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Swim caps to soccer balls

After stepping in as an impromptu substitute, O’Neal conquers new career with fearlessness, versatility
Dave Winter
O’Neal breaks the Freshman B team out during the Knight Freshman Volleyball Tournament on Aug. 27, 2022.

Christmas-time, 2021. Catherine O’Neal travels from Austin to Thailand for a vacation with a close friend. Of course, they’ll both be required to test for COVID-19 upon arrival, but they figure they’ll report a clean bill of health and be released to enjoy their travels. Unfortunately for O’Neal, the two lines on her friend’s COVID-19 test strip had other plans. O’Neal found herself quarantined, alone in a hotel room for 14 days and 14 nights. And although she was thousands of miles away, she couldn’t help but think of her life back home.

“I was working service industry jobs, I was teaching yoga, teaching swimming and kind of just working odd jobs,” O’Neal said.

At that point, she had narrowed her schedule down to just two jobs, one at a brewery and one at a combination café and yoga studio. But being alone with her thoughts for 336 hours made O’Neal question her career choices.

“I was like, ‘What am I doing?’” O’Neal said. “I kind of always had it in my head that I wanted to be a teacher, but I had a hard time actually motivating myself and taking the first step.”

Apparently, all it took was a trip across the world and two weeks of isolation for O’Neal to come to her senses.

“In that room, I decided, ‘OK, I’m quitting those jobs and I’m gonna figure out how to be a teacher,’” O’Neal said. “When I get back, I’m telling my bosses.”

I kind of always had it in my head that I wanted to be a teacher, but I had a hard time actually motivating myself and taking the first step.

— Catherine O'Neal

While she’d planned to bounce around different schools as a substitute while working toward her teaching certificate, a perfect opportunity fell into her lap instead. She found out that Nicole Griffith, a childhood friend from summer camp, was the Principal at McCallum.

“I emailed Ms. Griffith, and I was like, ‘Hey, I’m trying to go down this teaching path, and I’d really like to sub at McCallum, or just kind of bee-bop around AISD and see what schools I like,’” O’Neal said. “She called me a week later and was like, ‘Hey, this teacher just quit. If you could take over this class, it’d be a really good opportunity for you.’”

And it was. Being thrown into the AP World History classroom with no experience in mid-March would have done a number on most, but Catherine O’Neal was up for the challenge.

“I literally got that job and had no idea what I was doing, but I was just gonna be as positive as I could and try to be of service,” she said. “I feel like I won the lottery, because McCallum is a magical place. I don’t know how this happened, but somehow it all happened.”

After spending the last three months of the 2021-22 school year as a long-term substitute and getting her emergency teaching certificate, O’Neal was ready to take a permanent position as a psychology and AP World History teacher the following year.

“As a permanent sub, I felt like as long as I just showed up and was positive, I could do no wrong. It’s a weird situation, I’m gonna do my best, and it’s all good,” O’Neal said. “But now, there’s expectations, and I’m held to a different standard. Those are my students the whole year. I’m in charge of setting the tone, I’m in charge of their quality of education, all of it.”

I feel like I won the lottery, because McCallum is a magical place.

— Catherine O'Neal

Although she was technically a new teacher heading into the 2022-23 school year, O’Neal had gained a massive head start the year before.

“I’m really grateful I had that experience because I was kind of warmed up to the basic flow of things,” O’Neal said. “I knew where things were, I had some familiar faces, I’d created some relationships with teachers, I knew I could ask for help and whatnot.”

In fact, O’Neal felt so settled at McCallum that she was ready to take on more responsibility by offering to coach. Having swam at UC Berkeley alongside decorated Olympians like Natalie Coughlin and Jessica Hardy, O’Neal knows her way around the lap pool. But she didn’t become the swim coach. Instead, she turned her attention to another sport, one she had only dabbled in about 25 years earlier. As soon as she learned that the freshman B volleyball team was in need of a coach, she didn’t hesitate to offer up her services.

“I told them, ‘I retired in middle school, but, bump set spike?’” O’Neal said. “I always have this sense that, wherever I can be of most service, just put me there. If they need me as the swim coach, I’ll be the swim coach. If they want me to coach cross country, I’ll do that. If they want me to stick with volleyball and be the freshman specialist, I can do that.”

This season, O’Neal has her hands full coaching both the freshman A and B teams. After coaching the freshman B team last season, O’Neal realized the special place that less experienced players hold in her heart.

I always have this sense that, wherever I can be of most service, just put me there.

— Catherine O'Neal

“The first time they can get a serve over the net or make a good pass, it’s the most exhilarating thing for them,” O’Neal said. “I see the look on their face, and that’s why I do it.”

Besides the magic of watching her players learn, O’Neal’s favorite part of coaching is witnessing the quintessential moments of high school sports that she knows the kids will look back on.

“Some of my favorite memories are when I’m driving the bus at nighttime after a game, and they’re all making some TikTok video or singing at the top of their lungs,” O’Neal said. “I have these moments where I’m like, ‘I’m just creating this experience for them.’ They might not remember me, and that’s not what it’s about. Because it’s about the little things, moments of friendship budding or memories being created.”

O’Neal (second from bottom right) poses with her kickball team in Northwest Hills in 1993. Photo courtesy of O’Neal.

