Swimmer Margo Geer Puts Alabama Coaching Job On Hold To Pursue Olympic Dream
by Karen Rosen
Margo Geer looks on at the TYR Pro Swim Series on March 7, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Imagine receiving the job opportunity of a lifetime at age 28 and putting it on the back burner.
That’s what Margo Geer did with an assist from her future employer, the University of Alabama.
It’s clear Geer has other fish to fry.
In late December when Greg Byrne, the Crimson Tide’s director of athletics, offered her the position of head coach for the Alabama men’s and women’s swimming and diving programs, Geer was intent on competing as a sprint freestyler at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
She said it “didn’t really cross my mind” to stop swimming and immediately take the plum job.
A world champion and four-time 2019 Pan American Games gold medalist, Geer was a volunteer assistant coach with the Alabama team while also training with head coach Coley Stickels.
When Stickels decided to step down to focus on coaching elite athletes, Byrne turned to Geer. They had a long history, having met when he was the athletic director at the University of Arizona and she was a three-time NCAA champion for the school and Pac-12 Woman of the Year in 2015.
But Geer wasn’t ready to take the full-time plunge into the working world. She asked if Alabama would wait until she had completed her competitive career and Byrne agreed.
“That was one of the first things that I talked to Greg about,” Geer said, “that I had put a lot of time and energy in - and other people had put a lot of time and energy into the run-up to the Olympics - and it was something I didn’t really want to cut short. It’s still very much a huge opportunity to just perform at my best. I really wanted to finish it out and end on my terms.”
Floating Start Date
Geer plans to begin her tenure as the Alabama head coach in August after the Games. However, if she does not qualify for Tokyo at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials – Swimming in late June, she will take the reins sooner.
Alabama announced Stickels’ departure on the same day it named Geer as the next permanent head coach.
“We were fortunate to have an exceptional candidate right here in Tuscaloosa for this position and are thrilled that Margo will be our next head coach,” Byrne said. “She has one of the most impressive lists of accolades, both at the collegiate level and internationally. I’ve known Margo for many years and she is well-respected, talented and extremely hardworking. We are certainly supportive of her continuing to train for the 2021 Olympic Team trials and look forward to having her fully on board when her competitive career is complete.”
In the meantime, Ozzie Quevedo, who was an Alabama assistant, is the interim head coach.
Geer is still training with Stickels’ elite group in Tuscaloosa. While she is not coaching the Crimson Tide from the pool deck, she remains a part of the program by sharing her vision for the future with current team members as well as with recruits.
Geer’s news definitely made waves in the swimming world since she was viewed as an Olympic contender in her prime rather than as the next head coach of a major program.
It also was an unorthodox move given Geer’s age and the fact she had never been more than a volunteer assistant coach – at Ohio State and Alabama - for a college program. In her only other significant coaching job, Geer was a part-time assistant with an 8-and-under club group at the same time she was at Ohio State.
“I’ve never been a head coach before, but that doesn’t exactly scare me away from the duties that it takes to be good at it,” Geer said. “I’ve been around a lot of great minds and I’ve worked with a lot of them personally. I haven’t just seen them from afar or studied their workouts on a piece of paper. I’ve actually done them.”
She had already proven precocious as a leader. At Arizona, Geer became a team captain for the first time as a sophomore, continuing in the role as a junior and senior.
“I absolutely respect experience, but I’ve also never been afraid to step into a leadership role and take on that sort of challenge,” Geer said.
She said she learned from coach Bill Dorenkott at Ohio State that to be a good coach, “You have to have good character, you’ve got to have competence in your sport and you’ve got to be able to make connections. When I boil it down, I think I bring value in all three of those areas and I can get better at all of those those things.”
Rick DeMont, the 1972 Olympian who coached Geer at Arizona, said she is “super together.”
“She’s down-to-earth, very honest, very smart, very well-read,” DeMont said. “She’s pretty quiet, but when words come out, they’re good, they’re strong. She’s loyal and a pleasure to coach because she’s a student of the sport.”
DeMont said Geer has a really efficient stroke and an awareness “to the nth degree.”
“I was all about that hyper awareness,” Geer said, “like how can we just drop a tenth of a second? When you’re talking about that minuscule amount of time, it’s the smallest little detail, and the smallest little things that matter. And I think from a coaching perspective, it’s good to have that mindset, but also just being able to simplify everything for the kids. It doesn’t have to be overcomplicated.”
Geer is also well aware of every aspect of the coaching life.
Growing up in Milford Center, Ohio, “a one-stoplight town,” her father, Mark, was a football coach and teacher at her high school, and her mother, Linda, was a volleyball coach and teacher at a nearby high school. As a child, Geer spent a lot of time in the gym with her mom.
"I definitely grew up a coach’s daughter,” she said.
When she was contemplating her coaching future, Geer’s father had some key advice for her. “My dad was super adamant just to make sure you get the right people around you,” she said. “Surround yourself with the right people and that’ll help you succeed and help everyone around you succeed.”
Geer, who is 6 feet tall, followed her brother, Marcus, into swimming when she was 5 and also played volleyball and basketball.
