It turns out Michael Phelps isn’t the only Olympic athlete who likes his greens. His fellow Team USA swimmer, Natalie Coughlin (who, with 12 medals, shares the record for most decorated American female Olympian), also has a passion for plant life. But she’s into growing it, not smoking it. A self-described urban farmer, Coughlin raises fruits, vegetables, and chickens in her backyard in Lafayette, Calif.
Indeed, if the urban gardening movement had an advertising budget, Coughlin would be its ideal poster child, promoting homegrown kale and tomatoes as the secret ingredients for Olympic strength. (Forget what you’ve heard about Yorkshire pudding, fast food, and mountains of sushi.)
It’s not surprising Coughlin counts her 100-some cookbooks among her favorite possessions; her crops offer a rainbow of ingredients to choose from. “I attempted to grow edamame this year, but animals kept eating it,” she told Food & Wine. “I grow kale, figs, tomatillos, Eureka lemons, eggplant. Padrón peppers are one of my favorites.”
Coughlin’s interest in growing things started with an elderly neighbor whose garden she played in as a kid. “I still have the colander that she used to make potpourri from her roses,” Coughlin told Sierra magazine. “A lot of people in my life have had backyard gardens so when I was looking to buy a home, that was one of the requirements. I think it was just a desire to learn more about the seasons and about where food comes from.”
She also cites Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle as influencing her decision to grow her own food. Coughlin eats mostly vegetarian (let me repeat that: Olympic athlete. Mostly vegetarian.) and says that “factory-farmed eggs and chickens are some of the filthiest things out there,” although she admits a weakness for hot dogs.
At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Coughlin became the first U.S. woman to medal six times in a single games. She only qualified for one event in London — the 4×100 freestyle relay — but snagged a bronze medal in it. At 29, Coughlin may not see another Olympics, which would give her plenty of time to devote to her garden and the five chickens she keeps. She’s thinking of tackling beekeeping next.
Coughlin also surfs, appeared in the 2012 Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, and competed on Dancing with the Stars. But we think urban-farm poster child/advocate would be her best post-Olympics career choice.
Check out a video of Coughlin’s gorgeous garden: