Coach Teri McKeever: Water into Gold

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By Dave Newhouse, Contributing Writer
Posted Dec 7, 2013
If by BearInsider Staff or Contributor, this article is Copyright © 2014 BearInsider.com


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Cal Swimming Coach Teri McKeever

Teri McKeever has the magic touch alchemists would envy: She turns water into gold.

Her Cal women's swimmers are the golden girls of college aquatics. From Natalie Coughlin, now the grande dame of the pool, to the freshman fish-like Missy Franklin, McKeever seems almost to develop NCAA champions and Olympic medallists by merely whisking her watery, wizardry wand.

Of course, Franklin accumulated six Olympic golds before enrolling at Berkeley. And winning takes more than some hidden mojo. But with McKeever's finest adjudged recruiting class yet, her 22nd year of coaching at Cal promises even greater success.

That hardly seems feasible given her accomplished past, which includes three NCAA championships, three Olympic coaching positions including head women's coach in 2012, being named Pacific-12 Conference Coach of the Year five times, and a sparkling 153-52 dual meet record entering this swim season.

What's hard to believe is that all of her achievements nearly didn't happen. Early on at Cal, McKeever nearly chucked it and walked away.

"People were saying that I only got the job three years before because I was a woman, and that I wasn't ready," recalled McKeever. "So I was going to get the program back into the top 10 (nationally), then I was going to leave. I just didn't want to leave it worse than when I found it."

McKeever's problem, she decided in the nick of time, wasn't only the outside voices she heard, but her own inner voice.

"I was trying to be like Richard Quick (at Stanford) or Mark Schubert at Texas, an imitation of that, and not being comfortable with who I was," she said. "I wasn't connecting with the athletes. I was just trying to make people happy."

But not making herself happy.

"I've done a lot of work since then on who I am, my strengths and weaknesses," she noted. "Now I'm comfortable with who I am. When you grow up as the oldest of 10 children, you're supposed to have all the answers. So when you walk into a new situation, part of me said I couldn't ask people for help, or where I could go for help.

"I was treading water."

She found that help, first from Cal baseball coach Bob Milano, who grounded her by giving her a sense of connection on an unconnected, spread-out campus. Then she reached out to Kathie Wickstrand-Gahen, a Northwestern coach whose swimmers were having fun at NCAA meets even without much success. Wickstrand-Gahen counseled McKeever for eight years, showing her that coaching is teaching first, winning second.

"She made me like myself better," said McKeever.

Finally, by getting her own swimmers, including the likes of Coughlin, McKeever's perspective and her job situation improved in perfect tandem. Once her national team involvement began in 2001, this showed her "that some of the best swimmers in the United States valued my opinion. That gave me confidence."

Tied into that ego boost was "coming to the realization that my job wasn't to fix people, or make make people enjoy swimming, but to provide an environment where people can be their best." She and Cal both benefited by that new mindset.

Besides Coughlin, McKeever has groomed Dana Vollmer, Staciana Stits, Haley Cope, Caitlin Leverenz and Elizabeth Pelton, who as a freshman last season was voted swimmer of the meet as Cal took second at the NCAA Championships.

Thus McKeever has done more than stabilize Cal women's swimming; she's elevated it into one of the nation's best programs. And with success comes progress, i.e., a new swim complex at what is now a parking lot across Bancroft Avenue from Edwards Stadium, the site of Cal track and field.

"We need more water," said McKeever. "We're climbing all over each other."

Cal's other swim site, Spieker Aquatics, is congested from sunrise to sunset, which means the juggling of practice times for both the men's and women's swim teams, who compete now the full academic year. The men's and women's water polo teams share pool time, too. Plus Cal divers now must travel to Stanford twice weekly to do platform work.

Cal, Stanford and USC are the only Pac-12 schools with men's and women's swimming and water polo. The new pool complex at Cal will relieve all the present congestion by providing all the needed diving boards - and access time for everybody. McKeever is encouraged by the target date for the new pool by late next year.

McKeever, 52, is contracted to coach at Cal through 2018. She'd like to extend that until 2020, then try something new. But she isn't one to hurry. She waited until she was 45 before marrying.

She met her husband, Jerry Romani, now 65, through circumstance. Their seats at a Cal football game happened to be side by side. He had no idea who she was until he saw her go down on the field with Coughlin for some halftime recognition following the Athens Olympics in 2004.

It wasn't a whirlwind romance; they didn't even exchange names. And just when McKeever believed she wouldn't ever find the perfect mate, he sent her a card. When a friend advised her to stop talking to potential suitors "like a coach," things changed. In 2007, she married Romani, a Cal alum who has worked in the real estate division of the City of San Francisco for 30 years.

But Romani already knew her family history, that she was the daughter of Mike McKeever, who along with his twin brother, Marlin, were standout USC football players who appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in the late-1950s.

Which, by the way, didn't make her entrance to Berkeley any easier. Old Blues were quick to remind her of the 1959 incident when Mike McKeever caught Cal running back Steve Bates out of bounds with a forearm and crushed his cheekbone. This incident created such controversy that USC President Norman Topping was forced to issue a public apology; otherwise Cal was prepared to break off athletic relations with USC.

Teri McKeever, who wasn't born until two years later, never really knew her father, who was in a coma following an automobile accident -- he was hit by a drunk driver -- and died in 1967. But her father's lingering memory accompanied her to Cal.

"My mother told me that Cal would find out who I was and that I would never get the job," she said. "Two or three years after I came here, I went to a Bear Backers event and two older gentlemen said, 'Are you going to teach them to swim dirty like your dad?' ''

Then at a Cal-USC football game a few years ago, there was a personal foul against a Trojan, and a man sitting near Teri and her brother shouted out "McKeever!" †The man was informed about the two people sitting in the same section, and held his tongue.

Might there be a connection between swimming and football, or swimming and any sport, when it comes to starting a program? Is there any difference between what Sonny Dykes is going through now on the Cal gridiron than a swimming coach just beginning?

"By no means was the cupboard bare when I got here," said McKeever. "But any time you have a coaching change, the (returning) athletes didn't sign up for you. And I definitely struggled the first two to five years, for swimming is a lifestyle."

A lifestyle like other time-consuming sports in this age of year-round involvement in one athletic endeavor, though the sheer numbers in swimming are smaller than football.

"To win a national title, you need three to four superstars," said McKeever. "But it's that supporting cast that takes you to the next level. There are lots of names people don't know who are as gratifying to me as Natalie and Dana, because I've walked with them on their journey."

When McKeever makes home visits, she talks about recruiting students as well as athletes. This isn't lip service. While swimming at USC, where she was twice an All-American, she was the school's outstanding student-athlete in 1983. And her Cal swimmers, for the past 21 years, earn A's and B's in the classroom -- and in the pool.

"I'm a teacher," she said, "and I feel like the pool is a classroom."

Coughlin has 12 Olympic medals, Vollmer four Olympic golds, and that's just a †sampling of Cal's swimming Olympians, dating back to Ann Curtis' gold at London in 1948. There's no telling what Cal's medal count will look like now with Franklin in school - and in the pool.

Or, more realistically, until McKeever retires.

Dave Newhouse, retired Oakland Tribune columnist, writes occasionally for†bearinsider.com. Read his two e-books, "Before Boxing Lost Its Punch" and the Cal-related novel "White Lightning", on amazon.com†at $5.99 apiece.

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