This Friday at Uris Pool, the Columbia women’s swimming and diving team plunges into its season with a matchup against Yale. At Columbia’s helm is head coach Diana Caskey, who is entering her 20th year on the Lions’ coaching staff. On the other side of the pool, Yale will be lead by head coach Cristina Teuscher, who is returning for her second season with the Bulldogs.
At first glance, this might seem unremarkable, and the names and numbers arbitrary. Trite comparisons could be drawn: experience versus youth, Ivy versus other Ivy, wild cats versus domesticated canines.
But anyone with a basic knowledge of Columbia swimming history knows there’s much more to the story. Yale’s head coach is coming home, in a way. To say Teuscher is familiar with the Columbia venue would be an understatement almost as epic as Teuscher herself. Since her freshman year at Columbia fifteen years ago, her name has loomed large above the pool, a permanent and pervasive fixture on the record board.
The ‘00 alum, indisputably the best swimmer in Columbia’s history, still holds six individual records and 12 slots on the all-time top 15 list. She never lost an individual race during collegiate competition, and during her dominant tenure, Teuscher was crowned a 12-time Ivy League champion and captured four NCAA titles. Shortly after graduating, she was honored with the Honda-Broderick Cup, awarded to the nation’s top female collegiate athlete.
Among this flurry of accolades, it’s almost easy to forget that the standout also medaled at both the 1996 and 2000 Olympic games.
Teuscher was just 18 when she was part of the American women’s 800-meter freestyle relay which claimed the gold in Atlanta. Less than a month later, she moved into John Jay to begin her life as a college student and athlete, swimming under none other than Diana Caskey, then in her fifth year as head coach.
Why Columbia? It’s an easy question to ask. Though Columbia maintains a consistently excellent aquatics program, Olympic-caliber athletes usually flock to colleges with star-studded programs, usually public schools with larger funding such as the University of Georgia or Auburn.
For Teuscher, however, the decision was different. “I keep my academics a priority,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to keep my athletics and academics equal.” Not only did Columbia offer her the right educational fit, but the proximity allowed the Bronx native to arrange a training schedule that allowed her to perform workouts with both the Columbia team and her previous club coach.
There was another factor in the decision, of course: the coach.
“Every year, I have to respect Diana more and more in this job,” Teuscher said. “Now being on her side, it’s so impressive ... It isn’t about you, it’s about them. I think that’s why I chose Columbia. With her, I could always tell it’s about the athlete.”
Teuscher, who majored in psychology, drifted back into athletics after dabbling in finance and entrepreneurship for several years, assuming coaching positions at various club teams before ascending to her current role at Yale.
“Cristina’s approach to coaching is whole-hearted,” Yale swimmer Hayes Hyde said. “She really wants to see us succeed—not solely in the pool, but as people, and she approaches coaching us with that in mind.”
When Caskey and Teuscher meet at Uris, both will be contending with fresh teams anticipating their first Ivy League meet of the season. Neither coach is alarmed by the prospect of competing against the other.
“It’s like when I swim against my good friends. I don’t think competition is bad. It’s a place where you learn about yourself, how you can grow,” Teuscher said.
The meet promises a good showcase of this year’s Columbia squad, a mixture of veterans and a promising crop of recruits who are, as of yet, unbaptized by the chlorinated waters of collegiate competition.
Just a few of the notable returners include senior Isabelle Vandenbroucke (distance free), backstrokers Laney Kluge and Dorothy Baker, and last, but not least, junior Katie Meili, whose performance last year threatened both Teuscher’s 200 and 400 individual medley records—a feat that enthused Teuscher.
“That’s awesome,” she said. “Records are made to be broken—it shows the team’s improving. They should be broken.”
Besides the stars from last year, the new additions to the squad excite Caskey, who overflows with names when asked about the plethora of fresh talent. Hailing from all over the continental U.S. as well as Canada, this year’s class boasts catches such as Olympic Trials qualifier Salena Huang and distance freestyler Juliana “Cha Cha” Bugatti.
Drawing from this gifted pool, Columbia hopes to repeat its third-place finish in 2010 at the Ivy League Championships this year.
Meanwhile, though, the team has to focus on taking the season one meet at a time.
“We really look forward to racing Yale,” Caskey said. “Cristina is a great competitor and great coach, and Yale is an arch-rival of ours so it makes for an interesting duel. Let the better team win.”