Natalie Coughlin: Olympic Hero


  The road to Athens began in Vallejo for Olympic Golden Girl, Natalie
Coughlin. Vallejo-born Natalie made history at the 2004 Athens Olympics
by winning five medals including two gold, two silver and a bronze. What
wasn’t in the international media was that she is part Filipino. However,
that fact wasn’t lost in the many fans she has in Vallejo’s Filipino community.
Her Filipina mother Zennie and father, Jim, a Vallejo Police Officer, raised
her with strong Filipino family and religious values, which many of her fans
believe was one key to her success.
As a child, Natalie attended St. Catherine’s Elementary School. “I remember
her as a very cheerful, active and friendly girl,” said Mila Evangelista who
taught at St. Catherine’s Elementary School. From Vallejo, she went on to
attend Carondelet High School in Concord, CA, where she was a straight-A
student. She continued swimming in high school and came into national
prominence by being named Swimming World's 1998 National High School
Swimmer of the Year.
Tuffy Williams was Natalie’s first swim coach in Vallejo. “I coached her for about a year when she first turned eight
years-old. At that time, there was nothing really spectacular about her. As an eight or under she didn’t hold any team
records, but as a nine and ten year old she began to make a mark for herself,” said Williams a former principal at
Everest School in Vallejo. “I taught her the four fundamental strokes and helped her perfect her form,” added Williams
with pride. Today, visitors at Cunningham Pool in Vallejo can still see her records posted in the display case when
she was a member of the Vallejo Aquatic Club.
Williams continued with praise for her mom and dad. “She had parents. Definitely she was a fun little girl, she was
very competitive and came to practice.” Today, Williams is still with the Vallejo Aquatic Club. When asked if there are
any future Natalie’s in the club, he replied that there is a Justin Lynch and Mary Welton who stick in his mind.
Steve Bennett of Vallejo used to pick up Natalie and her sister Megan from St. Catherine’s Elementary School to take
them to swim practice at Mare Island’s Rodman Club Pool, where they swam for the Mirage Swim Team. “Those girls
were so good. They started their homework in the car on the way to Mare Island,” said Bennett. “Natalie was the girl
that was the first one in the water and the last out. She had so much poise and maturity for her age,” added Bennett.
From those early days, Steve and his wife knew there was something special about her.
“Her physical and mental skills were head and shoulders above the rest of the kids. Both my wife and I felt that Natalie
really had it in her to be a champion.” said Bennett. Like all youth sports, the children need the complete support of
their parents, and Natalie’s parents were always there for her.
At Cunningham Pool in East Vallejo, her records are still posted on a bulletin board for all to see. In 1993, while
swimming in the 10 years-old and under age group, her name is listed in almost every swimming event. In 1994, she
continued to break records as an eleven-year old. Who ever breaks those decade old records might be forecasting
Vallejo’s next Olympian.
“Jim and Zennie did a wonderful job raising their children. I never heard them raise their voices at them except when
they were cheering them on,” said Bennett who works at St. Basil’s Elementary school. “Even when they were away at
swim meets, Zennie would always find a church for them to attend Sunday mass,” added Bennett referring to the
family’s commitment to their religion.” Today, the little Filipino girls at St. Basils are so proud that Natalie is a
champion and that she is part Filipino,” said an equally proud Bennett.        
  With the Olympics now over, Natalie’s life is forever changed. She will be going back to college at the University of
California-Berkeley, where she is scheduled to graduate this year with a degree in psychology. Even with her hectic
swimming and travel schedule, she was able to maintain a 3.5 grade-point average. As a college athlete, she was
named NCAA Swimmer of the Year in 2001, 2002 and 2003. The only time she was in the final race at the NCAA
Championships.
  The future is bright for this Vallejo-born mestiza Filipina who started swimming in her parent’s backyard pool. The
Sports Business Daily polled sports and ad executives in June, and picked Natalie Coughlin as one of the most
bankable of the Olympic athletes. We’ll soon be seeing her face endorsing a multitude of products.  Maybe a Wheatie’
s cereal box is in the future. Filipinos everywhere should be proud that one of our own from Vallejo represented our
country so well and brought home the Olympic gold from
Athens.                                                                                                                        ###
Mel Orpilla can be reached by email at mel9661@orpilla.com