March 25, 2011
The following feature was written for Pac-10.org and appears on CalBears.com courtesy of the Pac-10 Conference.
By Ann Killion
Special for the Pac-10
They gathered where they could. Barbara Jordan was glued to her computer screen at home in the East Bay. Natalie Coughlin and friends commandeered a big screen TV in a San Francisco sports bar.
"While March Madness was going on," Coughlin said. "That was awesome."
Because she wasn't there to watch hoops, she was there to watch swimming. The Cal women achieved their own level of madness, winning the NCAA Championship in Austin, Texas - their second title in three years.
"It's the best thing that ever happened," said Jordan, who coached at Cal in the mid-1970s. "It's absolutely wonderful."
The generations stand together in awe at what Cal has accomplished: under the guidance of Coach Teri McKeever, the Bears have won two NCAA titles in three years. Their first ever championships.
"They not only have stars, they have the depth, top to bottom," Coughlin said. "It's a testament to the program and to Teri."
It's also a huge testament to Coughlin, who swam at Cal from 2002 to 2005. The two-time Olympian who has won 11 Olympic medals (three gold, four silver and four bronze) in Athens and Beijing raised Cal's profile. Though the Bears had a long history of swimming success and often had a strong program, Coughlin's excellence lifted Cal to new heights.
"Natalie did it, and people got interested," Jordan said. "Her achievement is so wonderful."
Coughlin still trains at Cal, with the team, every morning. She is an ardent supporter and tries to make dual meets when she can.
"I'm very, very proud to have been a part of this program," she said.
Coughlin won plenty of individual NCAA titles and honors during her collegiate career, but never finished higher than sixth with her team.
"It would have been really nice to experience first hand," Coughlin said. "That sense that every swimmer, every finish matters. I experienced that at Pac-10 Championships and dual meets but never at the NCAAs. I hope the current swimmers understand how lucky they are to be in a program like this."
Cal swimming existed before Coughlin. Mary T. Meagher Plant swam at Cal and helped the program to a fourth-place finish in the early 1980s, the first generation of women who could compete in NCAA Championships. Years earlier, Jordan - then Barbara Stark - competed in the Helsinki Olympics in 1952 as a 14-year old. She attended Cal as a student but was already retired from her sport by that point.
"Women weren't allowed to swim, in high school or in college," she said.
When Jordan coached at Cal, Title IX was in its infancy. She had to battle for pool time for her group of local, walk-on swimmers. She has endowed a women's swimming scholarship at Cal (as has Meagher Plant) and loves to see the Bears, "whooping it up on the rest of the country."
For years Stanford and Texas had a stranglehold on the NCAA Championship. In recent years, SEC powers like Georgia and Auburn have exerted their dominance.
But now the Bears are the team on top.
"It's never easy to stay on top," Coughlin said. "It's much easier to come in as an underdog, like they did two years ago when it was a total surprise.
"In 2011, it was more businesslike. They knew what to do and executed it. Now, when you're on top everyone is aiming for you.
But I definitely think the program can stay strong."
And she, and the other Cal swimmers who came before, will be cheering every stroke.