SANTA CLARA -- Olympic great Natalie Coughlin has a new pool project. This time it's swimming's shortest race -- the 50-meter freestyle.

The 12-time Olympic medalist from Walnut Creek has turned to the sprints as she trains to try to qualify for her fourth Summer Games.

Although Coughlin, 30, failed to qualify for an individual event at the London Games, she never thought about quitting.

Not that everyone believed the former Cal star.

"I think people think I should be having babies," she said after winning the 50 freestyle at the Santa Clara Arena Grand Prix.

Last summer, Coughlin competed in the 4x100 freestyle preliminary heats in London but wasn't picked for the final where the Americans won a bronze medal. It wasn't the way she wanted to end her career.

Natalie Coughlin looks at her winning time of 25.06 in the 50 freestyle during the 2013 Arena International Santa Clara Grand Prix at George F. Haines
Natalie Coughlin looks at her winning time of 25.06 in the 50 freestyle during the 2013 Arena International Santa Clara Grand Prix at George F. Haines International Swim Center in Santa Clara on Saturday, June 1, 2013. (Jim Gensheimer/Bay Area News Group) ( Jim Gensheimer )

"I know I'm better than that," Coughlin said. "I'm treating last year like a learning experience."

The woman who earned a degree in psychology at Cal is swimming's thinking woman. After last year's disappointment, Coughlin decided she needed to jettison the backstroke and butterfly events and focus only on the 50 and 100 freestyles.

Since mid-January Coughlin has trained in Berkeley with two of the world's best sprinters -- former Cal stars Nathan Adrian and Anthony Ervin, both decorated Olympians.

Although one of the greatest backstrokers in history, Coughlin needed a change of scenery to keep swimming interesting. Also, Missy Franklin and a handful of other teens have taken command of the 100 backstroke with impossibly fast times.

Coughlin, though, has been gravitating toward the sprints since successfully defending her Olympic title in the backstroke in 2008.

"By not doing the fly and back, I'm trying to take away safety nets and just focusing on the sprints," she said. "I've been doing this so long, you have to mix it up. I get so bored doing the same thing over and over again."

As Coughlin noted, seven of her 12 Olympic medals have come from freestyle events. It's not going that far outside my wheelhouse," she said.

Natalie Coughlin readies for the 50 freestyle during the 2013 Arena International Santa Clara Grand Prix at George F. Haines International Swim Center in
Natalie Coughlin readies for the 50 freestyle during the 2013 Arena International Santa Clara Grand Prix at George F. Haines International Swim Center in Santa Clara on Saturday, June 1, 2013. (Jim Gensheimer/Bay Area News Group) ( Jim Gensheimer )

Coughlin isn't the first aging swimmer to remain competitive in the sprints. Dara Torres did it through her 30s.

Now the Bay Area's most accomplished Olympian has three weeks to work on her starts before the U.S. national championships in Indianapolis, Ind. The meet is doubling as the world championship trials.

She looks ready with increased biceps muscle definition and a stronger frame. The confidence also has returned.

So, she and husband Ethan Hall, the Crow Canyon Sharks swim coach, aren't in a hurry to start a family.

Coughlin just wants to enjoy competing for as long as she can.

"At some point I'm going to have to get a real job," she said.

Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliottalmond.