Women On The Water: Katherine Batts, Vicki Keith, Catherine Kase on WOWSA Live

Women On The Water: Katherine Batts, Vicki Keith, Catherine Kase on WOWSA Live

Catherine Kase (USA), Dr. Vicki Keith C.M., O. Ont., LLD, ChPC (Canada), and Katherine Batts (UK) are among the most successful, decorated and respected coaches in the open water swimming community. The trio shared their unique perspectives, experiences and observations with Ned Denison and Steven Munatones on the latest WOWSA Live interview.

These women were preceded by others of international acclaim and stature in the coaching profession: Freda Streeter MBE (UK), Siga Rose (USA), Eilís Burns (Ireland), and Penny Lee Dean (USA) among them.

Vicki Keith with Natalie Lambert (Solo Swims)

There are many more female open water swimming coaches who are currently inspiring, teaching, and mentoring thousands more, from Penny McDowall (Cayman Islands) and Shelley Taylor-Smith (Australia) to Teruko Onuki (Japan) and Charlotte Brynn (New Zealand).

Kase served as the head coach of the USA Swimming national and Olympic open water swimming team coach over the past 16 years. The former distance freestyler from North Carolina is appointed to the FINA Coaches Commission for the 2017-2021 term after coaching 3 world champions and 2 Olympic marathon swimming medalists (Chip PetersonHaley Anderson, and Ous Mellouli) at the 2012, 2016 and 2020 Olympic Games.

Dr. Vicki Keith C.M., O. Ont., LLD, ChPC is the 57-year-old Founder/Coordinator of Y Abilities Programs, a renowned marathon swimmer inducted in the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame and a coach of disabled athletes. Retired from marathon swimming since 1991, Keith continues to raise awareness and funds for programs and projects to help children with physical disabilities and makes public appearances as an inspirational speaker. Over the course of her career, she has received over 41 honors and awards, and raised over C$1 million to help children with physical disabilities.

Similar to Kase and Keith, Batts started off as a competitive swimmer that eventually led her to coaching marathon and channel swimmers of all ages with The Kings Swimmers’ Swim Camps, and served a variety of roles with the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation and Channel Swimming Association that currently counts for four decades of selfless service to benefit and help open water swimmers of all ages.

Caroline Connor crossed the English Channel in 16 hours 18 minutes with pilot Eddie Spelling and coaches Kevin Murphy and Kathy Batts

Kase, who concurrently coaches at her daughter’s age group team and heads the Open Water Steering Group of the FINA Coaches Committee, said, “I believe that we should look at the coach rather than their gender. I have always tried to be the best coach that I can be – and try not to compare myself to anyone else – but instead focus on my strengths and my communication style.  That’s how I showed up and really felt like my best coaching was when I was true to myself. 

I learned quickly to ask questions to other coaches I admired, stayed curious, focused on understanding the athletes and figuring out how to effectively communicate, motivate, challenge them while always staying adaptable. It was up to me to implement, open minded, and stay flexible.

My goal is to get the athletes to believe in themselves and buy into the training and competition plan so they can be successful – and success is defined differently for each athlete. 

Most of the women and men on the college teams that I’ve coached found out rather quickly that I was not the coach on deck who would let them skip practice, or get out of anything.  Empathetic – yes, but sympathetic – not as much – I try to understand the athlete as a person in and out of the water, but also hold them to the highest standards.  I never set out to be an Olympic coach, but have been ready to jump when opportunities have come my way, and have been fortunate along the way, always learning, and my journey has been unique.

Dr. Vicki Keith, CM explained that she was often the only female on the pool deck at meets and she did not feel welcome. “As a female coach with a male staff at Canada Games, and when my husband was on deck as a support person for athletes with a disability, the officials invariably addressed the men with questions or concerns assuming they were the head coach.

Gender is still an issue at hiring. Less experienced men are often hired for coaching positions in part because men are perceived to be leaders and more high performance oriented, but it’s also how different genders read job descriptions. Men will often apply if they have a few of the qualities required, where women tend not to apply unless they have all the required qualities.

Finally, men are often judged by their potential, where women are judged on what they have achieved.

Female athletes are expressing that they aren’t choosing coaching as a career path because they don’t see female coaches on the high performance stage and are aware of the barriers to reach that level.  If women are consistently led by men, who will they believe are the leaders?  If we aren’t in leadership positions, the assumption is that we can’t lead. 

