Olympic Selection Puts Women in an Impossible Situation

Earlier this week, USA Swimming announced its head coaches for the 2020 Olympics. Dave Durden will coach the men, and Greg Meehan will coach the women. The resumes of both men are certainly up to snuff to coach an Olympic team, and it is more than likely that both will have multiple medalists on the Tokyo team.

A legitimate outcry came afterwards, however, at the fact that once again women were passed over for a head spot. Only one time in the history of American swimming has a woman been a Head Coach of an Olympic squad: Teri McKeever in 2012.

The team performed excellently, and McKeever has continued to be a coach of the highest standard. But she has since been frozen out of more than one staff. Perhaps Meehan will select her as an assistant coach later on. We shall see.

We would like to think that such selections are pure meritocracy. But how can we call it a meritocracy when only woman in history made the cut?

Not All Women

It’s time for my frequent disclaimer in discussing this topic. I am not claiming to speak for all women. There are many women coaching in swimming, and they have a natural diversity in opinions about the above. To present “women” as some sort of monolith is just plain wrong and I won’t attempt to.

The following is collected from a group of women that I talk to that are quite frustrated about the state of things. While it’s uncomfortable to share as a man, these women nevertheless encourage me to. I have the privilege of not seriously hurting my own career by talking about this stuff. They believe that they do.

Being shrill

I often consider the fact that if I was a woman, the criticism I face would probably turn from garden variety mean to completely demeaning. I would be categorized as shrill, and beyond blacklisted.

Don’t believe me? Go ahead and name one woman who currently coaches in swimming who frequently and strongly criticizes gender inequity within coaching. I’ll wait right here.

You might say that there is no such woman because things are just really fair. And if you honestly believe that, why are you reading my blog if not to make yourself angry? Go do something you enjoy!

Even if there was perfect equity, surely there would be a few people saying things were unfair anyway! Prominent women in coaching are too smart to derail their own careers fighting a losing battle.

The consequences for any woman speaking out against this system would be severe, so the advocacy for change is effectively muted.

Degree of Difficulty

One thing that will always hold back progress in this arena is the assumption that the playing field is even. When we look at what Meehan’s swimmers have accomplished, for instance, its almost impossible to make the argument for anyone else to be the head coach.

I do believe, however, we should have a subjective criteria for selection that takes into account the degree of difficulty women face in reaching the uppermost levels of coaching. The women who reach the top have walked a tightrope to get there.

They have had to be tough and demanding, in order to not seem soft. But not so tough and demanding that they get labelled a “bitch” for a coaching style that would be totally acceptable were they male.

They often have to persevere through sexual harassment in the workplace, often without any kind of satisfactory resolution from their employer. I spoke to a coach recently who has had a superior casually comment on the size and shape of her butt, and another grope her in private, both of which resulted in no consequences for the two men. These are not uncommon stories.

They have to persevere through a hiring process that is all about “who you know” where they are less likely to have someone engage them in the conversations poolside that lead them to “knowing” people.

They have to answer, over and over again, “but can you coach men?” when it is mostly assumed that men can coach women.

These are just a handful of things- this list could go on and on. By the way, I’m not saying Greg Meehan hasn’t had to work his ass off to get where he is. He most certainly has!

What I am saying is that there is an argument for better equity on these staffs, but we need to acknowledge that we are not dealing with an even playing field and attempt to address that.

As usual, I expect this opinion will not be that popular. Remember my disclaimer- I do not pretend to speak for all women, just the one’s I talk to who encouraged me to express many of the above points. Nor do I intend any of the above as an “attack” on men, or Dave Durden and Greg Meehan. Solving this problem would be better for all of above.