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PADECKY: Coach’s success story inspiring, but still all too rare

CRISTA JEREMIASON / The Press Democrat SRJC’s Jill McCormick says women face bias in their coaching careers.

CRISTA JEREMIASON / The Press Democrat
SRJC’s Jill McCormick says women face bias in their coaching careers.

By BOB PADECKY
The Press Democrat

In the fall of 2000, Peter McCormick approached his wife, Jill, and asked her a question that every husband should feel comfortable enough to ask of his wife.

“Where are you most happy doing a job?” was the simple question that wasn’t so simple to answer.

At the time Jill had a full course load at UC Berkeley, carrying 15 units on her way to earning a master’s degree in Athletes in Academic Achievement. At Santa Rosa JC, Jill was the women’s head coach in water polo and the head coach for both the men and women in swimming and diving. She was the head coach for swimming and diving at Piner High School. She also was teaching a journalism course at Piner.

Oh, one other thing, Peter and Jill had two boys, Lucas, 2, and Jack, a couple of months old. Her plate wasn’t full. It was overflowing. In the interest of sanity, something needed to change.

“I’m most happy when I am on the pool deck,” answered Jill, who swam for Piner and then at SRJC, a record holder at the time in the backstroke.

Fine, Peter said. Chase your bliss. I’ll take the kids.

Jill took the questions from other women.

“I was asked, ‘So you’re going to be gone for the next five days (at meets and recruiting)? How do you do that?’” McCormick said. The inference contained in those questions was clear to McCormick. What kind of mother was she to leave her children? She didn’t love her kids and she was a bad parent and she was selfish and she didn’t understand she was placing the family at risk.

Said McCormick, “I had one woman tell me if she were to leave her kids with her husband, the house would burn down.”

McCormick said she was feeling the sting of a cultural bias. She thought long and hard about her decision. For if she believed the innuendoes and accusations, it would have driven her away from the sport she loved.

“I think bias is a big deterrent that keeps women coaching at a higher level (college),” McCormick said.

Dr. Donna Lopiano is one of the foremost experts on gender equity in sport, having testified about Title IX before three congressional committees. Lopiano spoke on the subject Wednesday night at Sonoma State. McCormick’s story was all too familiar to Lopiano.

“She is absolutely right (about a cultural bias),” Lopiano said. “There’s a tremendous amount of social pressure on mothers in this country.”

McCormick concluded she wouldn’t be a bad mother if she became a full-time faculty member and coach at SRJC. When the school hired her in 2002, she had resolved her internal dilemma, yet stares or questions persisted. She was successful and it had nothing to do with being on the pool deck. Lucas, now 15, is a Piner freshman who swims and runs cross country for the school — when he’s not acting. Jack, 13, is an eighth-grader at the Piner Olivet Charter School, a cross country runner and an actor as well.

SRJC was at the state meet last spring in Southern California. Peter surprised her by flying down with the boys to Monterey Park and meeting her poolside as SRJC’s men’s swim team won state for the first time.

Even then, in which she calls her life’s personal highlight, a gender issue grabbed headlines.

McCormick was the first female coach to lead a men’s team to a California state swim title. And it was not an isolated example of gender inequity.

“Only four of the 48 men’s swim teams (at California junior colleges) are coached by women,” McCormick said. “Of the 50 women’s swim teams in the state, only eight are coached by women. Those are some slim numbers.”

Not to mention embarrassing ones.

“That doesn’t surprise me at all,” Lopiano said of those statistics. Causative factors are many, she said.

Male athletic directors hiring men. Male athletic directors hiring those with whom they are familiar.

“All of us are more comfortable with what we know,” Lopiano said. “But that doesn’t make it right.”

Clearly McCormick made some mothers uncomfortable. To that add a husband who was going to take care of the kids. For 10 years, Peter was the primary before-school and after-school caregiver. Jill bent her SRJC schedule like a pretzel as much as she could to see her sons compete and act. Now with grandparents and the kids more mobile, the strain has eased on what I’d like to call St. Peter.

“Parenting is a team effort for us,” said Peter, a fund raiser for Marin General Hospital for the last two years, and at Sutter 15 years before that. “I knew what I was getting into when I married Jill.”

Peter, 43, knew Jill wasn’t a wallflower. Her throttle oftentimes is pushed to the floor. Life is not a spectator sport for her. Which has once again placed her at another crossroads in her life.

McCormick is a six-time California State Community Coach of the Year in swimming and diving. Her women have won state four times, her men once. She has produced 80 All-Americans and 40 state champs. She has butterflier Alexandria Holland — California’s Female Swimmer of the Year — on the team, as well as three other returning All-Americans.

“So people ask me when am I going to a four-year university?” she said.

This is what successful coaches do, don’t they? They climb the ladder, their ambition fueling their ascent.

Or do they?

“When you go Division I, they don’t want you to teach,” said McCormick, 41. “You have no job security because you have no tenure. I would have to go as someone’s assistant. And if you don’t win, the head coach and the assistants get fired. Or I can stay at this wonderful school that has wonderful people in which I have tenure. And the kids don’t have to move. And my husband doesn’t have to change jobs.”

And Jill McCormick doesn’t have to go to a place that doesn’t know her and be asked again how can she leave her kids. That question, she already has answered here. She doesn’t have to show her ID to her boys; they know who she is. She has turned SRJC’s swim and dive teams into perennial powers. She is most grateful Peter didn’t burn down the house. All in all, everyone wins, except those who find comfort and ignorance in stereotypes.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.