Now a second-year captain on the UC San Diego women's swimming and diving team, it's hard to believe that senior Natalie Tang was essentially a walk-on when she arrived in La Jolla as a freshman in 2013. A three-time NCAA Championships qualifier and 10-time All-American who holds school marks in the 50 backstroke and four of five relays, Tang helped the Triton women to a third-place national finish last spring. "Natalie's incredibly versatile, she swims on every relay, has set school records in the 50 freestyle (since broken by Colleen Daley) and 50 backstroke and is absolutely capable of breaking both again," says head coach Daniel Perdew. "She also does a great job of keeping the team loose and that's something that's always needed." On the eve of the annual A3 Performance Invitational, the San Ramon native took time to talk about her sport, her personality, and some of her most exciting moments.
Q: You're primarily a freestyle sprinter and backstroker. What's your favorite event?
TANG: Actually, I like the 200 medley relay the best. First, relays are my favorite kind of event and in the 200 medley I get to swim the 50 backstroke which isn't normally included as an individual race in the swim meet schedule. I've done the 50 back since I was about nine years old, so it always makes me feel like a kid.
Q: In races that short, what's the difference time-wise between a great race and a poor race?
TANG: Maybe like three-tenths of a second, which is kind of amazing especially since we only taper about three times a year, meaning there are only three times that you really get to "go for it" and feel like you can achieve something special. Even though you're expecting to do well in those situations, it's always kind of a pleasant surprise when you drop your best time.
Q: For you, what aspect of a race is the most important in determining success?
TANG: My turn. You only have one in a 50-yd. race and I've always had a really hard time with that for as long as I've been swimming. My start and stroke always feel the same but if I can nail the turn and come off the wall right, I know it's going to be a good result. And if I don't, I know what that means too.
Q: With the few legitimate opportunities to be at your best and the infinitesimal margins between winning and losing, doesn't that create a lot of pressure?
TANG: Not usually, but for me, last year was the first time that I went to the NCAA Championships and was fast enough to be a scoring, contributing member of the team. As captain, I felt that if I did poorly, everybody would see that and it would affect the team negatively. You want to have fun but also be competitive which is often a difficult combination.
There's also the selection of the relay teams. We have a lot of talented swimmers and there are only so many spots, so that leads to some pressure as well. I just go out, try to have fun and let the racing take care of itself.
Q: At a big meet, how do the 30 minutes before a race shake out?
TANG: I'm not stressing about the race but mostly worried about planning the timeline as it gets close. The biggest concerns are things like when you're going to eat, go to the bathroom and get your suit on. Once you get your racing suit on, you're not going to be doing those other things so it's usually your focal point. I try to plan things so there's not a lot of time to sit, think and get in my own head. I can't have time to think before a race.
Q: You seem like one of the happier, more personality-driven members of the team. What do you like most about swimming?
TANG: I always like knowing that whatever the situation, there's always a chance to be successful. I think back to the time before my freshman year when none of the coaches were talking to me and I was pretty much a walk-on. I feel so lucky to be where I am.
If I can be a second-year captain of this team and have had the success I've had, why can't everyone else? Anyone can surprise you at any time. There are definitely some days I feel like trying less but at those times I tell myself that the team is watching (they're probably not) and I can't let them down.
Q: Are you a "smiler" outside the pool as well?
TANG: I like to think I am. Everyone can get in a rut but when that happens, I try not to think (everything's like swimming to me). Overthinking is not good. If I can have some "me" time, where I'm not thinking too much, it helps me focus on the big picture, not little things that are unimportant but might drag me down.
Q: What are three words your teammates would use to describe you?
TANG: Awkward would be the first. Everything about me is awkward and when I do something awkward, my response is usually to make it more awkward, half-intentionally.
I think they would also call me bubbly. I tend to be that way all the time. People seem to think it's impressive that I can be "up" at 5 a.m. before practice, but sometimes they probably think it's annoying.
Energetic would also be something teammates would say. Especially times like now when we're tapering.
Q: What has been the most exciting moment of your UCSD swimming career so far?
TANG: As a team, we got third place at nationals last year but for me getting third place was not as exciting as "knowing" we could get it.
In swimming, you're always competing as individuals. Well last year at NCAAs, it seemed like everything just came together. We would just swim fast enough to reach finals, just get the extra points in a relay, things like that. I'm not sure going in, any of us really believed we were capable of a team finish like we had.
But going into the finals on the third day (out of four), I think everyone suddenly realized "hey, we can do this." Over those final three sessions, we were not worried at all about losing and just went out and made it happen. It was truly exciting to be a part of that.
Q: Outside of the pool, what's been your most exciting moment?
TANG: That's tough. I don't do very much.
Q: What are you going to do when your swimming career comes to an end?
TANG: Well, I graduate this spring with an economics degree and I'm hoping to stay in San Diego and work at a marketing agency. I think I would probably start on the analytical side but hopefully get over to creative.
Q: What are you scared of, in and out of the water?
TANG: Swimming through kelp in the ocean, you know it's like a blob. I know it's not a shark or anything but I sometimes I start thinking it could be covering a mine or something, like in Finding Nemo.
I'm also afraid of handshakes. I have really sweaty palms and you know how people always say a handshake can make or break an interview. I worry about things like that.
Q: What is something you'd like to accomplish before you graduate?
TANG: I'd like to get on a first name basis with one of my professors. All of my economics professors are really cool and have done cool things. I'd like to get to know them better.
Previous Triton Q&A Features
Nolan Mac (Men's Soccer) October 13, 2016
Scott Acton (Men's Cross Country) October 6, 2016
Marie Paris (Women's Volleyball) September 16, 2016
Kiera Bocchino (Women's Soccer) September 2, 2016
Nick Alexander (Men's Water Polo) August 23, 2016
Karina Carstens (Women's Cross Country) August 8, 2016
Amanda Colla (Women's Volleyball) July 22, 2016
Palano Twins (Men's Soccer) July 13, 2016
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