Commentary: At What Cost Is Success Chased? Details Of Teri McKeever Saga Are Downright Chilling

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Commentary: At What Cost Is Success Chased? Details Of Teri McKeever Saga Are Downright Chilling

In pursuit of athletic success, coaches guide swimmers through grueling training with an emphasis on achieving peak performance. Preparing for a championship swim meet is an arduous process that requires intense mental toughness, and the best coaches must develop a substantial bag of tricks for motivating their athletes, for keeping them engaged and on track.

But motivation should never under any circumstances include demeaning comments, emotional abuse or bullying. Of course, a well-developed coach-athlete relationship might include some gentle teasing as part of the individuals’ rapport or perhaps for motivational purposes. But calling an athlete “lazy,” “worthless” or “a waste of time?” Accusing a swimmer of lying about a medical condition? Simply inappropriate in any coaching or educational setting.

Those are among the claims made against Cal women’s coach Teri McKeever in an investigative report from the Southern California News Group published Tuesday. We are not here to litigate those findings, although the SCNG does cite interviews with 19 current or former Cal swimmers and six parents of Cal swimmers. The reporting paints an image of an environment that no swimmer deserves.

One swimmer reported McKeever yelling and cursing at her daily. Former Cal swimmer Chloe Clark said, “You live in constant dread because of Teri,” and Clark shared a story of McKeever forcing her to practice while dealing with pain from Crohn’s disease just weeks before Clark would undergo an emergency appendectomy. Cindy Tran, who won NCAA titles in the 100-yard backstroke while at Cal, called the program “extremely homophobic” and claimed that McKeever forced Tran to come out to her teammates against her will.

The SCNG reported that the fear of the coach “has led to panic attacks, anxiety, sleepless nights, depression, self-doubt, suicidal thoughts and planning and, in some cases, self-harm.”

Ugh. What a brutal sentence to read.

Coaches seek to build toughness in their athletes, and that’s a fair goal, but this sort of behavior is downright destructive. How could it help an athlete to break them down to the point of tears or to crush their love of the sport, let alone drive them to thoughts of self-harm?

That behavior is unfortunately prevalent still all across the sport of swimming and sports in general, and it is abhorrent. So often, swimmers remain in a verbally or emotionally abusive environment because they are bought into the coach’s message, because they believe that going through the experience will produce faster times in the end.

And maybe that’s true — but at what cost? One’s happiness? Emotional stability? That’s not worth it. Swimming best times is great, but such performances are not worth any resulting trauma, not by a long shot.

In almost every case, swimmers perform better when they are in a positive and uplifting situation, when they look forward to attending practice and enjoy working with the adults and teammates in their training environment. After all, that’s what everyone is doing here. Swimmers don’t sign up for summer league teams when they’re six years old with eyes on the Olympics. This sport, at its root, is about positive experiences and life-building moments.

So let’s make sure it stays that way, even for the best of the best athletes striving for NCAA championships and beyond. First up is at Cal, where the university made the right move by placing McKeever on administrative leave late Wednesday. That decision is no rush to judgment, and Cal may now properly adjudicate the situation before making a final decision on McKeever’s future, although the move should have been made before McKeever unexpectedly arrived at Cal’s practice Wednesday morning as if nothing was amiss.

But this goes beyond Cal. Verbal and emotional abuse and the destruction of swimmers’ self-confidence does not belong in this sport. Any coach deploying those tactics is missing the point of their job. That is not leadership. Collectively, the swimming community must do better.

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George Weber
29 days ago

At no point is her behavior acceptable in ANY sport, or In life in general. As a swimmer/diver/coach I was fortunate to have nothing but positive influences throughout my career. As a coach I have always put out a positive, fun environment for my athletes. It’s the only way to grow a strong athlete/person in sport and life.

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So confused
29 days ago

I am horrified as a parent of a D1 athlete. We don’t spend much time taking about swim because there are so many wonderful other things in my son’s life. Now I feel like I need to check in to see what is going on in his swim life. Thank you for reporting on this I don’t want to miss something important with my child’s mental health. My thoughts and prayers are with the athletes who suffered abuse. I hope that they find peace in the future.

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Not surprised
29 days ago

And this makes me very sad.

Last edited 29 days ago by Not surprised
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sleepless in Cali
29 days ago

My daughter had a coach that did the same. Tried to intervene and there was retaliation against my kid. Stopped swimming January of senior year, decommitted from her college choice and is still in therapy years later. It destroyed our entire family.

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Upset Bama Parent
29 days ago

Was it Coley? Unfortunately, our former coach did the same, and the school did not care until they were themselves threatened w/law suit.

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Sleepless in Cali
28 days ago

No, but this coach was in the news in the past year for these issues. I do not see that a thing was done by USA Swimming or Safe Sport and I know for a fact many reported him.

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MGC
28 days ago

I swam for Coley at Bama and had nothing but a great experience with him, as did the majority of the team. He cut a few of the kids and those parents were upset and went to administration who found absolutely nothing time and time again. I’m tired of the groundless anonymous accusations against him on these sites. He is a first rate coach and person and should not even be mentioned in the comments of an article citing real abuse.

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Sleepless in Cali
27 days ago
Reply to  MGC

This was in California and not Alabama for our issue.

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samos
28 days ago

cheap to wallow in innuendo on this,
shame on Swim Swam for hosting rumors

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Brian Goodell
28 days ago

That’s very sad.

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swimmer
29 days ago

Same thing happened to me on the women’s team at Stanford

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SwiMomof3
29 days ago
Reply to  swimmer

I thought the “culture” at Stanford was a clean one.

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swimmer
29 days ago
Reply to  SwiMomof3

Not at all. Greg treats his top swimmers well and he knows how to control the narrative and keep it covered, but he also abuses many of his swimmers

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Richard Quick
29 days ago
Reply to  swimmer

Proof?

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swimmer
29 days ago
Reply to  Richard Quick

There is considerable proof and witnesses to multiple alarming incidents but to preserve the privacy of victims this is not the place to go into the details. It should be the Stanford athletic department and Safe Sport who should investigate the complaints more seriously.

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David Coleman
28 days ago
Reply to  Richard Quick

What “proof” would convince you? Someone says they were a swimmer and witnessed it. Did you want them to wear a wire?

Just say “I don’t believe you, that doesn’t match my experiences.”

Last edited 28 days ago by David Coleman
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Brian Goodell
28 days ago
Reply to  Richard Quick

Curious that RICHARD QUICK is responding from the grave.

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David P McCagg
27 days ago
Reply to  Brian Goodell

Brian my brother……It’s his son

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Swammer
27 days ago
Reply to  swimmer

I swam for Greg years ago at a D1 college and, of course things could have changed, in the last 15 years and not to discredit anyone who felt wronged by him, but from my personal experiece he was a great coach and person. He did have his favorites and probably could have spent more time with the non-traveling swimmers, but he did not abuse, in any way, anyone on the team (from my observations and talking with teammates). He is actually pretty mild mannered. Of course, my D1 team was no Stanford and it was many years ago, but I very much thought he was fair to all and a good coach. Not sure I ever heard him swear in any context.

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Kendall Egan
29 days ago

I grew up in the late 80s and 90s, when I think this was the trend more so for coaching in general (for all sports)- beat them down, yell and scream, weigh girls, throw kick boards, be afraid of your coach, etc. I think things have changed since then – as they should. BUT, I think that this was the expected and accepted culture back then. Swimming, in general, is such a beat down sport – and has so much room for improvement in terms of quality of life – it reminds me a bit like the hazing of physician training. We also need to do something about mental health – these swimmers are rock stars (no matter what level) and swimming is such a small part of their entire life – the skills they are learning are very transferable to other areas in life – and useful long after they leave the pool. Disclaimer – I am a former collegiate, age group swimmer, now a swim mom, and a physician – not a coach.

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Mum in Oz
28 days ago
Reply to  Kendall Egan

Sadly some of the swimmers who grew up in this culture have gone on to coach, and just like intergenerational violence they continue the cycle of trauma. It is time for National Swimming bodies across the world to take a stand against these techniques.

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Brian Goodell
28 days ago
Reply to  Kendall Egan

Thank you for a very thoughtful and grounded response!

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also an athlete
29 days ago

I am a collegiate athlete, and environments like this are common in all divisions. I had a coach drive me to similar feelings as described by the Cal swimmers, but my university chose to close the investigation due to lack of evidence after they scared me and the other athletes into not keeping evidence. Anyone who came forward faced retaliation and attacks on their character. There needs to be systemic change in all sports across all levels.

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College Swimmer
29 days ago

Cindy uses they/them pronouns 🙂

Last edited 29 days ago by College Swimmer
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Disappointed
29 days ago

Unfortunately this seems to be happening in a lot of places, or at least being publicized now. For how many teams talk about “culture”, my old team included, there certainly isn’t an alignment from coaches.

