McKeever has an Olympic pipeline that's built to last at Cal-Berkeley
Olympic gold medalist Dana Vollmer still vividly remembers how it all began.
The two-time U.S. Olympic women's swim team member (2004, 2012) and collegiate swimmer of the year her senior season (2009) was swimming in the final competition of her University of California career. Vollmer had already captured the individual 100- and 200-yard freestyle titles at the 2009 NCAA championships and after 20 events, the Golden Bears were clutching a one-point lead.
Now a few years out, Vollmer doesn't remember the times -- her coach Teri McKeever always said she and her teammates never would -- but she remembers the people, the experience and the emotions. With the artificial light and maroon and white of Texas A&M's Natatorium in College Station as the backdrop, the tension and stakes -- and volume -- were high, the collegiate championship hanging in the balance as the final event, the 4x100 free relay, was set to begin. It was then, during that late-March meet, that the unconventional methods of McKeever, now the first female Olympic women's swimming head coach, danced away any trace of the relay squad's unease.
"Part of our training, we had been learning a hip-hop dance routine," said Vollmer, "and it was going into the last relay, and of course we're nervous. We know that the NCAA title was kind of riding on this relay. The team took us out behind the pool, and the relay team was sitting down on the ground, and the team, without music, was singing and did the hip-hop dance routine for us. We were laughing and excited, and we took that energy and the team energy into the relay, and that just kind of summed up the whole meet for me."
Anchored by Vollmer, Cal blew by the other teams in the final, absolutely destroying the NCAA record time -- which the group from Berkeley had set less than a month prior at the conference championships -- by more than a second. They also logged the fastest time on American soil, a record which still stands today, beating four-time champ Georgia by just 11 points to capture the program's first title. Since that momentous victory, Cal has won two of the last three NCAA crowns, become the preeminent place to swim collegiately and consistently placed swimmers in the Olympics.
Talking from the Olympic team's last American training stop in Knoxville, Tenn., before heading overseas for the Games, McKeever credited that victory in 2009, as well as the signing of the 11-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin to the program in 2001 when she was a freshman, as the events that had the biggest impact on Cal's current path of prosperity.
"We were able to win a national title, and that was just a huge moment because of just the team success, that ultimate dream that you think about," said McKeever. "I'm very proud of the team culture and environment that we've created. It's about being your personal best, it's not saying you've got to be an Olympian or we don't want you."
But produce Olympians the program has. Aside from Coughlin (class of '04), who will serve as a captain during her third Olympic appearance, and Vollmer ('09), former Golden Bear Jessica Hardy (who gave up her collegiate eligibility in '07), and current Berkeley students Caitlin Leverenz ('13) and Rachel Bootsma ('16) will also represent the school, making it the most well-represented institution on the American team. In addition, along with junior Stephanie Au '14 (Hong Kong), alums Lauren Boyle '10 (New Zealand), Hannah Wilson '11 (Hong Kong) and Sara Isakovic '12 (Slovenia) will be representatives for their respective countries, bringing the Olympic total from five McKeever-ites to nine.
"To have that many ties to one program is relatively uncommon," noted USA Swimming's Karen Linhart. Although such a total is not unprecedented, it has been four Olympics since another school (Georgia) matched that number of swimmers on the American team. The four internationals set to swim in London push Cal into some rare company.
"I think it's such a testament to the program that we have, and it's continually building," said Leverenz, the reigning women's collegiate swimmer of the year and lone senior for Cal next season. "[Teri] just has a unique way of approaching the sport."
"Seeing athletes like that come in shows the quality of our program, of the school, and Teri's efforts in really working hard to build that kind of program," added Vollmer, a transfer to Cal from Florida for her sophomore season. "Teri has completely changed my life. I went from not making an NCAA final my freshman year to winning the 100 fly when I transferred to Cal. To be able to make that journey with her, and to be able to perform better than I ever thought I could, she's definitely been like a second mom, and she pushes me. I think the environment that she's created, she makes us all better young ladies, not just better swimmers."