Natalie Cross, a setter and libero on the freshman A team, felt right at home with Coach O’Neal as soon as they met at the freshman volleyball clinic over the summer.

“She was so outgoing and kind to everyone,” Cross said. “No matter what, she stays positive and understanding.”

As she drives the bus to away games, O’Neal watches her kids bond through the rearview mirror and soaks in every minute of it. Like O’Neal, Cross loves the certain energy that fills the bus when the team is getting ready to play.

“Bus rides are so special because we play music, sing together and get each other hyped up for our game,” Cross said.

I’m just creating this experience for them. They might not remember me, and that’s not what it’s about.

— Catherine O'Neal

The volleyball program isn’t the only one that’s been graced with O’Neal’s energy and enthusiasm. As soon as volleyball season ended last year, head basketball coach Carly Kehn rushed to recruit O’Neal to coach the newly formed JV squad. She may have had no experience with basketball besides being on the seventh-grade B Team, but in true O’Neal fashion, she saw the need, she filled it.

“I had been wondering what It’d be like to go home at 4:30,” O’Neal said. “But I adore Coach Kehn. I was like, ‘For you, I’ll do anything!’”

Once again, O’Neal jumped at the opportunity to gain an understanding and appreciation for a sport she knew little about.

“I went to a couple of UT womens’ games, and I had this epiphany as I was watching,” O’Neal said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I like this sport so much more now’ because I could look at every movement and know it’s a technical skill that she practiced for hours and hours.”

While the JV Basketball coach position has been filled by a new teacher, O’Neal already has another coaching gig lined up. This time, it’s in sport that’s completely new to her, one that she didn’t even dabble in during her middle school years. She’s confident, however, that her coaching outlook as well as her own athletic experience will make the season a success.

“Coaching basketball made me appreciate the technicality of the sport, and I feel like it’s gonna be the same with soccer. I hope I’ll be able to watch it in a totally different light after I coach,” O’Neal said. “I understand the mechanics of the human body, I understand athleticism, so although I’m not technically soccer trained, there’s things that I can apply and weave in.”

She’ll also have head coach Barney Guerra by her side to help her learn the ins and outs of the game.

“To me, the energy is more important than the level of experience. I can fill that in. I can teach her,” Guerra said. “She said she was willing to learn and she was super pumped about soccer. That was the most important thing.”

Guerra sought out O’Neal in part because he recognized her willingness to be of service wherever needed.

She looks at the situation and says, ‘What can I do to help the most?’

— Barney Guerra

“One thing I love about her is that she looks at the situation and says, ‘What can I do to help the most?’” Guerra said.

“The kind-hearted person she is, being in a sport where she was the third or fourth coach while I needed a second coach, she knew she’d be most useful for soccer. It was hard for her to leave basketball because I know she loved the kids, and the kids loved her. But she went where she was needed.”

Guerra most looks forward to watching the JV team thrive under O’Neal’s unflinchingly positive disposition. And with so many experienced players in the soccer program to teach her the nuances of the sport, the relationship will be mutually beneficial.

“I know that the girls are gonna take ownership of the team,” Guerra said. “It’s a really special experience for kids and teachers to get to learn and grow together, as opposed to having a coach just order players around.”

O’Neal’s understanding, lighthearted disposition while coaching is due in part to her own athletic career. From when she started swimming in the local summer league at 8 years old until she swam Division 1 at UC Berkley, O’Neal’s sport was at the center of her world.

O’Neal stands with teammate Genevieve Patterson at a swim meet on Jan. 24, 2006. Photo courtesy of O’Neal.

“I was super hard on myself, and I was super competitive,” she said. “It was all about being an elite athlete, not about having a sustainable athletic practice in your life that you can enjoy and take with you anywhere.”

As an adult, O’Neal has taken her love of movement with her but left behind the toxicity that can come with high-level training.

“I love to swim, but I don’t want to lap swim anymore. I run a lot, I do a lot of yoga, and I lift weights. Sometimes I’ll go to Deep Eddy or Barton Springs and just plunge in,” she said. “I can’t imagine not being active and moving, because that’s always been a part of my life. That’s when I feel most clear headed.”

It’s O’Neal’s goal to provide kids with an environment that nurtures a healthier, more feasible mindset toward sports, just like the one she’s adopted herself.

“Sports are a microcosm for life. They’re a metaphor for everything you do,” she said. “You should be competitive, push yourself, and also know that there’s a quality of longevity and sustainability, and you can use this activity to influence the rest of your life.”


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  • K

    Katie HyzakApr 3, 2024 at 2:57 pm

    I loved this story so much! There was so much detail that it made me feel like I knew Coach O’Neal on another level. There was also a great use of quotes in this story that I think was very critical. Furthermore, I like how one of the quotes came from someone who has worked with Coach O’Neal before. I feel that it gives even more insight into her story.

  • R

    Riley PitaDec 11, 2023 at 4:13 pm

    I felt like the story really gave insight to what swimming and sports culture in general can be like, especially the ending quote about how you have to find a balance of training and your well-being. The only thing that I thought could have been better was the transition between the three main points of the story because it would help to connect the main point, the change in sports, more.

  • A

    Allison HinojosaOct 22, 2023 at 7:40 pm

    This is amazing!!! I know the MAC Swimmers would love any of your pearls of wisdom and the Volleyball team just love your energy as well! Thanks for being an amazing addition to the Knight family.