LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Sometimes, history happens without anybody really noticing.
When Natalie Coughlin touched the wall at the end of her 100-meter backstroke Friday night, she qualified for the Olympics. In doing so, she all but clinched a position for her Cal mentor, Teri McKeever, as the first-ever woman coach on the U.S. Olympic swim team.
The final decision won't be made until the end of the trials, but McKeever is a virtual lock.
"My assumption is that someone will ask me," McKeever says. "My answer would be yes."
That's right, it's 2004, and no female has ever coached a U.S. Olympic swim team.
"Half the Olympic team is female," McKeever says. "It's important that we get a female in that role, to complete the picture."
There is no one more deserving of the honor. McKeever virtually saved Coughlin's career. She wooed Coughlin to Cal, revolutionized her stroke, made swimming fun when Coughlin admitted she hated the sport, and calmed the phenom down after a wretched 2003. Even now, McKeever constantly squelches her own desire to push Coughlin into swimming other events in order to keep her prize pupil confident and comfortable as the Games draw near.
"It's hard to articulate what she means to me," Coughlin says. "I'm very lucky."
McKeever would say the same thing. She is a rare woman standout in a male-dominated coaching world. Because of budget constraints and stubborn tradition, most schools hire one man to coach both men and women swimmers.
"That's something the profession needs to look at," McKeever says. "Men and women view the world differently."
McKeever has been an aberration her entire career. After a standout career at USC, she joined the Trojan staff as an assistant -- the first ever at the school. Then, at age 25, she took the head coaching job at Fresno State, where she coached the women for two years before also taking over the men's team. Three years later, she moved to Berkeley, where she just completed her 12th year.
While most competitive women swimmers have men as coaches, few men can say they've ever been coached by a woman. Asked Friday who was the last woman to coach him, Olympian Ryan Lochte named his mother. The answer is funny, and frequent. Coaching usually involves tons of hours and plenty of moving around. Many women refuse to make the sacrifice. McKeever, at 42, has never married. She admits she would like to change that.
"This is a championship lifestyle," McKeever says. "That's very demanding on your personal life. It's a personal struggle too. There is part of me that feels like because of this elite level that I've achieved, I've lost personally."
Her loss, though, is in some ways her country's gain. Coughlin, one of the best ever in her sport, would be among the first to admit she might not have made it to Athens if McKeever never came along. As another testament to McKeever's influence, Coughlin's parents were so bent on their daughter going to Stanford that it took a long time for them to accept her decision to go to Cal. Obviously, they got over it.
"With coaching," McKeever says, "the more you do it, the more you realize you have a huge impact on the way other people raise their own kids."
And sometimes, a huge impact on history.
Eric Adelson is a senior writer at ESPN Magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.