By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Coming off leading her Cal Golden Bears to their second NCAA Championship in three years, Teri McKeever is now set to become the first U.S. Olympic women’s swimming head coach. She’s excited to see results from the Charlotte UltraSwim this weekend, and noted during the interview that Olympic Trials are really just around the corner.
1. What’s the UltraSwim evolved into as a meet?
Teri: I just think that it’s turned into a great meet for the post-grads with lots of good opportunities. They do a good job of taking care of them down there. It sounds like it is going to be a rather large meet. It should be good. It’s a rough time for us because we started final exams this week, so it’s hard for the ones going to school right now. But for those who finished school already this semester and those who are post-grads, it’s a really great meet.
2. How was this year’s NCAA title different from the one in 2009?
Teri: I think this was different in the sense that we were on people’s radar. I don’t think we were anyone’s favorite, but walking into the meet as others are watching is something different. In ’09, there weren’t really any expectations. It was this giddy, “Oh my gosh, look what’s happening!” mentality. This time, the best word I can think of is it was more businesslike in that we thought we could possibly be in the mix. Looking at what our strengths were, we felt good, especially looking at our relays. We had some good momentum coming off the PAC 10 season. We had a great battle with Stanford at the PAC 10 Championship, and felt like we had even better swims in us, so the feeling was, “Let’s see what happens at NCAAs.”
3. Are you comfortable with all the attention you are getting for being a female head coach for the U.S. women, or should it just be that you are the coach, regardless of gender?
Teri: I think there is a feeling that I am the best coach for the job who happens to be female. But being a female and this being the first time a female has been head coach, I do feel a responsibility that this won’t be as much of a story and focus the next time a women is head U.S. coach. Now we need to get more and more women these staff positions on teams like that, and eventually the story will be about how the entire U.S. Olympic women’s swim team coaching staff is female. That’s the next milestone. Hopefully, being in this position shows the younger female coaches, or those just getting into the profession, that you can achieve success at the highest level.
4. You run this program that is seen as outside the box. Has the success come because you don’t doubt what you are doing?
Teri: It might be actually the opposite. I think I have hesitated at times. Its’ a little scary at times, you know. Ultimately, you make a decision based on whatever things you are doing, and you have confidence in what you are doing. And what I am confident about is trying new things. To be honest, I am confident I am going to make a mistake – or mistakes, let’s make that plural – but I am also confident I will stumble onto something awesome at the same time. It’s always hard trying something different, because there is that real possibility you will fail. But that’s where the improvement and learning comes from. I really believe that in failure and struggle comes the greatest opportunity for learning and growth.
5. Natalie Coughlin and Amanda Sims laugh when I ask about how you all do less pool time. They are quick to point out that oftentimes they are more exhausted than pool workouts. Is that accurate?
Teri: Absolutely, we definitely spend a lot less time in the pool than most programs, but I don’t think what we’re doing is about finding an easier way. It’s just about looking at the process in a different way.
6. How awesome is it to have Stanford back where they belong?
Teri: It really is special. I think it’s the ultimate rival. It’s our traditional rivalry, but not only is it important in the Bay Area, it is on a national level. Just look at what Stanford swimming has done over the years. It’s pretty phenomenal. I wouldn’t say we’ve reached that level by any stretch of the imagination.
7. Even with two NCAA titles in three years?
Teri: No, it’s not even close. They won 33 dual meets in a row until we beat them in February, and they were taking on the best of the best, not just within the PAC 10 but also nationally with Florida, Texas and other schools. Stanford’s tradition is outstanding. One thing I hope people recognize about both programs and our conference is that if you are willing to challenge yourself against the best, it can only be a good thing for your program.
8. A few years ago you pondered moving back to USC. Then you decided to stay at Cal, and promptly won a pair of NCAA titles in three years. Was that proposed move a motivator?
Teri: I think when the ‘SC job opened up, it was a time to evaluate where our team was, where I was personally, and what I felt like after investing 14 or 15 years into the program. It was hard work, but I felt like I was finally starting to make my own mark on the program here. I love the fact that I went to school at USC, and it is a great school and coaching there was a great opportunity. But I felt like the sweat equity I had here was worth seeing through, if that makes sense.
9. The team this year that won NCAAs was so different than the one in 2009, wasn’t it?
Teri: Oh yes, absolutely. One of the things I am most proud of is that I don’t think there is a superstar on the team, and I don’t mean that with any disrespect to anyone because we do have a team full of standouts that I am thankful to have. What I mean is that that in 2009, Dana Vollmer was our marquee person, the NCAA Swimmer of the Year, this Olympian who had kind of been the backbone of what we were doing. This year, it was more by committee. People made huge strides. So many people had to step up for something special to happen, and it wasn’t just one or two people, it was the entire team, which also had a lot of great leadership.
