Natalie Coughlin dives in, again

LAFAYETTE, Calif. -- The deck off Natalie Coughlin's house pulsates with edible life: giant Italian parsley, basil, chive, thyme, cilantro, mint, blueberries and blood oranges. Out back, terraced beds hold Meyer lemon, Mission fig and stone fruit trees, broad-leaved perennial tree collards and delicate alpine strawberry vines. Eight chickens strut and peck in a coop atop the east-facing slope. Berkeley and Oakland lie a half-hour drive away, traffic permitting, but it feels like the distance from Kansas to Oz.

This two-thirds of an acre is the refuge of one of history's greatest female swimmers, the counterweight to the vast concrete tubs and sweaty gyms where she spends her workdays. Coughlin often gazes out at her microfarm first thing in the morning in a half-groggy trance, thinking about chores that have stacked up, the produce she'll use for dinner or strategy for her ongoing battles with plundering rats and deer. She generally gets back from the University of California-Berkeley aquatic complex by midafternoon and spends a couple of hours in her garden and kitchen.

Her hobby nourishes her soul, but it also feeds her body and her palpable need to be in charge of her own ecosystem.

"I know what goes into the compost," Coughlin says. "And then the compost goes into the vegetables, and then the kitchen scraps feed the chickens, and then the chickens give me eggs. It's a closed system, and I know where everything comes from. I know it's not only going to taste the best, but it's going to be the healthiest for me."

Fennel seed always follows dill and curry powder and cumin in Coughlin's alphabetized spice drawer. The shelves inside the cupboards are labeled. Her dinner menus for the week are posted on the refrigerator door. Outside, a flat oval stone leaning against the base of one of the terraced beds bears the printed slogan, "Grow Damn It!" It's an inherently humorous command, since all farmers know they have only so much control. As do all thinking athletes.

Many assumed Coughlin would quit swimming after London 2012. She didn't qualify for the U.S. team in the 100-meter backstroke, a race in which she was the two-time defending Olympic champion, or any individual event. She made the roster as a relay swimmer and swam the 4x100-meter freestyle in preliminary heats the first day of the Games, then wasn't tapped to race the evening finals, where the U.S. team finished third. That bronze shared by six swimmers was Coughlin's 12th Olympic medal overall, tying her with Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres for most ever by an American woman.

At the time, it read like a postscript. After all, Coughlin was almost 30. She was married. She had passions outside the pool and proven dry-land marketability. What more could swimming offer a woman who already had everything? It was easy to imagine Coughlin executing a flip turn and gliding comfortably into her next life.

Yet Coughlin, who will turn 33 in August, is still kicking. She re-upped for four years, switched coaches and set about tweaking her training and technique. She has logged personal-best times in two events since London, including an American record in the 50-meter backstroke in June at the Santa Clara stop of the Arena Pro Series. But her fortunes have been variable. A bout of severe food poisoning, of all things, helped derail her bid to qualify for next month's world championships in Russia. She had to settle for the consolation prize of the Pan American Games, where she will be the most prominent member of a U.S. swimming contingent that begins competition in Toronto on July 14.

From afar, Coughlin's decision to keep racing seems both familiar and risky, an attempt to add brushstrokes to a masterpiece. She's hardly the first driven athlete to want things to end on her terms, and she understands that those terms include some fine print. Every time Coughlin dives into the pool, she invites comparisons not only to younger rivals but also to her younger, dominant self. There is no guarantee of an uplifting ending this time, either.

Dr. Jim Bauman, a sports psychologist who works with USA Swimming and elite athletes in other sports, says mature champions like Coughlin are sometimes capable of circling back to the mindset they had as more carefree beginners: "I'm doing it because I can." They have to wean themselves from what Bauman calls "bipolar thinking," in which anything but winning represents failure. The theme may sound clichéd, but he says it takes extraordinary confidence and mental discipline.

"There's a little bit of healthy narcissism in a lot of these athletes," Bauman says. "They don't see themselves as average -- they see themselves as being special, and capable of doing special work to make it happen. She's saying, 'I can still do this and meet my own personal goals, as opposed to trying to meet others.'"

Coughlin shrugs off any possible downside of staying in the deep end.

