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Serious abuse allegations made against Cal Women's Swimming head coach Teri McKeever
What a fiasco for Cal Athletics
The legacy of Teri McKeever, head coach of Cal Women’s Swimming, will never be the same after some serious bullying and abusive behaviors were made public on Tuesday.
McKeever is a coaching legend, not just at Cal but internationally in the swimming world. She has been at Cal for 29 seasons (since 1993) and has led the program to four NCAA team titles. In a sport (but this is true for almost all sports) where the overwhelming majority of the women’s team coaches are still men, Teri McKeever has been the first and only female head coach of the US Olympic swimming team (London 2012 Games) as well as serving as an assistant on two other Olympic Games.
At Cal, McKeever struck gold with Natalie Coughlin in the early 2000’s when Coughlin dominated both at the NCAA and the Olympics. The NCAA team titles came after that when Cal was able to get deeper teams, including poaching another Olympic great in Dana Vollmer as a transfer from Florida. The last of McKeever’s titles came in 2015 with Olympic star Missy Franklin. Teri’s role as the USA head coach in London 2012 allowed her to form a strong bond with Franklin, who turned pro after spending two seasons racing for Cal.
An investigation by the Southern California News Group (SCNG) with 19 current and former women’s team swimmers, six parents, and one former member of the men’s team resulted in a lengthy article on The OC Register (link in Tweet below). This is a rather disturbing and disheartening read.
The Mercury News got the same story (and possibly an easier webpage to read).
For parts of four decades, McKeever, 60, has been one of swimming’s leading coaches, the architect of one of college sports’ premier programs, producing Olympians and NCAA champions in the pool and standouts in the classrooms of the nation’s leading public university.
She is the most well known and most successful female coach in the sport’s history. McKeever was the first and only woman head coach of the U.S. Olympic team, leading a squad that included six future, current or former Cal swimmers who earned a combined 13 medals at the London Games. McKeever’s father Mike was a football star at USC and so was his brother Marlin. Teri McKeever swam at USC and was an All-American and then a USC assistant coach before coaching 29 seasons in Berkeley, winning four NCAA team titles and producing 26 Olympians who have combined for 36 Olympic medals.
“It kills me inside that you guys don’t appreciate being coached by the best coach in the world,” McKeever told her team at the Pac 12 Championships this past February, according to three swimmers present during the talk.
But in interviews with SCNG, 19 current and former Cal swimmers, six parents, and a former member of the Golden Bears men’s team portray McKeever as a bully who for decades has allegedly verbally and emotionally abused, swore at and threatened swimmers on an almost daily basis, pressured athletes to compete or train while injured or dealing with chronic illnesses or eating disorders, even accusing some women of lying about their conditions despite being provided medical records by them.
The interviews, as well as emails, letters, university documents, recordings of conversations between McKeever and swimmers, and journal entries, reveal an environment where swimmers from Olympians, World Championships participants and All-Americans to non-scholarship athletes are consumed with avoiding McKeever’s alleged wrath. This preoccupation has led to panic attacks, anxiety, sleepless nights, depression, self-doubt, suicidal thoughts and planning, and in some cases self harm.
The article went on to detail a number of different complaints about how Teri McKeever runs her program and creates a facade to the outside world and future recruits how everything is great.
The swimmers who were named in the article included Danielle Carter, Cindy Tran, Chenoa Devine, Chloe Clark, Anna Kalandadze, and Mara Allen (now known as Jose). Most of them had transferred away from Cal after a year, but it also included Tran, a 6-time NCAA Champ and a big contributor to Cal’s back-to-back NCAA team titles in 2011 and 2012.
SCNG’s investigation revealed:
McKeever recently used a racial epithet and profanities in disparaging rap music, according to five swimmers familiar with the conversation and an email to Cal detailing the incident.
The university’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination has opened a formal investigation into the incident that will initially focus on potential racial discrimination but could be expanded to also consider possible discrimination based on sexual orientation and national origin, according to confidential university documents obtained by SCNG.
McKeever has also complained that a current African American swimmer had too much “attitude,” according to five current swimmers.
McKeever routinely bullies swimmers by screaming and/or swearing at them, often in front of the rest of the team, all 19 swimmers confirmed.
“Teri swore at me at least three times a week,” said Anna Kalandadze, a former Cal swimmer. “I had a ‘(expletive) attitude.’ I was a ‘piece of (expletive).’”
