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Report: Cal Women's Swim Coach Teri McKeever Portrayed as a Chronic Bully

Southern California New Group story cites wide-ranging complaints from 19 swimmers.

Cal’s Teri McKeever, perhaps the most successful women's swim coach in U.S. history, is described as a bully who has verbally and emotionally abused her athletes for decades, allegedly driving as many as six women on the Bears' teams to contemplate suicide, according to a length story published today by the Southern California News Group.

The story, by long-time Olympics writer Scott Reid, drew from interviews with 19 current and former Cal swimmers, six parents and a former member of the men’s team. The story also appeared on the websites of the Mercury News and East Bay Times, sister publications to the SCNG.

Teri McKeever

Teri McKeever

Those interviewed, the story says, “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.”

McKeever declined an interview request with SCNG, the story said.

According to the story, swimmers and their parents made multiple complaints about McKeever’s behavior to Cal’s athletic administration, dating back to at least 2014, but got little response.

Darla Carter, Danielle’s mother, said she requested a meeting with athletic director Jim Knowlton in the fall of 2019. “It was almost like talking to a wall,” she said.

McKeever, 60, has coached the Bears for 29 seasons, winning four NCAA team titles and earning 15 consecutive top-5 national placements before finishing eighth this season.

Natalie Coughlin and Missy Franklin were among 26 Olympians spawned by her Cal program who won a total of 36 medals. In 2012 at London, as the first woman to head the U.S. Olympic swim team, McKeever’s athletes won 13 medals.

The story begins by detailing the plight of Danielle Carter, one of at least six Cal women’s swimmers 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 the newspaper’s investigation.

“It got to the point where I literally couldn’t take it anymore from Teri,” Carter told SCNG. “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.’ ”

-- The story also alleges McKeever used a racial epithet, according to five swimmers, which led to the university’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination opening a formal investigation into the incident.

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-- All 19 swimmers interviewed told the newspaper that McKeever would identify one, two or three swimmers for almost daily bullying and verbal and mental abuse.

-- Clark said that during a 2019-20 practice she doubled over in pain because of Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease.

“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.

-- Multiple swimmers said LGBTQ members of the team were often targets of McKeever’s alleged bullying. Former Cal swimmer Cindy Tran described the Cal program as “extremely homophobic,” and said McKeever forced her to come out in 2014 after learning she was dating a teammate.

The university did not make Knowlton available for an interview with SCNG, but provided the newspaper with a written response. Cal Sports Report was referred to the same statement when asked for comment:

“The allegations that you have described are serious and deeply disturbing and, if proven to be true, would indicate there has been conduct the university would not tolerate. However, Cal Athletics is regrettably unable to respond to allegations that involve personnel issues and/or privacy rights. We wish that were not the case given how seriously we take allegations of the sort you have shared with us.

“Due to campus policies and confidentiality requirements, generally the campus cannot comment on any case (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.

“However, we can discuss our processes: When anyone in Cal Athletics is made aware of any instance or allegation of a violation of university policy involving a coach (or staff member or student-athlete), such as those you have shared, those allegations are referred to the appropriate campus department(s) for investigation. Athletics does not have its own specific conduct process nor does it investigate allegations or cases on its own, but follows the university’s policy and works in concert with campus professionals who are responsible for those areas.

“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 to respond quickly and comprehensively when there are allegations of misconduct by coaches that are inconsistent with our values or applicable rules and policies.”

Cover photo of Teri McKeever by Kirby Lee. USA Today

Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo