By Bob Schaller//Contributor | Tuesday, January 3, 2017
Teri McKeever, Catherine Vogt, Carol Capitani -- the outstanding growth of the sport and the performance of female athletes at the Olympics also extends to the women coaches who are leading international and Olympic teams. Georgia’s Stefanie Williams is part of an up and coming group that includes outstanding coaches from coast to coast, and in between. Williams talks about that, her own ride to the top of the profession, and how her own life is changing significantly in 2017 in the first 20 Question Tuesday of 2017.
1. Your fiancée, Brandon Moreno, you finally found a man who can keep up training with you -- is he also a swimmer?Stefanie: He is not. But he does triathlons and he’s really into running. He was in cross country in high school. Pirie Humphries, (Georgia associate head coach) Harvey’s (Humphries) daughter, taught him how to swim a few years ago. He didn’t learn in Louisiana growing up. But now he loves swimming.
2. So he just lands in Georgia and you two find each other through...training?
Stefanie: Exactly. He flew for seven or eight years as a private pilot. He would fly into Athens a fair amount. He didn’t like flying’s lifestyle. He wanted a job that allowed him time to exercise more, so he moved here. He lived three houses down from me. I was out walking my dog, and he was helping a running store move that was close to my house, and that’s where I met him -- walking George. I would see him all the time. One thing led to another, and we’re getting married in May.
3. How cool is it having him to train with?
Stefanie: He’s amazing. I can keep up with him, and he was an instrumental part of my Ironman training. He knows all the roads here. You have to ride five or six hours a day to train for it. I joined a master’s team and everything. So that was pretty awesome. He actually signed up for a half and full this coming year.
4. But still working out hard, it can help you relate to your student-athletes too, can't it?
Stefanie: Yes, I can. I definitely miss in a crazy way getting in at 5:30 in the morning, swimming and doing weights. But I exercise a lot, with running and working out. We have a trainer at the house so I can get on and ride for a few hours. I don’t swim as much but I started boxing. I do a lot of things to mix it up so it’s not one thing. Being active is a big part of my whole life.
5. Jack Bauerle told me about six months ago that among the great things you bring to UGA is that the student-athletes see that being fit is a lifelong lifestyle, that’s important to you, isn’t it?
Stefanie: I love being in great shape. As coaches we are role models for our student-athletes. My kids see me and they are like, “What’d you do today” and I say, “I just ran eight miles.” And they say, “Wow.” So they know when they are done with their career, whether its triathlons, running or just staying active, you have to do something.
6. We’ve talked about this before -- your two ice-cream sandwich post-workout “meals” in college -- but how much has nutrition helped make this “run,” so to speak, possible in your 30s?
Stefanie: I look back at when I swam and like I told you before, I wish I knew about the nutrition aspect, specifically the importance of fueling your body before and after workouts. So I still wish I knew about that, more about recovery and stretching. I am so jealous of the kids now because they have those resources. So I try to eat better because your metabolism isn’t as efficient.
7. Jack also works to stay in shape, doesn’t he?
Stefanie: Look at Jack, he’s in his 60s and he doesn’t work out that hard but he’ll play tennis for a half hour, and he eats right. Like I tell our kids, get 1 percent better each day. Don’t try to get 100 percent or 40 percent better at what you are doing all in one day. Just get 1 percent better each day, and over time, you’ll get better. It’s easier to figure it out with little steps than to do it all at once and be overwhelmed and give up.
8. What a cast of characters to win another NCAA title at Georgia -- is it these swimmers just all stepping up each year or the tradition from the graduating seniors who also, when their time came, did the same thing?
Stefanie: I think it’s both. Obviously, Shannon Vreeland for example, hadn’t made a National Team and then makes the Olympic team and is a gold medalist. Then you have Hali Flickinger who is 5-2. And Olivia Smoliga. And all the others. They have this common base of setting goals and reaching them, and having a balance in their life. We don’t overload on one thing. They get to know each other. They always come together as a team. So when we’re like, “Oh no, this person is graduating,” someone else steps up and the dynamic develops again. It’s the same way on the men’s team.
9. Those women from this year’s team, looking back there was Megan Romano, Allison Schmitt, Shannon Vreeland who you mentioned, but this year’s group was just as solid, even going back to your time swimming there, right?
Stefanie: You always have a lot of strong female role models who are in front of you. You see that you have that drive and discipline, and you know that wearing that G, bleeding the red and black, means something -- it’s important to make the team better and do all you can.
10. Seeing Kristy Kowal, the Olympian and UGA NCAA champ teammate of yours, while you visited her teaching at her school, what’s that like?
Stefanie: I watch her in the classroom and she is so good at helping them grow. They are with her for eight hours a day. She doesn’t just teach math, social studies and science, but about being polite, having manners, covering their cough, blowing their nose -- they love her because she’s tough, caring, a phenomenal teacher and wants to help them be the best they can. She always wanted to be a teacher. We knew she was going to do this. But watching her interact with them is just incredible. It’s very cool and I love coming back. It’s pajama day, so we’re having a blast. Watching her shape lives is just amazing.
