Commentary

Teri McKeever making waves

Updated: July 26, 2012, 1:25 PM ET
By Abby Baird | Special to espnW

McKeeverKyle Terada/US PresswireTeri McKeever, who has led Cal to three national championships in the past four years, is the first woman to coach the U.S. women's Olympic swim team.

Day 1

It's 1 o'clock on a Monday afternoon. Thwack, thwack, thwack. A jump rope hits the cement deck of Spieker Pool at the University of California at Berkeley. The sounds of swimming fill the air. In a swimsuit and Cal swim cap, one of the freshmen on the Cal women's team is the first girl out of the pool and has started her dry-land rotation. The rest of the team is in the water.

Coach Teri McKeever gets up off the bleachers where she is sitting, watching her girls. The coach walks up to the freshman, asking, "Is that good? Or are you still figuring stuff out?" Between swings of the rope, the freshman nods. Two more girls have climbed out of the pool and are swinging jump ropes over their heads.

McKeever puts a whistle to her lips and rings out two short blasts.

McKeever, the first woman to lead a winning NCAA swim team, recently completed her 20th season as Cal's head coach. She has amassed a 160-53 dual-meet record and in 2009 led the Golden Bears to their first NCAA championship. They added back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012.

In December 2010, McKeever was also named coach of the U.S. women's swim team for the 2012 Olympics in London. McKeever, who served as an assistant at the 2004 and 2008 Games, is the first woman to hold the head coaching position for the U.S. It was a landmark appointment in a sport where women have not prospered in the coaching ranks. For instance, in 2008, only 18 percent of Division I women's swim teams were coached by women, the second-lowest percentage in history, and only 2 to 3 percent of men's teams were coached by women.

"She is the bar by which we all judge ourselves and she is definitely the one who has laid the groundwork," said Stanford women's swim coach Lea Maurer. "She is the pioneer."

As the swimmers finish jumping rope, McKeever launches into a series of complex instructions. "We are going to do 25 [meters] butterfly, 25 freestyle, 25 backstroke, 50 freestyle, 25 breaststroke, 75 freestyle. Then you are going to go right into two 175 freestyles. And you cannot breathe off the wall until you have two hand hits. No breathing! Two hits in and two hits out, with a good turn."

A swimmer herself, McKeever competed for USC from 1980 to 1983, making the All-America team in 1980 and 1981. She then seamlessly transitioned into an assistant coaching position after graduation. In 1992, she was hired as head coach at Cal.

In 2006, McKeever became the first woman to lead a United States squad -- and the first woman to lead any national team at an international meet -- when she was named head coach for the Pan Pacific Championships.

Since then, she has racked up an impressive number of wins using methods that many other coaches consider unusual.

[+] EnlargeVollmer/Coughlin
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillDana Vollmer, left, and Natalie Coughlin are two of McKeever's former Cal swimmers who will compete for her at the London Olympics.

"I think I was a little bit scared to come here because it seemed so different," said former Cal swimmer Emily Bibb, who swam for UCLA for two years before transferring.

On the surface, it's McKeever's choice of workouts and scheduling that stands out as unorthodox. Elite college swimmers traditionally practice twice a day, every day, incorporating both dry-land and pool sessions. But instead of having her swimmers hit the weight room or pound the pavement, McKeever sets aside Monday and Friday afternoons for different classes -- yoga, Pilates, spinning and even hip-hop dance. The girls have Wednesday afternoons free.

But don't be fooled into thinking her program is easy. It's not.

"I am not necessarily sure that people know exactly what she is doing," Maurer said. "They don't know how to emulate it effectively. It's new. It's intimidating. It's uncomfortable."

What is discernable from watching McKeever's practice is the intensity of her focus. "Come on down," she shouts. "Everybody make the interval! Here we go!"

McKeever said it's taken her a while to refine her techniques, especially when it comes to the mind-body connection. "I've gotten better connecting those -- linking those experiences -- in a much more powerful way than I did before," she said.

But it's not the mind-body connection that makes this workout ideal for a group of women. It's ideal because aggression and competition are absent.

It's hard to deny that men and women differ: size, shape, basic anatomy. But to mention the possibility of innate differences in intelligence, emotions and motivation is to invite wrath. People suggest that "it is somehow chauvinistic even to hint that any innate differences exist between male and female," Dr. Leonard Sax wrote in his book "Why Gender Matters." "Not one better than the other. Not one worse than the other. Just different."

In his book, Sax, a family practitioner with a Ph.D. in psychology, uses scientific studies to illustrate the differences in construction and functioning in the brains of men and women.

McKeever again launches into instruction. "OK! You are going to get out. I want you to do three to four minutes of dry land. I want you to resist the urge -- especially right now as you are recovering -- resist the urge to lie down and do the Pilates. I'd like you to challenge yourself. Keep that pump up!"

The girls are now scattered across their half of the pool deck, jump ropes in hand.

"This should be completely different from the first time," McKeever said, referring to the first set of the day, "physically, emotionally, mentally. Figure it out."

Whirrrr! Jump ropes start flying.

The women keep switching exercises, spending 30 seconds to a minute on each. One tries a handstand, going up and down, up and down -- having trouble staying up; one holds herself in a plank, hands above her head; another is holding a skinny black band behind her back, secured at the ground by her feet. Keeping the band straight, she moves her body so it looks as if a ripple is passing from her head to her feet and back again. Some of the swimmers close their eyes as they stretch, shutting out the rest of the world.

These uncomfortable variations may be one secret to McKeever's success. One of the biggest risks for a collegiate swimmer is burnout. Swimming workouts, which focus on logging long miles in the pool, are notoriously tedious.

Many swimmers grow up being taught that the more yardage they swim, the better they will be. Michael Phelps swims about 14,700 yards per day.

"I didn't come [to Cal] in the first place because I didn't know if I'd be getting enough yardage," said swimmer and recent Cal graduate Katherine Raatz, whose previous coach had drilled "yards, yards, yards," into her head.

"There's only so much yardage you can do," said Olympian and former Cal swimmer Dana Vollmer. "I've heard of programs that do the same thing every week. Every. Single. Week. I think that if you do that type of yardage, you're going to get good. But you might not get great."

Instead, McKeever throws in eclectic drills. "We've done some really bizarre stuff this year," she said with a smile. "I remember thinking, 'I don't know if this is going to work, but let's do it anyway.' You just sort of have to take a leap of faith."

McKeever said she doesn't incorporate activities such as yoga and Pilates just to diversify her workouts. "I want the girls to be thinking about, 'What is the relationship to what I am doing here, and how does that relate to when I up on the block,'" she said.

McKeever looks at each of her dry-land components as a piece of the swimming puzzle.

"A ballerina has a performance," McKeever said. "It's not like they go six times through that performance to work on it. They work on different pieces and then they link those different pieces together. And that's what I'm trying to do."

The girls often wonder if McKeever realizes how hard some of her experiments actually are. But even if her eccentric ideas don't pan out -- she openly admits that many don't -- McKeever believes in doing something new for the sake of doing something new. "There's sort of a mundane notion to our sport," she said. Her swimmers are "at a stage where sometimes just doing something different is a more mental or emotional boost."

But girls are not programmed to seek out risk, and when faced with a risky situation, a woman's "fight or flight" response causes nausea, dizziness and fear. In men, this response elicits "a tingle, a charge, an excitement that many boys find irresistible," explains Sax.

But with a little encouragement, girls can learn to take risks. According to Sax, "When girls fail and they fall, you have to be there to catch them, dust them off, and encourage them to try again" or they might become too afraid to ever do so.

Creating a strong relationship between coach and swimmer provides a huge motivational tool.

"A girls' relationship with their coach is critical," said Dr. Louann Brizendine, author of the books "The Female Brain" and "The Male Brain." Brizendine, a neuropsychiatrist at the University of California at San Francisco, said, "When it comes to female problems, girls will feel they can reveal more to a female coach," especially things they "might hide from a male."

Confrontational coaching, often shown in those locker room make-or-break moments in sports movies, is extremely effective with boys, who often thrive in stressful situations. Girls' performances will usually suffer.

But for high-level athletes, stress is continuously present. "At a certain level, training for females may have to be more callous and shut down the brain's natural tendency to attend to others emotions," said Brizendine. "At that high level, women have trained their bodies not to respond [to stress], to be more like a male."


