The most qualified women’s swimming coach in the world wasn’t in Rio for the Olympics. Instead she was somewhere far away, probably watching on the television like a common fan. While Women’s head coach David Marsh helmed the United States women to an excellent performance. McKeever’s absence was conspicuous.
Teri McKeever had coached American swimmers to multiple medals in the last three Olympics. Her absence did little to alter the perception that the swim coaching ranks is still an “old boys club”. The combined Olympic coaching staff was entirely men. The recently released “National Team Coaches” list has three women out of sixty one total names.
Much has been made about the progress in women’s athletics in the forty years since the passage of Title IX. There is no question that women and girls have been participating in swimming in even greater numbers than men for quite some time. This 2014 demographics report listed roughly 55,000 more female members than male in USA Swimming.
That participation has bolstered great performance at the Olympic level. The American women’s swimmers would have won the medal table even if the men had come up with nothing.
When you turn to the coaching ranks, there is nowhere near the same level of participation. McKeever remains the first and only woman selected as head coach of an Olympic team. Women coaching women’s Division 1 programs are rarer than men, and women coaching men are even rarer.
In the ACC, there is just one female head coach of a men’s team, Courtney Hart at Georgia Tech. The SEC has no women head coaches at all. The PAC-12 has McKeever (Women) and Cyndi Gallagher (UCLA Women) and the freshly hired Jennifer Buffin at Oregon St (Women).
In club coaching ranks, female head coaches are just as far and few between, and it’s a problem that goes way beyond US borders. In Denmark, where I’ve lived the last three years, there have been as few as one female head coach out of 50+ full time swimming head coaches in the entire country.
There have been token efforts to address the issue in college athletic departments. It is an unwritten rule that a male head coach who presides over a women’s or combined team must have at least one female coach on his staff. For an alarming number of programs, that is exactly what happens.
This can also cause plenty of harm to female coaches. For one, they are aware that they can be perceived as getting their job because of their gender, and not their ability. I have also had female coaches tell me many times of various programs they actively avoid applying to despite qualifications because of their reputation for being a bad environment for women to work in.
All too frequent female coaches can be judged as harsh or overbearing for leadership qualities that are admired in male coaches. In this space and others I’ve seen McKeever subject to a whisper campaign, while male coaches who have actually done something unethical are defended.
Another unwritten rule of coaching hires is that more often than not hiring is not done through official channels. There’s the official job posting, of course, but more often than not coaches hire someone they already know or are “connected to”. Women coaches can often feel left out of informal chatter that takes place at meets or conferences, the places where such relationships start.
But perhaps the most troubling fact is that women’s participation in college coaching is getting worse, not improving. The sport suffers every day without a huge pool of talented, amazing coaches because of this inequality. It’s beyond time for the male coaches who hold so much power in the sport to get interested.
Chris DeSantis is a personal swim coach and consultant. He has an advanced degree in research backed methods for mental preparation. Like his facebook page and email him at [email protected] to book a consultation.