"I'm a different competitor than I used to be," she says. "When I was younger, I would get so angry at the stupidest things. If a competitor looked at me funny. Or, if I lost a race, it was the end of the world. Now I know it's not the end of the world. In some ways, I don't take swimming so seriously, and in other ways, I take it more seriously. I let the little things go when it's important to let it go. I enjoy the process much more."

Many accomplished athletes keep competing because they're hooked on adrenaline and attention, or have no other passion. Some have frittered away their winnings or failed to lay the groundwork to move on. Coughlin seems to fit into none of these categories. In a sport that skews toward youth and tunnel vision, she comes across as a grown-up who sees beyond the lane lines.

Much about Coughlin has remained consistent since she was a teenage phenom, including her direct, blue-eyed gaze, her intriguing blend of self-deprecation and self-assurance and her throaty, infectious laugh.

Coughlin likes stability and order, sometimes to a fault, and gets on her own case about it. "I know that I'm a control freak at times, and I know when to turn it off," she says. "Like, the house is clean enough. I don't have to have everything sparkling. My poor husband has to deal with me during these what I call OCD cleaning blackouts, where it's best for him to just leave the house."

Having everything in its place creates a safe zone where Coughlin can stow the day's training out of sight, whether it was good or bad. "She flips a switch when she gets home," says her husband, Ethan Hall. "She doesn't say anything about [practice] unless I pry it out of her, and then she puts me on a clock and says, 'I'll talk about it for three minutes and then we'll talk about something else.'"

Coughlin comes by her tendencies honestly and genetically from her father, Jim, a retired police officer, and her mother, Zennie, a paralegal for Kaiser Permanente. Both are organized people and made a point to sit down with their two daughters for dinners even when schedules were hectic. Zennie has become an avid gardener herself, and sometimes she spends wintry days methodically placing seeds on strips of tape to plant in the spring.

Natalie's focus translates to a knack for cultivating lengthy, vital connections with people and pursuits. She met Hall when they were kids on the same youth team. Her love affair with growing her own food germinated in the pots of herbs she kept on the fire escape of her first off-campus apartment when she was still a Cal student.

"I'd get home from practice and eat chips and salsa and ice cream for dinner and go to bed, whereas she'd make a healthy dinner and probably clean up after herself," says Micha Burden Shaw, a retired elite open water swimmer who was Coughlin's Cal teammate for two seasons. "That's something that she had down in college."

Coughlin is also resolutely loyal, Shaw says. The day her close friend Fran Crippen drowned in a race in the United Arab Emirates, Coughlin called and said -- no protesting allowed -- that she was buying Shaw a plane ticket to Philadelphia for the funeral. "She has my back," Shaw says.

So it was a new experience for Coughlin to feel that a working relationship as strong and productive as her 12 years with Cal women's coach Teri McKeever could have run its course.

Coughlin was damaged goods when McKeever recruited her. At 16, she had looked like a lock for the 2000 Olympic team until she tore her left shoulder labrum doing a butterfly set. She decided against surgery, did extensive physical therapy instead and spent entire workouts doing nothing but kick. The pain and frustration made her doubt whether she wanted to keep competing.

McKeever nurtured Coughlin out of physical and psychic misery toward a renewed love of swimming. After a stellar NCAA career, Coughlin remained at Cal as the lone professional training alongside the collegians, a then-rare arrangement that has since become institutionalized at a number of Division I powerhouses. The results are in the books: 11 Olympic medals combined in the 2004 and 2008 Summer Games.

Coughlin made underwater propulsion into performance art, habitually and dramatically surfacing in the lead after starts and turns because of the advantage she got from her undulating dolphin kick. She smiled endearingly from the podium in Beijing with a bloodied lower lip bitten out of anxiety and exertion. She had a total package that hit a sweet spot with sponsors and the public, and she stayed busy leading up to London with ventures from "Dancing With The Stars" to volunteering as a weed puller at famed Berkeley chef Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard project.

Both Coughlin and McKeever agree it is far too simplistic to say their roads diverged because of that relay in London. The lineup was chosen by consensus of the entire staff, but McKeever, as head Olympic coach, took responsibility when reporters asked. Because prelim-only swimmers don't get to stand on the podium, she took Coughlin's medal to her in her quarters.

