Q & A with Natalie Coughlin: Olympic Gold Medal Winning Foodie

Natalie Coughlin left the 2008 Beijing Olympics & the 2004 Athens Olympics as the most decorated female athlete, earning a total of 11 medals. Not only is Natalie one heck of a swimmer, she's also one heck of an interview. I talked to Natalie about how winning each Gold medal felt different, her break from swimming, her passion for food, and even her garden.

MindBodyGreen: What do you typically have for breakfast?

Natalie Coughlin: I usually have a huge pot of Irish oatmeal with distilled oats. I add a bunch of berries or blueberries in there and a little bit of coconut oil. I’ll have it every morning. It takes about a half hour to make.

MBG: What about lunch and dinner?

NC: Both vary... Though for lunch I’ll usually have a fresh salad. Ninety percent of my salads are made from ingredients that come from my garden.

MBG: You have a garden?!  Please tell me more!

NC: When I moved three years ago to my current home, having a garden was on my ‘wish list.’  

Right now I have four beds. One bed is always dedicated to herbs, another bed dedicated to greens, and the other two beds vary. I have a lot of peppers, onions, carrots, and zucchini. My husband loves to go out and grab sugar snap peas right from our tree. I also have five citrus trees. Basically I try to plant in any space that has any soil and sun. For me it’s a great way to wind down at the end of the day, -- I find it very relaxing. (Natalie pictured below in her garden).

MBG: When did you first become interested in food and gardening?

NC: I became passionate about food in college at Berkeley. I was exposed to so many healthy and delicious ethnic foods and from then on I was hooked. I fell in love with great produce and great vegetables, and I’ve had some sort of a garden ever since. In my first apartment I even had a tiny herb garden.  

MBG: Do you have any favorite restaurants in the East Bay?

NC: One of my favorites is Oliveto in Oakland. The chef used to work at Chez Panisse graduates and I love how their food is cooked in slow-food style. It’s a nice, rustic Italian setting and it’s just simply incredible!  

MBG: Do you have any staples on your grocery list?

NC: I love garlic (probably more than I should) so that’s something I always pick up. I also love olives.  I buy a lot of frozen berries, organic eggs and dairy – and hummus.  

MBG: You’re on the road a lot now. How do you eat healthy when traveling overseas?

NC: Its’ really challenging – and it’s easier in some countries (like Spain and France) and more difficult in others. It’s an interesting balance for me as I try to eat foods that are organic and aren’t contaminated, but when I get close to competition I change my mindset and am focused on getting enough calories in my body. When I was in Beijing for ten days during the 2008 Olympics , I couldn’t worry about eating enough fruits and vegetables, I had to focus on getting enough calories in my body.

MBG: When you travel, do you have any food ‘necessities’ that you’ll try to bring with you?

NC: I love my coffee, I always have herbal teas with me as well. I’ll also pack nuts, dried fruits – especially dried plums, and a little bit of chocolate. I really like dark chocolate covered almonds. That’s my food "emergency kit."

MBG: Do you have a guilty indulgence?

NC: Hot dogs. I love hot dogs. I don’t have them often, but every once in a while I’ll have one when I’m at a football or baseball game.

MBG: You’ve won three Olympic Gold medals – what does that feel like? What is the Olympics like?

NC: Each time I won Gold, it felt very different – and each medal is uniquely special to me.

My first Gold medal was in Athens in the 100 Backstroke. I was considered the favorite to win and I was in a situation where if I didn’t win, people would think it was a failure – so winning was a great sense of relief.

My second and third Gold medals were in Beijing – the second Gold in the 100 Freestyle relay. I was the lead leg and we broke the East German Record – which at the time was the oldest record on the books. Going in we were really confident that we could really kick butt and win – and that’s exactly what we did. It was such a celebration afterward and we were all so proud of what we accomplished.

The third Gold was in the 100 Backstroke. Although I wasn’t considered the favorite to win going in, I knew deep down that I was going to win – but when I actually won I was overcome with happiness and it was so overwhelming. It was actually weird – I cried out of happiness, which is something I had never done.  

Competing in the Olympics was an incredible and wonderful experience – but it was also very draining and overwhelming. The buildup and the anticipation – and eight-and-a-half days of competition is a lot physically and mentally. After Beijing I wanted to take some time off and see what my life was like without swimming – so I took a year-and-a-half out of the water.

MBG: So how was your life without swimming?

NC: It was great. I still trained though – I lifted, I did Pilates, and I maintained all my aerobic abilities – and I also got into running. It’s only been five months since I went back into the water and I’m right back at my time. After Beijing, I was in a situation where I had accomplished a lot – and after Beijing I could’ve retired and that would’ve been OK.  

MBG: So you’re back competing by choice – on your own terms?

NC: Exactly. It feels like a lot less pressure.

MBG: What do you love about swimming?

NC: I love training, I love being really fit, I love being outside – and swimming is the sport that came more naturally to me than any other sport. When I was younger I competed in other sports like volleyball and gymnastics but swimming was what I clearly excelled at. When I finally do retire I’ll continue to work out and train.

MBG: How is training different now than training in college or for the Olympics? 

NC: I rest a lot more now. Other swimmers make fun of me now for getting older, and at 27 years old I know I’m young – but as far as swimmers go that’s old. Now I swim a lot less, but when I’m in the water, it’s a lot more intense. My practices are much more focused now and I alternate days in-and-out of the water. Today, for example, I’ll only do Pilates but yesterday was a marathon day of swimming and weight training. When I was younger, I did six days a week and on Saturdays I did triples. 

MBG: Do you have a favorite quote?

NC: "Life's ups and downs provide windows of opportunity to determine your values and goals -- think of using all obstacles as stepping stones to build the life you want."

MBG: A favorite book?

NC: I love reading about food. I’m not much into fiction. I LOVE Ruth Reichel – I’ve read her book Comfort Me With Apples at least 2-3 times. The way she writes is so entertaining.

MBG: You must be a fan of Alice Waters, too?

NC: Yes, I love Alice Waters. I love Chez Panisse and I actually had the opportunity to meet her. She’s such an amazing person – she’s so nice and has an amazing presence – she’s almost mystical.

MBG: You’ve met a lot of incredible people, is there anyone you haven’t met that you’d like to meet?

NC: Ruth Reichl!

MBG: What’s next for you?

NC: Well, I’m about to head to Pilates but in two weeks I’m heading to Europe to swim – to Spain, France and Monaco. 

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