After representing New Zealand at the 2010 and 2011 World Championships, Sophia Batchelor was pursued by several top U.S. college programs including Cal.
In 2012 Batchelor and her mother took a recruiting trip to Berkeley. The Golden Bears had just won back-to-back NCAA championships under Teri McKeever, their third national team title in four years. That same year McKeever became the first–and still only–woman to serve as head coach of the U.S. Olympic swim team.
Cal put Batchelor and her mother up in the historic Fairmont Claremont Hotel & Spa at the foot of the Berkeley Hills. Later on a tour of campus, McKeever showed the pair a board that lists Cal swimmers who have competed in the Olympic Games, the coach pointing specifically to Lauren Boyle, a Golden Bear swimmer who had participated in three Olympics for New Zealand.
“I make Olympians,” McKeever told the women, according to Batchelor.
Shortly thereafter Batchelor accepted an athletic scholarship offer from Cal, convinced that McKeever was the coach to guide her to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
“I … support swimmers,” Batchelor recalled McKeever telling her.
Instead, according to a lawsuit filed against the University of California regents Monday, and from reporting by the Southern California News Group, McKeever bullied Batchelor on an almost daily basis, subjected her to verbal, emotional and physical abuse, pressured her to take a drug banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency and to swim and compete while injured, body shamed her, and required her to file weekly food reports. Batchelor complained to Cal senior executive associate athletic director Jennifer Simon-O’Neill about McKeever’s abuse only to have the administrator set up a meeting in which McKeever berated Batchelor in front of Simon-O’Neill, who took no action to intervene, according to the lawsuit and interviews with SCNG.
McKeever’s bullying, according to the court filing, led to Batchelor having panic attacks, anxiety, depression, eating issues and eventually being hospitalized after having “suicidal ideation.” Years later the smell of chlorine continued to trigger panic attacks for Batchelor.
Batchelor is one of 18 former Golden Bear swimmers who are suing the University of California regents in Alameda County Superior Court, alleging that for parts of four decades, Cal officials, including Simon-O’Neill and current athletic director Jim Knowlton, prioritized athletic success over the well being of athletes by ignoring and in some cases enabling McKeever’s bullying.
The swimmers, who include Olympic champion Cierra Runge (now Burnell), 11 Olympic Trials qualifiers and seven NCAA All-Americans, the suit said, “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. “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 suit alleges that as early as the spring of 1994, just two years after McKeever was hired by Cal, university officials knew the coach’s “propensity for abusive coaching.”
“It just further reinforces that the system failed us and what we thought was a safe and trusting environment was false,” said Katherine McAdoo, a former Cal swimmer.
The lawsuit, like an eight-month, $2 million university-commissioned investigation that led to McKeever’s firing on January 31, further substantiates SCNG reporting last year in which 44 current or former Cal swimmers, including Olympic and NCAA champions, 23 parents, a member of the school’s men’s team, three former Cal coaches, a former administrator and two athletic department employees have 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. Swimmers and parents have also alleged that McKeever revealed medical information about athletes to other team members and coaches without their permission in violation of federal, state and university privacy laws and guidelines.
Nine Cal women’s swimmers, six since 2018, have told SCNG they made plans to kill themselves or obsessed about suicide for weeks or months because of what they describe as McKeever’s bullying.
“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.”
The lawsuit was filed against the backdrop of an ongoing university-commissioned investigation of Knowlton and Simon-O’Neill’s handling of dozens of allegations over the course of years that McKeever is alleged to have bullied swimmers on an almost daily basis and mounting pressure on the university administration by influential Golden Bears donors to fire Knowlton and Simon-O’Neill.
The lawsuit in particular highlights repeated incidents in which Simon-O’Neill, a longtime close friend of McKeever’s, allegedly failed to react even when witnessing McKeever scream and swear at swimmers. McKeever is the godmother to one of Simon-O’Neill’s children.
“Ms. Simon-O’Neill sat in numerous meetings as Coach McKeever berated and threatened (swimmers),” according to the suit. “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.”
