“The Worst Kept Secret in Washington”

by Casey Barrett

Long ago underage sex allegations against Curl-Burke founder Rick Curl… 

On the eve of the Olympics, a buzz kill bombshell out of the Washington, D.C. swimming community… In an exclusive front page story by none other than the Washington Post, allegations that A-list coaching legend Rick Curl had a long term relationship with a teenage swimmer. Let’s cut right to the heart of this: When it started, she was 13, he was 33. It apparently lasted for four years. That is, through her middle school and high school years.

This was long ago, in the 80’s. 23 years of silence for the girl, now the woman. Her name is Kelley Currin. As a swimmer, before she was married, older swimmers and coaches will remember her as Kelley Davies. She was a bad ass. She was the Pan Pacific Games champion in the 200 fly back in 1987. During those years training to become a champion, it seems her coach was having a criminal sexual relationship with the young teenager.

To recap the facts as presented by the Post: Davies considered it a “love affair.” There was sex at swim meets, in hotel stairways, sex at her high school. The man was twenty years older and she was a minor, but she truly believed in their “relationship.” Her parents learned of this relationship after reading her diary. When that happened, Curl ended all contact. Then, Davies went off to college – on a full scholarship to the University of Texas. The psychological damage clearly had an immediate impact: Davies was a Pan Pac champion her first year at Texas. A year later she finished 7th at the 1988 Olympic Trials in the 200 fly. Then she was checked into a treatment facility for an eating disorder.

When she emerged, her family negotiated a settlement with Rick Curl: $150,000 over 11 years, with a non-disclosure agreement signed by all involved. Now those long past crimes have been disclosed.

Rick Curl is, by far, the most prominent coach ever to be implicated in this on-going underage sex scandal among swim coaches. To say Curl-Burke is a respected club team is a ridiculous understatement. It is one of the most respected and successful American club teams of all time. In the two decades since Curl’s alleged relationship with Davies, the club grew into a juggernaut in the D.C. / Northern Virginia area. There are currently almost 1,000 swimmers with Curl-Burke, swimming at 10 pools throughout the Potomac Valley region.

This is all plenty scandalous and distasteful, but that’s not the worst of it. Here’s the part to make you gag: EVERYONE ALREADY KNEW. The worst part about this breaking news is that it’s not news at all – not to the swimmers and coaches and parents who grew up swimming in this area. This has been an open secret for ages. That headline above? That’s a line from an email sent from one former swimmer to another, who both swam in Northern Virginia in the late 80’s.

This might be the darkest and most telling detail surrounding the institutional scandal of coaches having sex with their swimmers. It happens. A lot. At least it used to. Let’s hope those days are gone, but let’s not forget how prevalent it’s been. Before continuing, an essential distinction: A coach hooking up with a swimmer 18-years-old or older might be highly inappropriate, might be very bad for the career, but this is not a crime. It is, by definition, a relationship between two consenting adults, with a big age gap. On the other hand, a 33-year-old coach hooking up with a 13-year-old? That’s a crime. It’s statutory rape.

The statute of limitations may have expired on this particular case, the settlement may have taken care of everything legally way back when, but the prosecution on a reputation never expires. Nor does the complicity of an entire community who heard things, who accepted that darkness and kept it collectively private, who continued to swim for Rick Curl’s team because it was the best damn program out there.

I am in no way comparing Rick Curl’s alleged crimes with the horrors committed by Jerry Sandusky. There is no comparison there. However, the cultural silence must be compared. This is a widespread failure of integrity. Just as at Penn State, good well-meaning men and women heard things, they processed those things, and then they made the conscious decision that the sport, the athletic careers of those immersed, was more important than something that should have halted everything else in its tracks.

When I read about this horrible story earlier this afternoon, here was my first reaction: That’s awful, but I can’t write about it right before the Olympics. What a buzz kill that would be. Maybe I’ll address it after all the fun of the Games.

Maybe then it will be the right time to say something.