NCAA All-American sprinter Elise Garcia detailed her experience at Cal, including the mental health challenges she faced under former head coach Teri McKeever, during a recent podcast interview.
Garcia, who swam for four years with the Bears before transferring to USC, shared stories with former LMU basketball players Haley Herdman and Naomi Yim on their Mental Health Training Room podcast.
Garcia started off by saying how swimming at Cal was a longtime dream of hers, and part of the reason she chose the school was because of McKeever’s success. But once she arrived on campus, she struggled with being yelled at every day in training and began suffering panic attacks before practices.
“It didn’t feel like I was being coached — it felt like an attack on me as a person,” Garcia said. “It felt like I was a bad person if I wasn’t swimming fast or wasn’t doing well in training. It became more of a personal thing for me rather than just something that I do, and that was something that I had never experienced before.”
After a rough freshman year, Garcia returned with brighter spirits in hope that her sophomore year would be better. Then a string of unfortunate incidents derailed her second season in Berkeley. First she was bedridden in quarantine for over a week with a bad bout of hand, foot, and mouth disease. Then she sliced her foot open flipping on an old bulkhead at Fresno State, putting her in a boot and keeping her out of the water for another six weeks.
When her foot finally healed, Garcia was stung by a bee at her first practice back, causing her to panic because she was allergic and had never used her EpiPen before. She ended up being wheeled out on a stretcher thinking, “What the hell? This was supposed to be my bounce back year.”
The worst part of her sophomore year wasn’t any of those three setbacks, though — it was something McKeever said to Garcia as she was attempting to recover and get back in shape.
The Bears held a tough training session immediately after a meet at Cal Poly in which they were pushed to the brink. McKeever pulled Garcia aside as she lacked the training background needed to keep up with the rest of the crew.
“What the hell are you doing?” McKeever said. “You don’t look good. Your clothes aren’t fitting right, aren’t they? You’ve gained some weight. You don’t look good walking around deck. You need to figure your sh*t out.”
The personal attack took a toll on Garcia.
“To this day, I carry that comment around, and I think that’s a big reason why I struggled with my appearance and my body,” Garcia said. “Being in a swimsuit for most of my day where I’m walking around deck so vulnerable, that became so difficult for me after that comment. I didn’t realize how it impacted me until it was said to me.”
Following her trip to the emergency room for her bee sting, Garcia went to a doctor’s appointment that changed her life. She underwent her first screening for anxiety and depression, receiving diagnoses for both.
The COVID-19 pandemic proved to be a convenient time for Garcia to reset personally. She returned for her junior season with her focus more on supporting her teammates rather than pleasing McKeever. The new approach paid off as she dropped time for the first time in five years, qualified for her first NCAA Championships, and ended the season as a national champion in the 200-yard freestyle relay.
“Those moments in sport — yes they’re great, but they’re not everything,” Garcia reflected. “I thought it was going to be the point in the sport where I knew I had made it. I thought it was going to erase all the bad memories and all the struggles, and that’s just not true. Life is so much more complicated than that.”
At the end of her senior season, before Garcia transferred to USC, she participated in a meeting with administrators to share worries about McKeever’s coaching behavior. She said the result was disappointing as Cal’s investigation was initiated only after concerned Cal swimmers took their story to the media. McKeever was ultimately fired by the university in January after an eight-month investigation into allegations of bullying and harassment.
“It was kind of disappointing that our conversation with the athletics director and some of the other staff present didn’t really think of it as something that needed to change, just a group of girls that came in to complain,” Garcia said. “That was really disheartening.”
You can listen to the full podcast here.
Related: Former Cal swimmers file lawsuit against UC Regents over Teri McKeever abuse
Unfortunately, abuse of college swimmers seems to be the norm not the exception.
pretty simple. her superstars got treated well and her non-superstars did not. McKeever sucks
I think it’s important to understand the difference between yelling at practice vs yelling and attacking a person. I’ve been on a lot of pool decks where coaches yell. There’s a distinct difference between yelling to get the attention of the swimmer(s) and yelling AT A swimmer and attacking them as a person.
The difference comes down to what is actually being yelled. I’ll admit that it’s almost impossible for me to take “the coach is always yelling at the swimmers” too seriously on it’s own, especially because I’ve seen it used vindictively towards coaches who haven’t engaged in anything approaching abusive behavior.
If the yelling is crossing into the realm of abuse, then there should be an abundance of specific examples, which is the case here.
Are you trying to say McKeever didn’t yell at swimmers?
I agree! There is something about the way a coach yells. It can be degrading. The great coaches yell while somehow maintaining respect for swimmer. 2 of my kids were in D1. The oldest qualified for ncaa his last year. But he was riddled with difficulties – injuries, surprise health issues, as well as CoVid massive overreaction. He qualified for NCAAs but wasn’t even on the scoring team at conference. He has great friends, but coaches were nasty. Younger son had a D1 coach that doesn’t coach and sits in his office playing video games during practice. He put him in events right before his best event – obviously he wasn’t going to do well. Coach wanted to send message… Read more »
Is the scary coach in the room with you now?
Well, she seems hones since she said some swimmers were treated differently than others.
Yeah, the Cal swimmers who lived through this abuse and trauma and who are telling their stories are to be commended.
In the end, Teri was held accountable for her mind games and insults. And it is remarkable that it took some bad stories in newspapers to stop her and get her terminated.
We won’t know if she was really held accountable until her lawsuit against Cal is resolved.
It’s remarkable to me that the media is viewed as last option instead of immediate rescue. When I was at USC John Robinson was nothing but a bs artist but he feared any hint of scrutiny by the Times or Herald Examiner.
The point about how it took them going to the media can’t be stressed enough. As I’ve said before on this topic, the real question everyone in this sport should be asking is, “Why did all of these women feel the need to bypass USA Swimming/Safesport and go to the media?”.
Aside from the international swimmers, these women all grew up swimming in USA Swimming, and yet none of them seemed to have any faith in the organization or Safe Sport to handle this. Pretty damning if you ask me.
Thank you Elise for speaking up. Your voice and your described experience truly help other young athletes recognize coaches who are crossing the line into abuse. Also, Teri often denigrated the swimmers bodies. To me this is disgusting because Cal swimmers are all beautiful, fit, strong athletes. The coach had her own body image issues that she projected onto athletes IMO
Salo with the only downvote.
there’s away to get your point across without also making a comment on the bodies of young athletes. What Teri said and did was wrong, you don’t need to add your own commentary on their bodies.