Teri McKeeverIcon SMITeri McKeever gives instructions to her most famous protégée, 11-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin.

One of McKeever's most famous successes is Natalie Coughlin.

Now 29, Coughlin started swimming at 10 months old. In spring of her senior year of high school, she injured a shoulder and that, combined with a coach whose philosophy was to swim through the pain, was almost enough to cause Coughlin to quit. Arriving at Cal in the fall of 2000, Coughlin thought she wouldn't be swimming for much longer.

When hurt, boys are often told to "walk it off." They are expected to suffer in silence. But research now proves this stereotype isn't based in emotion -- it's physical. When stressed, men experience stress-induced analgesia; they become less sensitive to pain. But women swing the other way (with the exception of pregnant women in their third trimester, who also experience stress-induced analgesia).

Many male coaches -- having, at some point, walked it off themselves -- don't understand why their females athletes can't do the same.

In trying to understand young adults, Sax believes that not accounting for gender is equivalent to not accounting for age, like comparing a 4-year-old with a 20-year-old and expecting them to behave the same.

Over the next four years, McKeever took Coughlin from a burnt-out freshman to a two-time Olympian with 11 medals. Coughlin even postponed going pro in order to stay with the team. "She made a commitment to Teri that she was going to be there for four years," said Natalie's mother, Zennie Coughlin. "She wasn't going to quit on that commitment."

From the beginning, the relationship between Coughlin and McKeever has been more of a partnership. McKeever said Coughlin chose Cal because of that relationship, "and not because she thought I was going to be the greatest swimming coach in the world."

When she got to college, "Natalie needed a different type of challenge and Teri was able to challenge her and push her farther than she had been pushed in the past," said Jim Coughlin, Natalie's father. "They know how to push each other."

When Coughlin arrived at Cal in 2000, McKeever was struggling. She was dealing with rumors they she got the head-coaching job only because she's a woman, as well as fighting enormous pressure to change her coaching style.

"At Cal, when I was coaching at the next level, and it was more visible, I listened to what other people thought of me instead of staying true to the person in the mirror," McKeever said. "And it put me down a path of not very good things happening."

At that point in her career, McKeever didn't think she was good coach, much less a great one, but all of that changed after Coughlin arrived.

"I think what Natalie did was on a whole different level," McKeever said. "She legitimized what's going on." She legitimized McKeever's odd techniques and she legitimized McKeever herself.

In McKeever's eyes, Coughlin was proof that she, Teri McKeever, was a good coach. Proof for the rest of the world to see.

Vollmer arrived at Cal almost unable to swim. During her freshman year -- spent swimming for Florida -- Vollmer tried to get as much yardage as she could. "I had shoulder injuries, I had a back injury, my body just broke down," Vollmer said. "It couldn't handle the amount I was asking it to do." McKeever took Vollmer -- and without surgery -- brought her back stronger than she had been before.

There are 25 girls on McKeever's team -- each of whom requires a workout tailored to her specific needs. McKeever isn't shy. She shouts her criticisms and compliments across the pool. "We are really used to being told how to improve," Bibb said. "Teri doesn't give out compliments often."

McKeever, the oldest of 10 kids, understands -- more than most -- the power of sports. She lost her father at a young age and swimming became her escape. Her mother was her coach, and the sport gave her one-on-one time with her mom -- a rarity in such a large family -- and a confidence she hadn't found elsewhere.

In 1965, McKeever's father was in a car accident, and he spent 22 months in a coma before dying at the age of 27. At the time, McKeever was just 6 years old and the eldest of three. Her mother remarried, and seven more children were added to the clan.

McKeever grew up fast, often taking care of her numerous younger brothers and sisters. "It's probably not the norm for most people," McKeever said with a laugh. "Going to the grocery store with your younger siblings and people thinking those are your kids.

"I think I was always an old person trapped in a younger person's body," McKeever said. "I think I've always kind of looked at things from an older perspective."

