By Tito Morales
BERKELEY, Calif. December 20. THIS past summer in Athens, before the Olympic Games had even gotten underway, Natalie Coughlin and her longtime mentor, Teri McKeever, quietly slipped away from the rest of the U.S. Team to do a little shopping.
They’d been to Athens before. Roughly 12 months before, the swimmer and coach had briefly visited the city on their way home from the World Championships in Barcelona. While in Athens, they had stumbled across a small jewelry store where McKeever bought a pair of earrings and Coughlin purchased a pendant. Afterwards, they made a secret vow that if they were both fortunate enough to return to Athens in 2004 — McKeever as part of the Olympic coaching staff and Coughlin as a member of the team — they would reward themselves by buying duplicates of what the other had just purchased.
Now, just before the start of the Games, the two were making good on their pact.
“We just had an amazing day,” recalls McKeever of their afternoon together. “We were having an amazing lunch, with the Acropolis in the background. It was before everything started. Natalie was just happy and relaxed and confident. Those are the highlights that most people don’t see.”
Coughlin would go on not only to earn two gold medals on competitive swimming’s most glorious stage, but to also become the most decorated female athlete at the Games.
McKeever, meanwhile, was the first woman Olympic team coach in the history of United States swimming.
From Pool to Deck
In the beginning, Teri McKeever never envisioned herself becoming an Olympic team coach. She had no idea when she first decided to explore the profession, in fact, that she would even still be coaching into her 40’s.
“I had goals as a coach,” she says, “but being on the Olympic staff was a very recent goal. That wasn’t ever why I wanted to be a coach.”
McKeever, a two-time All-American at USC, graduated in 1983 and was all set to pursue a career teaching either elementary or high school. She toyed with the notion of possibly doing a little coaching on the side — time permitting, of course.
Instruction has always been in the McKeever bloodline. Her mother, her first swim coach, was a teacher, and many of McKeever’s nine siblings have eagerly embraced a life of teaching.
While doing some student teaching at a high school, McKeever was hired for her first coaching position. Only problem was it was in JV volleyball — a sport she knew little to nothing about. She quickly got up to speed, though, and soon after segued into basketball and then swimming.
After realizing that she was enjoying the coaching side of sports, she took a position as an assistant coach at her alma mater and enrolled in a masters degree program in athletic administration.
After three years, and with an advanced degree in tow, she headed to Central California where she was hired as head coach of the Fresno State women’s team. The pay was so scant that she oftentimes had to work as a lifeguard to make ends meet. But at least it was a start.
“I thought, ‘Okay, you’re 25 and you can coach college for ten years,’” says McKeever. “’Then you’ll be 35, and you can go have a family, teach, and move on with your life.’”
Only part of her plans, in a sense — the teaching part — would come to fruition.
In fact, McKeever, who has been head coach at the University of California, Berkeley for a dozen years now, still considers herself to be first and foremost an instructor.
“I really believe that what I do is teach,” she explains. “And it’s the best of both worlds, because the classroom is the pool and I have 25 people who I get to follow for four years. It’s a much more intimate environment. I feel like it’s possible to really see progress and to make a difference.”
A Sobering Realization
When McKeever decided to pursue a career in coaching, the very last thing on her mind was blazing trails for the female sex.
“You always go to a meet and you look around and there aren’t that many women,” she says. “So, yes, I was always kind of aware of that. But that’s just the way it was.”
McKeever admits she was floored to learn that University of Texas coach Jill Sterkel’s naming to the U.S. staff for the 2001 World Championships was a first for the female gender at that level.
But she had little time to ponder about how the pool deck’s been traditionally stacked against women coaches. She was too busy trying to prove her abilities and continue building a successful program at Cal.
Every so often, though, McKeever would be reminded of her unique position in a predominantly male world. In one case, for instance, one of her swimmers quit the Golden Bears team, claiming she couldn’t train under a woman.
“If you’re thinking about it (your coach’s gender), you’re probably not there for the right reasons,” says McKeever. “The real truth was that she couldn’t deal with swimming at this level.”
After more than a decade at Cal, McKeever is convinced that the reason why more women coaches have failed to make a mark at the upper levels of the sport has little or nothing to do with sexual discrimination. Rather, it has everything to do with the demands of top level coaching.
“It’s hard to have a family and be a coach,” she says, admitting that while her professional life has flourished over time, her life away from the pool has paid an enormous price. “It’s a lifestyle that’s challenging on people’s personal lives.”
It’s understandable, she explains, when a male football or basketball coach spends nights on the office couch. It’s all done in the name of duty. It’s a little harder to justify, though, for a woman with a husband or family to do the same.
Most women are simply not prepared to make the type of sacrifices necessary to coach at the top level of any sport — and McKeever isn’t at all surprised by this.
When it comes to competitive swimming in particular, the powers that be who assemble coaching staffs for international level competitions are not going to appoint unproven commodities. And therein lies the catch. It takes many years to develop one’s reputation, so until women coaches begin to make those types of long-term commitments to their profession the likelihood will remain that national team level coaching staffs will continue to be male-dominated.
