Female coaches of athletes at the Olympic Games are a rarity. Among recent female coaches with the deepest resume is Cal women’s team head coach Teri McKeever, who has coached, among others, Abbey Weitzeil, Natalie Coughlin, Dana Vollmer, Missy Franklin, Liz Pelton, Caitlin Leverenz, and Isabel Ivey.
In total, 26 McKeever athletes have won 36 Olympic medals.
But for the longest time, she’s been a rare female voice in these echelons of swimming.
Thanks to efforts from many corners of swimming, that is beginning to change. Evidence of that was on display this week in Tokyo. The primary coaches of both Adam Peaty and Lydia Jacoby, the Olympic gold medalists in the men’s and women’s 100 breaststrokes, respectively, are both females.
What makes the story really great is that the two coaches have wildly different backgrounds.
Peaty’s coach Mel Marshall is an incredibly-accomplished swimmer in her own right. She swam on the British teams at the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games, won 3 World Championship medals and a European Championship gold as part of British relays, and was the 2003 European Champion in the 200 free in short course.
Jacoby, meanwhile, lists the Seward Tsunamis co-head coach Meghan O’Leary as her coach-of-record.
O’Leary and Solomon D’Amico share co-head coaching duties with the team, where O’Leary focuses on technique and D’Amico focuses on strength.
O’Leary was a swimmer herself, but not one with the reputation of Marshall. She swam collegiately at Division II Alaska-Fairbanks, where she was a two-year team captain, finishing 28th at the PCSC Championships as a senior in the 500 free.
She’s not even the most famous Meghan O’Leary contributing to Team USA – she shares a name with a two-time Olympic rower who is competing this week in women’s quads rowing.
One thing that both Marshall and O’Leary do have in common, though, is that they both had to bootstrap their star swimmers. While many of the top coaches, especially in the United States, inherit big name swimmers and ‘polish them off’ for Olympic medals. But both Marshall and O’Leary have now built their way to the top of the podium, along with their superstar swimmers.
Marshall began coaching Peaty at age 12 at the City of Derby Swimming Club before the pair moved to join the Loughborough National Training Center together.
Marshall has now permeated the highest level of British coaching, even being involved in a program to mentor young female coaches from other sports.
O’Leary, meanwhile, grew up swimming for the Tsunamis and returned to the club after her collegiate swimming career. She has been the high school coach for Jacoby for all three of her seasons, so far, with Seward High School.
Jacoby is committed to swim at the University of Texas beginning in the fall of 2022, a program that is currently led by a female head coach Carol Capitani.
To bring the narrative full circle, Jacoby worked primarily with McKeever, who is a member of the U.S. Olympic staff this year, during the team’s pre-meet camps in Hawaii and Japan. With only one 50-meter pool in the whole state of Alaska, more than 100 miles away in Anchorage, the camp was an opportunity for Jacoby to fully immerse in long course training for the first time in her life.
The cries in retort to questions of gender equality are so often “just hire the best coach, regardless of gender,” but so often, those subjective judgements of “best” are flawed arguments. Historically, athletics directors and swim clubs aren’t really that good at picking the “best” coach, so the criteria is already undermined.
That female coaches of Olympic gold medals can come from such wildly different personal backgrounds further shows that maybe we don’t really understand what makes the best coaches just yet. In some cases, the ‘best coaches’ are really just the individuals who have been given the right opportunity to connect with the right athletes to prove just how good they are.
And yet – we still don’t see that many opportunities for female coaches at the highest levels of swimming. Most top NCAA programs still just have a single female on staff, and as the Tucker Center has shown – that is rarely in the head coaching position.
But the new generation of coaches are bullying their way into the conversation, even if most of them have to do so by starting from scratch and digging out their own diamonds.
While the success of coaching a swimmer to Olympic gold is an incredible experience that all coaches can learn from, we’ve learned this week that it’s not the only criteria. Men’s 200 free winner Thomas Dean is coached by Dave McNulty, who has never coached an Olympic gold medalist before (though he’s trained several other Olympic medalists). Men’s 400 free winner Ahmed Hafnaoui is coached by 30-year old Jobrane Touili, a Tunisian coach who was once of his country’s best swimmers but who hasn’t coached anybody you’ve heard of.
The faces in the proverbial room are changing, and those different faces are challenging old ideas and shifting paradigms of the sport. That can only be a positive thing for the future of our swimming.