Teri McKeever was a high-achiever from the start. She competed at the U.S. Olympic swim trials at 14, was the first girl voted student body president at San Pasqual High in Escondido and earned an athletic scholarship to USC.
Now in her 19th season as women's swim coach at Cal, she has helped develop 11-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin, and in 2009 directed the Golden Bears to an NCAA championship.
McKeever received the ultimate validation from the swimming community last month when she was named the first woman to coach the powerful U.S. Olympic women's swim team. She will lead the squad in preparation for the 2012 London games.
Leave it to a younger sibling to provide some daunting perspective to the honor.
"Not only are you the Olympic coach," Kristi Gannon Fisher told her big sister, "but you're the Olympic coach of what is the best (U.S.) team. That's kind of scary."
It's a responsibility McKeever has prepared for all her life.
She was just 6 -- the oldest of three kids -- when her father, former USC football star Mike McKeever, died in 1967 after 22 months in a coma after a car accident.
"She was always taking charge of everything with her little brothers," said her mother, Judy Gannon, referring to two younger brothers.
After Judy remarried, to a fellow named Gary Gannon, the family gradually grew to 10 kids. McKeever's nine younger siblings became her first team.
"I've been 40 since I
McKeever is 49 now, a resident of El Cerrito, and excited about the challenge of a lifetime. That she's breaking ground as the first woman to hold the position is additional fuel.
"There aren't very many women who have had influence in our national team direction," said McKeever, an assistant on the 2004 and '08 Olympic coaching staff. "I don't know sometimes if the way I look at things is because I'm Teri versus (anyone else) or it's because I'm female versus male.
"But half our team is women, and women tend to be motivated and inspired and challenged differently than men. That's what I think I've been able to bring to our national team atmosphere that hasn't always been there."
USC coach Dave Salo, also an assistant coach on the past two Olympic teams, called McKeever an "outstanding" choice to direct the 2012 squad.
"She will consider details that sometimes are not thought of," Salo said. "She understands the team dynamics that can play a significant role in an athlete's performance and she has demonstrated that skill so well with her collegiate program."
Swimming came easily to McKeever, who began setting national age-group records when she was 12. Her mother coached her and her brothers, forming the Hidden Valley Swim Club that trained in the 25-yard pool in their backyard.
A few years later, McKeever had the opportunity to join the powerhouse Mission Viejo swim club, which would have required her moving in with a host family in Orange County.
Mom said no.
"A lot of kids did it," Judy Gannon said. "I talked about it with Teri and said, 'I didn't have you to let someone else raise you when you're a teenager.'"
McKeever remains appreciative of her mother's decision. "My life would be completely different if at 13 or 14, I would have gone off and lived with another family," she said.
Judy and Teri made the relationship work, keeping mother-daughter separate from coach-athlete. They were partners at the pool, an approach that became McKeever's trademark as a coach.
"We always talked about everything that we were doing and why we are doing this," her mom said. "I guess she was paying attention."
"As an athlete, I had a huge responsibility to communicate what my piece was," McKeever said. "I know it's definitely the way I coach now. My athletes have a responsibility to communicate their feedback and thoughts and ideas. We work on it as a partnership, together."
For McKeever, swimming was a refuge. In the water, winning races and earning praise, she didn't feel like a tall, skinny, awkward kid.
But the leap from athlete to coach wasn't a natural one for McKeever, who describes herself as "almost 100 percent" an introvert. She fought that nature in herself and was helped by the experience she gained as a big sister.
Her first coaching job was at Fresno State in the late 1980s. McKeever had a women's team with 11 swimmers, and during their first road trip the men's coached told her to do a head count before the bus trip home.
"I've left people before," he told her.
McKeever recalls thinking, "That's ridiculous, because that's like a family."
After McKeever came to Cal for the 1992-93 school year, she methodically built her program and developed her coaching philosophy. Then in 2000, she landed a huge recruiting prize when Natalie Coughlin, the nation's top young talent, from Carondelet High, committed to Cal.
McKeever acknowledges that Coughlin wasn't expected to join her program, given the options she had. But for a decade, the relationship has grown, evolved and thrived. Coughlin, dealing with an injury and on the cusp of burnout, found just the right tone in McKeever.
"She did have this maternal caring quality I didn't even know I wanted at the time," Coughlin said. "But it was really what I needed. That's how I got through a lot of my issues."
After Coughlin blew away the collegiate swimming world as a freshman, breaking American records and earning NCAA swimmer of the year honors, McKeever was faced with a new challenge -- trying new coaching methods with her young star.
McKeever and Coughlin don't agree on everything, but they talk and compromise. They have the same goals.
"She doesn't coach me the same as she did a decade ago," said Coughlin, now 28, married and prepping for her third Olympics. "I have a lot of input on my training because we have worked together. She definitely is flexible, but she also is still the leader of the team."
That willingness to think outside the box, to treat and coach each athlete differently, wasn't always well-received by some of her peers. Neither was her success as a woman.
Said USC's Salo: "She has worked hard and earned the respect that was held back for years in large part because she is a woman -- and also (due) to her coaching methods, which are often contrary to the general coaching community.
"With repeated successes, coaches have come to regard her and respect her as one of the best ... (who) happens to be a woman."
A woman who has sacrificed plenty for her career.
"If you would have told me I wasn't going to get married until 45 and I wouldn't have kids of my own, there's no way that ever entered my mind," said McKeever, who wed Jerry Romani in 2007.
"I don't get some of the things that my siblings get, as far as being able to raise my own children. This is my way of parenting and having a family."
In London, Teri McKeever will unleash the fastest family at the Olympic pool, and the world will be watching.
Education: Bachelor's degree in education and two teaching credentials from USC; master's degree in athletic administration from USC
Title: Women's swim coach, UC Berkeley and 2012 U.S. Olympic team
Residence: El Cerrito
Family: Husband Jerry Romani
Quote: "I know it's a big deal, but the last two weeks were like, 'Whoa, this is a BIG deal.' " McKeever, on being named the first woman to coach the U.S. Olympic women's swim team.