When she was an undergraduate swimming at the University of Georgia, Michelle McKeehan kept a picture on her wall from her final high school swim meet.
As a Center Grove senior in 2008, McKeehan was attempting to become just the second female swimmer in Indiana history to win four straight individual state titles in two different events. After she completed the four-peat in the 200-yard individual medley, setting what was then a national high school record of 1:56.87, Trojans coach Jim Todd — his hair bleached blond as it is every postseason — came up by the starting blocks and embraced McKeehan while she was still in the water.
“I think that was one of my favorite memories,” she said. “We had both been through a lot. My senior year, it was just filled with a lot of anxiety. … I remember him coming behind the blocks and giving me a hug in the water — and telling me to get out and warm down because I had another race to do.”
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Todd — who says he still regards the greatest swimmer in Center Grove history as a “third daughter” — also remembers that moment clearly.
“They about had to carry me out after that race, because I was so excited for her,” he said. “She had just set the new national high school record and was the first girl in Indiana to go under two minutes in the 200 IM — and not only did she go under it, she crushed it by going four seconds under it. It was just one of the most perfect races I’ve ever seen.”
McKeehan completed her historic two-by-four later that afternoon with a victory in the 100 breaststroke, hitting the wall in 1:00.12 to break her own state mark. She remains far and away the most decorated swimmer in Johnson County history.
A dozen years later, Michelle Versfeld is back in Georgia, working in the development department at her alma mater and pursuing her doctorate in sports management. She’s married to another former Bulldog swimmer, current men’s associate head coach Nathan Versfeld — who competed in the 2008 Olympics for South Africa.
Though she seems to have now found a career path that works for her, Versfeld concedes that it took some time for her post-athletic life to come into focus — a struggle that is not uncommon for elite athletes once their competitive days end.
“Your identity is pretty much wrapped up in whatever your sport is, and you don’t really get to experience life outside of that sport or really think of yourself as anything other than (that),” she said. “Growing up, I was Michelle McKeehan the swimmer, and never anything really different than that, so I was just really struggling trying to figure out what I would look like as a professional.”
It was after returning to Georgia to work on her master’s degree in 2014 that Versfeld’s future started taking shape. She took a job in the athletic department and transitioned to development shortly thereafter.
Versfeld — who won golds in the 100-meter breaststroke and 400 medley relay at the 2007 Pan-American Games in Rio de Janeiro — stopped competing after the 2012 Olympic trials. Prior to retirement, she earned All-America distinction 10 different times in her collegiate career and was the SEC champion in the 200-yard breaststroke.
Those accomplishments sit in stark contrast to her first appearance at a national meet the summer before her freshman year at Center Grove — one that Versfeld remembers as “a disaster.” Competing in the 100-meter breaststroke, she was at or near the front of her heat at the halfway point, and the disbelief that she was faring so well against the best young swimmers in the country got to her.
“That thought entered her mind and then she just died coming home,” Todd said with a chuckle.
Versfeld still recalls her days at Center Grove with fondness — none more than the ones spent with her teammates each year at the state meet that she dominated for four straight winters.
“Indiana high school swimming is unlike anything else,” Versfeld said. “My husband, for recruiting, travels to different state meets, and I don’t think there’s anything bigger than going into IU Natatorium and seeing both sides filled wall to wall with people to cheer on high school swimming. It’s so special, and when you’re there with a group of ladies that you’ve trained so hard with, there’s nothing like it.”