Former Cal swimmer Danielle Carter said after months of McKeever’s bullying her and accusing her of lying about her epilepsy in the fall of 2019, she went into her dorm bathroom with an X-acto knife intent on slitting her wrists.
“It got to the point where I literally couldn’t take it anymore from Teri,” Carter told SCNG last year. “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.’”
McKeever belittled Carter after learning of the suicide attempt, according to allegations in the suit and interviews. Later in a meeting between Carter, her mother, McKeever and Simon-O’Neill, McKeever, according to the suit “berated Danielle, falsely asserted that she was failing multiple classes and was lying about having epilepsy. Jennifer failed to intervene when Coach McKeever’s tone became harassing.
“Coach McKeever’s closing comment: ‘You should be thanking me for not putting you in a meet because now you have four years of eligibility. You’re never going to be good enough for a Division I school due to your epilepsy.’”
Cal removed Simon-O’Neill as the direct supervisor of the women’s swimming program shortly after the first SCNG report was published last May.
The university’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination conducted a number of interviews with swimmers about McKeever’s abusive behavior according to the suit. Those interviews, the court filing said, “either led to informal discussions with Coach McKeever about ‘bullying’ or no action at all.”
Simon-O’Neill, Knowlton and a series of other current and former Cal employees and administrators are the only ones who enabled McKeever’s bullying, according to the court filing. The former swimmers allege that McKeever created a cult-like atmosphere within the Cal program in which the coach kept a “(expletive) list” of her bullying targets that was enforced by team leaders.
Cierra Runge reacts after winning the 800 meter freestyle final during the 2017 Arena Pro Swim Series in Santa Clara. (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
After Runge told McKeever she was taking a gap year to train for the 2016 Olympic Games, the coach caught the swimmer off guard when during a team meeting she said Runge had an announcement to make. Runge told her teammates she would miss the following college season to focus on the Rio Olympics.
Then, according to the suit, “Coach 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.
“‘You will be nothing without us.’
“’How will you survive when you fail because we won’t be there for you when you do.’
Coach McKeever and the assistant coaches watched silently
Runge felt ill, struggled to eat, threw up, and experienced dry heaving after the meeting, the court filing said.
Runge won a gold medal with the U.S. 4×200-meter freestyle relay at the 2016 Olympic Games and then transferred to Wisconsin.
During a team “Secret Santa” gift exchange one season, swimmer Celina Li, an All-American and frequent target of McKeever’s bullying, received for her gift a plastic trophy labeled “Most Likely to Be Yelled at by Teri.”
“Celina was humiliated as her teammates immediately burst out in laughter when she opened her gift and read the label aloud,” the suit said.
McKeever has previously denied any wrongdoing and attorneys representing her are working on filing a wrongful termination suit against the university.
Thomas Newkirk, an attorney for McKeever, said he was not surprised by the lawsuit. McKeever, Newkirk said, is the victim of gender bias in regard to the standards female coaches are held to, and that university officials were aware of her coaching methods and continued to reward her with pay raises, contract extensions and bonus payments.
The suit, Newkirk said, is the result of the university-commissioned investigation of McKeever confirming “bias-driven complaints” by Cal swimmers. “This is coming home to roost for the university,” Newkirk said. “I’m not shocked. What else would they do? Of course they are going to sue the university.”
Cal spokesman Dan Mogulof said the school had no comment because it has not been served with the suit.
The suit alleges the university was negligent in its supervision and retention of McKeever, in failing to warn or train her, and in inflicting emotional distress on Cal swimmers. Attorneys for the swimmers also allege that the university violated the California Equity in Higher Education Act.
Because of McKeever’s bullying and the university’s failure to effectively address it, the suit said, swimmers suffered “stress and fear manifested in numerous physical, emotional, and psychological injuries while on the team. They were deprived of their ability to make the most of the academic opportunities. All Plaintiffs left Cal traumatized and disempowered, wrongfully believing that they had failed as athletes.”
Shortly after McKeever was hired by Cal in 1992 athletic department officials were made aware of the coach’s “leadership deficiencies,” the suit said.
