NEW YORK — Chasing her third Olympics, Natalie Coughlin isn't sure the trend of making the games over and over will become routine in swimming.
Michael Phelps is going for his fourth, Ryan Lochte his third. Dara Torres, Ian Thorpe, Janet Evans, Amanda Beard — everyone in the sport seems to be shattering the assumption that the Olympics are a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
"I think this is a special moment in time in swimming," Coughlin told The Associated Press on Thursday. "Yes, there are several of us that have been to many Olympics. We're kind of at that sweet spot where there are more opportunities now for people after college and people physically are figuring out how to keep injury away. At the same time, I think it's kind of a coincidence that there are so many people who are doing well."
The 11-time Olympic medalist just got back from competing in Italy, and the London Games must be right around the corner because she's feeling that urge to race. The 29-year-old Coughlin took more than a year off after Beijing, a much-needed break from essentially two straight decades of swimming.
She returned to the pool to prepare for this past summer's world championships. At the time, she didn't realize that her motivation wasn't totally there.
"It's not like I was lazy the past couple years," she said with a laugh. "I just think that mentally it's so difficult to stay at that level for so long."
She noticed the difference when she looked at her competition schedule for this year versus last. Between now and next summer, her calendar is packed. Before, she wanted to race only if it doubled as a nice vacation to somewhere like Italy or Japan.
Coughlin won three medals at worlds in July, including bronze in the 100-meter backstroke and gold in an American-record time with the U.S. medley relay team.
"Now that it's the Olympic year, I can honestly say I'm really excited about training; I'm really excited about competition, and I'm fully in this now," she said.
In 2008, Coughlin became the first American woman to win six medals in one Olympics. As a swimmer with strong technique, she believes she benefits from the restrictions enacted by governing body FINA on high-tech suits at the start of last year.
"I think there were a lot of swimmers out there that were just sheer power, and the suits were helping them more than they were helping the technical (swimmers)," she said.
Coughlin is training in all four strokes, unsure which events will feel the best come trials. Despite her versatility, Coughlin has never tried to be the female Phelps. She swam the butterfly often in college, but she never sought to race the 100 fly at the Olympics because it was scheduled too close to the event in which she's won two gold medals, the 100 back.
Now that there's more time between the two races, Coughlin might add the 100 fly in London, especially after the stroke felt strong when she won bronze in the 200 individual medley in Beijing.
"I felt like I never really reached my potential in the butterfly," she said.
But as Coughlin learned in 2008, it's hard to predict which races will just feel right. Take the chain of events that put her on the podium in an unlikely event.
"I honest to God did not think I was going to do the IM," she said. "I just did it kind of as a joke once at a meet, and then I happened to drop four seconds. Then I did it again because I was so close to the American record — and I broke the American record. Then I was like, 'Oh, God, now I'm going to have to try and do this at trials.' Then I didn't think I was going to qualify, and I did.
"And then I got a bronze medal."
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