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Her 1996 enrollment at Columbia University shocked the swimming establishment and raised questions about her future. Cristina Teuscher answered with Olympic medals, NCAA Championships and a bevy of records at every level.
It was a decision that shocked everyone in the swimming establishment, or at least everyone who didn't know Cristina Teuscher.
Already among the most versatile swimmers in the world, she decided in 1996 to make Columbia University -- a school with little history of swimming success to that point -- her collegiate home. She had been to all the 'name' schools, but the trips all ended the same way: with Cristina coming back home and saying she didn't feel comfortable. But Columbia felt different.
A number of college coaches said she was effectively hanging up her suit, intimating that she could never keep pace with the world's best if she wasn't swimming against them on a daily basis. Her mother, Monica, said that one newspaper reporter called her crazy for letting her daughter cast aside either a full college scholarship or the endorsement money Cristina would have made as a professional.
"We didn't want to sell our daughter to a school," Monica says. "I told her, 'Forget the money and go where you want.' Looking back it was the best decision we ever made."
Cristina says she did it for her brain, and she agrees with her mother. "I always knew in the back of my mind that swimming would only be part of my life, and I think at an NCAA powerhouse school I [would have been] more of a commodity," she says. "You have to realize that sport is just part of your life. Columbia students clap at the end of classes. It's amazing."
In 1994, Cristina had signed up for the World Championship Trials in hopes of qualifying for the 1995 Pan-Am Games, which were to be held in Argentina, where her parents had grown up. Doing so was more preparation than anything else, says John Collins, her coach at the Badger Swim Club in Larchmont, N.Y. "We weren't thinking in terms of making the (U.S.) team. We were thinking in terms of trying to perform well."
Cristina, as it turned out, performed very well indeed. She qualified for the finals in the 100 freestyle, a race she rarely swam, and the next day won the 200 free by defeating renowned champions Jenny Thompson and Janet Evans. "I'm just sitting around and all of a sudden she comes out of nowhere and wins this thing, beating all these Olympians," Monica says. "And I'm sitting there by myself looking for someone to hug."
Despite the weight of suddenly new expectation, she then finished second in the 400 freestyle at the 1994 World Championships in Rome. And then the recruiting race was on. "All of a sudden," Collins says, "she was propelled from being a nobody to getting the cover on all the magazines and being touted as the next great American swimming star."
True to her roots in the Northeast -- born in the Bronx and raised in New Rochelle -- she expressed an interest in Columbia and Princeton, focusing on Columbia because of its proximity to home. In the fall of 2005 Collins contacted Lions' swimming coach Diana Caskey to broach the idea of Cristina swimming for the Lions. Caskey, logically expecting Cristina to attend a top 10 school, had not even attempted to recruit her.
"I thought there was not a strong likelihood she would come to Columbia," Caskey says understatedly. "I thought, 'Oh sure, Cristina Teuscher is going to come to Columbia University.' It was just a little bit outside the realm of possibility given her talent and what she had done already in swimming.
"But once I spoke to her things changed. Cristina is not one who makes light of anything. She thinks through very carefully the choices that she has. So quickly the thought went from, 'This could never happen' to 'Hey, maybe this could happen.'"
Caskey took a laid-back approach to recruiting Teuscher, knowing that Cristina would need time to be sure Columbia was the right place for her. Caskey also emphasized that she and Collins could work out a plan that would allow Teuscher to compete with Columbia's team while still receiving the personal instruction she needed to compete against the world's other best swimmers.
Caskey's approach turned out to be just the perfect fit for Teuscher, as she spurned offers from the country's swimming powerhouses to swim as a Lion. And she began stunningly: even before her freshman season began, she claimed a gold medal with the record-setting 800-meter freestyle relay team at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
In four years at Columbia, she then won all four individual NCAA championship races in which she swam, set 17 school records, and never lost an individual race. She was named Outstanding Ivy League Swimmer all four years of her eligibility, was a two-time All-American and, in her senior season of 1999-2000, became the first Ivy athlete and only the fourth swimmer ever to win the Honda-Broderick Cup as the nation's outstanding female collegiate athlete.
A popular teammate and captain at Columbia, "she always wanted to give back to the program," in Caskey's words, and she and her teammates elevated the profile of the program and its level of success. In 2006, the Lions had their best finish ever -- third -- at the Ivy Championship. She also enthusiastically lent her name to the Cristina Teuscher Intercollegiate Women's Sports Endowment, whose funds will be used to enhance all women's sports at Columbia. At the inaugural banquet in 2001, then-Athletic Director John Reeves said, "During my decade at Columbia University, there has not been a more significant event than this celebration."
In 2004 Cristina was included in the Columbia 250, a list compiled in honor of the school's 250th anniversary: her entry simply calls her "the greatest female athlete in the history of Columbia University." A year later, she was one of seven women athletes inducted into Columbia's Athletics Hall of Fame in its inaugural class.
After graduating in 2000 with a degree in Psychology, Cristina earned a bronze medal in the 200 individual medley at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. But without school to provide a balance to her athletic career, Teuscher began to feel unfocused. Contemplating retirement before being part of the gold-medal 800 freestyle relay squad at the August, 2001, World Championships in Japan, her thinking crystallized following the World Trade Center attacks. Soon after, she began work with the Robin Hood Foundation's 9/11 relief effort to organize donations and raise money for victims' families.
After working briefly in investments in London, Cristina returned to swimming, working with John Collins as a youth swim coach with Badger. She served on the USA Swimming Steering Committee to help choose the 2008 Olympic coaches for the United States (also known as USA) team.
"She's very well respected among the swimming community," says Collins. "She's smart and everybody really likes her. And she has a little different point of view than most people. She's someone who took a very different path and, as Robert Frost said, that made all the difference."
Cristina admits to some anxiety over the next chapter of her life, moving to Paris for a one-year program at the INSEAD Business School, but the discipline of her sport has made her ready. "I'm not trying to make any predictions," she says. "I'm at peace at having left swimming and I'm so excited at having this opportunity, so I just kind of want to see what comes of it."