VanDerveer meets billiards and transcends women’s coach eras

STANFORD, Calif. – Tara VanDerveer shuffles along in her slides and cozy Stanford basketball parka, reminding her of her one rule when it comes to swimming: if she gets wet, she absolutely has to stay in at least 45 minutes to do it it’s worth it.

The Hall of Fame coach took a two-minute walk from the Maples Pavilion to the pool before a late tip against Cal Poly on Wednesday afternoon and reached her goal.

Regular swimming is another thing she squeezes into her packed days three times a week to keep mentally and physically ready as she begins her 37th season at The Farm and 44th overall as the women’s head coach.

“Short course or long course?” VanDerveer asks loudly as he approaches the 25m pool before quickly deciding it would be a good day for the 50m pool with no other swimmers in sight at either location.

Cap and glasses on and she goes inside.

VanDerveer is 69 years old and the top female basketball coach with 1,162 career wins. She mixes up her activities to stay in top shape. She’s a lithe swimmer who maintains a steady pace and freestyles all the way. No breaks until she’s done.

She has swum alongside Olympians Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel and marveled at how they seemingly effortlessly and efficiently reach the other end and turn as she chugs through the water.

Sometimes VanDerveer spends a round thinking about every player in their roster. Other times she might think about a month of the year or earlier seasons.

“I zen a little,” she said. “I’m thinking of something completely different right now.”

VanDerveer’s successful career has transcended coaching eras. First, she stood tall against the late Pat Summitt. Then Geno Auriemma from UConn. Now it’s South Carolina’s Dawn Staley (3-0) who heads to the Maples Pavilion on Sunday as the country’s No. 1 to face VanDerveer’s runner-up Cardinal (5-0) in a showdown of the last two NCAA champions.

Stanford beat Staley’s Gamecocks 66-65 in the 2021 national semifinals.

Staley played for VanDerveer on the 1996 Olympic team that won gold in Atlanta. When South Carolina visited Stanford in 2010 at the beginning of Staley’s South Carolina coaching career, she brought VanDerveer into the visiting dressing room to share some encouragement and wisdom.

“When you live your truth and your passion, it’s timeless. It’s always in because it’s organic. It’s not a fad, it’s not a passing moment,” Staley said of VanDerveer. “It’s beautiful how she approaches life, how she approaches the game and that’s why she can relate – I don’t even think she relates to people, people have a way of relating to her.”

VanDerveer has adapted over the decades. She’s still having fun. She has always credited Summitt with helping her get to where she is today.

“I think it’s great to play against a really good team. You learn a lot about yourself early on,” said VanDerveer after the swim. “We’re going to learn a lot about ourselves. I call it a win-win. Whatever happens, it’s good. It’s fun to play against really good teams. Dawn did a great job with her team. I think , in women’s basketball, people really play each other.”

Eileen Roche, the program’s longtime head of basketball operations, calls ahead of road trips to schedule swim times for her and VanDerveer so they can get their mile-long workouts out of town.

VanDerveer used to be looking for a piano to take with them on the go. Now she is looking for swimming pools.

“She’s amazing,” Roche said, “she’s brilliant.”

VanDerveer is also an accomplished peloton cyclist. One of her former players, Charmin Smith, now trains in California at nearby Berkeley and keeps a close eye on VanDerveer’s rides. She expects nothing less than greatness from her former coach in everything she does.

“It’s not fair to Tara, but it doesn’t even surprise me anymore, it’s exactly what I want her to do,” Smith said. “She’s just excellent when it comes to this game and our sport, especially women’s basketball. She’s just really good at what she does. I’m just expecting it now, I’m not surprised.”

VanDerveer’s path might be different today if she had maintained her early interest in playing the flute. She gave it up as a teenager because she got nervous before each class with her highly respected teacher.

VanDerveer turned to the piano instead.

“I was always excited to go to my piano lessons, even when I hadn’t practiced,” VanDerveer said. “So I think I try to be more like my piano teacher and less like my flute teacher for myself. But none of those teachers had games at stake or felt any pressure that I needed to perform at a certain level.”

After her swim this week, it’s time to rush back to the practice area for shooting. She thanks the water polo coaches on her way out, then rushes back to the arena’s dressing room for a quick shower before heading onto the court, her hair not quite dry yet.

“I love my shower, I think I deserve my shower,” she said.

And VanDerveer remains in awe of Stanford and all its glory and lucky enough to work in such a special place every day.

“Nothing to lose you know,” she said before exiting the pool, “you’ve had a good day. It is great. Isn’t that just beautiful? All right, I need to get ready for the game.”


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