Despite frigid winter temperatures, Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin is in the water six days a week — outside. The 12-time Olympic medalist trains at the University of California, Berkeley, and indoor pools in California are few and far between. So, as Coughlin prepares for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, she has to jump into a freezing pool most mornings — her fingers and lips sometimes turning blue — in pursuit of her fourth games. "There are so many times when I'm just shivering throughout practice," she tells Bustle.
Monday through Saturday, Coughlin is in the pool up to four hours a day, as well as lifting weights four times a week preparing for the 100-meter backstroke, 100-meter freestyle, 4x100-meter freestyle relay, and 4x100-meter medley relay. With the Olympic swimming trials beginning June 26, she's five months out from the races that will determine whether or not she can compete in Rio.
Coughlin doesn't feel the pressure, though, and is actually calmer than she was going into Athens, Beijing, and London. "At my first games, I felt there was so much pressure to perform and earn that gold medal and kind of solidify myself in the Olympic venue," she says. Now that she's established herself as one of the most successful female swimmers, she can relax — at least a little bit. "I would love to earn more, but the pressure I feel is the pressure I put on myself — I don’t need to feel validated."
Coughlin is one medal shy of becoming the most decorated American female Olympic athlete in history, as retired swimmers Dara Torres and Jenny Thompson also each hold 12 Olympic medals. She would also become the second-most decorated American Olympian of all time with one more medal, outnumbered only by swimmer Michael Phelps, who has the most medals of any athlete in history. So, even if she only gets a single bronze medal in Rio (which, let's be honest, is unlikely), she'll still become an Olympic legend.
Swimming is mostly an individual sport, but Team USA trains together, giving Coughlin the encouragement and camaraderie of a team sport while she pushes herself to new limits. On tough days, when staying in bed feels like a much better idea than jumping into the cold water, Coughlin's coach and fellow swimmers keep her motivated. "I really like having my teammates in the water, pushing me every day and supporting me every day," she says. Having teammates by my side helps push me through those difficult times." Coughlin says the team atmosphere is the same at the Olympics, as the swimmers cheer for each other and all of Team USA.
While the sport remains the same, Coughlin's body and swimming preferences changed over the years, and she had to make adjustments after London 2012, beginning with getting a new coach and training regimen. The 33-year-old started focusing more on her freestyle techniques, but reincorporated the backstroke to even out her body and relieve tightness in her shoulders when she started noticing an imbalance. After re-adding the backstroke into her practices two years ago, she was surprised at how good her times were and decided to compete in the 100-meter backstroke event again.
Taking care of her body has become much more important to the athlete as she prepares for Rio. "I'm obviously older going into these fourth games, so the biggest change for me has been focusing on my recovery," she tells Bustle. "I've always taken good care of my body, but as I get older, I realize how much more important it is in terms of injury prevention and recovering from one practice to the next." When she's not in the pool, Coughlin makes sure she gets enough sleep, gets massages, drinks recovery shakes, and stays hydrated.
She also uses cooking as a way to de-stress, and after a long day of practice, she loves cooking a big meal for her husband, Ethan, and herself. On Sundays (her one day off each week), the swimmer tries to relax and recoup, sometimes not changing out of her pajamas — the ideal Sunday outfit. "I take my day of rest very, very seriously," Coughlin tells Bustle.
Although the swimmer is putting more of an emphasis on letting her body recover as she gears up for the summer games, she is still training just as hard all year round. She may have been through it three times before, but competing in the Olympics not only requires keeping your body at its best, but also constantly improving your speed and skills. That means even on her worst days, Coughlin has to push herself to put in the work, regardless of how tired she is, how she feels mentally, or what the weather is like.
"It's tough when it's pouring outside and it's 40 degrees, walking onto the deck in your suit," she says. "I will say, there's nothing as good as a hot shower after one of those practices. I've been doing it for 25 years and it doesn't get any easier."
Images: Courtesy of Natalie Coughlin/Speedo (1)