Natalie Coughlin: An Olympic Swimmer and Urban Farmer

On competitive swimming, chickens and honeybees.

Swimmer Natalie Coughlin, 29, was the most decorated female athlete at both the 2004 Athens and the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In Beijing, she became the first U.S. woman to medal six times during a single Games, giving her a lifetime total of 11. She hopes to add to that number this summer at the 30th Olympiad in London.

Besides swimming, Coughlin’s passions include food, gardening, and the five chickens she keeps in her backyard in Lafayette, California.

Avital Andrews from Sierra magazine interviewed Natalie to find out more about her gold-medal habits.

SIERRA: What do you mean when you call yourself an “urban farmer”?

Natalie: I grow a lot of my own food and have replaced a lot of our landscaping with edibles. We have 10 citrus trees, seven seasonal vegetable beds, and five chickens for eggs. We’re considering honeybees next. For a while we were thinking about goats but realized that would have been ridiculous and too much to handle between our two dogs and five chickens and my travel schedule.

SIERRA: When will you decide about the bees?

Natalie: I’ll probably wait until after the Olympics and then dive into that project. Right now we have several mason bee houses, to give them a refuge and encourage them to come pollinate all our fruits and vegetables. I definitely notice a difference this summer, versus the previous summer — a lot more of our flowers are turning into fruit.

SIERRA: How did you pick up gardening as a hobby?  

Natalie: When I was a kid, I had a 90-year-old neighbor — she could stick anything in the ground and it would grow and flourish. We’d always play in her garden. I still have the colander that she used to make potpourri from her roses. A lot of people in my life have had backyard gardens so when I was looking to buy a home, that was one of the requirements. I think it was just a desire to learn more about the seasons and about where food comes from.

SIERRA: What’s your favorite thing to grow?

Natalie: Definitely kale. It’s one of the most nutrient-dense vegetables. We put it in smoothies, braise it, or just have kale chips. I also I love growing fresh salad, Meyer lemons, mission figs, and alpine strawberries. And tomatoes and peppers are the stars of summer.

SIERRA: What do you get from gardening?

Natalie: It gives me a sense of calm. I just go out and stare at the beds. My husband makes fun of me, but I love it. I also love having a huge array of herbs at any given time. And the health benefit — having something so fresh — just makes total sense.

SIERRA: You list The Omnivore’s Dilemma as one of your favorite books. What about it resonated with you?

Natalie: I loved everything about it. It was one of those books where I wanted to slow down and underline passages and really absorb the information. The politics of growing food fascinates me. Michael Pollan does such a wonderful job of explaining a lot. That book and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle really inspired me to get chickens and to grow my own vegetables.

SIERRA: What’s it like to have five chickens?

Natalie: Chickens are probably the easiest pet you can have. You just provide them with shelter, food, water, and protection and they’re happy. We get three to eight beautiful eggs a day — greenish-blue eggs, pinkish-brown eggs — and they’re as fresh as they possibly could be. They’re better than anything you can get in stores. Factory-farmed eggs and chickens are some of the filthiest things out there. There’s been an increase in salmonella, so I wanted to have something clean. And their manure is amazing for the garden. It’s really helped our compost.

SIERRA: Did you and your husband build the coop yourselves?

Natalie: No, we had someone help us. It was quite a project. We thought we could do it ourselves and bought the materials for it but ended up having to hire a professional because we were in a little bit over our heads.

SIERRA: Does being from Northern California influence your lifestyle?

Natalie: Without a doubt. The Bay Area has a very distinct personality. People are very into food and being environmentally responsible and supporting socially ethical businesses. Going to UC Berkeley and living near there for the past 12 years has really influenced me. In Berkeley, people are so passionate about their beliefs. I have such respect for people who go out there and fight for their beliefs.

SIERRA: Have you ever thought of writing a cookbook?

Natalie: I would love to at some point. There are a million cookbooks out there and I definitely am a connoisseur — I have probably 100 different cookbooks and I love each and every one of them.

SIERRA: Switching gears a bit, have water pollutants ever affected you?

Natalie: Oh, definitely. There was one time when my team and I were on a training trip in San Diego doing an ocean swim right when there was an oil spill. It coated all of us. I got a pretty good upper respiratory infection. Another time, in Bali, I got a skin infection because of sewage in the water.

