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McKeever blazes new trail as first female coach of U.S. swimming


The American team that emerges from the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials -- which begin today in Omaha, Neb. -- will have a different look than in years past. It has nothing to do with high-tech swimsuits or new technology.

This year, for the first time -- though we are more than a decade into the 21st century and four decades since the passage of Title IX -- the U.S. team will have a female coach.

Teri McKeever, who has led Cal to three NCAA championships in the last four years and has coached 11-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin for more than a decade, is the first female head coach of the U.S. Olympic women's swimming team.

Despite her long and impressive coaching tenure, McKeever knows that there might have been an ulterior motive to her groundbreaking hire. USA Swimming was rocked by a sexual abuse scandal that unfolded in 2010, when dozens of coaches at different levels were investigated and banned. Later that year, McKeever was named coach.

"I'd probably be lying if I said there wasn't times where I thought 'You better have picked me because you think I'm the right person and not your poster child to clean up the sport,'" said McKeever, whose Cal Bears have won consecutive collegiate titles since she was elevated to the top Olympic position.

McKeever, 50, is the right person but her hiring also managed to crack open a closed system that has stubbornly remained biased against head women coaches and hidebound to its traditional ways. McKeever made her name as a coach who isn't afraid to challenge the system. At Cal, she has developed a reputation as an unconventional coach, one who believes in breaking up the monotony of the pool. She incorporates ocean swimming, hip-hop dance, yoga and Pilates into her training routines and also tries to bring an emotional component to her coaching.

"Sometimes when I'm in an environment, I can't figure out if my way of looking at things is different because I'm a woman or just because I'm Teri," said McKeever, who has been a U.S. team assistant for a decade. "I think my input gets people thinking about things from a different perspective and that may have been missing. I think that's valuable."

McKeever believes her biggest responsibility in London won't be just picking the order of the relay team or deciding what time the team eats, but creating an environment in which athletes feel secure and confident.

"As the head coach you're more the driving force of the culture and the subtleties," McKeever said. "You have to trust your intuition."

Though swimming is an individual sport, McKeever works on team building and bonding. "It's important because it's bigger than you," she said. "You get up on the blocks and you're representing millions and millions of people. You have to reframe that so it's really empowering and not a burden [for the swimmer]. There are people who can get very intimidated by being an Olympian. It's important to acknowledge what it means to be an Olympian because there are a lot of emotions and self-talk and anxiety. I want them to have somewhere to go if they feel overwhelmed."

McKeever remembers a moment in Beijing after Amanda Beard didn't qualify for the semifinals. Beard had been a tremendous team leader throughout the Olympics yet was sitting by herself, crying on the phone to her husband. McKeever went over to support her.

"I'm not saying a male coach wouldn't have done it, but there were a lot of people standing around and no one went over to her," McKeever said.

McKeever has been groomed to lead and support others her entire life. When she was four years old, her father -- USC All-America guard Mike McKeever -- was in a car accident and lapsed into a coma. McKeever remembers her mother Judy telling her, "OK, I need you to help me now."

Mike McKeever died before Teri turned six, leaving behind a widow and three small children. Judy remarried and had seven more children -- there is a 21-year age gap between Teri and her youngest sibling.

"I've been 40 since I was 10-years-old," McKeever said.

She traces her unconventional training techniques to being self-motivated. Growing up in northern San Diego County, she would get up early and swim in the family pool before anyone else was up, or fit in a quick workout while her younger siblings were napping. As the oldest, she's spent half a century being in tune with others' emotions, reading their cues and coordinating group activities.

She remembers in her first job at Fresno State a colleague sat her down and sternly told her to make sure to count her 14 swimmers every time they went anywhere so she didn't leave one behind.

"I thought, 'Are you kidding me? That's a trip to the grocery store, a family outing,'" she said.

McKeever -- who was an All America swimmer at USC -- was hired by Cal in 1992 and struggled for the first few years. She knew that her detractors complained to the athletic director that she only got her job because she was a woman. She inherited swimmers who resented having a woman coach. She recruited kids who had a bias against women coaches.

"I remember thinking, 'Is it professional suicide if I leave here?'" she said. "But the competitive part of me said that I'm going to get the team back in the top 10 and then I'm going to leave."

But then she recruited a talented and willing swimmer in Coughlin, who became the foundation upon which McKeever built one of the top collegiate programs and also changed perceptions.

McKeever understands why the coaching profession can be so difficult for women.

"I was always going to get married, to have my own kids," said McKeever who married at 45. "But it's hard to do that and be a coach at the highest level. Coaching isn't really a job, it's a lifestyle."

Next month in London, she will coach at the highest level. And change the look of American swimming while she does it.