BEIJING — When Natalie Coughlin first dipped her toes into the water as a child, she couldn't have known where that simple act would take her.
It would've been impossible to foresee what was coming, even as visions of the Olympics began swirling around in her head.
"As a kid, I definitely wanted to be an Olympian, but I had no idea what that looked like," said Coughlin, a Cal graduate. "It wasn't about records or anything like that. That's what you're supposed to want to be as a swimmer."
She couldn't have known that after just two Olympics, she'd establish herself as one of the most prolific swimmers in United States history. Yet that's exactly what's happened.
Coughlin returned to the "Water Cube" on Sunday morning (Beijing time) to put her final stamp on what has been an extremely eventful nine-day ride at the Beijing Games. She joined Rebecca Soni, Christine Magnuson and Dara Torres to win a silver medal in the women's 400-meter medley relay, finishing in 3 minutes, 53.30 seconds. Australia won the gold in world-record time of 3:52.69. The silver medal pushes Coughlin's total haul in China to six medals, making her the most successful American female, in any sport, at a single games.
All of which begs the question, is Coughlin the best female swimmer this country has ever seen?
That pool is extremely deep, but according to Cal coach Teri McKeever, Coughlin deserves some consideration.
"You have to," said McKeever, an assistant on the U.S. staff. "Shirley Babashoff, Tracy Caulkins, Jenny Thompson, Dara Torres. I think you've got to throw Natalie Coughlin in that mix."
With her six-medal finish (one gold, two silver, three bronze), Coughlin, 25, will return home to the East Bay as an 11-time Olympic medalist. Only Torres, a five-time Olympian, and Thompson, a four-time Olympian, have earned more hardware for the U.S. women. Torres picked up two medals Sunday, the first a silver in the 50 freestyle, and now sits alongside Thompson with 12 career medals.
"It's pretty amazing," Coughlin said. "I came here entered in six events and I wasn't sure how I'd deal with the workload. I couldn't have asked for anything more."
At any other time, that kind of performance would generate waves, but Michael Phelps' monstrous push for eight gold medals ensured Coughlin's accomplishments in Beijing would be relegated to a footnote.
But that doesn't make them easy to ignore.
"It's not winning back-to-back (in the 100 backstroke) at the Olympics. It's how she's been dominant in so many events," said Summer Sanders, a two-time gold medalist. "You could throw Nat in any event and she'd win it. My hero is Tracy Caulkins. She could do that.
"Our country has such a history and a legacy in this sport. That makes it tougher for people to solidify themselves as legends. I don't know what America is going to require. With Tracy, it wasn't just about her swimming. She just had this way about her. She appreciated things, and that's what Natalie has."
Like Caulkins, widely viewed as the most versatile swimmer to ever represent the United States, Coughlin has shown remarkable proficiency in multiple events. Just consider what she did in Beijing. Not only did Coughlin become the first woman to ever repeat as gold medalist in the 100 backstroke, she took home the bronze in the 200 individual medley, an event recently added to her arsenal. She could've been a medal contender in the 100 butterfly had she not dropped the event from her program prior to the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials last month.
"She's an amazing athlete," said bronze medalist Caroline Burckle. "Just watching her swim from the stands, it's so exciting for the USA. Everyone looks up to Natalie. She's a great team leader. She's just outstanding."
So, what happens now? Coughlin has already stated she intends to keep swimming, her sights set on the 2012 London Olympics. With a marriage on the horizon, McKeever said she expects Coughlin to take some time off to "reflect on where she is and what she wants to do."
And, no doubt, bask in what she's already done.
Contact Jennifer Starks at email@example.com
1992: 2 gold, 1 silver. 1996: 3 gold. 2000: 3 gold, 1 bronze. 2004: 2 silver.
1984: 1 gold. 1988: 1 silver, 1 bronze. 1992: 1 gold. 2000: 2 gold, 3 bronze. 2008: 3 silver.
2004: 2 gold, 2 silver, 1 bronze. 2008: 1 gold, 2 silver, 3 bronze.
Individual Olympic medals
Most medals won in a single Olympics by a female swimmer