But growing up, the young McKeever treasured every second she got to spend with her mother, a former competitive swimmer herself. McKeever trained in her backyard pool, jumping in whenever her mother had a few minutes to spare. And because of these strict time restrictions, McKeever couldn't swim the thousands of yards so typical of practices. Instead, she swam at full speed, with her mother focusing on correcting her form. This unique style of training became the basis for McKeever's own techniques.

"I have very nontraditional background in that sense," she said. "And it's a huge part of who I am."

But through swimming, McKeever's mother was able to give her something even more important. "It was the very few times when I went to [swim] meets that I got to be alone with my mom," McKeever said. "And looking back, I am really thankful for that."

The bottom line is that when it comes to relationships between females, communication is critical, and McKeever seems to play up this importance when coaching her team.

"Not saying that you can't relate to male coaches, but it's just very different with her," Vollmer said. "I feel like she understands me better, or she knows where I'm coming from."

When recruiting, McKeever makes sure the girls understand that Cal is looking not only for good swimmers, but for good team members. Swimmers often look their sport as an individual one, but McKeever considers it a team endeavor. Forever connected, these girls will remain in one another's lives.

"Girls' friendships are about being together," Sax explained. "Each girl derives strength from the intimacy of the relationship." And when a girl becomes stressed, she leans on her friends for support. A close-knit team will improve each individual's performance.

By turning her team into a family, McKeever has created a group who care about each other emotionally. "That's really, really important," Brizendine said. "It makes a female feel what she is doing is meaningful. It's not just for themselves, but for their teammates as well."

Women's friendships work best between equals. In sports, though, there is no equality. Someone is always better, faster, stronger. But McKeever somehow manages to avoid hierarchies and creates a single unit. "It's a lot better to accomplish something as a group," Raatz said. Her senior-year goal is to swim on as many relays as she can.


Day 2

It's 2 o'clock on Tuesday afternoon. The swimmers emerge from the locker room and start rolling out the large metal spindles that hold the lane lines.

McKeever and associate coach Kristen Cunnane sit together on the bleachers. Cunnane, a former UCLA swimmer, is an integral part of the team, determined to recruit the best swimmers she can find.

"We [UCLA] would swim against Teri every year and her relays were always so tough," said Cunnane, who in June was named national assistant coach of the year. "I just thought she was the best coach out there."

McKeever's swimmers echo this. "One of the biggest things for me is, I know that [McKeever] cares more about me personally than about how I swim," Vollmer said. "And knowing that gets me through."

[+] EnlargeMcKeever
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyTeri McKeever, at the introduction of the U.S. team following July's Olympic trials, takes an emotional approach to coaching.

Being that open and honest with a team requires more than most coaches are willing to give. Not McKeever. "Teri makes herself exceptionally vulnerable with the team," Maurer said. "I think there is a beauty and a scariness to that."

But for all her sacrifices, McKeever benefits just as much. "She craves that relationship," said former assistant coach Adam Crossen.

"I want to feel like I am making a difference in someone's life and they are making a difference in mine," McKeever said. "I want to feel that connection and that struggle together."

Coaches often talk about motivation. But McKeever knows what it takes to get her girls going, how to get them to swim faster. It is the same thing that spurred her love of the sport -- the relationships.

And just as McKeever swam for her mother, her girls swim for her.

"Each of her swimmers feel special when they have that relationship with Teri," Jim Coughlin said. "When you feel like someone thinks you are special, you will work harder."

Even Olympians. "I've never been so empowered to want to swim fast," Vollmer said, "because I respect what she stands for."

Because girls crave a close relationship with a teacher or coach -- male or female -- they often will turn to the authority figure for advice on personal matters; thus the stereotype, women are more emotional than men. But what does that mean?

In young children, negative emotions occur in the amygdala -- a primitive area of the brain -- and language occurs in the cerebral cortex, which is more evolved. The amygdala and cerebral cortex are barely connected. Ask 6-year-olds why they are sad. They usually can't answer.

During adolescence, though, negative emotions move up to the cerebral cortex. But only in women. A 30-year-old man won't do much better at explaining his emotions than a 6-year-old.

Sax said it best: "The bottom line is that the brain is just organized differently in females and males. The tired argument about which sex is more intelligent or which sex has the 'better' brain is about as meaningful as arguing about which utensil is 'better,' a knife or a spoon. The only correct answer to such a question is: 'Better for what?'"

