Coughlin's run a bit under radar

Natalie Coughlin, right, introduced first lady Michelle Obama during Monday's Let's Move! presentation. Jim Cowsert/US Presswire

DALLAS -- There are mornings when Natalie Coughlin is so jazzed to see what's happened overnight in her garden that she goes outside to inspect it while she is still brushing her teeth.

The 11-time Olympic swimming medalist, Cal-Berkeley graduate and Bay Area resident has one bed for strawberries, one for herbs, one for salad greens and another one she rotates seasonally that currently features tomatoes and summer vegetables. She tends her own mini-orchard of citrus, fig and stonefruit trees, and keeps five chickens, three that lay blue-green eggs and two that produce brown.

An avid cook and dedicated locavore, Coughlin said the chickens will probably never turn into dinner because she's given them names. "I'm not a vegetarian by any means, but I see meat as a luxury and I save it for when it really counts," Coughlin said. In her precious spare time, Coughlin is part of the "Wednesday weeders" who help maintain a garden for the Edible Schoolyard project, founded by famed Berkeley chef Alice Waters, which helps city kids learn about where food comes from and how to form healthy eating habits.

On Monday, Coughlin's passion for earthy pursuits earned her a chance to introduce First Lady Michelle Obama to a room full of reporters attending the Olympic Media Summit. The normally ultracomposed Coughlin has trained all her life to deal with pressure, but she stopped in the middle of her remarks and admitted she was nervous.

Mrs. Obama, who was in Dallas to talk about her Let's Move! initiative, dedicated to combating childhood obesity and encouraging an active lifestyle, embraced Coughlin and said: "You've got a lot of medals. You don't need to shake."

Coughlin, 29, hopes to plant her feet even more firmly in the top percentile of her sport this summer in London. She will try to qualify for the U.S. team in at least three individual events and a couple of relays at the U.S. trials in late June in Omaha. If she succeeds, she could emerge from the Games as the most decorated American woman in Olympic history.

Yet the ratio of attention to precious metal has been a little skewed in Coughlin's case. She won six medals in Beijing in 2008, but her performance -- and all others, for that matter -- were overshadowed by Michael Phelps' eight gold medals, and more recently by the evolution of Phelps' rivalry with Ryan Lochte.

Coughlin admits her bank account might be a little more flush if she'd been center stage in China and since. "But in this wonderful way, Michael's taken a lot of the attention and I get to just focus on my swimming," she said before her appearance with Mrs. Obama. "I am still in awe that he came back to the sport after Beijing. That was perfect. He's under a tremendous amount of pressure and I don't think I would be able to handle that.

"I've been a professional athlete for eight years now, and I never thought I was going to go this long. I love the entire process. I love the day-to-day. As much as I hate being tired all the time, I love pushing myself in training and I love being outdoors. As I get older, I realize more and more of my friends have to sit in an office, in a cubicle. I get to watch the sun rise, I get to travel the world and take care of my body and that's my job. That's really cool. That alone keeps me going."

That said, Coughlin is not looking forward to the Olympic trials, which she calls necessary but "awful." She has been outspokenly critical about the timing of this year's trials, which finish less than a month before the London Games, long after most of the strongest countries in the sport have selected their athletes.

Scheduling is somewhat more complicated in the United States because of the NCAA season, which ends in March. But Coughlin, who said she's leaning toward racing in the 100-meter butterfly, 100 back, 100 freestyle and perhaps the 200 individual medley, pointed out that the U.S. team has been successful at the world championships with a roster named months ahead of time.

"I would love to know what I'm swimming this summer in terms of training and focus," she said. But she's also determined not to get psyched out over something she can't control, and convinced she can improve on her stellar swims in Beijing -- "not necessarily get more medals, but I could swim better,'' she said. "I'm stronger and there are things in my technique and things I could do in the water that would be better. I'm a competitor through and through, and I want to see what I can do this summer."