Apart from incorporating team building exercises concentrated around swimmers just talking with each other out of the water, McKeever, who also served as an assistant for both the 2004 and 2008 Olympic teams before getting the nod as the head coach for London, is known for taking a more holistic approach to training her athletes. Instead of emphasizing a hefty workload of swimming during practices, as many other coaches do, the 50-year-old who just completed her 20th season at Cal stresses the intent and form of that swimming -- quality over quantity -- avoiding what she likes to call "garbage yardage." She fills the rest of the workouts with alternative training such as the hip-hop dancing, and spin and step classes. This philosophy calls for sharpening technique through understanding the body's motions and movement in the water rather than simply getting stronger and faster, and potentially putting extra strain on the muscles, through more swimming.
Based on results, it must be working. And others seem to be taking notice, as Cal just signed one of the best recruiting classes in recent memory. The group is highlighted by Bootsma, the No. 3 overall rated recruit and national high school record holder in the 100 back. The class also includes three of the nation's other top 10, including Elizabeth Pelton, who previously swam under Michael Phelps' coach Bob Bowman and just missed the 2012 London Games in both the 200-meter back and 200-meter IM by mere tenths of a second.
Of course, the following year's recruiting class features none other than the nation's new swimming darling, Colorado's Missy Franklin. Franklin and Brooklyn's Lia Neal are the best of the group, but Franklin, the consensus No. 1, is a program-changing commitment.
While Franklin will almost certainly have an opportunity to turn pro after the Olympics, by passing on a couple hundred thousand dollars in winnings already, she has made her intentions of maintaining amateur status firmly known.
"I am just such a big fan of teams," said Franklin from Knoxville. "It's one of the things that makes me love the sport of swimming so much, knowing that I have such great relationships with everyone around me. I feel like your college team is one of the best teams you'll ever be a part of, so that's why I'm kind of really, really hoping that I get the chance to do that.
"I do want to swim in college more than anything," she added, "but if another option comes up that's better for me or better for my family, then we'll definitely discuss it. Hopefully in November, I'll have a pen in my hand and I'll be signing, no matter wherever it is."
Franklin's short list of schools includes Cal, Georgia, Texas and USC, with Stanford seemingly falling off the list because of the recent departure of its head coach Lea Maurer. Though Franklin's ties to each school have her being pulled in various directions -- her boyfriend, John Martens, already signed to swim at Texas this upcoming season, and she has former club teammates at Cal and Georgia -- her mother, D.A., said she believes Missy will simply make the best decision for herself.
The relationship with the program's coach will likely play a big role in where Franklin ultimately decides to go, and it can't harm Cal's chances that McKeever is the current national team coach. But does it make choosing Cal and following in the swim stroke of her hero Natalie Coughlin a foregone conclusion?
Georgia head coach Jack Bauerle is also someone who would like to enlist the services of Franklin for his perennially title-contending Bulldogs program, and he already had the young phenom out to Athens in December for an unofficial visit. The women's Olympic coach in 2008 as well as at the world championships in 2011, he said the national team is not a place for recruiting, though he acknowledges the built-in advantage being its coach may bring.
"I think the position maybe helps you down the road," said Bauerle. "When we first start the recruiting process, we have a little bit of a history, I guess you'd say. It certainly breaks the ice. Our first phone calls are never difficult ones, if you know what I mean."
"I think it's a pretty cool thing to have on my résumé," said McKeever of the national team position with a laugh. "Yeah, I don't think it hurts."
For now, McKeever and the large Cal contingent are content having Franklin represent the United States. Come the end of the Games, however, when Franklin makes her first official college visit to Berkeley at the end of August, the growing rivalry with Georgia -- second in each of Cal's championship seasons -- will continue.
"I would love to have Lia Neal and Missy Franklin as my teammates," said Leverenz, a captain of next year's Golden Bear squad. "Obviously I want it to be Cal, but by no means is making an Olympic team about me trying to recruit them while here. We just have a job to do here, and then come fall, when they come on their trips, I'll get her then. If that doesn't happen, I think we're going to keep building a dynasty no matter what."