We need to understand that we need male and female coaches at all level as we each have unique skills and our athletes require more perspectives and a variation of strengths. Who we are as a coach is largely directed from our life experience. Women have a different life experience and therefore bring different skills, styles and gifts to the table.

Batts became involved in open water swimming in 1975 when she was 15 years old and swum in her first English Channel relay. “Shortly after this, my father became coach to Kevin Murphy when he was regularly swimming the Channel and attempting a 3-way attempt.

Batts was a team player. Between 1975 and 2017, she swam on 18 different Channel relays. In 2013, she attempted a Channel solo crossing, but it did not go to plan. “I refused to give up and told myself, ‘failure is not an option’.

From the coaching perspective, Batts described her experience, “I have existed in a male environment for many years. I was a volunteer crew member for the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) for nine and a half years and at one point, one of only 400 women in the UK who undertook this role. The interview process, exam process and team-building scenarios that I undertook to be accepted onto the crew was male driven and I had to be better than those I was being interviewed with (all men).

In the 1980’s, I had the privilege of being the volunteer Coach to the Kent Police Lifesaving team for several years, again it was male dominated where I had to deal with officers of a high rank. But I was never phased by this, and they always did what was asked of them in the pool and at the beach. They knew I would never ask them to do something I wasn’t prepared to do myself. Banter was also a key component of our working relationships.

When I am coaching swimmers, I am tough, but no more than I am on myself. I never ask a swimmer to do something I am not prepared to do myself. This is a key component.

The icon of endurance swim coaching must be Freda Streeter MBE; she was tough on the swimmers, but loved by all her swimmers. I remember the day myself and another female swimmer came out 1 minute early during a 7-hour training swim to be sent back in for another 5 minutes – I never did that again.

As a coach, I am not influenced by female swimmers who start crying, fluttering their eyelids at male coaches, and plead to get out. Male coaches often buckle and give in, but I won’t unless it is for safety reasons.

My mode of operation is very different to that of some of the other female coaches. I don’t tend to have a lot of photographs on Facebook and the other social media platforms to be seen smiling and gushing at all and sundry. I tend to be in the background, working away quietly and always on the end of a phone.

I also believe that being a female really helps when we are dealing with either pregnant swimmers, those recovering from childbirth or miscarriages, and troublesome monthly periods. The latter was always an awkward subject to raise with a male coach when I was in my teenage years if you were having an off day in the pool. It is often easier for a girl or woman to say to a female coach, I don’t feel on top of things today and I am able to identify with that feeling.

I also believe that we should look at the coach rather than their gender. I want a coach to be able to identify my needs and do what is best for me and my swimming path, be it a man or woman. I would hate to see a big push to get lots of women coaches and the standards of the coaching drop due to little experience or the need to equal the numbers of men and female. That’s probably an odd quote coming from a female coach, but I feel quality rather than quantity is needed.

Enjoy their thoughtful and insightful conversation below:

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2017 World Open Water Swimming Woman of the Year Nomineesedit

Batts was nominated for the 2017 World Open Water Swimming Woman of the Year by the World Open Water Swimming Association:

1. Katherine Batts (Great Britain)
2. Dr. Caroline Block (USA)
3. Arianna Bridi (Italy)
4. Chloë McCardel (Australia)
5. Ana Marcela Cunha (Brazil)
6. Pat Gallant-Charette (USA)
7. Ludmila Maller (Russia)
8. Jaimie Monahan (USA)
9. Aurélie Muller (France)
10. Barbara Pozzobón (Italy)
11. Sarah Thomas (USA)
12. Julia Wittig (Germany)

2017 World Open Water Swimming Woman of the Year Nominationedit

Katherine Batts has long supported channel swimmers as a fellow relay member, an administrator with the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation, and a coach with The King’s Swimmers. With her 18th career English Channel relay completed in 2017 (on the oldest Ladies team), decades of service to help others achieve their channel swimming dreams (first with the Channel Swimming Association and now with the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation), completed a swim across Lake Tahoe on the latest crossing in history, and as a coach mentoring others on the physical, mental and logistical side of the channel equation, Batts declined numerous invitations since the 1970’s to attempt a solo Channel swim. With her children grown and out of the house, the lifesaving professional was finally able to focus on herself and achieved the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming in 2017. For her four decades of selfless service to benefit and help other swimmers, for her kind, patient demeanor to support others in their dreams, and for her late-season Lake Tahoe crossing and Catalina Channel crossing that enabled her to become a Triple Crowner, Katherine Batts is a worthy nominee for the 2017 World Open Water Swimming Woman of the Year.

Steven Munatones