Former Cal Swimmers File Lawsuit Against UC Regents Over Teri McKeever Abuse

A group of 18 former Cal swimmers are suing the University of California regents over the alleged abuse of head women’s swim coach Teri McKeever.

The lawsuit was filed on Monday in Alameda County Superior Court, alleging that for parts of four decades, Cal officials prioritized athletic success over the well-being of athletes by ignoring McKeever’s bullying and in certain cases, enabling it.

The lawsuit, first reported by the Southern California News Group (SCNG), specifically names senior executive associate athletic director Jennifer Simon-O’Neill and current athletic director Jim Knowlton as two of the Cal officials who enabled McKeever’s behavior.

McKeever was the head coach of the Cal women’s swimming team for 29 years, but was placed on administrative leave last May after allegations of her misconduct surfaced, with numerous current and former members of the Cal women’s team claiming she had verbally and emotionally abused them.

She was then fired on January 31 after an eight-month-long independent investigation into the allegations.

Among the swimmers suing the UC regents is Cierra Runge (now Cierre Burnell), who transferred out of Cal after her freshman year in 2015 and went on to have a very successful collegiate career with Wisconsin and ASU and also won a gold medal on the women’s 800 freestyle relay at the 2016 Olympics.

There are also 11 Olympic Trials qualifiers and seven All-Americans apart of the suit, according to SCNG.

The lawsuit says the swimmers “have endured years of pain and suffering that has affected the trajectory of their lives.”

“As students and recruited athletes at Cal Berkeley, my clients relied on the UC Regents to ensure their safety and wellbeing,” Kelsey L. Campbell, an attorney for the swimmers, said, according to SCNG.

“The UC Regents failed by allowing Coach McKeever to engage in abusive coaching practices for nearly thirty years. The UC Regents were on notice of Coach McKeever’s propensity for abusive coaching practices and failed to supervise or educate her on proper behavior.

“Bringing suit against one’s university takes extraordinary courage. My clients are taking this step as they are committed to ensuring that other student-athletes not have to suffer as they did.”

The lawsuit alleges that university officials were aware of McKeever’s “propensity for abusive coaching” as early as the spring of 1994, just two years after she was hired by Cal.

“It just further reinforces that the system failed us and what we thought was a safe and trusting environment was false,” said former Cal swimmer Katherine McAdoo, according to SCNG.

When the accusations first came to light, 19 current and former women’s team swimmers, six parents and one former member of the men’s team spoke out against McKeever. Since then, the count has grown to 44 current or former women’s swimmers, 23 parents, a member of the men’s team, three former coaches, a former administrator and two athletic department employees who told SCNG that McKeever “routinely bullied swimmers, often in deeply personal terms, or used embarrassing or traumatic experiences from their past against them, used racial epithets, body-shamed and pressured athletes to compete or train while injured.”

“What was profound for me when I read (the initial SCNG) article was I realized that I wasn’t the only one Teri targeted,” McAdoo said. “And so that made the call to action and my motivation for seeing this through even stronger.”

When Runge told McKeever she would be taking a redshirt year in 2015-16 to prepare for the Rio Olympics, McKeever surprised her in a team meeting, saying that Runge had an announcement to make, according to the lawsuit.

Runge then told her teammates she would be sitting out the next season, and then McKeever “forced the team to get in a circle around Cierra and share why they were disappointed in her decision. For ninety (90) minutes, the team berated Cierra’s decision while she cried the whole time,” the suit said.

“‘You will be nothing without us.’ ‘How will you survive when you fail because we won’t be there for you when you do.’”

McKeever and the assistant coaches watched silently, the suit said, adding that Runge felt ill, struggled to eat, threw up and experienced dry heaving after the meeting.

The SCNG report also mentions the process by which McKeever recruited Sophia Batchelor, who represented New Zealand at the 2011 World Aquatics Championships. McKeever told Batchelor on her recruiting trip “I make Olympians” and that “I support swimmers.”

However, Batchelor is among the swimmers in the lawsuit, alleging that in addition to verbal, emotional and physical abuse, McKeever also pressured her to take a drug banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in order to compete while injured. Batchelor also alleges that McKeever body shamed her and required her to file weekly food reports.

Like many others, Batchelor swam just one season with the Golden Bears before transferring to Florida.

The lawsuit reportedly highlights numerous incidents in which Simon-O’Neill, who is a close friend of McKeever (McKeever is the godmother of one of her children), failed to react despite witnessing some of McKeever’s abuse, such as screaming and swearing at her athletes.

“Ms. Simon-O’Neill sat in numerous meetings as Coach McKeever berated and threatened (swimmers),” the suit said, according to SCNG. “She never contemporaneously intervened nor admonished Coach McKeever as she threatened (swimmers). (Swimmers) did not see Ms. Simon-O’Neill as an administrator they could go to for assistance. They lost confidence in the system.”

During the 2019-20 season, Anna Kalandadze‘s mother called McKeever to express concern over the swimmer/coach dynamic the two had. McKeever berated Kalandadze after the call, and later in the season, Kalandadze told McKeever she was planning to transfer after the campaign. McKeever proceeded to kick her off the team, the suit alleges, saying: “I never want to see your ugly face again. You are a piece of (expletive). You (expletive) on me. You (expletive) on the team. You (expletive) on your mom. Your mom would be ashamed of you.”

The suit says Knowlton, Simon-O’Neill and other school officials were aware that at that time “several swimmers were leaving the team after experiencing depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideations.”

Despite this, McKeever had her contract extended through 2023-24 in January 2020.

McKeever’s attorney, Thomas Newkirk, told SCNG he was not surprised with the lawsuit, claiming that the coach is the victim of gender bias in regards to the standards female coaches are held to.