SIERRA: As a community, are swimmers more passionate about water issues?

Natalie: I think a handful are, especially the ones who grew up on the coast. But surfers are the most passionate about saving the water. It’s closer to their heart. It’s something that they know firsthand affects them. They become aware of just how big of a deal it is.

SIERRA: Do you feel passionate about water issues?

Natalie: Definitely. I love bodysurfing. I use that as cross-training.

SIERRA: You have some product sponsors: O’Neill, Speedo, some others. Do you try to encourage them to choose materials and manufacturing methods that are greener?

Natalie: I have not. I’ve honestly never even thought about that until now [laughs]. That’s a fantastic idea.

SIERRA: Thanks. So would you, then?

Natalie: Yeah, I’ll definitely talk to them. When you’re ordering products, it’s interesting to see how much packaging goes into shipping one piece of equipment or clothing. I’ve definitely encouraged them to condense their packaging methods. But beyond that — manufacturing, I’m so far removed from that that I’ve never even thought about it.

SIERRA: What are you most looking forward to in London?

Natalie: Well, first of all, making the team.

SIERRA: I guess I’m just making a safe assumption.

Natalie: Yeah, assuming I’m there, bangers and mash is definitely something I’ll hit up. My guilty pleasure is a really good hot dog. It’s funny because I eat mostly vegetarian and I’m all about health, but one of my favorite foods in the world is hot dogs, which is terrible. It’ll be a special occasion, though, so it’s OK.

SIERRA: How about the competitions there? What are you looking forward to?

Natalie: In addition to swimming, I’d love to go witness track in person and cheer some of my USA teammates on. It’s so similar to swimming in that there’s a clear first, second, third place. It’s all time-based. I’ve always enjoyed watching it on TV and have yet to see it in person.

SIERRA: What motivates you?

Natalie: I was a very, very competitive kid. And swimming is just what I was good at. I wasn’t great at dance or volleyball or gymnastics. But swimming came naturally to me and I worked hard at it in high school knowing I had a shot at earning a college scholarship and maybe making the Olympic team. Getting into the cold water each morning is the hardest part of my day, and it never gets easier. But I love being a professional athlete. I just love being paid to be outdoors most of the day, take care of my body, travel the world, represent my country. I have one of the best jobs out there. That is now my motivating source.

SIERRA: If there’s a kid out there whose dream is to be just like you, what would you tell that person?

Natalie: Work hard. You have to make sacrifices but know that those sacrifices are worth it. Even if you run into obstacles, know that everyone runs into obstacles along the way. It’s those challenges that make you a stronger athlete and a stronger person. And just have fun. Sports are meant to be fun. Many kids and parents tend to forget that.

SIERRA: Were either of your parents athletes?

Natalie: Yeah, my dad did kung fu for many years. He’s a black belt. My mom is very into yoga. They’re both very fit and very active. Sports play a huge role in their lives like it does for me.

SIERRA: How about your husband? Is he a swimmer too?

Natalie: Yeah, he was a swimmer. Actually, we grew up swimming together when we were teenagers in Concord. He coaches now, kids ages six to 18. He helps me out with my technique, so we’ve been able to travel together. He gives me a good workout while we’re on the road.

SIERRA: What was your wedding like? Was it eco-friendly?

Natalie: Yes, it was very rustic and beautiful. We got married at Napa’s Carneros Inn, in an apple orchard. All the food and wine was local and everything was completely in season. We used recycled wine barrels as stands for the flowers.

SIERRA: Final question: How did it feel to win the gold?

Natalie: I’ve earned three gold medals and each time was very different. The first medal was such a relief. I was considered the favorite in that event and in many people’s minds it was mine to lose. Psychologically, that’s a terrible thing to go into. So I was just happy it worked out. The second time was a relay — the 800 freestyle — and my teammates and I, we broke the oldest East German record on the books. We erased an old steroid world record. That was just a party on the stand. The third time was in Beijing. It was just overwhelming. I’m not really an emotional person but I was crying. I was happy and, again, relieved. It’s not an emotion that’s normal. It was something that we don’t really have a word for.

–photo courtesy of Ethan Hall

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