Natalie Coughlin: My Life After Swimming

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Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin has a long list of achievements: she’s tied with Dara Torres and Jenny Tompson as the most decorated American female swimmer in history, she’s been on Dancing With the Stars, was a guest judge on Iron Chef America, and has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. Oh, and we can’t forget about her Sports Illustrated body paint photos.

After celebrating her 30th birthday this August, everyone wants to know: will she retire? We chatted with the 12-time Olympic medalist to find out what her future plans are both inside and outside the pool. Let’s jump in:

Swimming, modeling, dancing, cooking, what’s next?
“I’m not retired, I know a lot of people think I am but I’m not—from swimming, at least,” Coughlin says. “I want to pursue things outside the pool but I still love being a professional athlete. I realize how fortunate I am to have this as a job so I want to do it a little longer.”

As for the next summer Olympics? “I don’t know if Rio is necessarily in the picture because four years is a long time, but I’m excited to get back into training,” Coughlin says.

What are your plans outside of the pool?
“I’ve had a lot of amazing opportunities because of swimming and working with my sponsors,” Coughlin says. “I’m going to do a trip soon [to Rwanda] with this charity I work with, Right to Play.”

Aside from her charity work, the 12-time Olympic medalist is pursuing her passion for cooking and “would love to do a cookbook in the future.” Some of her recent sponsors have allowed her to work on recipes and cooking videos, and Coughlin says may even create a cookbook down the line.

How do you balance your passion for cooking and food with training for the Olympics?
“They go hand in hand,” Coughlin says. “I think a lot of times people and athletes make [their] diet so much more scientific and boring than it needs to be.”

So what does the Olympian eat? “For me, that means having mostly a plant-based diet,” she says. “I still eat meat and fish, but I just make sure that it counts. I have plenty of dark greens and fresh vegetables and fruits and good quality proteins and healthy snacks such as dried plums.”

It’s clear you’ve found a balance between eating healthy and enjoying good food. What’s your secret?
“You can have great food and still fuel your body,” Coughlin says. “You don’t have to be training five or six hours a day to eat great foods—and just because you’re in training doesn’t mean you have to have a grilled chicken breast, brown rice and broccoli in every meal.” Phew.

What are your most and least favorite foods?
“I’m pretty much able to convince myself that anything healthy tastes good,” she says. “The only thing I haven’t been able to get past is seaweed salad—I know it’s good for you but I still hate it.” The taste doesn’t stop her completely, though. “I’ll choke it down if I’m at a sushi restaurant just because I know it’s good for you, but I don’t think I’m ever going to like it.” Impressed? We are.

As for her guilty pleasure, Coughlin says she would choose “a really good hot dog—like a bratwurst.” While she sticks to a healthy diet, Coughlin’s not afraid to splurge from time to time, “because otherwise you’re going to drive yourself crazy and it doesn’t become a lifestyle, it becomes a diet. And that—by definition —means it’s temporary.”

So you’re not a fan of temporary diets?
“There are definitely times where I go on health kicks, when I feel like maybe I let my diet slip a little bit,” Coughlin says. She stays on track by cutting back on portion sizes instead of eliminating foods out entirely. “Dieting is just so depressing for everybody,” she explains.

You were body painted for a Sports Illustrated photo shoot. You didn’t even diet for that?
“Even when I got married, I was like okay, I’m going to go on this hardcore diet and I’m not going to eat,” Coughlin recalls. “Yeah… that doesn’t happen. The night before my rehearsal dinner I had pizza and beer with my friends,” she admits. “I joked the same thing with the Sports Illustrated, I was like I’m going to go on this hardcore diet, and I didn’t, at all.” By the looks of it, she didn’t need to.

Would you do it again?
“I would definitely do something like that again,” Coughlin says. “It’s one thing to see it on print but to see it in person, it’s such a work of art and I felt horrible washing it off afterwards, but I can’t leave it on my skin forever.”

Is it true you shouldn’t eat 30 minutes before going swimming?
“If you want to have a meal and get into the water, then more power to you,” Coughlin says. Just be ready to make a splash!

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