He Was God to Me

by Casey Barrett

Kelley Currin speaks to NPR about Rick Curl’s sexual abuse – and the many coaches and swimmers who knew and said nothing…

After all this time, why is she speaking out now? How did it start? How could so many have known and not one have come forward?

Kelley Currin spoke to NPR this week and in a searingly honest interview, she answered those and many other troubling questions. One thing she could not answer for: the conscience of all those coaches and swimmers who knew about about it and never did a thing. Some of these folks kept right on working for the man, kept collecting their paychecks and moving up in the world of swimming, because that statutory rapist also happened to be a brilliant swim coach.

So, why now? Let’s just say it’s been building for years. Finally it seems that to keep her sanity, her silence had to be broken. Currin cites the Penn State scandal, the Catholic church, and that infamous 20/20 investigation that shined a dark spotlight on swimming’s own problem with this pervasive societal sickness. There’s only so much you can hear and keep quiet, only so many instances of unconscionable cover-ups that a person can confront before she stands up and says: Guess what, that happened to me too, and plenty of you know all about it.

Turns out that right after that 20/20 piece aired, Currin was flooded with apologies from past teammates. A procession of hat-in-hand peers from the past, seeking her out across social media to send their long overdue apologies… But Currin notes: “I have never received a message like that from a coach or anything, but they knew.”

That was two years ago. The Penn State scandal would send her simmering some more. But the real reason it seems Currin chose this time to come forward? Her daughter is now 12 and a half. Almost the same age as Currin when Rick Curl first made his move. When Kelley was in middle school. “Those middle school kids, you know what” she says. “Some of them may look like an adult but they have the brain of a 5-year-old. I mean, they’re babies.”

That’s her goal in this. To protect kids like her from men like Curl. More than that, to protect the cover-ups that seem to come with the territory.

The silence that surrounded it, it’s almost impossible to digest all these years later. Currin understands the root of it very well. “He was God to me,” she says. “I would have done anything that he told me to do.”

She describes the coach-swimmer relationship as “sacred”, which it is. Which is also why it can be so easy for certain coaches to manipulate their swimmers. That trust is so implicit, so unshakeable at that age, it would have been impossible for Currin to do anything but listen to her coach.

She was not alone in that. She may have been the only one being abused by her coach, but every swimmer longs for the attention and the praise of the one on deck. It’s what keeps you going, often the only thing. So the instinct, awful as it sounds, is to protect the Father figure looming over you. The one who controls your future to a warped degree.

Look, you’re not going to change the culture of youth sports. Coaches will always exert a scary degree of influence over these kids’ lives. Most of the time, the great majority of the time, in fact, that influence will be a wholly positive one. The coach will be a worthy sacred figure who leaves a lifetime of positive influence on those they lead. Yet there will always be the dark ones. The very structure of this world will draw them to it.

The only way to break a sport free from that evil is by talking about it. Speaking up when suspicions arise, when you hear things. Speaking to kids and letting them know they have somewhere to turn.

And listening when someone like Kelley Currin has the courage to step forward and speak.