Swimmer Natalie Coughlin & Her Sister Megan: Two Paths to Success

Zennie Coughlin, Natalie Coughlin's momZennie Coughlin and her husband raised two daughters, three years apart in age. Both girls swam competitively. The younger one, Megan, walked away from the sport during her first year of college. Natalie, now 29, swam on, eventually winning 12 Olympic medals–including one this week in London–and tying the record for most medals among U.S. women.

Because of the different paths Natalie and Megan chose, the Coughlin family provides a good example of how parents can successfully encourage kids to follow their passions without pushing them too far. While I was in London last week for the Olympics, I had a chance to sit down with three members of the Coughlin family–Zennie, Megan, and Zennie’s mom–while they relaxed in the days between Natalie’s races. (Alas, Natalie was not available. But the photo at right shows Zennie posing in front of a large ad featuring her daughter.)

From an early age, the girls’ parents insisted they become involved in something, some sport that would teach them discipline and keep them out of trouble. But beyond that, the Coughlins didn’t push. The girls didn’t have to stick with one sport, and each dabbled at times in other activities, only to return to swimming. But swimming competitively–certainly at the elite level Natalie has achieved–came completely from her own desire, Zennie Coughlin said.

“When she was going to her junior prom her hair was totally wet, she had to swim a relay and get ready for the prom that evening,” she said. “She has been the one to balance everything, and I think it has to be driven by the athlete and not the parent. Parents are there to support but you can’t force your kid into loving something that they might not love.”

Natalie’s competitive spirit and drive to push herself further showed from an early age.

“She always was very gifted in the pool with winning all her events,” Zennie Coughlin said. “She loved the competition–didn’t like practice that much but loved the competition…. She almost skipped over the junior times right into the senior times, and that was about the time we knew, when she was about 14, when she was at senior nationals making the finals in those events, which is pretty impressive.”

Natalie’s growing success drew in the whole family.

“It’s wonderful, we follow her all around when she was swimming for high school, swimming for college and we’ve been to Beijing, we’ve been to Athens, and now here in London,” said Zennie Bohn, who is Zennie Coughlin’s mom and Natalie and Megan’s grandmother. “How great is that?”

For Megan, though, the sacrifices required to keep swimming competitively grew to be too much. So when she got to college, she decided her priorities lay elsewhere.

“I wanted to enjoy the college experience and so instead, I stopped with swimming and just enjoyed the college time,” Megan, who now works in sales, said.

College was actually the second time she stopped swimming. When she was 13, she had a series of seizures and stepped away from the pool for some time, returning when the problem passed.

“At the time it was liberating,” Megan said. “I was doing double workouts by the time I was 8, 9, 10, and so it was nice for me to not have to go to practice right after school, before school. But, I do wonder what may have been if I didn’t stop.”

People often assume it’s difficult for her to watch Natalie’s success, but Megan begs to differ.

“The natural reaction most people say to me is, ‘It must be so hard to have an Olympian as a sister,’” Megan said. “And it never has been, only because Natalie is so wonderful. My parents are great, too. They never have compared the two of us, so it’s been nice because I’ve gotten to travel to so many amazing places because of her.”

The Coughlins supported their daughters’ decisions, though they’d probe to make sure that the girls had truly thought through what they’re doing and why. One chose to sacrifice Saturday morning cartoons–and later, socializing with friends–in order to swim. The other chose to sacrifice swimming in order to have a college social life. And Zennie is proud of both her daughters’ choices and accomplishments.

“Appreciate each child for what they are individually,” Zennie Coughlin said. “I can remember that, with Megan being compared to her sister, [people say], ‘You know, you’d be really good at swimming if you came to practice a little more.’ And Megan would say, ‘You know what, I have a life.’ But I was supportive of her, it’s her choice, if she doesn’t want to do it, she’s not going to be forced into it, that’s her choice. But she’s successful with what she’s done, so that’s why I say not to compare, and to appreciate their individuality.”

That support has meant a lot to Megan, and she sees it as crucial for raising young athletes successfully–regardless of how good or successful they are.

“As long as you have that support there from your parents and you know they’re supporting you, bringing you to practice, encouraging you no matter what, it’s not the end of the world if you’re not an Olympian,” Megan said. “The chances of it happening are so slim. Just go for your dreams and do it wholeheartedly, and I think that you’ll get the best possible result.”

So, the Coughlins’ formula for parenting success? Make sure your kids are involved in something, but once they are, follow their lead and respect their decisions. Allow them to try different activities and support their decisions to change and even quit what they’re focused on–and when they find something they want to stick with and make sacrifices for, support them and be there for them to give them what they need to succeed.

More in Parents.com’s series on Olympians, former Olympians, and parents of Olympians:

Photo: Zennie Coughlin receives hair treatments by Pantene at the P&G Beauty Salon at the Family Home in London. Photo credit: Eamonn MacCormack for Getty/P&G  

Note: My trip was funded by Procter & Gamble, which set up this interview.

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