Staff Photo: Will Hammock — Natalie Coughlin, a 12-time Olympic swimming medalist, speaks Sunday afternoon at North Gwinnett High School. Coughlin's audience consisted of predominantly swimmers from Morning View's summer league team and swimmers from the high school. Morning View won a nationwide contest, sponsored by Pantene, to have Coughlin speak to its team.
SUWANEE — As far as birthday surprises go, Rylee Shimmin got a pretty special one Sunday afternoon.
It's hard to beat 12-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin, with the help of the hundreds of people in the North Gwinnett High School theater, serenading you with "Happy Birthday."
"At first, I was extremely, extremely embarrassed," the now 15-year-old Shimmin said afterward. "Now I think it's extremely cool. It's a great way to spend your birthday to have that and spend it with family and friends."
Shimmin's day was exciting, but she wasn't alone.
A large group of young swimmers, a mix of summer-leaguers from Morning View's neighborhood team and high-schoolers from North, were treated to a guest speaking appearance from the 30-year-old Coughlin, whose 12-medal haul ties her with fellow Americans Dara Torres and Jenny Thompson as the most decorated female Olympic swimmers of all-time.
Coughlin made it to Suwanee thanks to Morning View, specifically to the club's board member, Dave Cathcart, who entered Pantene's "Win a Day with Natalie Coughlin" contest earlier this summer. After taking his son to U.S. Olympic Trials for swimming last summer, he followed some of the American swimmers on Facebook and stumbled across the contest with Coughlin.
He completed the online entry and its accompanying essay, with the subject being longtime Gwinnett high school coach David Ellwanger, also Morning View's summer league coach. A few months later, he received an email that Morning View's entry had won.
"I was thrilled and Coach Ellwanger was thrilled," Cathcart said. "She's a super role model for the kids and that's why I entered."
After Coughlin spoke Sunday, Ellwanger and North head swimming coach Doug Nieman asked the star swimmer a series of questions, then the youngsters in the audience hit her with a round of their own.
"I read the (essays) from the (finalists) and (Morning View's) was the one that really spoke to me," Coughlin said. "It was great because it really focused on the team and on having fun. This is supposed to be a fun sport."
Coughlin covered a variety of topics, from her training to her diet to her past accomplishments. She also touched on her future, which drew the biggest round of applause until she left the stage.
Though NBC paid tribute to her this year as if her Olympic career was over, Coughlin said that she never announced her retirement. She plans to keep competing in the foreseeable future.
"I still love the day to day schedule, competing, traveling the world and pushing myself to get better," Coughlin said. "I'm probably committing to another four years (and the 2016 Olympics)."
Though she grew up in swim-heavy California, Coughlin also said she has an appreciation for Georgia swimmers. Her 2012 Olympic teammates included a handful of Georgians, including suite-mate Amanda Weir of Brookwood and Parkview's Eric Shanteau, who she praised for his work in raising funds and awareness for cancer research. She also gave Georgia native Kathleen Hersey credit for producing USA Swimming's popular "Call Me Maybe" video that has racked up more than 10 million views on YouTube.
"There's no difference between (California and Georgia swimming), honestly," Coughlin said. "The big difference in California is that everybody has a pool and everyone is involved with swimming at some point. But there's just as much talent here as anywhere. I wouldn't say there's more talent on the West Coast than the East Coast."