IRVINE, Calif. -- Though the final results said Natalie Coughlin finished third in the 100-meter backstroke final here Wednesday night, the ear-to-ear grin stretched across the 27-year-old's face told the story of a swimmer who came away more than pleased with her performance.
The two-time Olympian and three-time Olympic gold medalist took 18 months off after the 2008 Beijing Olympics and just returned to the pool last December. Thus, she was thrilled to turn in a sub-1:00 time during Wednesday morning's prelims (59.89) and again later in the final (59.70).
"I really didn't think I was going to go under a minute at this meet," she said. "I'm thrilled that we did it twice. This is ahead of where I thought I would be at the end of this summer, so I'm happy, really happy. More than anything, this just gives me so much confidence for the next couple years."
During her 18 months away, Coughlin got married, competed on the television show "Dancing With the Stars" and spent ample time in the kitchen, where she loves to cook. The one thing she didn't do? Step foot into a pool. Not once. Instead, she tried to keep in shape by running up to 10 miles a day. But the body of a runner and a swimmer are drastically different.
"I had no upper-body strength," said Coughlin, who will also compete in the 100 free on Thursday. "I was kind of like a lollipop, with a big old head and tiny little shoulders. It took awhile to get my strength back."
It's an adjustment she said her body is still acclimating to, which is what makes Wednesday's performance so encouraging.
"I feel like once I really start training -- not like I haven't been -- but once I continue without such a long break," she said, "I look forward to what lies ahead after that."