Assistant thrives near home

BY ANNE UIBLE
Daily Sports Writer
Published February 11, 2004

Sometimes you don’t have to go far away from home to find
what you’re looking for. Michigan women’s swimming
assistant coach Stefanie Kerska believes in this
wholeheartedly.

After attending high school in Ann Arbor and swimming for
Michigan in the late 1980s, she returned to her roots six years ago
to coach the same team that taught her how to live life to the
fullest.

Kerska first swam when her mom sent her off to swim camp at the
age of 10. Armed with only a bikini, Kerska was the sole camper
without a swim cap or goggles.

The camp jump-started Kerska’s love for swimming and
pushed her to join various club teams. At 14, her father’s
job moved the family from New York to Michigan, and Kerska was told
to find a local swim club that she liked.

“My father said he’d commute to Troy (to work) from
any local area of my choosing,” Kerska said. “It really
wasn’t difficult for me to pick a team — Ann Arbor Swim
Club was the obvious choice.”

Kerska swam at Pioneer High School from 1983-87, where she was
the two-time state champion in the 100-yard backstroke and the
second-ranked backstroker in the country.

Although she gave a verbal commitment to Michigan at one point,
her decision changed on signing day. Her call to Michigan’s
Jim Richardson caught the coach offhand.

“She said to me, ‘I’ve decided where I’m
going,’ ” Richardson said. “Then she gave this
long pause and to my dismay chose Virginia! In my head I was
thinking, ‘Wait, no, you meant to say Michigan!’

While at Virginia, Kerska had difficulties with the swim coach
and was sick for the better part of her first semester. She decided
to transfer to Michigan after just three months as a Cavalier.

By January of her freshman year, Kerska training with the
Wolverines. Kerska made her debut at the 1988 Big Ten
championships, winning the 500-yard freestyle title as a
last-minute fill-in for the race’s defending champion, Gwen
De Mott, who was sick with mono.

“She was going into a race she’d never really done
before,” Richardson said. “But she not only finished
with a personal best time, but she claimed the title for the race.
It was at that moment that she established herself as a force in
the Big Ten.”

At the end of Kerska’s swimming career in 1990, she was a
seven-time Big Ten Conference champion.

“She was incredibly tough,” Richardson said.
“Along with half the girls being intimidated by her, I think
half the guys on the men’s team were scared of her
too.”

After graduating, Kerska married former Michigan men’s
swimmer Dave Kerska and coached various high school and club swim
teams in the Ann Arbor area In 1998, Richardson offered her an
assistant coaching position with the Wolverines.

“I knew she obviously had the background,”
Richardson said. “She had great organizational skills, knew
my style and had a good idea of the ins and outs of the program. I
knew she would be perfect for the job.”

Senior captain Sara Johnson agrees that Kerska has been an asset
to the program. While she views Kerska as a friend and fill-in
mother many times, she has really felt the intensity of her
compassionate coach. Johnson believes that Kerska’s real
mission as assistant coach is to keep Richardson organized.

“He would have a really hard time keeping things in line
without her,” Johnson said.

Richardson said the swimmers are more comfortable talking to her
about certain topics because she is a woman.

“I try to be as in touch with my feminine side as I
can,” Richardson said. “I live with my wife, my young
daughter and a female dog, but it can only go so far.”

Kerska has been able to bond easily with the swimmers over the
course of the six seasons she’s been with Michigan.

While influencing her swimmers’ lives, Kerska has two
children of her own to imprint her ideals upon. She and her husband
have a daughter, Katerina, and a son, Karl Niklas.

“It’s difficult balancing family and
coaching,” Kerska said. “In both cases, you want to
give just a little bit more, and you have to be able to find just
the right amount. For me, family comes first, but there are no
other girls I‘d rather spend my time with than the team. I
feel very privileged to coach here and be able to affect these
girls’ lives.”

Many people are concerned about finding new roots, but Kerska
has found that she hasn’t had to travel far to find the place
where she belongs.