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Water Dance

September 18, 2009
by Eric Simons
Teri McKeever

Cal swimming coach Teri McKeever favors balance and body movement over traditional long distance training.

At the beginning of the 2006–07 collegiate swim season, cal Women’s swimming coach Teri McKeever, and the team’s gym trainer, Devin Wicks, met to discuss out-of-the-pool training for the upcoming year. McKeever’s traditional training routine of yoga and Pilates, even though it was still seen as typical Berkeley eccentricity by many swim coaches, was growing stale. The swimmers were getting tired of it. The coach was worried.

“But,” McKeever said, “we really want to work on balance and body movement and coordination.”

“Yeah,” Wicks said, “that’s just like dance.”

“Well,” McKeever said, thinking it over, “why can’t we dance? Why can’t we dance for like 45 minutes a day?”

So that’s what they did. The swimmers danced a few days a week—“this whole hip-hop dance and stuff,” is how McKeever describes it—and kept it up all the way through their school-record third place team finish at the 2007 college national championships. (And then, just for good measure, they danced at McKeever’s wedding a month after the championship meet.)

It’s a plan of action that probably wouldn’t occur to most high-level college swim coaches (most of whom happen to be men), and a reason why Teri McKeever is considered an innovator in a sport that tends overwhelmingly toward stolid, tried’n-true yardage-based training. It’s also probably what makes her so successful. McKeever’s accomplishments to date: First woman coach on the U.S. Olympic Swimming team. First woman to be named head coach of the national team at a major international meet (the 2006 Pan Pacific meet in British Columbia). Eleven straight top-ten team finishes by Cal swimmers at the NCAA championships.

“You can’t mess with the results,” says former Cal assistant Whitney Hite, who’s now the head coach at the University of Washington. “Teri’s ways work.”

McKeever also is known as a coach who turns previously unnoticed swimmers into major talents, and talented-but-burned-out swimmers into Olympians and world champions. Current and former pupils include Olympians Dana Vollmer, Jessica Hardy, Haley Cope, Staciana Stitts—and Natalie Coughlin, who credits McKeever with resurrecting Coughlin’s swimming career and helping her to win five medals, including two golds, at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

“Obviously,” says Coughlin, who three years after graduating and going pro still trains with McKeever at the campus pool, “she’s been a big part of my career.”

Tall, lean, and tanned, 45-year-old Teri McKeever strides the pool deck imperiously, ash-blond curls tucked into a faded Cal baseball cap, stopwatch cords dangling from the pockets of her blue sweatpants. One hand clutches the first of her three breakfast Diet Pepsis. (“It’s like coffee,” she says. “Just cold.”) It’s a fairly typical 6 a.m. practice at Spieker Aquatics Complex, except there’s no fog, so the rising sun is lighting up the church across the street and the top of the eight-story Unit 3 dorms. Fifteen swim-capped heads lining the shaded north edge of the pool are turned in the direction of the coach as the swimmers rest between sets.

This is McKeever’s laboratory, where dance class meets praxis. Here “Teri’s ways” come to life in a blend of specific commands to move body part A to spot B, with other general orders to “take care of the water” and “wait for the water” and “breathe more life into your body.”

“Feeling the water” is key to a swimmer’s success. Those who have some natural comfort with moving in a fluid environment—like Coughlin, who’s often described as a “physical genius”—usually succeed. Those who don’t have that ability need to learn some approximation of it (or take up something land-based). Awareness in the water is teachable, at least, which is where dance classes help. Turns out if you’ve got better balance and body awareness on land, you can take it into the pool with you.

“I always tell the girls, if you’re going to get in a fight with the water, guess who’s going to win,” McKeever says. “Being a good swimmer is being one with the water.”

McKeever’s poolside instructions are delivered confidently and smoothly, in a deep voice that’s perfect for jokes and sarcasm (catching swimmer Erin Reilly yawning in the pool: “Are we keeping you up there, Erin?”), and invariably accompanied by the McKeever sign-off, a rising, request-for-confirmation-but-not-quitea- question “OK?” As in: “You’re going to do the vertical strokes, OK?” (Swimmers treading water, nodding.) “Come up, somersault, OK?” (More treading, more nodding.) “Build into a race-quality finish. Go on the top. OK?” (Nodding, followed by splashing.)

