A fateful phone call in June 2020 kickstarted one of the best days of Katie Robinson’s life. Robinson, previously the associate head coach at Northwestern, had recently interviewed for the head coaching position. After one of the job’s early interview rounds, she cried, feeling certain she wouldn’t be hired.
When Robinson received the call from then-Athletics Director Jim Phillips in June 2020, she cried again. But this time, for a different reason — the head coaching job was hers. “[Phillips] made me feel like I belonged here –– not just fit in, but actually belong,” Robinson says
“He was going to walk with me every step of the way. That’s my mantra: I don’t want to do this alone. I want so badly to do this with others and surround myself on this journey.” Hiring Robinson as the only female head coach of a men’s sport wasn’t just groundbreaking for Northwestern; it was influential on the national level.
(Photo by Eloise Apple)
Robinson is one of just two women coaching a combined men’s and women’s swimming program in the Power Five conferences, which includes the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and the SEC. She is also one of just six female head coaches among all women’s and men’s swimming programs in the Power Five. She is part of a small group of women — just 5.8% of all college coaches — leading a men’s sport in the NCAA.
Robinson first discovered her passion for coaching as a sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin, when she recognized the impact her coaches had on her both in and out of the pool.
“I just wanted to make a positive impact on other people.”Coach Robinson
“Some of the lessons they taught through swimming have stuck with me to this day,” Robinson says.“I just wanted to make a positive impact on other people.”
Robinson recalls a day when she was struggling at practice and felt embarrassed after getting out of the pool. Her coach, Jill Sterkel, pulled her aside and told her, “‘anybody can swim fast on the days it feels easy. It’s what you do when it’s hard. That’s how you grow in this sport.’”
It’s a meaningful lesson Robinson remembers to this day. She also values swimming’s collaborative nature and emphasizes the importance of teamwork as a coach. Her goal is to ensure that the Wildcats are “searching for things that are bigger than just ourselves.”
Kim Brackin, UT Austin’s head coach for women’s swimming from 2006-2012, coached Robinson during her senior year.
“Katie, to me, was somebody who would embrace hard work and have fun with it,” Brackin says. “She could be making jokes or talking to her teammates or engaging while she was doing something challenging. I loved that about her.”
Robinson graduated from UT Austin as an 11-time All-American and was a Big 12 nominee for NCAA Female Athlete of the Year. She went on to serve as an assistant coach at the University of the Pacific, the University of Virginia and Rutgers University. These experiences taught her the importance of respect and toughness in coaching — qualities she has since brought to her head coaching roles at Tulane and Northwestern.
Just two years into serving as head coach at Northwestern, Robinson has tallied even more accolades. She has coached dozens of All-Americans and multiple Big Ten champions. With Robinson at the helm, the Wildcat women’s program broke records for point totals at the Big Ten Championship in 2021.
“I’ve always been somebody who [says], ‘Tell me what I can’t do and I’ll prove you wrong. I’ve always had that chip on my shoulder.”Coach Robinson
For Robinson, these opportunities have been years in the making. She says she’s had a strong work ethic since she was young. “I’ve always been somebody who [says], ‘Tell me what I can’t do and I’ll prove you wrong. I’ve always had that chip on my shoulder.”
Robinson’s work ethic stands out to her swimmers as well. One such swimmer, public policy and administration graduate student Miriam Guevara says Robinson’s constant desire to learn, whether getting to know her swimmers better or improving as a coach, is inspiring and sets her apart.
Despite Robinson’s hard work, her journey certainly hasn’t been easy. Robinson says she comes up against gender discrimination nearly every day and feels it’s normalized in the swimming world. It’s something Robinson experiences even among her swimmers at Northwestern.
“If I say something and my assistant coach, who’s a male, says the same thing, it’s received better sometimes from him versus me,” Robinson says. “[Gender bias] is something I think about a lot. It’s something I do my best to counteract.”
Weinberg fourth-year swimmer Ally Larson says Robinson’s success is inspirational. With low rates of female coaches nationwide, Larson says she feels “honored” to swim on a team led by a woman.
The Wildcats have several different coaching groups based on distance and stroke. Guevara, who competes in sprint and middle distance butterfly, is part of Robinson’s primary coaching group. Like Brackin at UT Austin, Guevara says Robinson’s ability to combine work and fun sets her apart on the pool deck. “What I really admire about Katie is her ability to balance being competitive, being fierce and aggressive, [with being] light-hearted and joyful,” Guervara says.
Fourth-year swimmer Ethan Churilla was part of Robinson’s primary coaching group during his freshman year. He says meets have led to some of the most memorable moments with Robinson.
“She’s excited for us, and hyping us up,” Churilla says. “[She’s] making us feel good about ourselves and the team as a whole.”
“What I really admire about Katie is her ability to balance being competitive, being fierce and aggressive, [with being] light-hearted and joyful.”Miriam Guevara
Now, in her third year as head coach at Northwestern, Robinson continues to lead the program to new heights. As of February, the women’s program ranks 20th nationally, according to the College Swimming and Diving Coaches Association of America (CSCAA), and has toppled ranked conference foes like Minnesota and Wisconsin. The men’s program has found success as well, with numerous swimmers achieving wins and personal bests.
For Robinson, the standout moments of her coaching career haven’t necessarily been the wins or rankings. She enjoys the little aspects, like watching a swimmer look “shocked and amazed” when they see their time after a race or witnessing the growth between swimmers’ freshman and senior years.
“That’s really cool as a coach, to be in the front seat with them, working through all the challenges and being stronger because of it,” Robinson says.