More details emerged in the latest Orange County Register story on the allegedly abusive culture that longtime coach Teri McKeever created while leading Cal’s decorated women’s swimming and diving program.
According to newly-published interviews with more than a dozen former Cal swimmers and divers from the 1999-2004 period, McKeever used “team-building” exercises at retreats as opportunities to pinpoint past traumatic experiences that she’d exploit in future bullying. Women said they were pressured to share personal secrets including past sexual experiences, sexual orientation, traumatic losses, embarrassing moments, chronic illnesses, and eating disorders in front of their coaches and teammates. Two swimmers recalled that McKeever, who was placed on administrative leave two weeks ago in the wake of SCNG’s initial investigation, was present while athletes were asked if they had been sexually assaulted at one retreat.
“Teri is big on team bonding,” a woman who swam for Cal from 2006 to 2010 told the OC Register. “She says it will make us a better team, we will understand each other better so we could form a cohesive team.
“But the team retreats are just her putting us in a place of vulnerability that she would openly mock you or degrade you in front of the team.”
One source told SwimSwam that some swimmers swore to secrecy during these retreats.
During one “team-building” exercise in the late 2000s, swimmers were reportedly told to line up in order from most valuable to the team to least valuable.
“At the very back a girl was shoving people out of the way to get the back spot,” a swimmer on the 2009-10 team said. “The girl was shaking. I can’t tell you how weird and messed up it was from a psychological standpoint. I wanted to be more at the back and one of the girls was literally pushing us forward, saying, ‘No, you should go ahead of us.’ Girls were sobbing uncontrollably.
“I just remember being very confused. It seemed extremely bizarre. And I remember feeling like it was extremely unacceptable.”
Nearly a decade earlier, McKeever allegedly pushed swimmers to focus on training and team building even amid the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The team heard about the tragedy after a morning practice, then had an afternoon practice and a previously scheduled retreat to Lake Tahoe. There, they were isolated from the outside world, unable to use cell phones or laptops.
“That whole grieving experience the nation was going through, we didn’t get to go through,” said Katherine McAdoo, a Virginia native whose mother “ducked” when American Flight 77 flew right above her in the final 1 1/2 miles before it crashed into the Pentagon. “We didn’t get to participate in that.
“It was confusing. It was the beginning of learning how to shut down your feelings. The first lesson is if you’re going to swim for Teri, you have to learn how to shut down your feelings.”
Taylor Young was reportedly a frequent target of McKeever’s bullying in 2013, when her health rapidly declined and she was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease. The autoimmune disease can lead to an enlarged thyroid, heart problems, mental health issues, sexual or reproductive dysfunction, and increased risk of miscarriage.
Young said she carried the gene for Hashimoto’s disease, but doctors told her that the disorder was triggered in an otherwise healthy teenager by the stress she was experiencing at Cal.
“It was triggered by the immense stress of swimming under Teri,” Young said.
Young claimed she received no support from McKeever even though it was clear she was ill. She stopped menstruating and gained weight while suffering from brain fog, anxiety, depression, and hot flashes. Attempting to prioritize swimming, she stopped attending classes. In February of 2014, she broke her foot while running only to face pressure to continue practicing in full capacity.
“She told me either get back in the water and swim the whole practice on a broken foot or not at all,” Young recalled. “Teri said either swim completely or not at all. There was no in-between.”
With her foot in a boot per doctor’s order, Young stopped practicing following McKeever’s ultimatum. When she approached McKeever about transferring, the meeting did not go over well.
“When I broached it she threatened me, yelled at me, screamed at me, yelled at me that she wouldn’t release me, wouldn’t let me swim anywhere else, especially in the Pac 12,” Young said. “When I officially did meet, it was probably the most fearful I’ve been in my life. She said, ‘I hope you treat your future bosses like this so they can fire your ass.’”
Leann Toomey said she was singled out early in her freshman year for bullying, with her sleep apnea often the subject of jokes. Other times, she’d be kicked out of practice for not doing a flip turn properly. Soon after the bullying began, Toomey was raped at a fraternity party. Despite being informed by Cal’s athletic training staff, McKeever offered no support.
“I was raped and there was no ‘We’re here for you,’” Toomey said. “It was like you’re just going to have to get over that.”
McKeever’s bullying reportedly continued, but Toomey stayed at Cal until the final straw came after a poor race at the Janet Evans Invitational at USC in 2007.
“She was yelling at me, swearing at me in the locker room, I was fat, I was lazy,” Toomey said. “Other coaches from other teams were coming up to me and asking, ‘Are you OK?’”
The common thread in the latest stories is how the effects of McKeever’s alleged abuse lingered far beyond her swimmers’ careers at Cal. Even after Toomey left Berkley, she couldn’t escape McKeever’s critical voice in her head. In 2018, she tried to take her own life.
Cindy Tran was also pushed to the brink of suicide in 2014 after McKeever encouraged them to speak with Cal’s assistant athletic director, Mohamed Muqtar, who was fired in 2018 for violating the university’s sexual violence and sexual harassment policy.
“I would go and talk to Mo about the abuse I was getting from Teri and the trauma I had,” Tran said, “and he groomed me to take advantage of me.”