Coughlin is matter-of-fact about the moment. "I thought I deserved to be on the night relay," she says. "They decided not to go with me." The aftermath was harder. She thought she might be tapped for the medley relay. It didn't happen. Her role as a team leader, mentor and de facto den mother had been hyped before the Games, yet she felt some teammates and coaches were averting their eyes as if some outsized tragedy had befallen her.

Heading into 2012, Coughlin had privately thought she'd be ready to retire. Once at the Games, she bridled at the thought that people assumed she would. She flew home and talked to her husband, and then she got right back into the water. "I knew she wasn't going to walk away like that," Shaw says. "If you tell her she can't do something, or shouldn't be doing something, she's not going to listen to you. It's just going to fuel her to be better."

Coughlin swam laps alone during rec hours at Cal, asking one of her lifeguard pals to clear a lane for her, and pondered. She didn't want to leave her garden oasis or the East Bay, where Hall is the head coach at an area club.

When Coughlin resumed training at Cal late in 2012, there was no big announcement. She just set her drawstring bag in front of a men's sprint lane, popped her goggles in place and punched in for work with men's coach Dave Durden.

"I absolutely love Teri," Coughlin says. "I think she's a phenomenal coach. But when the same pair of eyes sees you every single day, you start to ... you don't see the changes. So things in my stroke, I think, started to come up and it was just ... the progression happened. The other part of it was I was so much older than the rest of the girls. There was never really a postgrad group on the women's team. I wanted to train amongst other people who were closer to my age and had the same needs as me."

She'd worked out among guys before, as a kid and occasionally as an elite swimmer, but this was different -- a reinvention in situ. Coughlin put aside her identity as a versatile, multi-event athlete and narrowed her sights on sprint freestyle (she has since added backstroke to the menu again). She and Durden began exploring ways to incorporate more power into her famous fluidity.

Grow, damn it.

"It's incredible that it hasn't waned," Hall says of his wife's willingness to keep working at her sport. "Most athletes I've coached, at some point they lose their desire to try new things and push their limits."

Coughlin arises in time to get to the pool by 5:15 a.m. so she can limber up with stretching and yoga for 45 minutes before her pool workout. She swims eight times a week, with double sessions on Mondays and Fridays; lifts four times a week; and takes Sundays off. She does the same sets as the men in the pool and similar reps in the gym, albeit usually with less weight. On Wednesdays, she does one marathon three-hour session of physical therapy.

"She's very purposeful in everything she does, very thoughtful," Durden says. "I'm a consultant and she's the boss of this."

Anthony Ervin and Nathan Adrian, Coughlin's two regular training partners, are fellow Olympic gold medalists with considerably less mileage on their odometers. The 34-year-old Ervin overlapped with Coughlin when she was a young collegian and then dropped out of the sport for eight years.

"When I left, Natalie was still very much on the rise but hadn't even been to an Olympics yet," he says. "When I came back, she was the queen."

Their advanced age is both a bond and a running joke. "We have fun with it," Ervin says. "She's clearly done more and seen more than Nathan and I have combined. So it's been a great boon to have her there. But as well, she keeps us honest in ways that we couldn't ourselves. Being a group of guys, we can be pigs sometimes, so we've cleaned up our act a little bit."

Adrian, 26, says Coughlin's presence benefits him in several ways. "If we know we have a meet in six or eight weeks, she's the first one to go home and check on all the flights and book hers, and then she emails it out to all of us," he says. "On a personal level, she actually has set a great example for me. She's been where I am now, whereas I have not. So I can look to her and say, 'How do I go through the Olympic year with all these distractions and still maintain a high level of training?'"

Entrenched habits die hard, and McKeever still occasionally catches herself noting a detail in Coughlin's stroke a few lanes away. But the coach says she's at peace with the transition. "It kept her in a Cal cap, and it kept her around people that have supported her and know her, including myself," McKeever says, sitting in her office before a spring practice. "I knew that us staying together probably wasn't in her best interests or in my best interests, either.

"What has allowed her to continue to improve is that she's growing as a young woman, not just sort of stagnant and waiting for, 'Hey, what's the next chapter in my life?'"

