultimate decision. This is her career.”

It was during last weekend’s Janet Evans Invitational that Coughlin finally nixed the idea of competing in the longer backstroke event.

The 200 back has never been one of her favorite events. And even though McKeever still holds out hope that Coughlin will someday fully embrace the event, she both understands and respects her swimmer’s current preference.

“I think there’s definitely a comfort level in the freestyle that’s not quite there yet in the 200 back,” says McKeever. “You have to go with what’s going to make you most comfortable.”

McKeever quickly dismisses the notion that Coughlin’s performance in the 200 back at NCAA’s may have influenced her swimmer’s decision.

“Natalie swam 13 things there,” she says, emphasizing that while other programs had the luxury of resting their best relay swimmers in the morning heats, Cal was forced to rely extremely heavily on Coughlin in order to advance to the finals. “People get tired.”

None of this is to say, however, that things may not change during the next three weeks. McKeever still intends to enter Coughlin in the 100 fly, 100 back, 100 free, 200 free, and 50 free at the Trials.

“I think we need to keep our options open,” McKeever says. “Ultimately, she has to make the Olympics. That’s the first thing.”