Why Olympian Natalie Coughlin says swimming is anything but ‘boring’

Olympian Natalie Coughlin
Olympian Natalie Coughlin
(AFP / Getty Images)

Being a champion doesn’t mean winning every race. It’s also about character, bouncing back from setbacks, and continuing to move toward your goal. Natalie Coughlin, 33, is a 12-time Olympic medalist, three of them gold, but didn’t make the cut for the Rio Olympic Games in August.

“I’m bummed I’m not going to Rio, but it is what it is,” Coughlin said recently, adding that she is not using the word “retiring.” “So, I’ve always approached my goals with the intensity of controlling what I can control and letting everything else go. And then if I stumble or if I don’t achieve that goal, I evaluate what happened, what could I have done better and then move forward.”

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Coughlin has the emotional discipline befitting a champion but, of course, also the physical discipline. She gets up at 4:15 a.m., has breakfast, and is warming up by 5 a.m. for a day at the pool that includes stretching, Pilates and yoga in addition to ab, back and shoulder work. Here, she chats with us about other winning habits, including her diet and mindful swimming.

Was being a competitor instilled in you since childhood?

It was just naturally there. I was just a born competitor. I was always just über-competitive with everything that I did. I did gymnastics at an early age, even just playing games with my friends. My parents recognized that and steered me toward athletics and I found what I was best at was swimming.

What’s your philosophy toward a sport with so many ups and downs?

If I had any sort of mantra it’s just, “Trust in the journey.” Swimming and athletic goals -- it’s a very long process and it could be trying on your patience. But you just have to have faith in your coach and faith in the process, and just kind of enjoy the ride.

Swimming is pretty solitary. What are you thinking about during all those laps?


I think people sometimes look at swimming as “It’s so boring”… [But] It’s a great way to let the rest of the world disappear and for you to get with your own thoughts and your own body, and really just be mindful… If someone wants to just kind of reflect on their day that’s great but because I’m [training]… I am really, really focused on everything that I’m doing at that second and not worrying about what happened earlier that day or what’s going to happen later that day.

Food! What do you eat?

I make a smoothie that I take with me to the pool … it’ll have almond milk, almond butter, Chia seeds, frozen dark cherries, half of a banana and some Greek yogurt. It’s a really good way to get some good quality protein in and then you get all those wonderful antioxidants from the cherries that help repair your muscles and fight inflammation…That’s more of a recovery smoothie. If I was going to have a smoothie before practice or as a snack I usually do a green smoothie with kale, parsley, celery, frozen pineapple, banana, lots of lemon juice and lime juice. It’s just an easy way to get a lot of vegetables in a sitting without having to eat a giant salad… My diet isn’t too restrictive. I’ll never say ‘gluten free’ or ‘sugar free,’ or anything like that. But I do focus primarily on plants, so lots and lots of fruits and vegetables. And then, really good quality protein. So, I eat a lot of fish and poultry, but that doesn’t mean I don’t eat steak or anything. I try not to be too restrictive… I have counted calories in the past and it just makes me insanely neurotic.

Recovery is so important. How do you get it done?

Getting plenty of sleep … getting downtime in between training, fueling your body well with good food and then taking care of your body by seeing either a physical therapist or a massage therapist. You can foam roll or just stretch at home, little things like that. It’s truly amazing how much they pay off.