Swimmer Natalie Coughlin is one of the most decorated female athletes of all time: She already has 11 Olympic medals and countless World and Pan-Pacific Championship medals. And this month, she’s going for the title—again—at the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai, China, the last major international meet prior to the 2012 London Olympics. She wakes up every morning to grueling workouts both in and out of the water as she trains her way to winning (hopefully) gold. But this swimming beauty isn’t all that different from the rest of us—her hobbies include cooking, gardening and dancing. We talked to her to find out how she does it all.
Spry: What’s your typical eating schedule like and how do you adjust it for different training periods?
Natalie Couglin: It definitely changes quite a bit. Having three large meals would be impossible with my schedule, and I also want to avoid spikes in my blood sugar. I do that by having smaller meals throughout the day. I have some sort of meal in the morning right before I go to work out which is usually about 4:45 a.m. After my morning workout I make sure I have a really good snack with fat, protein, and carbs, and then I have a normal breakfast about an hour after that. Then lunch, an afternoon snack, and dinner. So I eat a lot throughout the day because I’m going constantly.
Spry: What’s the most important thing to you whenever you’re planning a meal?
NC: For me, it’s whatever is in season. I like to have more comforting food in the winter and then lighter, fresher things in the summer.
Spry: How do you keep up a healthy lifestyle when you’re traveling?
NC: It’s just about making adjustments. For instance, I always pack snacks with me. I always have dried plums in my purse and a handful of nuts, and usually a little bit of chocolate because I do love my chocolate when I’m traveling. It’s so important to have snacks so you don’t get so starving that you break down your diet.
Spry: What would you say is the most challenging part of your job?
NC: Balancing the training and competition schedule with the professional schedule. I’m fortunate to have some really great sponsors such as the Dried Plum Board, and I have obligations for them that I’m excited to do, but I also have to train, so it’s an interesting balancing act between those two lives.
Spry: Whom do you look to for inspiration?
NC: Growing up I always looked at Summer Sanders. I loved watching her in the ’92 Olympics. Now, there are so many great role models around. One of my role models is Alice Waters (the owner of Chez Panisse) and what she’s done with healthy living and teaching young children good habits in the kitchen. I think that’s incredible. So, I’ve had some really great role models throughout my life.
Spry: Do you have any guilty pleasure foods, and if you do, what are your rules when it comes to those?
NC: Yeah! A really good hot dog. My rule is it has to be a special occasion—like a football game or a baseball game or something like that. I know they’re really bad for you, but there’s something that’s so good about having a big ol’ bratwurst at a football game.
Spry: Do you feel confident about your chances in 2012?
NC: Yeah, I do. I feel like there are ways I could still be better and I guess that’s the best attitude to have, and the best confidence to have going into the next couple years.
Spry: Do you have any advice for people that are looking to get involved in swimming?
NC: It’s such a great sport in that anyone can do it. It’s a low-impact sport, it’s really healthy and works your entire body. My number one thing to tell people is just to get some kind of instruction, because technique is really important, not only for efficiency but also so that you don’t hurt yourself.
Spry: You’ve been on Dancing with the Stars, you’re a cook, and you’re an Olympic gold-medalist. Do you have anything that you still want to do?
NC: Oh, there are a lot of things I still want to do. One of the most wonderful things about my success in the Olympics is all the wonderful opportunities I’ve had, and all the doors that have opened up to me. But right now I’m just focusing on my swimming career and then I’ll move on from there. One thing at a time.