The Molester and Me

My high school coach was like a dad to me, until he abused my teammate and violated us all.

Sports coaches are in a position to exploit their authority over young athletes

Photo by iStockphoto

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.

I was 14 years old, 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 that Coach’s 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. It was no accident that the runners he’d spent the most time with were the ones 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. My parents were loving, but I was always worried about my father and I missed him with a desperation I dared not admit to anybody. 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 up there in the stands made me nauseated and tense. I barely finished my race. That evening, the phone rang at my house and I answered 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. I broke down in tears and when Mom heard me crying, she asked what was wrong. The truth came pouring out of me.

Coach was never prosecuted, but Mom talked to our school principal and he was barred from future meets. Our new coach was nothing like the molester. He was funny and lighthearted, not controlling. He took us out for ice cream a few times but never brought us to his house or made comments about our appearances. Instead of taking us away from our families on weekends, our new coach invited parents to join us on runs.

Shortly after I went away to college, I heard from an old 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 felt certain he’d offend again. (Statistics on this are hard to tabulate, but the numbers that exist suggest that pedophiles and molesters are no more likely to commit their crimes again than other criminals; they may even be less likely. Still, I don’t think it’s worth taking the chance.) I thought about calling the school district to warn them about the guy they had coaching their runners, but something stopped me.

I told myself it wasn’t my place to report him. I didn’t want to be that person who holds on to the pain. He violated my trust, but not my body. The decision about how to handle what had happened, I told myself, was his victim’s choice to make, not mine. So I let it go. I did not forgive him, but I did not expose him. I left him alone with his guilt.

Years later, I was home visiting my parents when I read an article about Coach’s daughter, now a star runner at her high school. In the news story, she referred to her father as a coach. I felt my rage return. I fantasized about calling the sports writer, telling him, “I have a story for you to check out.” I considered sending Coach’s daughter a letter and thought about what it might say. But I never picked up the pen.

And then it happened. 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. “Fuck you,” I screamed, the words shooting out like bullets before I could understand what had happened. I looked up again and he had disappeared, vanished so completely that later I’d wonder whether I imagined him there. He’d looked so small and shriveled.

That was around 10 years ago, and 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? Was it inevitable that he’d molest again? 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.