McKeever has also thrown kickboards and water bottles at swimmers on multiple occasions, current and former swimmers allege.
McKeever each year targets one, two or three swimmers for almost daily bullying and verbal and mental abuse, according to all 19 swimmers.
“I don’t think there was a practice I wasn’t yelled at by Teri,” said a former Cal swimmer who competed at the World Championships. “She called me a piece of (expletive) every day.”
Cal swimmers are routinely pressured by McKeever to train and compete despite physical reasons for sitting out, including suffering from chronic illnesses such as epilepsy or Crohn’s disease, injuries such as broken bones or concussions, or while recovering from eating disorders.
Clark recalled a practice during the 2019-2020 season where she was doubled over in pain from Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease, and what would later be diagnosed as appendicitis.
“I was crying in pain,” Clark said.
McKeever was unmoved, Clark said. “Teri said, ‘No one died from swimming with a stomach ache, get in the water,’” Clark recalled McKeever telling her.
Clark got in the pool. Weeks later she underwent an emergency appendectomy.
Two swimmers and their parents allege McKeever shared confidential medical information about them with the Cal team, a violation, they maintain, of federal privacy laws.
Clark said McKeever revealed the swimmer’s Crohn’s disease at a team meeting she was not allowed to attend.
“So basically, that’s how my friends found out that I had it,” Clark said.
Of the 61 swimmers who joined the Cal team as freshmen between the 2013-2014 and 2020-21 seasons, 26 (42.6 percent) left the program before completing their NCAA eligibility. Four swimmers on the 2021-22 roster have either transferred or placed themselves in the NCAA’s transfer portal since the season’s end.
“Teri was the only reason I left,” said Kalandadze, now an NCAA qualifier and All-Ivy League swimmer at Penn. “She was awful to me.”
Six of the 12 swimmers of color to join the team during the 2013-14 to 2021 period left before using all of their athletic eligibility.
While some people might want to discount these complaints as how kids now are “mentally soft” and could not handle the traditional tough love from authority figures, like sports coaches, McKeever’s behaviors went beyond all that. Numerous swimmers interviewed called her team a “cult”. The way she openly disclosed people’s medical situations or sexual orientation are all clear violations of university rules.
The most disheartening parts of the story were how several Cal student-athletes were pushed to the brink of committing suicide and how McKeever was extremely callous toward them after finding out.
Carter was unable to eat, unable to sleep. She couldn’t focus in class. Sometimes she was so exhausted from the stress, from the lack of sleep she fell asleep in class. She had panic attacks on an almost daily basis. There were mornings when she couldn’t find the strength to get out of bed. All of which led to an increase in her seizures, according to Carter and her parents.
“Teri made me feel so little,” Carter recalled “and I didn’t want to feel like that anymore.”
So one night in the fall of 2019, Carter went into her dorm bathroom with an X-acto knife intent on slitting her wrists.
“It got to the point where I literally couldn’t take it anymore from Teri,” Carter said. “I can’t do this anymore. I don’t want to be alive anymore. That night I literally didn’t want to be alive. It was like, ‘OK, I’m ready to die. I want to kill myself. I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to be alive.’”
Carter got scared at the last minute and texted a teammate.
Cal swimmers told McKeever about the incident and the coach confronted Carter the next morning at practice, pulling her out the pool.
“Did you try and kill yourself last night?” McKeever asked her, Carter said. Three other people confirm that Carter shared details of the conversation with them.
“Yeah,” Carter responded. “I don’t want to live.
“Teri literally laughed in my face and said, ‘Do you know how pathetic that is? How stupid that is? How selfish that is?’”
McKeever was particularly enraged, Carter and teammates remembered, that the swimmer had confided to a teammate that she was feeling suicidal. Carter had no way of knowing that the teammate had a sibling who had earlier attempted suicide. McKeever, however, brought it up in berating Carter, yelling that she had created a distraction for the teammate, Carter said.
“You just totally messed up her (practice),” McKeever said, according to Carter.
Carter is one of at least six Cal women’s swimmers since 2018 who made plans to kill themselves or obsessed about suicide for weeks or months because of what they describe as McKeever’s bullying, according to a Southern California News Group investigation.
Cindy Tran, who uses the pronouns they/them, is a six-time NCAA champion who swam for Cal from the 2010-11 to 2013-14 seasons. Tran said McKeever’s alleged bullying also helped push them to the brink of taking their own life in 2014.
