Natalie Coughlin, 12-time Olympic medalist and campus alumna, spoke about focus and perseverance to a packed room Monday night at a Berkeley Forum Event co-hosted with the Sports Analytics Group at Berkeley.
Coughlin, who went on to medal in three consecutive Olympics, began swimming at the age of six in Vallejo, California. That same year, Coughlin decided she wanted to go to the Olympics after watching the 1988 Seoul games on TV for the first time.
Describing herself as “chubby,” but “competitive as hell,” Coughlin said she threw her energy into swimming. When she was 13, Coughlin would go on to swim — and make finals — at nationals. Two years later, she would win her first national title.
“(Nationals) was one of the most memorable races of my career because making the Olympic team finally became a reality,” said Coughlin.
Coughlin began planning for the 2000 Olympic team only to suffer a shoulder injury a year and a half away from trials. Though Coughlin would eventually qualify for and swim in Olympic trials, she missed making the team.
Coughlin, however, described missing the Olympic team as the “best thing that happened to (her) Olympic career” because it allowed her to come to campus as a “blank slate.” Though she would deal with setbacks throughout the duration of her athletic career, Coughlin decided to look at failure as something that made her stronger.
“My seasons that I didn’t swim or compete as well as I wanted to were my biggest assets,” Coughlin said. “Entering college right after my biggest failure, I didn’t bring all the baggage that I would’ve if I’d been on the Olympic team … being so close and missing that created such a fire in me that not only did I want to be an Olympian, I wanted to win gold.”
Coughlin, who graduated from campus in 2005, swam with the women’s team during her time as a student and for seven years after her graduation before swimming with the men’s team.
Coughlin also stressed the importance of focus, both in swimming and in life. She added that when she was swimming in the Olympics, she would focus on one race at a time so as not to be overwhelmed.
“Swimming forces you to focus. You have to listen to what’s going on with your body. That’s how you’re going to improve the most,” Coughlin said. “It’s really important to be present in the moment. Really honing in on focusing your focus is a very important practice.”
During both the moderated and audience Q&A segments, Coughlin received several questions about motivation and coming back from injuries and other setbacks. Coughlin emphasized the importance of creating goals, however, she also added that it is important to have faith and “control what you can control” during setbacks.
Audience members, who ranged from current students to alumni and families, described Coughlin as a “fantastic speaker” and said they found Coughlin’s speech to be sincere.
“She shared a lot of key life lessons,” said Florence Joliff. “For me, what she said applies to experiences in life.”