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Leon
29 days ago

It is unfortunate that coaches sometimes don’t recognise how their aproaches lead to mental health problems rather than mental toughness. Mental toughness has a positive relationship with mental health, not a negative one. If a coach’s approach to mental toughness has a negative effect on athletes, they should recognise it and change their approach. If not, the coach is plainly sadistic and self-centred.

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Swim mom
29 days ago

If you are a student coach, and you treat your athletes this way… shame on you. You don’t deserve your position. “But this goes beyond Cal. Verbal and emotional abuse and the destruction of swimmers’ self-confidence does not belong in this sport. Any coach deploying those tactics is missing the point of their job.” Well said.

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AHC63
28 days ago

This behavior has been going on for decades in programs across the country. I distinctly remember being on deck getting ready for a workout with my Masters teammates back in the early 90s, and the college coach began ripping into one of his (star) female swimmers in a manner that was so horrible that the entire facility grew quiet…because it sucked the oxygen out of the entire facility.

In speaking with one of the women on the team some days later, she told me that her goal was to do “just enough to blend in and not bring attention to herself so she avoided his wrath”…and that because she wasn’t one of his stars, he never really cared how she trained anyway, since she wasn’t a point scorer at their conference meet. When I asked if anyone had brought this atrocious behavior to the attention of the Athletic Department, she just smiled at me and said that “they aren’t going to do anything about it because he wins…and the girls just deal with it because they are successful too”…

…but at what cost??

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CalSwimmer ‘04-‘08
28 days ago

“How could it help an athlete to break them down to the point of tears or to crush their love of the sport…” This happened to me and other teammates. At the time, it was a confusing relationship and I was under a constant state of dread going to practice because I didn’t know what was going to happen or what mood she’d be in. I swam fast, and performed well, but I also questioned my place being there and was ultimately driven out of the sport because I couldn’t / didn’t want to swim for her anymore and didn’t have another place to train.

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Brian Goodell
28 days ago

OMG! I am so glad you have highlighted this awful behavior. I would have thought this kind of behavior would have been rooted out long ago! I lived within a similar environment for years. It was on the razors edge between extremes of super-positive to brutal negative judgement. So many athletes excelled that it was expected for everyone to thrive with the same “exceptionalism.” Luckily I was one who excelled. I won two Olympic gold medals at age 17, and went on to one of the most successful collegiate careers ever.

But I know that many other swimmers gave their all and didn’t have the same success. It is terribly heart-rending when you don’t receive the coaches’ support while doing your best to survive, thrive and deal with just living, growing up, and dealing with the demons in your own mind. I was lucky. I had a kind of strength inside that helped me transcend the enormous pressure our sport can exert on an athlete.

I learned some specific techniques to focus my attention on what I wanted to experience rather than succumb to FEAR, and that made me special in the eyes of my coach, my teammates, and the world in general. I’m surprised that these techniques aren’t taught more widely throughout our sport.

I have a new focus to help athletes, coaches and parents understand these techniques that will allow them to thrive. Let me know if I can help! Brian@GoldMedalMinds.com

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Kurt Wienants
25 days ago

I had several “tough” coaches in my career. None were what could be considered abusive. Big difference between the two. If what has been described at Cal was going on, then that line was crossed long ago. It’s too bad sometimes people who are in a position of power and success, loose their humility and think of themselves as untouchable. Sad situation for everyone and no athlete deserves to be treated like what has been described.

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Sarah
25 days ago

Swam mid-major D1 and also experienced this. Exhausted seeing coaches who think this kind of behavior is “motivational” or whatever ridiculousness they claim it to be.

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Nurseshark
25 days ago

Seems like we are raising snowflakes. I was a D1 swimmer and my coaches would smack kick boards on the side of the pool, yell and scream and so forth and so on. we even had weigh ins back between 1989-1993. None of us crumbled, we didn’t cry and we certainly didn’t quit.
Today’s generation is soft. Sorry for what will probably be an unpopular comment, but suck it up!

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Elizabeth Shackelford
25 days ago
Reply to  Nurseshark

Nurseshark, I couldn’t disagree with you more! What you are describing sounds like boot camp in the army. Nobody wants to be treated like that. Nobody deserves to be treated like that. They are student athletes. They are there to get an education and continue swimming at a collegiate level. A coach who has to scream at them, scare them by throwing things and humiliate them publicly has no place working with people. That’s not motivation, that’s abuse.

If you like the “old ways” so well, you were probably the kid stealing the nerd’s lunch money every day at school and saying the nerd should just toughen up and learn to fight back.

Some attitudes and ways of treating people need to be left in the past.

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