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, a high school freshman, when I met him. I’d failed to make the 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 ran a loop in my neighborhood just to make sure I could go a mile without stopping. 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 told me I was supremely talented, followed my progress and tailored workouts for me. But his focus wasn’t just on me — he showered attention on all of us. We were a team, and he was our team dad.
He was in his early 40s, 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. He noticed rifts between friends and watched for signs of trouble at home. Soon 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 kept in touch through letters and weekly phone calls. I missed him and worried he wouldn’t come home.
Coach drove a brown Bronco and gave us a lift whenever we needed. On weekends, he’d pick up each of us at home so we could all go running together. It felt good to be a part of the group. Like Dad and his pilot buddies, my fellow runners and I were comrades on a 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 two miles to the trailhead of a popular hiking route. We called it “the Road” and it was the hardest workout we did, a test of our grit.
The summer after my freshman year, I and a select group of runners ran most days with Coach. Afterward, we often congregated 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 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. I 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.
Actually, she didn’t recount this particular conversation — she played it for me on the tape recorder she’d hidden in her gym bag.
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 with the tape. As we spoke, Coach was getting fired. There would be no announcement, no news story, no big fuss.
Coach’s firing divided our team. Some of us sided with his victim and wanted nothing to do with him. Others didn’t believe he’d done anything wrong and met with him on the sly. Two of them, sisters struggling 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 girls. After hearing the tape I confronted him, and he tried to convince me that my teammate was lying. It was 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.
For a short time, standing there under his spell, I believed him.
I was 14, and sexuality was still a confusing mystery, the line between the physical affections of childhood and adult sexual advances still fuzzy. Later, turning over our conversation in my mind, I knew his explanation was dead wrong. But his power to convince me, if only for a moment, shamed and frightened me.
Aside from a couple of vigorous leg massages that in retrospect seemed gross, Coach never touched me inappropriately. I told myself I was never his target because I was too smart to fall for his tricks. But he was the smart one. Coach was a predator who targeted needy girls, those with shaky home lives or no loving father figure.
The uncomfortable truth that stopped me from immediately telling my mother about the scandal was that I, too, was one of those needy girls. I was always worried about my father and missed him with a desperation I dared not admit. That was my secret, and I hated Coach for exploiting it. I hated myself, too, for letting him. I was fortunate that Coach hadn’t molested me, but had he done so, I would have felt I deserved it. Because the truth was, I craved his affection.
A few weeks after Coach was fired, he showed up at one of our meets. Seeing him in the stands made me nauseated and tense. I barely finished my race. That evening, I answered the phone to find Coach’s wife on the line. She called me a liar and a choker. The second part was true. I had choked in my race. When Mom heard me crying, she asked what was wrong. The truth came pouring out of me. Mom talked to the principal, and Coach was barred from future meets.
Our new coach was nothing like the molester. He was funny and lighthearted. He took us out for ice cream a few times but never brought us to his house or commented on our appearances. He invited parents to join us on runs.
Shortly after I went away to college, I heard from a high school teammate. Her college team had gone to a meet and she’d seen Coach there. He’d told her he was living and coaching in a different city. I could barely contain my rage. I thought about calling the school district to warn them.
But I told myself it wasn’t my place to report him. He violated my trust but not my body. The decision about how to handle what had happened was his victim’s choice to make, not mine. So I did not forgive him, but I did not expose him. I left him alone with his guilt.
Years later, I was visiting my parents when I read an article about Coach’s daughter, now a star high school runner, referring to her father as a coach. I felt my rage return. I fantasized about calling the sports writer, considered sending Coach’s daughter a letter.
About 10 years ago, I was running a race on that same challenging trail Coach used to take us to on weekends when I heard someone cheering, “Go, Christie!” I looked up and there he was. I screamed out an obscenity before I could understand what had happened. I looked up again and he had vanished so completely that later I’d wonder whether I imagined him. He’d looked so small and shriveled.
I haven’t seen him since. Sometimes I still wonder if I did the right thing. Should I have tried to alert someone in the town he had moved to? Reported him to an official in the track and field world? Or was I right to let it go? The adult in me says that his behavior is not mine to police. But the teenage girl still struggles to let it be. Despite my decision not to intercede, I can’t help but imagine another girl betrayed in the worst way — a girl I might have protected.