When Natalie Coughlin married her longtime boyfriend, swim coach Ethan Hall, a little Border Terrier, now age 7, trotted down the aisle with the flower girl. The dog wore a silk pillow holding two wedding rings, and never barked once. “She’s a crazy little terrier, but she rose to the occasion,” Coughlin says. “She was perfect, and I was very proud of her.”
An unusual ring bearer, perhaps, for the most decorated US female athlete at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2004 Athens Olympics and the 2012 London Olympics. Coughlin has won a medal in every single Olympic event she’s entered. That’s 12 medals in all, including three golds. Before all that, though, she grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area with big dogs.
“I grew up with big, scary-looking dogs who are actually sweethearts,” Coughlin says. “When I was in Catholic school, we would all bring our dogs to school to be blessed on St. Francis day. All the kids were afraid of my dogs, and it made me proud. My secret was knowing how sweet and gentle they really were.”
Then she met a friend’s Border Terrier. “This dog was just the feistiest, toughest, most personality-filled dog I’d ever met,” she says. Coughlin started researching the breed, and as soon as she returned from the Athens Olympics with two gold medals, she and Hall brought home a Border Terrier puppy from a breeder. “I named her SheRa, after the Masters of the Universe character, because she’s my little Princess of Power,” Coughlin says.
Later the couple added an American Bulldog puppy named Dozer. “We bought him at a young age knowing he would be very big and powerful, so we started training and socializing him right away,” she says. “We were really good about that.”
Dozer, who at age 3 now weighs 110 pounds, has become their lovable lug. “He’s not nearly as bright as SheRa, but he’s just so sweet,” Coughlin says. “He was smaller than SheRa when we got him, and even though he doubled in size within the first two weeks, he has always deferred to her. SheRa is definitely the boss, and he obediently follows her around.”
Coughlin says she would have five dogs if she had the time and space at her home in Lafayette, Calif., but for now, two is perfect. “They keep each other company, and they really love each other,” she adds. “It’s so cute when they walk together on the split leash or wrestle.” The dogs stay with friends when Coughlin and her husband travel for competitions, and are the best part of coming home again. “There is just something so special about knowing that whether I leave the house for a minute or a month, the dogs are just as happy to see me each and every time,” Coughlin says. “Our bond is so unconditional, it amazes me. I can’t imagine my life without dogs.”