Natalie Coughlin, who over the past two Summer Olympics has won 11 medals, opened her 2011 season by racing in three finals this past weekend at the Eric Namesnik Michigan Grand Prix, held at one of America's best swim halls, Canham Auditorium, in Ann Arbor. She won the 100-meter backstroke and came in second in both the 100 freestyle and 100 butterfly. Dana Vollmer won both those events.
It is the nature of Olympic-style racing that when a great swimmer such as Coughlin goes one-for-three in an early-season meet there is the temptation from some quarters to wonder if something is somehow amiss.
As if she's supposed to win every single race she enters.
"Am I supposed to?" she said with a bewildered laugh.
That, truly, is the greatness of Natalie Coughlin.
She has won three Olympic gold medals. She has won four Olympic silver medals. She has won four Olympic bronze medals. In London next year, Coughlin could become the most-decorated American female athlete in Olympic history, depending perhaps in part on Dara Torres, who -- like yet another swimmer, Jenny Thompson -- has 12 medals.
If it can be incredible to be normal, what sets Coughlin apart within the Olympic scene is her normal-ness -- arguably, that's not even a word but there's seemingly no other way to put it - as well as her remarkably refreshing perspective on competition and on what constitutes success.
Indeed, her attitude ought to be packaged up and shipped out to playgrounds everywhere where winning-is-the-only-thing jerks hold sway.
It's a little bit like the bit of philosophy she offered in her Twitter feed from the Michigan meet: "Swimming is funny; effort & force don't always translate to fast swims. The water is dynamic & doesn't always respond to sheer force."
Natalie Coughlin is living proof that you can train hard, eat right, maintain balance in your home and professional lives, be happy puttering around your garden, derive satisfaction as an amateur photographer, root for the California Golden Bears, watch the sun set over the Golden Gate, all of that.
And win, at the highest level. More -- not only win but win with great elegance.
And reflect thusly: "Swimming is important to me. It's not everything to me."
That is not to minimize the import of swimming in her life.
Rather, Natalie Coughlin offers evidence that what counts in life is really living -- that it can be a good thing to, say, step out of your comfort zone by doing something like going on "Dancing with the Stars." All along, that was the sort of deal that carried the risk of messing up in front of millions of people. So what? Moreover, everyone knew from the get-go that she was a swimmer, not a dancer. So she didn't come in first place. Again, so what? She loved it, loved the experience. That's a win.
"The reason I did [the show] and I don't think people believe me," she said, "is I just wanted to learn how to dance."
Success, she said, is "different for everyone."
"For me," she added, "it's doing my best. Obviously, I am not saying I don't appreciate gold medals or world records or winning. I don't think that should define a career. For me, that doesn't define a career."
She also said, "One of the most frustrating things for me, after watching a competition or the broadcast of something, is when the announcer says, 'How disappointing for so-and-so -- they get the silver medal.'
"I don't think anyone but the athlete gets to decide that. It's a dangerous message to kids to tell them they have to win to be successful. There's only one winner in every event. If everyone else is a failure, what are we doing?"
Think back, she said, to the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, and the men's 200-meter freestyle. Michael Phelps won, and set a new world record. "The silver medalist in the 200 free," Park Tae-Hwan of South Korea -- "wasn't he successful?"
She paused. "Because he was beaten by Michael, that doesn't mean he wasn't successful."
Another pause. "If you can say you did your best, that's all you can do."
And enjoy it along the way -- you have to enjoy it along the way. There's so much attention in a sport such as swimming to the peak moment that is the Olympic Games. But the focus on that moment, even if it's understandable, ignores all that it takes to get there.
"I love training," Coughlin said. "I love pushing myself every day. I love working out."
Soon enough, it will be summer, and the world championships in Shanghai will be here. For Coughlin, that meet in Michigan was not only her first long-course meet of the year, it made for her first long-course meet since last summer.
Those second-place finishes behind Vollmer, who is herself of course an excellent swimmer -- in each of the two races, they came by about a half a second. Come on. It's April.
Again from her Twitter feed -- Teri McKeever, her coach, had told her to "fly & die" in the 100 free, which she did, finishing in 54.93, just back of Vollmer's 54.52. "Great start to the longcourse season," Coughlin wrote.
She said, "If you're going to be sad you lost a race -- how many people are in a race? 200? 199 are going to cry about it? I've been competing for 20 years. If I freaked out about little things I would have gone crazy by now."
No crazy here. It's all good.
Her times were good. Her strokes "felt great." Overall, she said, "I was really, really happy."