RICHMOND -- Olympic swimmer Natalie Coughlin felt tremendous pressure to defend her Olympic 100-meter backstroke title. Her world record time fell in the semifinals of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and now she faced an elite field in the final.
"I truly believed deep down that I was going to be successful," Coughlin told a rapt audience. "I went out so hard, so so hard in that first 50 (meters). When I turned at the wall, even under water I could hear the crowd roar."
Coughlin pulled away and won the race to become the first American woman to win six medals in one Olympic Games.
Coughlin, a 30-year-old Bay Area native, gave an inspirational talk to about 25 parents and children at the Tibetan Association of Northern California's community center in Richmond on Wednesday night.
Accompanied by her husband, swimming coach Ethan Hall, Coughlin emphasized themes of perseverance, practice and education.
The visit came about after several months of emails and other inquiries from staff at the center, who hoped to hear from one of the most celebrated athletes in Bay Area history.
"Natalie is an inspiration in terms of health, excellence and grace," Tibetan Association President Kunjo Tashe said. "We are delighted that she would come."
Coughlin did not request or receive any compensation for her visit, Tashe said.
Coughlin said she was happy to take a break from her grueling training schedule to chat with the children. The three-time Olympian and 12-time medal winner said she is swimming, lifting weights and doing other drills in preparation for the 2014 World Championships in Doha, Qatar. The qualifying trials are in June.
Beyond that, Coughlin said she hopes to earn a spot on the 2016 U.S. Olympic team, which will compete in Rio de Janeiro.
"I am in a really good place right now," Coughlin said. "I'm stronger than I've ever felt, and I'm still learning."
Coughlin started Wednesday night with a tour of the center, which the Tibetan association has occupied since moving from Berkeley in 2011. More than 2,000 Tibetans live in the Bay Area, Tashe said.
A portrait of the Dalai Lama hung behind Coughlin as she began to speak. She said she began swimming at age 6 when her parents moved from Vallejo to Benicia.
"I joined the swim team to meet new friends," said Coughlin, now a resident of Lafayette. "I wasn't that good. I was chubby and uncoordinated, but I had a passion for swimming, and I liked to race."
Later, her swimming and strong academic performance got her into UC Berkeley, where she excelled in the pool and earned a bachelor's degree in psychology in 2005.
The children, seated on a carpeted floor, peppered the Olympian with questions ranging from what her favorite swimming stroke is to how she felt standing atop a pedestal as Olympic champion.
"Right now, my favorite is the freestyle, but it changes all the time," Coughlin said, adding that the breast stroke is her least favorite.
Coughlin admitted that she was embarrassed that she sobbed uncontrollably as she stood on the pedestal after winning in Beijing
"For everything in your life to culminate into one moment is pretty intense," she said.
Coughlin told the children that she enjoys using social media like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to connect with fans.
One child asked Coughlin whether she has any regrets.
"That's a very deep question," Coughlin said. "No, any stumble I have had along the way has given me a better perspective, and I have always learned from it."
While Coughlin said she is focused on the World Championships and the 2016 Olympics, she knows the end of her swimming career is in sight.
"I don't plan on going on as long as the others," Coughlin said, referring to Dara Torres and Janet Evans, who swam competitively into their 40s. "But who knows, I didn't plan on going on this long."