McKeever was an All-American swimmer at USC, so she understands the physical part of the sport. But her coaching strategy involves much more translation and teaching than “do-as-Idid” bluster. It’s a skill and a way of coaching that she learned early on.

When McKeever was four, a drunk driver smashed into her father’s car as he drove home from work. Mike McKeever went into a coma and died nearly two years later, leaving his wife, Judy Primrose, and three children. Primrose, a former youth swimming champion, remarried and had seven more kids. As the oldest, Teri became a second mother to her siblings. In her limited free time, she swam in the backyard pool. Because she didn’t have time to do endless swims, it was critical when she had her mom’s attention to go at race speed and to work on technique—body posture, starts, turns, and breaths.

Now McKeever is known as a coach who mothers her swimmers, who coaches them on their personal lives, and who focuses on happiness outside the pool, and technique and perfection in it. She allows all her swimmers a day off in the middle of the week and forces them to get out and surf or explore San Francisco. She doesn’t demand 10,000 meters a day, as many coaches do, and she makes workouts more interesting by mixing them with things like dance classes, spin classes, yoga, and Pilates.

But when her swimmers are in the pool, McKeever expects them to go hard and go flawlessly. “It’s amazing how the fundamentals of how you do it are kind of ignored over how much did you do it,” she says.

Renowned Australia-based swim coach Milt Nelms, who tutors swimmers internationally on the finer points of stroke technique, says that McKeever’s swimmers work just as hard as swimmers going much farther, because they actually have to think about what they’re doing. “They work harder because they have to be engaged to do this stuff,” he says, sitting on the bleachers at the Berkeley Aquatics Center after watching the team work out. “If you’re engaged, you’re into what you’re doing and getting better, not thinking about your little lunch break between laps.”

Nelms works with the Cal swimmers when he gets a chance, but not with any other collegiate programs—because, he says, there are so few coaches with McKeever’s teaching ability. Shaking his head at what he calls a “training culture” that cares only for how far you swim, Nelms says McKeever stands out for her willingness to consider what she’s teaching and why she’s teaching it.

“In the world of swimming,” Nelms says, “Teri is a bright spot.”

Dana Vollmer looks healthy, which is saying something. Reclining on an aluminum bleacher bench in blue Cal sweats and a white T-shirt, watching recreational swimmers thrashing in the pool where she’s just worked out, the 19-year-old swimmer says she’s happy with her surroundings, her workout, her life, and most especially, her swim coach.

An Olympic gold medalist at 16, Vollmer was heavily recruited out of high school in Granbury, Texas, and ultimately chose the University of Florida, thinking the Gators’ famous heavy yardage-based workout routine would be good for her. Instead, she got injured. The distance and repetition aggravated a back injury and re-awakened a shoulder problem, and by year’s end she was out of sorts, frustrated and unhappy.

Remembering McKeever’s reputation as a healer—established with Coughlin, who came to Cal from her Concord-area high school burned out by a lingering shoulder injury and traditional workouts—Vollmer chose to transfer to Berkeley in May 2006. Ten months later, she finished with a meet record at the NCAA Championships and swam on three Americanrecord- setting relay teams. At the World Championships in Melbourne in March of this year, Vollmer teamed with Coughlin and two other swimmers to set a world record in the 800- meter freestyle relay.

McKeever’s focus on mixed training and perfect technique over distance has saved Vollmer’s back, she says, and restored her passion for swimming.

“This is why I love it here,” she says. “Last year, I had this thing in my stroke, it just felt off. I asked Teri, and she said, ‘Ah, you’re doing this’”—Vollmer stops and leans forward, popping out her back—“‘Try this.’” She leans backward, elongates her neck, and concludes, “And it worked. They never would have said that at Florida. They would have said, ‘OK, go back, do some more yardage.’”