The women characterize their attempts or suicide plans, verified by more than a dozen teammates, parents and friends, as desperate cries for help from within a toxic culture created by McKeever.
“I didn’t want to exist in a world where I had to see Teri every day,” said former Cal swimmer Chenoa Devine. “I didn’t want to be alive. I didn’t want to exist.”
Just this year in collegiate sports, five student-athletes had taken their own lives. The most familiar name on that list for Cal fans may be Stanford’s women's soccer star goalie Katie Meyer who had famously clinched an NCAA title by saving a penalty in the championship match. Cal field hockey’s Zoe Rogers also, according to police reports, tragically took her own life in 2020 while working as an assistant coach back home while away from the school due to COVID.
We find out in this report how even a once uber-successful student-athlete under McKeever like Cindy Tran was contemplating suicide in 2014.
“Teri is a really great swim coach. She knows what she’s talking about. But she creates an environment and a culture that is fear-based. I don’t think her team has a healthy culture or environment.”
A culture where athletes, even national champions, are made to feel dispensable by McKeever, according to swimmers and their parents.
“Teri used me to get what she needed,” Tran said, “and then she saw me as an expendable athlete when somebody better came along and she jumped on the next train.”
Tran was forced to come out to the team against her will in 2014 because of McKeever.
Multiple swimmers said LGBTQ swimmers were often targets of McKeever’s alleged bullying. Tran described the Cal program as “extremely homophobic.”
Tran said McKeever forced them to come out in 2014 after learning they were dating a teammate.
“I was the first person (in the program’s history) to openly come out,” Tran said. “We came out against our will.”
Formal complaints about Teri McKeever had been made to the University since 2014 but nothing has changed.
University and athletic department officials at Cal have received complaints alleging bullying, verbal and emotional abuse since at least 2014 but either ignored complaints, failed to follow up with swimmers or their parents, or handled the matter by simply reviewing university policies with McKeever, according to multiple swimmers and parents and more than a dozen confidential university emails.
Tran said they were sexually harassed by an athletic department official they complained to about McKeever’s abuse. The official has since left the athletic department. Tran said the university did not follow up on the complaint.
“I would hope that athletics follows, is subjected to the same standards as (the rest of) the university,” said Pietro Sasso, an associate professor at Stephen F. Austin University and co-author of the recent College Student Affairs Journal article “In My Feelings: Division I Student-Athlete Seeking Mental Health Support.” “Athletics shouldn’t be above fraternities, sororities and other campus organizations. Hazing is also native to coaches too. So coaches should be held accountable too.”
University and athletic department officials have received multiple complaints about McKeever’s alleged bullying of an African American and a foreign swimmer on the 2021-22 roster, five current Cal swimmers and two others familiar with the complaints confirmed.
Attempts by the Cal swimmers and parents to reach those at the top of who is responsible also got no answers. Cal AD Jim Knowlton and senior woman administrator Jennifer Simon-O’Neill had just dismissed their concerns.
Several Cal swimmers and their parents said they have complained about McKeever to Cal athletics director Jim Knowlton and to Jennifer Simon-O’Neill, the school’s executive senior associate athletics director, and senior woman administrator. Those complaints have either been ignored or met with indifference, swimmers and parents said, or in one case dismissiveness.
Four Cal seniors on the 2021-22 roster recently met with Knowlton and Simon-O’Neill and alleged bullying and verbal and emotional abuse by McKeever, according to three people familiar with the meeting. Knowlton told the swimmers that McKeever was just a hard, tough coach.
Darla Carter, Danielle’s mother, recalled requesting a meeting with Knowlton in the autumn of 2019.
“It was almost like talking to a wall,” Carter said.
Knowlton, Carter continued, “said he wouldn’t meet with me unless I was alumni, a graduate or wanted to donate money.”
SCNG requested interviews with Knowlton and Simon-O’Neill. Cal did not make Knowlton or Simon-O’Neill available for an interview. The school did provide SCNG with a statement.
While Cal Athletics did not provide the investigation with a statement, they gave an official statement to SwimSwam after the OC Register article had come out.
The Full Cal Statement is Below:
We are deeply concerned by what our student-athletes have reported to the Orange County Register. There is nothing more important to the university than the safety and well-being of our students, and it is that commitment which will guide and inform how we respond to all that has been reported.