11. And you saw her out swimming too, didn’t you?
Stefanie: Yes, and I love it. You see those kids’ faces when she’s out doing clinics or teaching people to swim, it’s just incredible. She’s doing more than teaching school; she’s highly involved in USA Swimming and with mentoring. She Skypes with some an hour a week to impact lives for the next generation.
12. So riddle me this: How have you been in the south for so long and still sound so mid-western -- not even a hint of twang?
Stefanie: I don’t (laughs) know. I just...I feel like I enunciate a lot more than I used to, like my Grandma did when she was 94. We’re getting married in Monroe, Georgia, but it’s said MUN-row. So it’s pretty funny. It’s just who I am. I have adapted. The only thing I don’t say (laughs is y’all.
13. How much inspiration do you get from Teri McKeever and Catherine Vogt behind head coaches for the Olympic team?
Stefanie: Oh, absolutely it is motivating. We don’t have a lot of female coaches in college now. But you see Teri as head coach in 2012, Catherine this year. Tracy Duchac is killing it at Stanford, Tanica Jamison is doing awesome at Texas A&M. So many other college coaches, and club coaches, across the nation. They are showing you can have it all. You can have a family. You can coach at the highest level. Carol Capitani (at Texas, who coached at UGA when Stefanie was there), oh my gosh, look at what she does for our generation and the younger generation coming up behind mine now -- they are such great role models
14. So you are in touch as a group?
Stefanie: We have that core group of women we can reach out now to ask questions and share frustrations or just get motivation and career direction. I ask for guidance from Carol. I know what she did at Georgia, and I took that with me to Missouri and Ohio State and back here. I like that connection. All of the women coaches we have talked about are great dealing with people and realizing the biggest impact we make is on the lives of these young people after swimming. But it is definitely empowering to see these women in these leadership roles as head coaches of big programs, at World Championships like Carol was, the Olympics like Teri and Catherine.
15. How do you explain the different feeling of so many NCAA titles?
Stefanie: They are all very different -- every title we’ve won. We’ve won seven, and I’ve been part of six, three as an athlete, and three as coach. The first one is like yes, then the second one follows it up, then for our third one we had lost so many key people, all these great swimmers. But we had so many others who stepped up. We didn’t listen to anyone else because we knew we had people who were stepping up. It doesn’t matter who graduates, we know those who are back are ready to take the next step up, fill those shoes -- win every point we have to, whether it’s a last point scored on a relay or someone picking up more points in an event than they were predicted to.
16. What did last year’s title mean?
Stefanie: Last year, we didn’t know if we could win. We knew Cal was a powerhouse, Stanford was a powerhouse. But it was what our girls did that whole season leading up to that. We didn’t win SECs, and that bothered our girls. Then after the first night swim at NCAAs, people decided it was time to get their hands on the wall. It was incredible. We were swimming events we were going to scratch in and getting third-place points, which was huge.
17. It’s a process, isn’t it -- that is, they don’t know at the start of the year that they can, but they never believe they cannot, right?
Stefanie: We’re always a work in progress. We’re always building from the start of the year. We work in September, October, November and December, and we’re just making progress.
18. How about Georgia’s performance at Olympic Trials?
Stefanie: That was a great snowball effect. You start with Jay and Chase, and then you see all of our women step up like they did. We had swimmers make the team who had to claw and improve every single week during the run up to earn those spots. And we had a lot of swimmers who did not make the team who still had the meet of their life at Trials and are better for it coming back to school.
19. Your women at NCAAs were having too much fun to win -- I mean, they were serious, but it looked like they were having the time of their lives together, weren’t they?
Stefanie: We focus on what we can control and not what we can’t control. If you watched us, we had fun. They were laughing, they were smiling. And they were swimming for each other. If you looked at where we were in relation to everyone around us, we were definitely having the most fun. We were not stressed out or obsessed with being overly focused. We still love what we do, and that helps us swim faster. Being relaxed helped us a lot. We loved being viewed as maybe a top five team. And then boom, someone finals, someone pops a lifetime best, someone who wasn’t supposed to final gets third. Then they start walking taller, and think, we can do this, we have a shot. There’s not a lot of teams every year vying for a NCAA title but I think it’s 15 of the last 18 or so years (going back to 1999, Georgia has been 1st or 2nd all but three years) we’ve gotten first or second.
20. You have to beat a super team in Stanford, and other teams who will emerge, for a title this year -- but that alone, and how the women performed in Rio, must mean a lot to you, doesn’t it?
Stefanie: Yes, it is phenomenal. What Katie Ledecky has done, and will do, for the sport of women’s swimming is incredible. Simone Manuel and what she did at the Olympics, oh my gosh! Remember all that suit stuff in 2009, and people saying, “Swimming will never be the same!” and then you look at training and nutrition, and people are swimming just as fast. So it’s an exciting year for NCAAs. It’ll come down to who drops how much time. There are so many great female swimmers -- I’m thankful I’m not swimming anymore. But it’s pretty cool to see such dominating females in the sport, what it has done for swimming, and done for little girls who want to be the next Katie Ledecky, the next Simone Manuel, the next Olivia Smoliga, the next Maya DiRado, the next Lilly King -- that’s going to be fun to watch.