Supporters of suspended Cal swim coach Teri McKeever write letters on her behalf – Orange County Register
In the summer of 1997, Jill Sterkel retreated to her parent’s California home to recover from the Epstein-Barr virus that had forced her to take a break from her job as head coach of the University of Texas women’s swim team.
“I basically took the summer off from coaching,” Sterkel said in a recent phone interview. “I don’t think I got out of my pajamas.”
By that summer Sterkel had been a fixture in American swimming for more than 20 years: a teenage member of an iconic giant-slaying Team USA relay that had upset a heavily favored East German quartet for the gold medal at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, a member of four U.S. Olympic teams, a two-time national college swimmer of the year at Texas.
Yet it was a lonely summer.
“The one person that reached out to me to see how I was doing was Teri McKeever,” Sterkel said. “I mean I will never forget that. It was like wow, that’s pretty cool. Somebody reaching out, trying to help me. I had a lot of other coaching friends but none of them reached out to me, you know. It’s very isolating.”
A quarter-century later, Sterkel is trying to return the favor to McKeever.
Sterkel, now retired from coaching, is one of 48 people who, according to McKeever’s attorney, have sent letters supporting McKeever to University of California officials as attorneys hired by the school investigate allegations that McKeever has routinely verbally, physically and emotionally abused swimmers throughout her 29-year career at Cal.
McKeever, the only woman to serve as U.S. Olympic swim team head coach, was placed on paid administrative leave by the university on May 25, a day after the publication of a Southern California News Group report in which current and former Golden Bears swimmers alleged that McKeever has bullied athletes on an almost daily basis for parts of four decades, and that Cal athletic director Jim Knowlton and Jennifer Simon-O’Neill, senior executive associate athletic director and the coach’s longtime close friend, and other Berkeley officials ignored or dismissed multiple allegations of the coach’s misconduct.
More than 40 current or former Cal swimmers and divers, 17 parents, a former member of the Golden Bears’ men’s swimming and diving squad, two former coaches, a former Cal administrator and two former Cal athletic department employees have told SCNG that McKeever routinely bullied swimmers, often in deeply personal terms, used embarrassing or traumatic experiences from their past against them, used racial epithets, body-shamed and pressured athletes to compete or train while injured or dealing with chronic illnesses or eating disorders, even accusing some women of lying about their conditions despite being provided medical records confirming their illness or injury. Swimmers and parents also allege McKeever revealed athletes’ medical and personal information in violation of federal and state law and university policies.
But in their letters to Cal officials, McKeever’s supporters portray her as a groundbreaking coach who is the victim of a gender bias and of athletes who don’t want to be held accountable for their shortcomings in and out of the pool.
“It has been so distressing to have my coach, my idol, and a mother figure taken away so quickly and wrongfully targeted by girls I used to call my teammates and friends,” Alicia Wilson, a current Cal swimmer and Olympic Games finalist for Great Britain, wrote to Knowlton.
Wilson’s letter was one of 17 provided to SCNG by Thomas Newkirk, McKeever’s attorney.
The letters are part of a campaign coordinated by Newkirk to show support for McKeever. Among those sending letters are former Cal swimmers, including Olympic medalists, ex-college coaches, parents of former Golden Bears, a college teammate of McKeever’s at USC, and members of the swimming community she has encountered during a career in which she has guided Cal to four NCAA team championships.
“Having known Coach McKeever for so long, I truly believe there is far more information that needs to be uncovered with regard to the allegations made against her,” said Robin Fiene Anderson, a college teammate of McKeever’s at USC. “Unfortunately, this will probably unveil a history of aforementioned problems of athletes who have never been held responsible for their choices, nor been confronted to show proof of why they claim they cannot fulfill their personal responsibilities associated with the stipulations of maintaining their scholarship and team status.”
While 15 of the 17 letters provided to the SCNG are addressed to Knowlton and the letters’ authors said they believed they were writing to Knowlton, Newkirk said he sent the letters to the university’s counsel.
“Whether Jim got them after that I have no idea,” Newkirk said.
McKeever’s supporters said they have not heard from Knowlton or anyone else from the university.
Cal assistant vice chancellor Dan Mogulof said Knowlton has not received any such letters.
“I can also convey that the Athletic Director always acknowledges every message, email, or letter that is sent to him,” Mogulof added.
Mogulof said the university has “no comment regarding information or correspondence sent to our legal counsel office.”
The letters supporting McKeever come against the backdrop of an August letter to Berkeley chancellor Carol Christ and the UC system’s board of regents in which 27 Cal swimmers, including an Olympic and World Championships gold medalist, and 21 parents of swimmers wrote that “widespread university leadership” since the 1990s “has failed to take action” on repeated and credible allegations that Golden Bears women’s team head coach Teri McKeever has bullied and abused athletes.