Coughlin loves to tell the story of how a fallen oak limb damaged her chicken coop. It necessitated some repairs but solved another problem.

"One of the chickens went broody, which means she went hormonal the week before and really wanted to make one of her eggs into a chicken," Coughlin says. "So she's laying on it, so moody, won't eat, won't drink water, won't do anything. I was trying to break her of it for a solid week, giving her a bath, doing this, doing that, nothing was breaking her. And then this giant limb crushed their coop and snapped her out of it."

She doesn't draw the parallel, but her own approach to swimming had to change organically when sustained competitive success abruptly gave way to uncertainty. She hadn't planned on that, any more than she knew that oak limb would come down, but it's keeping things fresh. "I think she sees it more holistically than one swim or one medal," Hall says.

The easiest explanation for why Coughlin is still in the game is that it's a pretty good gig. "I love the physical torment you go through to train," she says. "Even if I wasn't training for an Olympics, I would still be running 10 miles a day, or I'd be getting in the pool, or I'd be lifting weights. If I wasn't doing this professionally, I'd have to balance a real job on top of this, so the way I look at it is, I get to be a professional athlete for another four years."

Longtime sponsors Speedo and Omega stuck with her after London. Since 2012, Coughlin has picked up deals as an investor/endorser of two companies with a green, nutrition-conscious orientation: pet food company Nulo (an ad campaign features her with the couple's 110-pound American Bulldog, Dozer, and 16-pound terrier SheRa) and frozen meals maker Luvo.

She still commands the respect of her peers -- perhaps even more so now that she's persevered through some disappointment. "On a national team trip, she's the one keeping the team jelled, speaking up at times when the team needs to make their voice heard. She has all the classical virtues of what a leader would be," Ervin says.

Coughlin has taken classes in various culinary arts, including cheese-making, and sometimes daydreams about studying to be a sommelier, but she has never contemplated a full-time cooking career. Her bachelor's degree is in psychology. When she envisions retirement, her mind drifts more toward something in the health-and-wellness field or joining forces with her husband to run a swim school.

Nonetheless, Coughlin battled to the finals of a celebrity episode of the Food Network's "Chopped" game show before losing to Danica Patrick. She has catered home-cooked meals as auction items for the Cal aquatic gala and stresses terribly over them. (The most recent edition featured individual-sized lasagna with fresh pasta, Champagne gelée as a palate cleanser and a salad assembled from her garden.)

Shaw loves the fact that Coughlin is both educated and earthy about food. "We can go out somewhere fancy and have it be this great culinary experience, or we can also go to a cheap bar and have a Bud Light and a cheeseburger and have a great time, and she's not going to get all weird about it," her friend says.

An hour spent with Coughlin anywhere often turns into an entry-level gastro-seminar. As she prepares to make a pasta dish in her kitchen late one afternoon, she squeezes a few drops of aromatic Rangpur lime (orange, not green) into sparkling water for someone who's never tasted it. She uses the word "nutrient-dense" so often it begins to sound like an incantation. A visitor notices a small egg nestled in a marble bowl among the others Coughlin has collected from her hens. "It's a fart egg," she says. "Laid by an older hen. Perfectly edible."

Coughlin extols the virtues of Mason jar salads -- dressing at the bottom, greens on top, take to work, shake gently and eat -- and the pleasure of adding a pinch of hawaj spice blend to brewing coffee. She opens a small plastic bag of the stuff and lets the combined perfume of ginger, cloves, cinnamon and cardamom waft out. As in all things, she trusts her nose.

She turns her attention to the generous handful of tree collards she snipped, washed and left on the counter to dry earlier in the afternoon and transfers them one at a time to a cutting board. Coughlin's knife whispers through the dark green leaves as she removes their spines with two surgical cuts apiece -- sssst-sssst, sssst-sssst -- her motion identical every time. It is mesmerizing and perhaps not surprising from someone who strives for precision in races that last under a minute.

Tree collards -- sometimes called tree kale -- don't go to seed, she explains, so the only way to start them is from cuttings. "They can live for 20 years," she says. "They can grow up to 10-15 feet tall.

"So much food from one plant. It's amazing."