Quoted: “Sports gave me the first place where this awkward girl could feel comfortable…”

In 2012, Teri McKeever became the first woman to serve as head coach to the USA women’s Olympic swimming team; she also delivered one of the most powerful quotes of any Games to date. During the past 27 years McKeever has delivered relentless success, helping propel 26 Olympians to 36 Olympic medals; but for the 56-year-old, it has really only ever been about one thing: the personal development of her athletes.

“I think sports gave me the first place where this awkward girl could feel comfortable in my own skin. I think that's true for a lot of women. Sport gives you a part of your life where you can work at something, and you look in the mirror and you like that person.”

So said coach McKeever at the London 2012 Olympic Games. It is a compelling maxim that has served as the bedrock of her extraordinary career.

“I definitely remember being that awkward little girl,” McKeever told olympic.org. “I feel moments of that even now. I was very quiet and shy (at school) and didn’t want attention. I had feelings of not feeling good enough. And swimming gave me a place where I could feel better about myself, and some of that could then show up at school.”

It is a set-up that, in varying degrees, McKeever has attempted to replicate for all of the many hundreds of young swimmers to have passed through her care. From helping five-time Olympic champion Dana Vollmer to taking on the newest of recruits in her day job as head coach of the University of California women’s team, McKeever maintains a perspective that chimes with the truest of Olympic ideals.

“It is about listening to them; it’s doing things outside of the pool; it’s using sports to prepare them,” McKeever said of her philosophy. “I like bringing to their attention the concept that, ‘Hey, I swam for 10 years and I got medals but really what I got from it is going to make the next 50-60 years better and more fulfilling’.”

From working in her college pool to patrolling the corridors in London 2012’s Olympic Village, McKeever has focused relentlessly on developing her charges’ emotional intelligence. It is something that she feels has become ever more relevant, particularly for women, as society continues to evolve.

“It is getting harder to coach; people take feedback so personally rather than as information,” she said. “They can’t take things that are uncomfortable and use them as the springboard to getting better. Their obsession is with comparing themselves to others. Now there is a lot more tendency to spend valuable emotional energy on that rather than just staying in your own lane and being the best version of you.”

Again and again, McKeever returns to this theme of knowing and liking yourself. It is to her intense, if modestly expressed, pride that this prized ethos shone through, even on the biggest stage of them all.

“I think it was the 4x200m free (style relay, at the London 2012 Games). I went to the press conference and I was sitting at the back, and the girls were talking about how fun the trip had been and how they felt so confident; and I had this feeling wash over that, ‘Wow, I helped create that’,” McKeever recalled. 

“I didn’t do it all by myself by any means, but I helped create this environment where they were performing because they were just enjoying themselves and feeling empowered. And that brings out the best in all of us, regardless. When you are brushing your teeth in the morning and you see that person in the mirror and you are like, ‘Damn, I kind of like her and I am proud of her’, that is when the good stuff happens.”

It certainly worked for the USA women’s swimming team in London in 2012. McKeever oversaw a haul of eight gold, four silver and three bronze medals. It has also proved remarkably successful at collegiate level in the USA. Under McKeever’s watch, the University of California has won four highly prestigious NCAA championship titles, and has very rarely finished off the season-ending podium.

The Californian might have been helping young women make the most of themselves for almost three decades already, but she is showing no desire to slow down. Aside from the day job, McKeever served as one of the assistant USA team coaches during August’s Pan-Pacific Championships, held in Tokyo in August. And she has her eye on a return to the city in 2020.

“The way I look at it, this is the best teaching job in the world. Instead of every hour getting another 25 students, I get 25 people to work four-to-ten years with at a very impressionable time in their life,” McKeever said, before adding, “I believe now, more than ever, certainly in the USA, that people that are involved in athletics have a skillset that is just not being taught at school.”