“This is coming home to roost for the university,” Newkirk said, according to SCNG. “I’m not shocked. What else would they do? Of course they are going to sue the university.

“These claims against Teri McKeever are the result of gender-biased evaluations of females acting in a leadership or coaching role. Teri is one of 220 female coaches and counting who have received these disturbing claims of abuse when they are coaching no differently than men. The science supporting this reality is overwhelming and it is irresponsible for Berkeley, the athletes making these claims and for anyone in sport not to educate themselves on the gendered risks facing female coaches.

“Berkeley refused to implement some very simple changes to eliminate gender bias from the evaluation of female coaches and instead, paid millions to a law firm to enable these clearly gendered claims about Teri. Berkeley now faces a meritless lawsuit largely of its own creation that it will again, pay millions of state funds to defend when the problem could have been avoided with a few thousand dollars and some basic education. Teri intends to fight these claims that destroyed her career and threaten the careers of other great female coaches and the coaching profession as a whole. Teri asks that other coaches affected by these claims come forward as it is time to fight back. ”

Cal spokesman Dan Mogulof declined to comment on the matter, according to SCNG.

“As per California law we cannot comment on personnel matters or provide any information or response that might violate the privacy rights of students or employees,” he said in a statement.

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29 days ago

I find it fascinating and almost funny to read these comments and how people can’t believe she got away with the abuse for so long. She got away with it because enough of her athletes were successful. She got results so people ignored any rumors and all jumped on the Teri train. Maybe more of you should stop and think about that when you hear about abusive behavior from the star coach of the day instead of rationalizing and explaining it away.

DP Spellman
Reply to  IMO
28 days ago

Also known as the “Bobby Knight Effect” around the Big Ten.

30 days ago

What is going on at UofM?

30 days ago

Teri knew how to manipulate her female swimmers, because, being female, she knew all the most effective mind games, buttons to push, etc.

Mckeever talks about male coaches and their “coaching styles” but she was an advanced ninja in these dark mind games compared to those dudes.

Making the girls sit in a circle and dump all over Cierra is something out of a bad horror movie. Teri was truly toxic.

30 days ago

Has Natalie Coughlin had anything to say about any of this?

Reply to  Gheko
30 days ago

I have not heard what Natalie Coughlin thinks. But Missy Franklin is very good friends with Cierra Runge.

Reply to  Gheko
30 days ago

She was on USA swimming’s podcast recently and I love that they don’t even mention it.

Coach Tom
Reply to  oxyswim
30 days ago

USA Swimming still has not so much acknowledged this investigation or Teri’s dismissal. Frankly, knowing how the people in charge of USA Swimming legal affairs and Safe Sport operate, they’re probably livid that these athletes went to the media and not them. They were denied the opportunity to cover up a scandal involving a high profile coach.

The real question everyone should be asking themselves is, “Why did these athletes all seem to inherently understand that USA Swimming and safesport were useless and needed to be bypassed entirely”?

Reply to  Coach Tom
30 days ago

Or maybe USA Swimming WAS aware of it – potentially even had to pull athletes out of her group on trips because of the abuse they saw – and they’re afraid of also being vulnerable to lawsuits.

Coach Tom
Reply to  ANON
30 days ago

That’s not a maybe. We know for a fact that Teri’s behavior was reported to USA Swimming years ago and yet nothing was done.

Safe Sport is only investigating this now so they can issue a meaningless punishment (she is done coaching regardless of what their “investigation” finds) designed to protect their own image.

Tri State Aquatics
Reply to  Coach Tom
29 days ago

They did go to USA Swimming. Other coaches-high profile USA Coaches also knew. Busch knew.

Coach Tom
Reply to  Tri State Aquatics
29 days ago

From what I’ve gathered, swimmers reported Teri to USA Swimming years ago, and nothing was done. It seems like the current crop of swimmers (the ones to finally succeed in getting her off the deck) never even bothered going to USA Swimming and realized they needed to go directly to the media to effect change.

I’d love to see a similar lawsuit filed against USA Swimming and Safe Sport, if only because it would be hilarious to watch them chicken out of discovery.

1 month ago

I keep reading about this case and wonder how Troy retired trouble free. Iykyk

1 month ago

Thought there would be more than 18 swimmers on this. Okay settlement amount? I’ll say $4-6M about 300K each after attorney fees only 200K each

Last edited 1 month ago by Taa
Reply to  Taa
30 days ago

I think a lot of them just want to put the hurt behind them and move forward. I don’t blame them for that.

Reply to  Observer
30 days ago

You are absolutely correct in this.

1 month ago

Who are the 18? Did I miss that?

Reply to  Grev
25 days ago

I was hoping to see the actual lawsuit submitted but haven’t found anything yet. Anyone knows?

1 month ago

Newkirk is bottom feeder lawyer. Good luck with that legal argument. Summary judgment against Teri in her lawsuit against Cal coming soon.

Last edited 1 month ago by Snarky
Coach Tom
Reply to  Snarky
1 month ago

I tend to agree with you about the bottom-feeding lawyer stuff but, in the context of Cal’s behavior as an employer, it’s not a terrible legal argument to make. Apparently they had a male women’s soccer coach who was accused of very similar behavior, but he kept his job.

I have a feeling they don’t want this going to trial and will pay her a very large amount of money to go away.

Awsi Dooger
Reply to  Snarky
30 days ago

Newkirk’s comments are blah blah gender blah blah gender…

Reply to  Snarky
30 days ago

Yes. He’s a total cretin.

About James Sutherland

James Sutherland

James swam five years at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, specializing in the 200 free, back and IM. He finished up his collegiate swimming career in 2018, graduating with a bachelor's degree in economics. In 2019 he completed his graduate degree in sports journalism. Prior to going to Laurentian, James swam …

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