History in the Making
Last July, as the U.S. Olympic Trials unfolded in Long Beach, rumors began circulating throughout the All Charter Digital Centre that McKeever might actually receive a position on the coaching staff.
“I was hoping that there would be an opportunity, but you never know what someone else is thinking,” she says.
Truth be told, McKeever feels that her fate was probably determined not by how her athletes fared at the Trials, but by how she performed as an assistant coach for both the 2002 Pan Pacific Games team and the 2003 World Championships team.
Mark Schubert, head coach for the Athens-bound women’s team, was also on both of those staffs, and it’s clear that he saw something in McKeever that he wanted to bring with him to Greece.
When the announcement was made at the conclusion of the competition, the swimming-savvy crowd cheered boisterously, fully-aware of the historical significance of the selection. McKeever, though, had little time to savor the moment because she had exactly two days to put her ducks in order before heading off to training camp and then to Europe.
One piece of business she had even less time to acclimate to was donning the red shirt which officially made her a member of the Team USA coaching staff.
“Being at Cal, I don’t own anything red,” she laughs, referring to the team color of archrival Stanford. “But I told people that it’s the first red shirt that I didn’t give away and was happy to put on.”
McKeever had trained for years to make it to the Olympic Games as a swimmer, but she’d fallen short. On the last day of competition at the 2004 Trials, though, she learned that she’d finally earned a ticket to the Games — not as an athlete but as a coach.
Ultimately, McKeever’s making it to the Olympics this way is something which will surely prove to be far more prestigious than had she merely swum her way onto the team two decades ago.
A good number of women can claim to have been Olympic team swimmers. Only one, however, can ever say she’s been an Olympic team coach.
A Well-Deserved Honor
To be sure, McKeever’s appointment was certainly not something which came out of left field. She has been patiently honing her coaching skills for over fifteen years, and the accolades have been steadily trickling in for quite a while now.
In addition to the indomitable Coughlin, McKeever’s athletes have included Olympians Staciana Stitts and Haley Cope.
She’s won a pair of Pac-10 Coach of the Year awards, and in 2002 she received the prestigious ASCA Coach of the Year award. She’s helped groom eleven different national champions, and has earned a reputation as being one of the top technicians in the business.
Despite such a resume, however, McKeever still doesn’t see herself as a great coach and she would prefer to see her swimmers receive the lion’s share of acclaim for their accomplishments both in school and in the pool.
Still, though, it’s always nice setting a precedent. And now that she’s back home in Berkeley, and again roaming the corridors of the Spieker Aquatic Complex, McKeever has had more of an opportunity to reflect upon her achievement.
“When you get back it starts to sink in,” she says. “From here on out, I get to say that I’m an Olympic coach, and I’m really honored and humbled by that.”
McKeever, for one, is convinced that the sport can only be better off with a greater mix of males and females at the top of the coaching food chain.
“I think, being female, you do bring different things to the table,” McKeever insists. “Regardless of what people think, we are different. We look at situations differently, and I think it is positive to have different perspectives.”
She, herself, relishes being able to work with a male assistant at Cal, Whitney Hite, for this very reason.
“I think he brings things to my attention that I don’t normally see, just like I bring things to his attention and a perspective that he doesn’t innately see.”
Something to Build From
McKeever feels certain that what happened to her this past summer is going to benefit all the athletes she will coach from here on out.
“It makes you more confident,” she explains. “It gives you credibility that people think you’re doing a good job. I got to experience something that very few people do, and I can bring that to the table and help us all get better. It not only helps the Natalies on the team, but it helps everybody on the team.”
On a larger level, though, she’s still beginning to understand the significance of her accomplishment. Since she’s been back from Athens, for instance, other female coaches have approached her and told her that what she’s done has encouraged and inspired them to want to also one day make the Olympic team staff.
And that, to McKeever, makes what she did all the more special.
“I had an experience that lots of people would dream of having,” she confesses. “And that experience has altered who I am — not just as a coach, but as a person. I think now I feel more of a responsibility.”
Yes, a part of her yearns for the days when she could go to a swim meet and no one would know who she was.
But McKeever is a firm believer that things happen for a reason. Somehow she and Coughlin were meant to work with each other. Somehow she was destined to be an Olympic team coach.
“The way I look at it is that I was a good swimmer for a long time, but never a great swimmer,” she says. “I think that because of that, and because my mom was a coach, and because of a lot of different things — it’s almost as if I’m supposed to be a female coach at this level so that I can bring a different perspective.”
She’s hopeful that others will soon join her ranks, especially because of what she’s discovered about her craft in the process.
“I thought I understood swimming, and then I started going to international meets and events and there’s a whole level of swimming that I never knew about and now have access to,” McKeever says. “I think that that’s what’s exciting, and it’s important to get more women to experience that part of the sport.”