Results are cut-and-dry in swimming, and Natalie Coughlin wishes the same was true for Dancing with the Stars. "It's such a foreign concept to me, standing up there and hoping you got picked," she tells TVGuide.com. "In swimming, you're the fastest or not. It's so weird being judged." Alas, she is being judged and she hopes everyone will like what they see from her on the parquet because she doesn't want to leave any time soon. "I think it was last week when I realized, whenever this is over for me, it's going to be really depressing. I really love it," Coughlin says. See what else the 11-time Olympic medalist has to say about her improvements on the dance floor, why the rumba is her favorite dance and why she may pop up on another reality show.
TVGuide.com: You said on Twitter that the rumba is your favorite dance. Why?
Natalie Coughlin: So far it is! It's slow, but it's fast and honestly, I think everything Alec's been telling me for seven weeks is finally sinking in a little bit. [Laughs] It's going to be intense and sexy and I don't have to smile throughout the whole dance! I don't have a hard time smiling ever unless I'm trying to concentrate on something. Hopefully I'll stick around for a long time and that will come more naturally to me. Michael Irvin, he sticks his tongue out when he's concentrating. Everyone has some sort of face they make.
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TVGuide.com: I was wondering if that was maybe a habit from swimming, like, do you count strokes when you swim and now you're counting steps?
Coughlin: No, I don't really count steps. I don't know if that's a good or bad thing, but most dancers count to eight when they're learning. I just sort of do it. That just might be my learning process and I may need to change it. The rumba, it's really strange because it's like, four, one-two-three, four, one-two-three-four. Hopefully I'll get better.
TVGuide.com: And you're breathing, right? That whole intro package was weird because why would you not breathe outside of water?
Coughlin: I know! I'm breathing! It's not that I'm physically not breathing! [Laughs] Alec [Mazo, her partner] says I'm not breathing, but he just means I'm not using my breath to dictate my movement. What he wants are these long inhales and long exhales to dictate, like, a softness in your body. That's what he meant, but you have to oversimplify for a minute-long package.
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TVGuide.com: You've been swimming since you were a baby, but have you had dance training before?
Coughlin: I've done a couple cardio classes years ago for fun, but it was one of those things where the instructor tells you "good job" no matter what you're doing. "Oh my God, you guys are so good!" And they're just looking at themselves in the mirror! When I was really young, I did tap and ballet when I was, like, 4, and that's when my parents decided I was going to be a swimmer. [Laughs] The footage on video is the funniest thing. I am so embarrassed for myself because I was so fat and so awkward. In my recital, the others will do one pretty spin and I'd barrel through three really fast!
TVGuide.com: What's been the hardest thing so far then?
Coughlin: The hardest thing is definitely just performing. Not just doing the choreography, but engaging the audience and engaging your partner. Hopefully I'll achieve that more in the rumba. The rumba's a really intense dance with your partner. I've learned the choreography and next is the acting. I'm not an actress. I know exactly what the package will be this week — me trying to be sexy while I'm laughing!
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TVGuide.com: Did you agree to this right away, especially since you're taking this year off from swimming?
Coughlin: Yeah, I said yes right way. I've wanted to dance my entire life. I've never had the time or access to an instructor like this. Now I get to train six hours a day with one of the best dancers in the world and he's highly motivated to do well and I'm highly motivated to do well, and it's a dream come true. I know it's good for your career and blah, blah, blah, but honestly, this whole thing has been so enjoyable.
TVGuide.com: You and Alec went to Cal Berkley together, but didn't know each other. How crazy is that?
Coughlin: Yeah, we were both the class of '04! I postponed my last semester until '05, but he graduated in '04. So we were the same year and he [majored in] cognitive science and I [majored in] psychology, so we probably had classes together. I can't believe they didn't use that in our intro package. He met me at Cal and I was in the pool, which is so funny because they're like, "Oh, she's practicing!" And I haven't been in the pool all year, but whatever. I was swimming and he came up to my lane and I said, "Thank you so much for coming to Berkley" and he said, "Oh, I went here." "When did you graduate?" "'04." "Me too." "What'd you study?" "Psych." "Me too." It was just like, "What?!"
TVGuide.com: Did they know that when they paired you? I thought that might have been why they did.
Coughlin: I think they paired us, for the most part, because they thought our personalities would match. He's from San Francisco and I live in the Bay Area. I don't know if they knew that, to tell you the truth, but it was so random. That's something I consider important — liking your partner. Going into this, I was like, "I'm an athlete. I've had coaches yell at me! I can handle anything." I'm so happy with Alec because he is hard on me, but in a good way. And we have identical work ethics. We aim for perfection and we'll never achieve that, but it's our goal. I think we have a really good relationship.
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TVGuide.com: I know you're an avid cook. Has your diet changed at all?
Coughlin: Well, cooking has kind of gone out the window because we train so much. And cooking for one, I forgot how hard that is. I cook for my husband and he eats for, like, four people. So the first week I was here, I made a really good pasta dish like I would at home and it lasted me a week, and I had to throw away half of it because it went bad. At home, that would've lasted a day. I haven't been cooking as much as I would like, but I do make myself breakfast. I just came up with five new recipes that are going to up [on my Facebook page] pretty soon.
TVGuide.com: You should do a cooking package on the show.
Coughlin: I know! That was one of the ideas too, teaching Alec and Edyta how to cook. I was talking to Mark Dacascos and he was like, "You should come on Iron Chef!" I was like, "Oh my God! I would love that!" That would be fun. Not cooking, obviously!