10. That was the key wasn’t, so many student-athletes performing their best at key times?
Teri: It really was the key. In 2009, we knew our superstars had to be superstars, but that’s a small number of people. To win, your next tier has to be better than the rest of the other team’s top swimmers, and our women pulled together and stepped up.
11. How unique is it to recruit to a school like Cal that offers – along with high admission standards – a great academic program?
Teri: I am really proud that this is a really terrific option for someone who wants to get a world-class education and a world-class swimming experience. The best thing I get to do is walk into someone’s home and offer an amazing degree option and an amazing athletic experience. I think the quality of the young ladies speaks to that – how quality places attract quality people.
12. Even though standards are high, I imagine it’s better to be recruiting for swimming where so many student-athletes are as or more likely to be high achievers in the classroom, in general, than in other sports, or is that right?
Teri: Absolutely, yes, I believe it is. We definitely seem to have more people to choose from than some other sports do. I think that’s part of why a lot of parents want their children in swimming. It’s a sport that teaches great discipline and goal setting. Those are skills that really carry over into life. The reality is there are not too many people who make a living at swimming, but what they are doing is using those life skills to get a great college experience and then transfer that degree and those life skills into an outstanding career.
13. I meant to ask earlier: what was the feeling you had when you were named Olympic head coach?
Teri: Probably the most obvious feeling was that I was so incredibly honored when the announcement was made. The only time I (laugh) freaked out is when I called my mom. I got so emotional that I actually had to (laughs) tell her that everything is okay. I just had no idea in that moment where all that emotion was coming from – probably just all the pride and hard work, and being able to share it with someone like her who helped me earn this honor.
14. What about your husband’s reaction?
Teri: He was happy. He’s only been in my life for six years whereas my Mom has been in my life (laughs) for 49 years, so I had to call her first. But he has been very supportive and proud, and I feel really blessed that I found someone later in life who is supportive of me achieving my goals.
15. You and Natalie Coughlin – 10 years and counting. What’s been like for you?
Teri: It’s a wonderful working relationship and personal relationship that’s very important to me. Like any relationship, it’s always evolving. It’s always a process, and I am appreciative of that. It’s not the same now as it was a year ago, or 10 years ago. It’s evolving as she and I evolve. I am appreciative of that because it has to be that way for this to work.
16. Another year, another NCAA banner. Is there even room in the Cal athletic department for more championship banners?
Teri: I think there’s always room – or at least that (laughs) is what my athletic director wants me to say. But it’s something important and we never take it for granted. It’s so nice – and also important – to reflect on how it happened. I look at this year in particular, and it was a year of struggle, growth and challenge for us to be sure. Fortunately, we achieved the ultimate prize, but that doesn’t mean everything went perfectly by any stretch of imagination. That’s why I enjoy it, because it’s always a work in progress – always about the journey, no matter where you end up.
17. What are some women’s swim teams internationally you are noticing heading into London?
Teri: I think all of us who coach on the world stage – like in NCAAs with all the outstanding international student-athletes – you have an awareness of that kind of thing. I have put more time and energy into it as I’ve been fortunate to coach on previous World and Olympic Teams. But parity is an issue in the world of women’s swimming. There are numerous countries that are doing a great job. The obvious ones are Australia, Russia, Italy, China, Japan and the Netherlands, but I could put a bunch more in there. Really, if you want to study it, you have to look at it by event, and that also helps you understand the context and perspective of what countries to watch.
18. Dana Vollmer has flourished at Cal hasn’t she? And isn’t her international career just amazing?
Teri: She’s a very exceptional young woman. I think sometimes she’s a little underappreciated, but she’s really come through a lot of ups and downs a stronger person. That’s what’s been fun about working with her. She has had a number of ups and downs and health issues, but she pushes through it. She had a very unique college career that was quite different from her professional career. Now, she’s getting ready to get married. It’s been rewarding to be a part of her life.
19. The U.S. women’s team – do you have any idea what this team will look like after Trials?
Teri: I think the fact that there is different talent in so many age groups is a great thing. Listen, my belief system says competition brings out the best in people, and it brings out the kind of people you want representing your country in the Olympic Games because that is a competitive environment. Just to get there, you have to maneuver through a lot of things, so that prepares you for what you’ll face in London. The fact that no one is a sure thing will keep everyone on their toes until Trials. The ones who make it will be the ones who are consistently doing what they need to do to be the best they can be.
20. So in your own words, what’s it feel like to be the first head U.S. Olympic women’s swim coach?
Teri: Oh, I think it is the ultimate. I don’t even know how to put it into words. It’s a huge honor. It’s a responsibility that I take very seriously. I want to do my best at it.