By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Friday, February 23, 2018
When she was getting her start in coaching, Teri McKeever looked to some of swimming’s best as mentors.
But her most influential role model – and inspiration, man or woman – was her mother, Judy.
A swimmer herself and McKeever’s club coach and a school teacher, she supported the family when her husband passed away when Teri was just 6.
“I saw my mom step up in very unfortunate circumstances and keep our family – three young kids – together,” McKeever said. “She shaped much of who I am, and I have always looked up to her.”
Like her mom, McKeever’s original career path involved becoming a teacher, but swimming came first.
A two-time All-American at the University of Southern California, she made the final eight in the 200 butterfly at the 1980 U.S. Olympic Trials but didn’t make the team – the same team that didn’t compete in Moscow due to a U.S. boycott.
She went on to have three great seasons at USC, including being named the school’s Outstanding Student Athlete.
But when she graduated in 1983, she was done competing and was eager to start the next phase of her life.
An education major, McKeever envisioned teaching junior high or high school math or science and coaching on the side – never thinking of taking on that role as a full-time career.
Now, 30-plus years later, she’s not only one of the most successful swimming coaches in the game – having directed the University of California-Berkeley to four NCAA women’s titles and nine consecutive top 3 finishes at NCAAs – but she also broke down barriers by serving as the first woman to head coach a U.S. Olympic Swimming team in London in 2012.
“I was confident then and I still am that I was the right coach for the job and not just the right woman for the job,” McKeever said. “It’s was a great honor, and I hoped then that it would never be a story again because more women would be selected for honors like this. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m hopeful that it will.”
For McKeever, who definitely sees a strong connection between coaching and teaching, the path her career has taken is right on course with the progression her life was meant to follow.
Not only has she experienced the highest levels of coaching success at the collegiate level – mentoring and coaching NCAA, U.S. National, World and Olympic champions Natalie Coughlin, Dana Vollmer, Jessica Hardy and Missy Franklin, among many others – but she has also reached the highest levels of coaching internationally.
In addition to directing the U.S. women to 14 medals – 8 of them gold – in London, she was also the first woman to coach as an assistant on the U.S. Olympic Swim team in 2004 and 2008.
In between those meets, she served as the first woman to be named head coach of the U.S. National team at a major international meet – the 2006 Pan Pacific Championships in British Columbia.
She also served as the head coach of the U.S. squad at the 2012 Short Course World Championships, and as an assistant for the United States six times at the World Championships as well as the 2001 Goodwill Games and 2002 Pan Pacific Championship teams.
“I didn’t set out to make coaching a career, but I am still a teacher who gets to work in an amazing classroom and teach swim and life lessons,” said McKeever, who took over the Bears program in 1991.
With few female coaches to look to as examples and role models in her early years, McKeever said she identified Karen Moe Humphreys – her predecessor at Cal who took over the Bears program in 1978 after a stellar swimming career highlighted by a gold medal in the 200 butterfly at the 1972 Olympics – as one of her mentors.
“She did an amazing job leading when women were given very few coaching opportunities in the college ranks,” McKeever said.
Through her experiences, McKeever said she knows that coaching is challenging regardless of gender, but it sends a derogatory message to both young men and women when they don’t see women in coaching or leadership roles.
“We can talk about it all we want, but until we start seeing more women in leadership roles and on the decks at meets, that perception isn’t going to change,” she said. “Women need an equal number of seats at the table, and that starts in the coaching ranks.”
Nonetheless, she said she always strives to be a strong role model for young athletes and aspiring coaches whether they are male or female.
She feels passion every time she works with young women on the deck at Cal, knowing that her classroom is the pool and she plays a role in helping them discover their best as swimmers, students and people.
“I always want to help young women be the best version of themselves that they can be; that’s what I’ve always tried to do with myself,” McKeever said. “I don’t want them to set limits on who they can be and what they can achieve.
“I’m incredibly proud and honored to have had the opportunity to lead the U.S. team, but I hope one day my being a woman coaching at the highest levels of the sport won’t be a story. Women’s swimming was introduced into the Olympics in 1912, and it was 100 years before a woman coached the team. That needs to continue happening, and I hope it’s something I see in my lifetime.”