Quiz: Name the only female to be selected as the head coach of a U.S. Olympic swim team?
Answer: Teri McKeever.
That’s the same Teri McKeever who set numerous records as a San Diego-Imperial age group swimmer, then went on to become an All-American at USC and most recently has coached the University of California to three of the last four NCAA Women’s championships.
Yet if you ask her, she’ll say being the U.S. Women’s Olympic coach, as she was in London in 2012, was never her goal.
“I always wanted to be a teacher,” says McKeever, who enters the aquatics portion of the Breitbard Hall of Fame tonight, joining the likes of Florence Chadwick (1962) and Mike Stamm (1978). “I think this is what I was supposed to do.”
No one in U.S. Swimming would argue.
She has succeeded in a sport dominated by men. She doesn’t consider herself a pioneer but she can’t escape the fact she has gone where no women before her have gone. She is considered one of America’s best coaches—not just best female coaches.
That success started at a very young age in a highly competitive family. Younger brothers Mac and Barry were football stars like their father, Mike, who passed away almost two years after an auto accident in 1965. Teri was 4-year-old at the time.
Her mother, Judy, a highly competitive athlete herself, remarried two years later to Gary Gannon and they had seven more children, all of whom enjoyed athletic success.
One of the first things Judy did when the family bought a house in Escondido was build a two lane, Olympic-sized 50-meter pool in the backyard. She then proceeded to coach the kids, especially Teri who attended her first nationals at age 12, swimming for the Hidden Valley Swim Club, and who maintained that high level for the next decade.
She became the first San Pasqual High athlete to win a CIF-San Diego Section title, again setting record after record.
“The last of my age group record, fell last year,” says McKeever, who then went on to swim at USC. She never won an individual title for the Trojans.
“We finished in the Top 10 all four years and I scored in the 100 and 200-yard butterfly,” she recalls. “I was on the winning 800 freestyle relay my senior year when I was the captain.”
In 1983, she was named USC’s top Student Athlete, the first female to earn the honor.
While some grow up expecting or at least hoping to make the Olympic team as a swimmer, Teri was much more realistic.
“I wasn’t disappointed,” she says. “I never remember growing up saying I had make the Olympic team.”
Coaching gigs at USC and Fresno State gave her more hands-on background so when she was hired by the University of California in 1992, she thought she was ready.
She discovered that she needed to recruit more than just good swimmers; she needed to find swimmers who really wanted to be Golden Bear team members and who were willing to understand that her training and coaching techniques were—well—unique.
“I’ve always thought outside the box in a very non-traditional way,” Teri says. “There are a lot of ways to be successful. I listened and was willing to try anything.
“But I struggled at first and thought for sure people were thinking the only reason I got hired was because I was a woman. I looked at the person in the mirror and just decided to trust my instincts. I set the goal of getting Cal back into the top 10.”
One thing she learned was that to accomplish that goal, not to mention even being considered as a National coach, she had to have swimmers who made the Olympic team.
Natalie Coughlin was the first and others like Carlsbad’s Stacianna Stits, Dara Torres, Jessica Hardy and Dana Vollmer would follow. The quality of recruits improved and they in turn encouraged their Olympic teammates and soon the NCAA, not to mention U.S. Swimming, turned to McKeever to help with the 2004 and 2008 Olympic teams.
“Being an assistant coach on the Olympic team is the easiest job in the world,” she says, looking back. “You have five swimmers and the head coach tells you exactly what he wants done.”
The ‘he’ became ‘she’ for 2012 when McKeever was selected as the U.S. Women’s head coach. She says it was a whole new ball-game.
Now she was the one who had to produce a plan, be available for all the post-race interviews, be available 24/7.
But the rewards were numerous, like teaming with men’s coach Greg Troy to bring the team, men and women, together to actually be one team. One of those bonding events was making a video which at first Michael Phelps balked at doing and then encouraged, calling it one of the highlights.
McKeever says seeing and embracing Coughlin after she won the 100 was “an incredible moment.”
Another plus was getting to see one of her incoming freshmen, Missy Franklin, excel.
McKeever will find out this year if she’ll be the women’s head coach again for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil and she says she’d welcome the opportunity, saying 22 years of experience at the high level is priceless. She was also asked if she would select a woman to be an assistant.
“There are 197 women’s swimming programs and just 20 have women coach,” she explains. “At this time there just isn’t a woman who’s as qualified as some of the men.”
Not that being a successful head coach doesn’t have its drawbacks.
“There’s a reason I didn’t get married until I was 45,” she says of her 2007 nuptials with Jerry Romani after meeting him at a football game. “Now that I’m married, the work-life balance is a little more complicated.
“And it’s not that I don’t have children—I have 25 every year. All I ask is that they walk out confident young ladies. Sports is about who you are and celebrating that strength.”