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Understanding Adaptability

Feb 2, 2021

This feature originally appeared in the 2020-21 Winter edition of the Cal Sports Quarterly. The Cal Athletics flagship magazine features long-form sports journalism at its finest and provides in-depth coverage of the scholar-athlete experience in Berkeley. Printed copies are mailed four times a year to Bear Backers who give annually at the Bear Club level (currently $600 or more). For more information on how you can receive a printed version of the Cal Sports Quarterly at home, send an email to or call (510) 642-2427.

Words such as nimble, flexible and adaptable have become more common parts of our vocabulary since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March. For Cal swimmer Robin Neumann, those terms have practically defined her life.
So when she had to made adjustments due to the onset of COVID-19 in the spring, Neumann's experience helped her understand how to proceed.
If her memory serves her right, Neumann counts 17 moves since she was born in Paris in 1997. Before she arrived in Berkeley, her family had set up residences in such cities as Frankfurt, Stockholm, London, Munich and Amsterdam. Appropriately enough, she is majoring in global studies with an interest in international diplomacy after she graduates later this year.
The reason for Neumann's nomadic life stems from her father, Wolfgang. A longtime hotel executive whose career has included stints as CEO of the Radisson Hotel Group and president of Hilton Europe and Africa, his job required relocating his family periodically.
While Neumann has moved from city to city and country to country numerous times, she now calls Amsterdam home, primarily because it has been her family's base for the past decade. She also represented the Netherlands at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, swimming the 200-meter freestyle as an individual and on the Dutch 800-meter free relay.
Neumann first took to the pool in London in 2003. In a new city following a move from Sweden, Neumann's mother, Gwen, looked for an activity to keep her three young children occupied. She found an all-day swimming program, and Robin immediately fell in love with the sport. She showed proficiency soon after and elevated to a club program to help her continue to develop.
From that point on, Neumann joined a different swim club, with a different coach and often in a different country, every time her family relocated. She got into national level swim programs while in Germany, which helped set the stage for what she was able to do once she was in the Netherlands by age 13.
"I definitely had my fair share of times where I wish I could be longer with a coach," Neumann said. "Every time when I've lost a coach, I was devastated, or when I had to move, I was upset because I felt like this was it. But every single time something new and positive came out of the new coach, and I think it taught me something new. It gave me a new perspective. They saw something different in me that needed to be worked on. And I think that way I could keep growing, as well."
While swimming provided consistency, languages did not, and communication often became one of Neumann's biggest challenges. As usual though, she figured out what to do.
"I think I got very good at being thrown into new situations because I kind of had to," Neumann said. "I'm a pretty social person, so I think I quickly was able to make new friends … Swimming was my thing, no matter where I was. I didn't always have control over the moves, but I had control over what I was able to do with swimming. And honestly, I just loved being in the water and made lots of friends that way."
Neumann qualified for her first international meet, the European Youth Olympic Festival, in 2011. She then began training with the Regional Youth Center and moved up to the Dutch national team four years later. Her next big step came when she qualified for the Olympics as a 19-year-old and found herself on a much bigger stage.
"I had never been to Brazil, so it was quite the experience," Neumann said. "You're standing in the food court, and all of a sudden you're standing next to Usain Bolt. I was like, what am I doing here? And then you will pass Roger Federer, and you're like, OK, and I'm on it."
Since arriving at Cal in the fall of 2017, Neumann has thrived. She serves as a team co-captain this season and ranks among the Bears' all-time top 10 in the 100-yard free and 200-yard free and helped the 800 free relay set a school record in 2019. In the classroom, the swimming coaches' association has named her a Scholar All-American three times, and she earned Academic All-America honors last spring.
"She's a real role model," fellow senior Natalie Tuck said. "She leads by example in the pool and in the classroom, as well, and she gives 100 percent in everything that she's doing. The way she goes about doing things is inspiring."
According to head coach Teri McKeever, Neumann's previous experiences have clearly helped her as a collegian.
"The people that do well here are the people that are adaptable, that are open minded," McKeever said. "To be willing to stretch and be uncomfortable, that's really important in the program."
Neumann took her flexibility to a different level once the pandemic hit in March, canceling the season a week before the NCAA Championships. Unsure of what the immediate future held, she flew to Florida to stay with her best friend for a visit that she expected to last four days. Five weeks later, she was still there with only a 12-yard pool available for workouts – less than half the length of a collegiate venue.
Neumann decided the best place for her next was home, so she went back to Amsterdam and remained there through the fall semester. Unable to train with her Cal teammates, she found a new coach and club team, and remained in steady contact with McKeever to review training routines and mental exercises.
"You have to learn to do different things," Neumann said. "Teri has always taught us to be adaptable – How can you swim a race without warming up? What are some things you can do on land, such as cartwheels and handstands? I tried to implement that as much as I could. And I think that that has helped me a lot to not lose too much of my technique or my form or my athleticism."
Neumann returned to Berkeley after the New Year with plans to compete for the Bears the final semester of her senior year – one more move among a lifetime of them that she hopes will cap off her collegiate career in style, coronavirus permitting. Then, expect her to jet back into the international scene as another Cal graduate looking to shape the world.