The allegations described are serious and deeply disturbing in that they describe behavior antithetical to our values and policies. We are now, as always, encouraging current and former students to report behaviors and incidents that run counter to our policies and our values. We are now, as always, encouraging current and former students who may have been impacted to seek out support and assistance. We stand ready to help students in need connect with the appropriate campus resources and offices that offer support, guidance and assistance.
Unfortunately, due to stringent laws and policies protecting personnel issues and privacy, we are unable to address these allegations. We wish that were not the case given how serious these allegations are. Due to campus polices and confidentiality requirements, the campus cannot comment on matters of this nature (including whether a case does or does not exist) unless that case has resulted in a finding of violation of campus sexual violence/sexual harassment policy or nondiscrimination policy, and that case has resulted in disciplinary action.
Every member of our staff shares a strong commitment to the success of our student athletes – academically, athletically and developmentally. We have in place best-practice policies and procedures that enable Cal Athletics and the university to respond quickly and comprehensively when there are allegations of misconduct by coaches that are inconsistent with our values or applicable rules and policies.
Cal Athletics certainly does not look good here, given how long these complaints had existed and how little had been done. SwimSwam also found out how McKeever is the godmother to the highest-ranking female official in Cal Athletics where many of the complaints had stopped.
Social media posts from 2012 verify that McKeever is godmother to the oldest child of Cal Athletics second-in-command Jennifer Simon-O’Neill. Several individuals close to McKeever and the Cal program indicate that it is common knowledge in Berkeley.
Parents of swimmers told OC Register that they had made several complaints to Simon-O’Neill.
Simon-O’Neill began her career at Cal as the Director of Olympic Sports Operations from 2008 through 2013. That meant working directly with the swimming & diving programs, including photos on her personal social media accounts that show her at the 2012 Olympic Trials – where McKeever was to serve as head coach of the US Olympic women’s team. Six months after those Trials, McKeever participated in the baptism of Simon-O’Neill’s oldest child.
Simon-O’Neill eventually worked her way up the ladder at Cal and is currently the Executive Senior Associate Athletics Director, Chief of Staff, and Senior Woman Administrator for Cal athletics. She is also the sport administrator for women’s swimming & diving,
The Senior Woman Administrator is the highest-ranking female in each NCAA athletics department or conference office. According to the NCAA, “the purpose of the SWA designation is to promote meaningful representation of women in the leadership and management of college sports.”
With how long McKeever has spent in Berkeley, it is certainly understandable that she has formed strong bonds with members of Cal Athletics. However, it certainly looks like Simon-O’Neill might have a conflict of interest when dealing with allegations made against McKeever.
Teri McKeever’s track record in getting the most out of her swimmers is undeniable. Many of her top athletes stay in Berkeley in her pro-group, although both Natalie Coughlin and Missy Franklin had switched at the tail ends of their competitive swimming careers to train with Cal men’s swimming head coach Dave Durden’s group.
On the topic of McKeever unsafely pushing some athletes into training, she does have well-documented successes with both Olympic medalists Dana Vollmer (heart condition) and Kathleen Baker (Crohn’s disease). Teri McKeever also has successes with foreign athletes, including Olympian Farida Osman who became the first African swimmer to medal at a World Championship. Her Cal Athletics friend and human shield Simon-O’Neill is a member of the LGBTQ community.
However, even if one gives Teri McKeever the benefit of the doubt that she did not discriminate based on those reasons, it is clear that a subset of Cal student-athletes under her watch has been treated inhumanely and inappropriately by University (and just common sense) standard.
Given how the future of Olympics AKA non-revenue sports in college is on the brink due to the impending collapse of the current system with the talks of revenue sharing of football and basketball money with the student-athletes, this is particularly terribly-timed news for one of Cal’s gold standard programs. I really do not want to write about this, but these former Cal student-athletes deserve to have their stories heard.
Sadly, McKeever is not the only current Cal head coach who has been publicly accused of abuse. Women’s Soccer head coach Neil McGuire remains at the helm of the program even after KTVU made a special report in November 2020 and after additional alumni and parents voiced similar stories after the report aired.
McKeever is both much higher-profile outside of Cal and arguably accused of more concrete fireable offenses than McGuire. Maybe the inaction following the McGuire accusations will not be repeated here. Nonetheless, Cal Athletics got a lot of explaining to affirm to everyone that they will protect the student-athletes.