After Sexual Abuse Conviction, New Scrutiny on Youth Athletics

McKINNEY, Tex. — Kelley Currin, a divorced mother of four, started a romantic relationship in January with a middle-aged teacher in a supervisory position at the middle school that employed them. The district rules are clear on relationships between consenting adults when one has decision-making power over the other: they are not allowed. So in the fall, Currin, who teaches seventh-grade science, will transfer to a nearby school.

Currin, 43, laughed ruefully at the incongruity of her situation.

She was sexually abused by her swim coach, Rick Curl, for five years in the 1980s beginning when she was 13 and he was 33. Currin had privately told several people inside the sport about Curl’s sexual misconduct over the decades, and she pursued legal action last year after becoming appalled that USA Swimming, the national governing body, was allowing Curl to continue coaching after she told officials in the organization what he had done. Last month, Curl, 63, was sentenced to seven years in prison after pleading guilty in February to one count of child sexual abuse.

“The reason I’m being transferred to another school is the man I’m dating would have been my boss next year,” Currin said as she watched her 11-year-old son’s baseball game on a recent Saturday morning. “And yet Rick was able to abuse his position of power for years, and there were people who knew and no one said or did anything.” She shook her head. “Think about that.”

At Curl’s sentencing in Montgomery County Circuit Court in Maryland, near where Currin grew up, she lobbied for further investigation into behavior within the swimming community that protects coaches who are predators at the expense of their young victims.

On Tuesday, Representative George Miller, a Democrat from California, called for the Government Accountability Office to examine youth athletic clubs’ handling of child abuse allegations. The inquiry would be part of an ongoing G.A.O. investigation of the weaknesses in reporting, investigating and resolving such cases, which was started at Miller’s request last year in the aftermath of the child sexual abuse scandal involving Jerry Sandusky, a former football coach at Penn State.

In a statement, Miller said, “Recent reports about the abuse of student-athletes participating in public and private swim clubs have raised a number of new concerns about whether we have adequate laws and policies in place to prevent and address such abuse.”

Susan Woessner, the director of USA Swimming’s safe sport program — which includes mandatory training on code of conduct, enhanced background checks and lifetime bans of offenders and was strengthened in 2010 — said the organization had not heard from Miller but would reach out to him to talk about the program.

“This is an important issue to our organization,” Woessner said in a statement, “and we appreciate Rep. Miller’s willingness to look into such an important topic.”

USA Swimming has faced at least eight lawsuits over the past five years involving the behavior of male coaches toward female swimmers, many of them under age.

But there are those who believe the people administering the program are not being sufficiently diligent. In a recent interview, Suzette Moran, an all-American swimmer at U.C.L.A., said she was never contacted during an investigation of the Olympian-turned-coach Mitch Ivey despite having entered into a consensual romantic relationship with him beginning when she was 16. He was not banned because of insufficient evidence. Karen Linhart, a spokeswoman for USA Swimming, said the organization reached out to Moran in the past week.

Curl’s abuse of Currin began with groping and progressed to sexual intercourse, she said.

“He didn’t have a relationship with me, he had an illness,” Currin said, adding that she could not understand that when she was younger.

Looking back, she said, she cannot explain how she came under Curl’s spell, only that she felt special to receive his attention and that she worried what would become of her Olympic dreams if he were not her coach.

Currin, who specialized in the butterfly, was one of the top swimmers in the world in 1987 and was a finalist at the 1988 United States Olympic trials. Curl oversaw Curl-Burke, one of the largest, most successful clubs in the country.

Her parents became aware of the relationship when Currin was in high school, she said. Her father floated the idea of moving to California to get Currin away from Curl, but she became upset at the thought of training for the Olympics with an unfamiliar coach. Currin’s parents sought the counsel of a lawyer, who discouraged them from filing criminal charges. Instead, Curl paid a $150,000 settlement in 1989 in return for the family’s silence.

“My parents made a huge mistake,” Currin said, “but they were just trying to protect me from being victimized twice, first by Rick and then maybe by the legal system.”

After high school, Currin accepted a swimming scholarship to Texas, where she started dating the man she would marry, a fellow swimmer. She confided in a few coaches and swimmers about the nature of her relationship with Curl.

Decades later, when she decided to break her silence and pursue legal action against Curl after seeing him on the pool deck at the 2012 Olympic trials, she said she heard him say in his defense that she had been “manipulative” and “the aggressor.”

“That’s the only time during the whole process that I lost it,” she said.

The more time Currin spent as an educator, the clearer it became that what Curl had done to her was wrong. Over the years, she said, she has had male students in the throes of schoolboy crushes carve into their desks “Ms. Currin is hot.”

“Is it flattering?” she said. “Kind of. Can you take it as legit? No. I have kids who act like idiots every day, and in the end it comes down to this: Who’s the adult?”

Currin said she believed the abuse she experienced as an adolescent was at the root of her adult struggles with anorexia, bulimia and alcoholism. At the time, and for years afterward, she said she felt completely isolated, totally alone. But not anymore.

In one of her first days back at school after Curl’s sentencing, Currin was approached by a student, who handed her a note in loopy cursive and full of misspellings that began, “I know how you feel because I’ve been through the same thing.”

Currin alerted a counselor, then sat down with the student and told her that she was not a bad person, that what had happened was not her fault, that it was not right. She told her all the things she wished she had heard at the same age from an adult.

“I’ve always heard the word closure and wondered if I’d feel that or if it’s just a word,” Currin said. “I’m sorry that the whole thing happened, but I really do feel good that I did do what I wanted to do for so long.”

Nestled into her collapsible beach chair, Currin added: “So many people don’t see this wasn’t about vengeance, it was about the cover-up. I didn’t come forward to get Rick thrown into jail. It was to show that USA Swimming is committing a crime every day by allowing coaches that other coaches know are dangerous to be on deck. Coming forward was my way of saying, ‘It’s a mess, so can someone clean it up, please?’ ”


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