Natalie Coughlin’s route to the 2016 Summer Olympics is all over the map: Italy, the Persian Gulf, Canada and many more destinations ahead.
“Right now, I’m all in for the next two years,” Coughlin said recently before leaving for the short-course World Championships on Wednesday through Sunday in Doha, Qatar.
She is among 10 U.S. swimmers with Bay Area ties racing in Doha, including three budding teen stars headed to her alma mater at Cal next year. Coughlin, 32, is scheduled to compete in only the 400 freestyle relay Friday in Doha, although she recently set an American short-course record for the 100 individual medley while sizzling in three meets in Italy.
Coughlin’s plans for reaching the Rio de Janeiro Games changed over the summer when she failed to qualify for swimming’s biggest event of 2015 — the World Championships in Russia.
The two-time Olympic champion from Walnut Creek was relegated to a “B” assignment next summer — the Pan-American Games in Toronto — after swimming poorly at the U.S. championships because of illness.
It was a frustrating moment for a woman who is tied with Dara Torres and Jenny Thompson as America’s most decorated female Olympians with 12 medals each. But with Cal’s Missy Franklin and Stanford-bound Katie Ledecky dominating the scene, Coughlin is something of an afterthought these days.
After winning six medals in Beijing in 2008, she competed in only preliminary rounds of the 400 freestyle relay at the London Games, earning a bronze medallion.
“Going into London I didn’t think I was going beyond it,” Coughlin said. “But I didn’t want to end my career on that note, knowing I could do more and be better. I knew that I had some more racing in me.”
But it would take a makeover to return to prominence. Coughlin is beginning to see the benefits of leaving Cal women’s coach Teri McKeever after 12 years. With McKeever’s blessing, the swimmer joined Golden Bears men’s coach Dave Durden, who also trains Olympic sprint stars Nathan Adrian and Anthony Ervin.
Coughlin experienced some “growing pains” during the transition, but has plotted a course that could lead to the kind of finish she wanted in London.
For now, Coughlin isn’t thinking beyond the Rio de Janeiro Games. But sprinters have a long shelf life so it’s difficult to know whether she might continue.
“I joke that I was competitive out of the womb, but I was,” Coughlin said. “I’m 32 and most of my friends have jobs where they’re stuck in an office all day. I get to work out really hard. I get to push my body every single day. I get to see the sun rise and be out in the fresh air.”
Coughlin also said she hopes to see Michael Phelps compete again after the Olympic champion’s latest ordeal with a second drunken driving arrest in the past decade. Phelps is serving a six-month ban until April, and is ineligible to compete at the 2015 World Championships although he qualified for the team.
“We are obviously very concerned,” about Phelps, Coughlin said. “I reached out to him to tell him how much we care for him and want him to be well. I think he’s taking the proper steps in his life. It’s a blessing for us to see him race whenever we can.”
Phelps’ U.S. teammate and rival Ryan Lochte echoed Coughlin’s sentiments, and added, “There is no doubt in my mind that he’ll be back in the water.”
Phelps, whose 22 medals are the most in Olympics history, came out of retirement this year to begin a push toward his fifth Summer Games before the incident in September.
“He loves this sport,” said Lochte, who had predicted Phelps would return. “He loves the excitement of getting on the blocks to race. . . . Once you’re in that racing mode, it’s hard to get rid of.
“There’s no doubt in my mind he’ll be ready for Rio.”
Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865 and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliottalmond.