The day after we got back from the 2006 NCAA Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships, our team got called in for a meeting with Christine Plonsky, the women’s athletics director at the University of Texas. She said she wanted to talk about our coaching staff.
A year earlier, our co-head coach Mike Walker had taken a leave of absence without explanation, and we hoped we were finally going to get some news about him.
What we experienced next was one of the most disappointing moments in my entire swimming career. Our whole team was packed into the stalest of conference rooms in Belmont Hall, sitting around one of those classic, long, business-like tables. Then Plonsky came in and formally announced, “The administration has decided to make a change in your coaching staff.”
They had fired our beloved coach Jill Sterkel, who had been the at the helm of the women’s swimming and diving program at Texas since 1980. Jill won 21 NCAA individual and relay championships as a student-athlete at Texas. She went to her first Olympics at the age of 15 and ended up winning a total of two gold medals and two bronze medals in three Olympic Games. Only once during her 14-year coaching career at Texas did one of Jill’s teams finish outside the top 10 nationally.
Jill has a special presence about her. She is a tall, athletic, broad woman but is just the biggest softy on the inside. Nobody on our team ever wanted to challenge her in a race, because she would hands down beat us, no matter what.
When we first heard this disturbing news, we were sad. Then we all got angry. The classic stages of grief were tossed across that conference table and mixed with emotions of 18- to 22-year-old women. It got pretty heated because we wanted answers.
Many of my team members said, “That’s it, I want to transfer.” Most of the younger swimmers had been recruited by Mike only to have him leave and had only just gotten used to interacting primarily with Jill when she was fired. I felt so sad that this was their introduction to Texas swimming.
I was as upset as anyone on the team. I wanted to kick and scream and punch the wall, but as an upperclassman and one of the captains, I had a responsibility to step up.
The rest of that spring semester we focused on damage control. We scheduled frequent team meetings and gathered in the locker room to talk about how we were feeling: usually sad, frustrated or angry.
Swimming for three head coaches in my four-year college career was hard, but I learned what kind of leader I wanted to be. I took little bits and pieces from Mike, from Jill, and even from Kim Brackin, the coach who was hired to replace Jill.
From Mike, I learned to create a safe space where my teammates felt comfortable talking about the complex emotions they were feeling. My freshman year, he worked closely with my class. As a group, we were faster and more outspoken than the upperclassmen. We had big dreams and high expectations for our college careers. Mike would often take the eight of us out to breakfast at the Red River Cafe after early morning practices. Over pancakes and migas, we’d talk about how we were feeling, and without fail, half of us were in tears by the time we were done eating. We needed an outlet, and Mike provided that for us.
From Jill, I learned strength and loyalty. After the university announced that her contract was not being renewed, they asked her to stay on and coach us as we trained for World Championship Trials, and incredibly, she did.
She hung on for all of us, not just to ease the transition, but also to teach us how to be better leaders. I so respect her for that. I’m trying to think what I would do if I got fired and then my boss said, “Can you stick around until we find someone to replace you?” Only someone that has incredible Texas pride and love for her athletes would be able to mentally and emotionally handle that. Jill is incredibly strong and took care of us in this way, and I will always be grateful for that.
As a student-athlete, I think you need to be vulnerable with your coaches, and when you are, you create authenticity in your relationship that can really help you achieve your goals. I was blessed to have that with my high school coach, and I had it with my first round of college coaches, so having them leave so abruptly made it difficult to open my heart again.
I think a lot of the other women on the team felt the same way, and because of that, our new coach, Kim, had a really tough job. I don’t think any of us were ready to accept a new coach yet. It’s hard to be a head coach at UT. It’s even harder to be a female head coach at UT with a team still reeling from the departure of two previous coaches. From my one year with Kim, I learned about being true to who you are and what you believe in, even when faced with a challenging situation. The experience taught me to value the power of a team more than any one individual.
Looking back now, I can see how my less-than-ideal student-athlete experience prepared me for life after college. At work, you might find a great supervisor that you love, and then, in an instant, they’re gone. Best friends get new jobs and move away, relationships don’t work out the way you expect them to, and many times disappointing situations can lead to amazing learning opportunities.
Three years ago I decided to return to Austin to work for my alma mater. In my current role, I serve as a Director of Development for Major Gifts at UT, so I’m out on the road meeting with alumni and asking them to support our amazing institution. I get to share my student experience and learn about theirs, and the parallels are always evident. Asking alumni for financial support results in a lot of nos, but I don’t get discouraged like a lot of people might. Thanks to the successes and failures in my swimming career, I’m able to hang onto the “yes moments” to motivate my next steps.
My experiences in college also made me realize that any decision I make doesn’t only affect me. It may affect my best friends, people I love, my managers, the next recruiting classes, or it might affect people I don’t even know. To have effective leaders in the working world, you have to think bigger than yourself. You can’t just make a decision because you feel like it without caring how it’s going to impact others.
I am so grateful for my time at the University of Texas. I consider my educational and athletic accomplishments some of the greatest of my life. The challenges I faced as a student-athlete have made me the adult, the professional, and the wife and parent I am today. Earning the opportunity to represent the Longhorns once again is something I will always value.