While most female swimming coaches subscribe to this philosophy, many men do not. McKeever and Dave Salo, head coach of both men's and women's swimming at USC, have been friends for more than 40 years. They started their coaching careers at the same time, as assistants at USC. Salo coaches both genders on a daily basis. He has produced female Olympians like Amanda Beard and male Olympians such as Aaron Peirsol.

Salo does not believe in separate guidelines for women and men, but he does believe that women are motivated by relationships -- something he works hard to change. "The tougher task is to teach them to excel for their own sake rather than for someone else," Salo said by email. "I try to alter their thinking."

Salo's approach is not so far-fetched. A number of scientists believe that while these differences exist and equality means teaching to each gender's strengths rather than teaching them both the same way, when it comes to professional athletes these same scientists jump ship. They believe for a woman to excel in the competitive and aggressive field of professional athletics, she has to learn to think like a man.


On the wall outside of McKeever's office in Haas Pavilion there is a bulletin board covered in photos of current and former Cal swimmers. There are photos of women jumping into the ocean, hiking and holding the NCAA trophy.

Everything in McKeever's office is neat -- except for her desk, which is strewn with papers, an egg-salad sandwich and coasters from the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

The bookcase behind her holds a small photograph in a clear plastic frame -- a heart of rocks surrounds the words "Jerry + Teri" written in sand. McKeever was married in 2007, at the age of 45, to Jerry Romani.

McKeever poured everything she had into her career, and because of that, her personal life was shelved.

Even in those early years at Cal, when she no longer believed in herself, she refused to quit. "My makeup is, you can't just walk away," McKeever said. "You have to fix it, and then you walk away."

McKeever stayed, and worked even harder. "And then I think, in the process of trying to fix it, I fixed myself," she said.

And it was only then that McKeever was able to step out of the pool and back into her personal life. "I waited a long time [to get married]," she said. And she had only one thing to say when picking out her wedding ring: "We can go big!"

Leaning back, McKeever looks around at the photos, newspaper articles and awards that represent her favorite moments and proudest achievements. McKeever believes her Olympic role is to elevate the athletes and coaches around her. "If me being there brings out the best in at least one other person, that is what I want to do," she said.

A big part of McKeever's role in London will be to build a U.S. team out of 25 girls -- something she does every year at Cal. But this time is different because she won't have nine months to build her team; she will have less than two. "It's coaching at the highest level," Cyndi Gallagher, head coach of the UCLA women's swimming team, said. "Because they are not your kids."

Not only will she have 25 girls to deal with, but each of their coaches as well, who -- while not allowed at the training facility -- are still a big part of each swimmer.

"You get them swimming for USA, you've done a good job," Gallagher said. "And that is her strength."

But another hurdle stands between McKeever and success -- the relays. As head coach, one of her main responsibilities is choosing which girls will swim which relays. A main staple of her Cal team and one of the main things that brings her team together, relays are crucial to McKeever and could mean success or failure.

The relay teams will show the world what McKeever was able to do with the team, will show whether she was able to create a family unit, a united Team USA.

The harder the workouts for the girls, the harder they are for McKeever. Being so closely linked to what her athletes are feeling -- emotionally and physically -- is exhausting. McKeever is invested in every up, every down, every moment. But it's not all stress.

"Being able to share that moment right when they win and it's only you and her and nobody else, is what's so awesome," McKeever said, her eyes starting to water. "I don't know why I cry. You just can't put that into words. You can't buy that. That's my gold medal."

But, at 50, McKeever is starting to feel the pangs of age. Both her 2010-11 and 2011-12 squads consisted of nine freshmen -- newbies -- the most difficult load McKeever has had. "There're times when I still ask myself, 'When are you going to be satisfied?'" she said. "'How much more s--- do you have to do before you feel good about yourself, Teri?'"

"I know people that think I'm a lousy coach, and that's OK," McKeever added. "Well, it's not OK. It bothers me. But I have to be OK with that. I truly believe that it's more important that I believe that I've always done my best with everyone that's been here. And I do. And I really honestly believe that with every ounce of my being."

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