With that letter and yet another letter from Cal swimmers from the first decade of McKeever’s career in Berkeley more than 60 former Golden Bears swimmers from the 1990s to this decade, representing the entirety of McKeever’s career in Berkeley, have complained to Berkeley officials about McKeever’s alleged bullying and criticized Cal’s handling of those allegations, SCNG has confirmed.
The supporters write about what they refer to as McKeever’s innovative coaching methods, her support of them as athletes or coaches, and in some cases how she continues to impact their lives years after they last swam for Cal. A swimmer from the late 90s recounted in a letter addressed to Knowlton that she “had to have a hard conversation with Teri about an unplanned pregnancy and subsequent abortion.”
“Teri listened to me,” the woman wrote, “asked me what I needed and how she could support me, and let me know that there was at least one other woman on the team that had gone through the same thing and could be a valuable resource if I felt as though I needed it.”
Newkirk asserted that the letters undercut the allegations against McKeever and expose what he and the coach’s supporters have characterized as a pampered generation of female college athletes and a double standard in how female and male coaches are viewed and judged.
“It is a trend for a handful of disgruntled student-athletes to complain about a coach and accuse the culture of being toxic, when in reality, the other 90% are perfectly happy,” former Purdue head coach Cathy Wright-Eger wrote in a letter addressed to Knowlton. “ Unfortunately, the small handful, along with their parents and unprofessional reporters are being louder and ruining the careers of many coaches. It is happening every day in collegiate athletics and I would be devastated to see this happen to Teri McKeever.”
But none of the letters Newkirk provided the SCNG contradict the allegations against McKeever or even address the specifics of them.
Sterkel in her letter addressed to Knowlton referred to SCNG’s reporting and the university financed investigation of McKeever as a “witch hunt.” But she acknowledged in an interview that she has not spoken to any of the swimmers making the allegations or was aware of specific incidents.
“I feel awful for both sides. I didn’t really read them in depth,” Sterkel said in the interview, referring to the SCNG reports. “I know there’s been some disgruntled athletes feeling that maybe things didn’t go their way. And I feel like you can’t tell people that the feelings that they have are wrong because feelings are feelings. The way I look at it and I probably look at it from a higher view is that you know it’s a balancing act with everything. You’ve got a lot of different personalities on your team. You as a coach have been asked to get every drop that you can get out of each kid. It’s a Division I athletic and academic program. So you know there’s a lot of stress. I feel like when I heard and read a little about what’s going on, it’s just like, you know there’s a lot of people who feel like, probably feel the same way at a lot of programs. I try to balance everything.
“Teri is a wonderful person but I think people who know Teri know she’s not, and I don’t want this to sound bad, but she’s not warm and fuzzy. She’s kind of a rock, which isn’t bad. That’s just her personality. A lot of times swimmers are looking for things that maybe coaches can’t give them because that’s not the kind of coach they are. And I think one of the reasons the recruiting process is important is that you could try and wade through some of that, figure out is this where I belong? And this is not disrespecting any of the people who are on the other side of this issue. I would venture to guess (that) on any swim team in the country including all the teams headed by male head swim coaches, you’re going to find a sampling of the same thing.
“… I haven’t really followed everything with this because I’ve pulled myself way out of swimming. I’m like a foreigner almost.”
In the letters provided to the SCNG, no one was more forceful in their defense of McKeever than former Princeton head coach Susan Teeter, another longtime friend of McKeever’s and a staff member for two U.S. Olympic teams.
Teeter, in her letter addressed to Knowlton, also presented the Cal coach as a victim of vengeful swimmers and jealous male colleagues within swimming and the media.
“As a women’s coach, I have seen years of immature athletes who take on the role of “mean girls” and become toxic and hateful, which is what I believe you have on your hands right now,” said Teeter, who coached at the NCAA Division I level for 45 years, 33 at Princeton before retiring in 2017.
“This generation of athletes seems to think if they don’t get their way, they will create a way to deal with whoever stands in their way. Not only athletes, but many of our male colleagues who are jealous about Teri’s success and ability to coach women to the Olympics, when they, as coaches, can’t seem to get the job done. integrity. I don’t know what this reporter and this group of ‘mean girls’ have on their agenda or why they want to tear Teri’s reputation down, but it is mob mentality at its best. Teri McKeever is no monster. There is not a coach in any sport, male or female, that hasn’t uttered a word or words they wish they could reframe, but nothing like what these women are accusing Teri of saying. Might she have said something in a private meeting once, yes, but on a daily basis and as a bullying mantra, I would bet my house and reputation on the answer being no.
