Golden Girl

by Micheal Silver, Rodale Inc., Emmaus PA 2006

Golden Girl is the remarkable story of Natalie Coughlin, a two-time Olympic Gold Medal winner in swimming, and her coach Terri McKeever. Together the two, star and coach, have defied long-standing training methods, forcing the swimming community to rethink the ways in which it treats its talent.

Golden Girl deals with issues that are just as valid in the Judo community as they are in the swimming community: youth development, burnout, the battle between traditionalists and modernists, NGB politics, welfare of the athletes, and thinking outside the box.


Judy might not have realized it then, but she was creating the basis for a philosophy that would guide her daughter to an impressive stint as a competitive swimmer and revolutionary career as a coach. At the very least, growing up in an environment that necessitated quality over quantity would later compel Coach McKeever to ask questions that most of her peers dared not broach: Why do we make them swim so much more than their race distances, over and over again, in practice? If you’re more efficient in the water, doesn’t that also enable you to retain more energy for when you need it most?

“Exercise physiologists and academics think swim coaches are the goofiest people in the world,” Salo says. “They’d say, “If you’re only doing an event that lasts 2 minutes, and you’re essentially doing a marathon’s worth of training every day- why would you do that?” I didn’t have an answer.”

It began to dawn on McKeever that she had come up with a formula for getting less polished swimmers to overachieve, just as many of her peers struggled with the opposite problem- their onetime star recruits would lose motivation, level off, and then quit or slip precipitously. She was onto something big; the problem was, she lacked the confidence to implement her system as comprehensively as her instincts told her to. With Mike Walker [her assistant coach] doing his best to convince her she was little more than a glorified administrator, McKeever doubted her teaching ability even as she saw evidence to the contrary.

Put all this together and you have what might be termed the McKeever Model, an approach to coaching competitive swimmers that even the most charitable of her peers would deem highly unconventional. Yet to [Natalie] Coughlin, who has experienced both extremes, McKeever’s teachings made perfect sense- it was the Ray Mitchells of the world who espoused a philosophy that belonged out on the fringe. “The swimming mentality is so stupid,” Coughlin says. “So many people are so worried about yardage- who trains harder than who- and they mindlessly go back and forth and beat themselves into the ground. People will say, ‘I swam so-and-so yards today.’ Big freakin’ deal! It’s so frustrating, because so much of the swimming community is focused on yardage, yet that’s just one piece of a big puzzle. A lot of coaches are arrogant and won’t step outside the box. There are very, very few coaches willing to look at it from a different perspective.

As Coughlin made her push for Athens, it became clear that striking Olympic gold wasn’t merely a quest for personal glory. She felt she’d also be striking a chord for change- making a statement about the pathology of the predominant swimming culture and sending a message that an alternative approach such as McKeever’s could be successful on the grandest of stages. That meant a great deal to Coughlin, who resented the unquestioned tenets of the culture and the way in which dissenters were marginalized.

The result is that coaches, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, are deeply resistant to change. When Salo’s race-pace ideas began translating into tangible success- in the form of prominent swimmers like Amanda Beard, Aaron Piersol, Jason Lezak, Gabrielle Rose, and Colleen Lanne- it’s amazing how few of his peers grasped the significance. “You would have thought he’d have created a revolution in swimming,” Nelms says, “but he hasn’t. Partly that’s because he won’t talk about what he does. But it’s also because people aren’t open to changing the paradigm. Any science that flies in the face of the culture is rejected.”

As with any sport, says Nelms, “the culture is conservative. There tends to be this incestuous thing- athletes become coaches, who turn out the next wave of athletes, and everybody protects one another’s interests…People are scared by any new way of thinking, and every shift comes from within the swimming culture and will reflect the aberrations and distortions within that culture.”

But if the methodology of training Michael Phelps is what made him great, well, he isn’t training alone. There are 30 other people in his training group. Where are the other multiple gold medalists and world record holders?

“Swimming is such a wholesome activity, and it breeds so many driven, successful people,” McKeever had noted in March. “But instead of selling that, USA Swimming touts Michael Phelps for not having missed a workout for 3 straight years- and that we’re all up at 5 in the morning. It’s like they make the sport intentionally boring and wear it as a badge of honor.”

Ideally, Coughlin and McKeever hope their past and future successes might lead to change- not so much a desire that everyone would adopt their ideas but that other swimmers and coaches would at least become more open to considering them. This can only happen, of course, if Coughlin continues to share her experiences and speak out about an approach that helped her rise from the teenage swimming scrap to the top of her sport.

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