Sustained Groundedness: Tribute to Natalie Coughlin

Posted by: Avinash on Tuesday, August 19th, 2008

I don’t get a chance to dap many fellow hapas (and even more exclusively, fellow half-Filipinos), so it’s tight to see Cal’s own Natalie Coughlin casually add another six medals to her mantle. While the cyborg called Michael Phelps reduces his competition to flailing penguins, Coughlin flew right under our noses to eleven medals. She’s well on-pace to becoming the most decorated swimmer in Olympic history if she decides to return in 2012.

Michael’s greatness makes it so difficult to discuss him without purely fawning him. It’s what happens whenever we watch someone like Tiger or Jordan or Federer come along and dominate their competitors; we find it impossible to discuss them rationally. We end up either beaming about how great they were, or whining about how other swimmers deserved their chance in the spotlight, or commenting on how much of a douche he might be in real life (who knows, who cares).

Natalie’s greatness is of a different sort. It’s one that we can relate to and identify with without feeling too woozy in the head. She doesn’t always win, doesn’t engender the polarizing feelings Phelps generates, but still finds ways to be successful. She desires a different type of greatness that doesn’t require the spotlight or the fame, but allows her to carve out her niche.

Her own style of swim appears distinctly Cal. Her kicks and wriggling under the water seems beyond unnatural, challenging her buoyancy beyond its natural bounds. When she hugs the line and still finishes ahead of the majority of the field, it’s as if she’s saying, “I don’t let simple things like friction keep me from kicking my way past the rest of you.” She seemingly revolts against the norms, being subtly cocky with her technique while being collected outside of the arena showing off her mad cooking skills.

You do have to wonder how much success Coughlin would’ve had if Phelps hadn’t intersected her at the same time. Coughlin’s success has mostly escaped the sports media glare, but it would have been fixated on her if she had been America’s best hope for swimming gold. Would she have been willing to be the Golden Girl that America would be looking to, and would she have risen to claim that spotlight? Or would her neurotic nature prevented her from reaching such lofty aspirations?

One can only wonder. With Phelps likely to return in 2012, that answer will remain out of our reach. For now we can only salute Coughlin for what she’s done. It’s difficult to maintain style and fluidity in a game where speed is the essential ingredient, yet Coughlin pulls it off while still racking up the medals. And in a sport driven by ego and the desire to outrace one another, Natalie seems perfectly willing to accept what she’s gotten. She’s a true California Golden Bear to be sure.

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