“ … Being in the position you are in as Athletic Director at Cal, and in previous positions, I’m sure you’re aware of the things people have said about you. You only have to lose 1 football game at Cal for people to want you to get fired. This is the same shameful behavior we’re watching these women take on Teri. I have never seen any of the behavior they claim and would never be friends or colleagues with anyone who acted that way. I hope you can see through these young women’s accusations. They have ruined Teri’s reputation and broken her heart. Teri has been nothing but a loyal and outstanding representative of Cal. I hope that Cal will not only stand by her, but restore the reputation these women and this reporter have taken from her.”
But Teeter in a telephone interview also admitted, “so I don’t know what kind of complaints you have and I don’t know who they are except for the ones who have been printed in your articles. I know some of the context in some of the situations that you wrote about but I wasn’t there and I don’t know the whole context.”
Newkirk and McKeever’s supporters maintain she is not only the victim of gender bias with the double standard in which female coaches are judged compared to their male colleagues and how female athletes socialized from a young age to react to coaching and to report stress, injuries and frustration differently than male athletes.
Newkirk said Knowlton and Cal chancellor Carol T. Christ, Simon-O’Neill and other top university officials were not only aware of McKeever’s coaching methods but have rewarded her.
Cal gave McKeever a two-year contract extension in January 2020. The contract expires on April 30, 2024. The contract has an annual base salary of $242,000 and includes an additional $55,000 in potential bonuses.
“I absolutely subscribe to that,” Sterkel said of Newkirk’s gender bias argument. “I was a female coach for a long time. I got the crap beat out of me too. People just talking because I was a female. Assumptions that were made that were completely false, And it’s hard, it’s hard. You’re out there completely by yourself. You’re almost on an island.”
Sterkel said she gained an even greater understanding of implicit bias when she became the mother of a Black son.
“I’m a white female raising an African American son and I had no clue of what racial bias was, implicit bias until I started raising my son,” Sterkel said in an interview. “And then it hit me smack dab in the face and it was like holy cow. And I think I felt that in coaching as well, being a female coach, you’re, I feel like the lens that people look at you is different than the lens they look at male coaches through. And I don’t think it’s right but I think that’s sort of what’s out there. You yell at a kid or talk to a kid harshly and you’re a bitch. A male coach does that and he’s coaching. That’s how you coach. So I try to keep that balance and yet I understand the other part of it.
“I don’t want to dismiss how people feel. Because I don’t think that’s right either. I think one of the things we get ourselves in trouble with in society today is this …. if I’m right, you’re wrong.
“I know it sounds like a pile of crap. I get it. You don’t know until you experience it, it’s really hard. I was trying to give you an example of raising my son and the different things I’ve seen and felt and like just in disbelief a little bit. Because you hear about it but until you feel it and you see it happening I think it’s hard for people to understand. They just feel like it’s a cop out, ‘yeah, right.’”
Teeter said she also routinely encountered gender bias.
“I’ve experienced it and there’s not a female colleague that I know that hasn’t experienced it, gender bias comments, like, well you know she’s just an aggressive bitch,” Teeter said. “I’ve been called a bitch by so many men in this sport that it’s difficult not to think that you are one at some points,
“So I think the hard part is without a doubt there’s gender bias. It’s shocking the things that get said to us. Recruits will say, ‘Well I’m not sure I can swim for a woman and you’re like, ‘I’m sorry aren’t you a woman?’ And they’ll be like ‘Yeah, but I don’t know if I can swim for one.’ So I’m, ‘Do you plan on having a job when you graduate?’ ‘Well of course I’m going to have a job.’ ‘And what would you think if the people who work for you say, ‘Oh, I can’t work for you because you’re a woman?’ And they’re like, ‘Oh.’
“The kids don’t even realize what they’re saying sometimes when they’re doing it.
“One of the lawyers asked me the question, ‘What’s the difference between a coach saying that was a piece of (expletive) effort and you’re a piece of (expletive). I said, ‘Oh, that’s easy. A guy hears the first one and the woman hears the second one. My point is if you say that was a piece of (expletive) effort, a lot of women, Okay, a lot of women will hear I’m a piece of (expletive). That’s how they interpret it. That’s almost a given.”
The letters also echo a conspiracy theory pushed by some McKeever supporters that Cal men’s head coach Dave Durden, the 2020 U.S. men’s Olympic team head coach, has had designs on McKeever’s job for years and is somehow behind the controversy.
Cal in August named Durden the acting director of swimming and diving, placing both the men’s and women’s programs under his leadership.
“I am glad you are doing a thorough review of the program,” Mike Stromberg, a Colorado Springs swim coach, wrote in a letter to Knowlton. “I also think you should the same thorough review of the men’s program too.”
Cal declined to make Durden available for comment.
“For the record,” Mogulof said in an email, “Jim Knowlton asked Dave Durden to become our Acting Director of Swimming & Diving, and he is grateful that Coach Durden accepted his offer to oversee both our men’s and women’s program on an acting basis.”
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