She nearly focused on volleyball - having learned to bump, set and spike at an early age due to all that time in the gym with her mother - but decided to pursue swimming when she was in high school.
Frank Busch recruited Geer to Arizona, where she first began thinking about becoming a college coach.
Geer recognized that she wanted to “work with kids that are in somewhat of a transition phase, finding out about themselves and what they want to do and where they want to go. And if I could help be a part of that, that sounded cool back then and it’s only gotten cooler now.”
She also loved the environment of college athletics and the team camaraderie in swimming.
Peaks and Valleys
Geer competed in her first Olympic Trials in 2012, with her best finish seventh place in the 50 freestyle. In 2015, her career was on an upward swing. She competed in four relays at the world championships in Kazan, Russia, winning gold, silver and bronze medals. Geer had 100-meter freestyle splits as fast as 53.12, the second-best among any American at the meet.
But at the 2016 Olympic trials, her top finish was 15th in the 100 free with a time of 54.91.
“The peaks and the valleys, they come and they go,” Geer said. “We assume that it’s going to always line up, that the peak is going to line up with that moment you want it to, but sometimes it doesn’t.
“I think 2016 was just a down year for me. Physically I had some nagging shoulder pain, but mainly just mentally I wasn’t enjoying it. I wasn’t enjoying the process of going in to train every day and I was kind of just bogged down by maybe expectations, but mainly just myself.”
While 2016 in retrospect was an extremely hard year, Geer said, “ultimately it led me to here, so I can’t be too upset about it.”
There were some twists along the way. In September 2016, she moved back home to Ohio and became a volunteer coach for Ohio State during the day and coached the 8-and-unders on a club team in the evening.
“I was full in to coaching,” said Geer, who had minor surgery to repair her shoulder. “I hadn’t really thought about getting back in the water. I was definitely searching for what I wanted to do after swimming, and being around Ohio State and that college program was super eye-opening to me.”
She enjoyed being on deck with the college swimmers every day and had “tons of fun” with the kids at the club.
A New Perspective
“I saw it from their eyes a little bit again,” Geer said. “They enjoyed racing and competing and kind of just getting better.”
When she went with the Buckeyes to the NCAA meet that March, Geer took a keen interest in the 50 free and 100 free. “I watched it go down and I kind of had that feeling, “Oh, I want to be racing,’” she said.
Geer talked to DeMont about a comeback and he was supportive. She got back in the water in April or May, and then moved to Tucson.
But DeMont soon retired and Geer wondered if she should stay in Arizona while continuing to look for assistant coaching jobs.
At the U.S. Open that year, she had encouraging placements of fifth in the 100 free and fourth in the 50 free off of little training. Geer spoke to Stickels and decided to move to Indiana to train with him.
At the 2018 nationals, Geer finished third in 100 free behind Olympic champion Simone Manuel and Mallory Comerford with a time of 53.44. She was also third in the 50 free behind Manuel and Abbey Weitzeil, clocking 24.79.
At the 2019 worlds in South Korea, Geer won a silver medal for swimming in the preliminaries of the the 4x 100 free relay. She then went on to the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, where she took home the best collection of hardware of any Team USA athlete with four golds and a silver. Geer won gold in the 100 free (54.17), silver in the 50 free (25.03) and three golds on relays.
Last fall, Geer competed for the LA Current of the International Swimming League in the Budapest bubble.
Olympic Dreams On Hold
Those experiences definitely whetted her appetite to become part of her first Olympic team in Tokyo.
While Geer said her events, the 50 and 100 freestyles, are the ones “people are gunning for with .01 between some people,” DeMont said, “She’s right in there where she’s going to be in the hunt.”
Geer moved to Alabama in May 2019, following Stickels when he became the Alabama head coach. She had planned to seek a full-time coaching position after the 2020 Games, but when they were postponed, so were her career plans.
Now Geer knows exactly what she will do when she retires. She said that while making her decision, she thought of Maya DiRado, a Pac-12 rival who swam at Stanford when Geer was at Arizona. DiRado continued competing even though she had an impressive job lined up after the Olympic Games Rio 2016. She wound up with two golds, a silver and a bronze.
“This is the grand finale for me, so I’m putting it all out there,” Geer said.
Then she’ll move into a new office, following in the footsteps of such Alabama coaches as Don Gambril, Jonty Skinner and Dennis Pursley. The Alabama men placed seventh in the 2019 NCAA Championships for their fourth Top-10 finish in five years and were fourth at the 2020 SEC meet with the women seventh. The 2020 NCAA meet was canceled due to the pandemic.
“We’re on the upward trajectory,” Geer said. “We’re climbing the NCAA rankings and the school records were totally overhauled last season. This is the sort of the program that I want to step into. There’s a good solid foundation here. There’s a lot of things to improve, but the tradition here is rich.”
Geer said she will have to find out if there are any NCAA rules she has to follow as an active swimmer/soon-to-be head coach. “This is kind of unprecedented,” she said. “It’s new territory for me and and for Alabama.”