McKeever insists repeatedly that she doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with the way swimmers train at Florida or anywhere else. It’s just, she says, that some swimmers fit with her personality, and some don’t. Vollmer happens to be a good fit.

“I think that if a Dana Vollmer is at Florida, and she’s floundering, and she can go somewhere else and blossom, then isn’t that what being a coach is, too?” McKeever says. “That’s being an educator, that’s finding a way to inspire, and it doesn’t make Florida wrong. It just says that for this young lady, her physical limitations, her personality, this is a better fit.”

One thing that marks McKeever’s recruiting of young swimmers is her ability to predict the good fits. Although superior talents such as Coughlin and Vollmer are highly prized, McKeever recruits by considering how a prospective swimmer will fit in at Cal as an athlete, a student, and a person. She pitches them the academic excellence and cultural diversity of the campus, and tells them her goal is to win an NCAA Championship and have students with the highest GPAs in the country. She wants the type of person, she says, who is “attracted to a campus that challenges you academically and forces you to be your best, day in and day out, to be successful.”

“She recruits the person, then teaches them how to be a performing athlete,” says Nelms, the Australian swim coach.

The evidence, he says, is in McKeever’s Cal relay teams, which at the last NCAA Championship meet set American records in the 400-yard medley, 400-yard freestyle, and 800-yard freestyle relays. Although national teams don’t often swim those events (international meet races are measured in meters, not yards), it’s still impressive. To take a crack at those records, USA Swimming coaches can in theory pick from the entire pool of women swimmers in the country—professional, college, and high school. McKeever selected four women from her 22-member Cal team, and then watched the records fall.

“The consistency of having a successful program, that speaks to a system or an organization where success is possible, not just sort of blips on the radar,” McKeever says. “Obviously, Natalie is a huge blip on the radar, and so’s Dana, but there are a lot of people who have done really extraordinary things here and no one will ever know. Things that are as extraordinary as breaking a world record and winning a gold medal. And that brings me as much joy as seeing Natalie up there.”

For a Cal fan, though, the best part of this story is that Teri McKeever is still around. In April 2006, after she’d just wrapped up her 14th year at Berkeley, McKeever was offered the head coaching job at USC—her alma mater, and the place where her father and his twin brother were All-America football players, the first place she ever had a job coaching swimming. And after thinking it over, McKeever turned the job down and decided to stay at Cal.

“I love … this campus and university, what I perceive the message to be,” McKeever says. “I love the fact that there are women on my team who never would have come in contact with each other unless they swam. I think that is reflective—that someone has this interest and someone [else] has these interests, swimming brought them here but they both … love Cal.”

In that sense, McKeever parallels women’s basketball coach Joanne Boyle, who turned down a similarly appealing offer earlier this year to coach at Duke, her alma mater. It’s just a sign of how evolved both are, says Michael Silver, an alum and former senior writer for Sports Illustrated, who spent two years following Coughlin and McKeever for his 2006 book Golden Girl.

“What Teri and Joanne have in common, they’re so down with the Cal mission, so in love with this place, that each of them sort of turned down this dream job at their alma mater against all logic,” Silver says, before concluding triumphantly, “which makes me think they’re as sick as we are and will stay forever.”

“Forever” may not be exactly right—in Silver’s book, McKeever is asked if she’d stay permanently at Cal and responds with an emphatic “hell, no.” (Spoiler alert: the question is posed by a stranger who goes on to become McKeever’s husband.) But for a mothering swim coach, it’s never easy to give up your kids.

“If you would have told me that being the oldest of 10, I was never going to have a family, never in a million years would that happen,” McKeever says. “What I’ve come to terms with now, my family looks different than I ever thought it was, but they are my family in a different way. And I have children, and I am parenting, it’s just different.”

Different—kind of like a swim team dancing hip-hop to stay in shape. So when the 2007–08 season starts this fall, McKeever’s family will be back in the dance studio, celebrating that difference.

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