Last month’s news that Hall of Fame swim coach Rick Curl will go to jail for molesting one of his swimmers in the 1980s is just the latest saga in a recurring tale about coaches who exploit their authority to sexually abuse young athletes. I know the story all too well.
I was 13 years old, a freshman in high school, when I met him. I'd failed to make the C-team volleyball squad. The girls’ running team was my consolation prize. They let everyone in.
He was the coach, and he took an immediate interest in me. I'd never run before and was so worried about keeping up that, before my first practice, I secretly ran a loop in my neighborhood just to make sure I could go a mile without stopping. I could, and before the season was over, I would become the fastest runner on the team.
Coach—that's what we all called him—noted my potential and immediately began nurturing it. He watched my every move and told me I was supremely talented. He followed my progress and tailored workouts for me. But his focus wasn’t just on me—he showered attention on all of us, regardless of our speed. We were a team, and he was our team dad.
He was in his early 40s and not especially tall or physically imposing. He had a distance runner's wiry frame, a balding head and thick glasses. His eyes were twitchy, sometimes blinking uncontrollably as if they were trying to erase some speck of dirt. He took a keen interest in our lives beyond running. He'd ask us about school and our families. He teased us about boys, frequently disparaging the ones we were fond of, and he often took part in team gossip. He noticed rifts between friends and watched for signs of trouble at home. Before long, we were all spending most of our free time with him, running or just hanging out.
My father, an Air Force fighter pilot, was away on a remote assignment in South Korea that year. Mom, my sister, and I had stayed behind. Our contact with Dad consisted of letters and weekly phone calls. I missed my dad, and I worried he wouldn't come home. Flying jets is dangerous business, especially near the DMZ.
Coach drove a brown Bronco and would give us a lift whenever we needed. On weekends, he'd pick every girl up at her home so we could all go running together. It felt good to be a part of the group, to belong and have something to contribute. Like Dad and his pilot buddies, my fellow runners and I were comrades, on a shared mission to beat our rivals.
Winning was important to Coach, so it was important to me. Once a week, he'd take us to run a steep stretch of narrow pavement that climbed about 2 miles to the trailhead of a popular hiking route. We called it "the Road" and it was the hardest workout we did, snaking up steep foothills, through sagebrush and pinyon forest. The run was a test of our grit.
That summer after my freshman year, I ran most days with Coach and a select group of runners. Afterward, we'd often congregate at his condo, sometimes with his wife and their baby daughter. His wife was a blond beauty two decades his junior, only a few years older than us. If she felt like our older sister, he felt like our cool dad.
Coach didn't keep that authoritative distance that most adults did. He told us what he really thought of the people around him. He could be snide and judgmental about school authorities and our rival teams, but this made us feel special, because he was letting us in on the way the world actually works, treating us like the adults we yearned to be.
One day a teammate took me aside to share a secret. She was a middle-of-the-pack runner, well-respected but quiet—mousy and easy to miss. I'd always liked her, but we weren't especially close.
She told it to me straight. Coach had touched her. He'd come on to her and complained about how his wife never initiated sex. He said he had needs. My teammate didn't actually recount this particular conversation—she played it back for me on the tape recorder she'd surreptitiously hidden in her gym bag. There was nothing to deny, everything I needed to know was right there on tape.
For a moment, I felt paralyzed. This can't be true, my body said, even as my mind could not deny that it was. My initial grief gave way to rage. I'd trusted Coach, and he'd betrayed me, betrayed all of us. He didn't care about me at all.
My teammate had gone to the principal of our school with the tape. As we spoke, Coach was getting canned. There would be no announcement, no story in the papers, no big fuss. One day he was running with us, the next day he was gone.
Coach’s firing split our team in two. Some of us sided with his victim and wanted nothing to do with him. But some girls didn't believe he'd done anything wrong and they continued to meet with him on the sly. Two of them, sisters who struggled to get along with their alcoholic single mother, turned against me. Coach was the only adult in their lives who took an interest in them. How could that be wrong?
Coach knew that as team captain I held sway among some of the other girls. After hearing the tape, I confronted him, and he tried to convince me that my teammate was lying. He'd done nothing wrong. It was just a misunderstanding. They were merely playing "chicken"—he was touching her leg and maybe his hand had crept upward, but there was no harm intended. It was just a game, like teenagers play all the time. She was making a big deal out of nothing.
And for a short time, standing there under his spell, I actually believed him. This was just a big misunderstanding. Coach didn't mean anything wrong. It was just a game.