“Several student-athletes would sneak to hold meetings with Assistant Athletics Director Karen Moe Humphreys. Upon information and belief, Athletics Department leadership advised Coach McKeever to take anger management courses and to bring on assistant coaches to help her manage the program.”
Two years later, in the spring of 1994, three team captains met with then acting AD Bob Driscoll after the NCAA Championships “to convey their concerns about the abusive conduct by Coach McKeever and the assistant coach,” the suit said.
“The swimmers shared that they were concerned about whether the younger swimmers would be targeted after they graduated. AD Driscoll responded that he took their allegations seriously, would monitor Coach McKeever, and would ensure that her coaching program did not continue to be abusive,” the suit said.
But McKeever’s bullying continued with her supervisors’ knowledge, according to the suit and interviews.
Among the comments included in one of McKeever’s annual evaluations were: “personalized attacks,” “students afraid to go to practice,” “afraid to talk to Teri,” “student-athletes are so anxious going into every practice,” “very negative coaching style,” “fear of retaliation,” “gotten worse this year,” and “picking on individual people.”
In response to these allegations, the suit alleges, “Cal failed to place Coach McKeever on an appropriate performance improvement plan. Alternatively, Cal failed to enforce any performance improvement plan and meted out no meaningful escalation of discipline.”
Shortly after Leann Toomey, an All-American, was sexually assaulted as a freshman by a fellow student at a party, McKeever during a team meeting told the swimmers, “This is what happens when you drink,” the suit said.
McKeever required Toomey to be cleared by a psychologist before she could resume training with the team. The process took a month.
“Coach McKeever told the team that Leann was weak,” the suit said.
McKeever, the suit said, “constantly yelled belittling, humiliating, and demeaning comments to (Li) during practice. She repeatedly told Celina to ‘fix her fucking face.’ Celina began to experience panic attacks and often would escape to the locker room bathrooms just to breathe.”
Another former Cal swimmer alleges in the court filing that McKeever also “routinely yelled at other teammates, ‘wipe that (expletive) look off your face.’”
During a team building exercise in an off-campus, pre-season team retreat, swimmers were pressured by McKeever and a “life coach” she retained as a consultant to share personal information and secrets with their teammates and coaches. Batchelor revealed that during the 2011 Christchurch earthquake “her family had lost their home and she had seen bodies in the rubble,” the suit said.
Later in the season, the suit continued “Coach McKeever made a comment, ‘No wonder you are so (expletive) up.’”
McKeever continued to bully Batchelor, the suit alleges.
“One day on the pool deck, as the team stood in circle formation, Coach McKeever told Sophia to step forward so that everyone could see her, and posited that Sophia looked like she had gained ten pounds,” the suit said. “After that practice, Coach McKeever called Sophia into her office and informed her that she was putting on too much weight and looked fat in her swimsuits. Thereafter, she required that Sophia give her and the assistant coach weekly food reports. Sophia began drinking laxative teas. She experienced amenorrhea for several months.”
Once, Batchelor, “distraught” after being on the receiving end of a series of screaming fits by McKeever, called her mother in New Zealand, the suit said. Concerned, Batchelor’s mother emailed and called McKeever. McKeever did not return the calls, the suit said. Instead “Coach McKeever later told Sophia to ‘control’ her mother.
“A secondary meeting was scheduled by Coach McKeever and Jennifer Simon O’Neill. Sophia asked if she could have a representative and was told that there was no need for anyone to be present, no need to prepare anything for the meeting, and that she should attend alone. Coach McKeever berated Sophia and kicked her off the team. When Sophia began crying, neither Coach McKeever nor Jennifer Simon-O’Neill showed any reaction.”
McKeever had a similar reaction when Anna Kalandadze’s mother called the coach during the 2019-2020 to express concern about the dynamic between McKeever and her daughter.
McKeever berated Kalandadze after her mother’s call and threatened not to take her to NCAAs, according to the suit and interviews. Later when Kalandadze, now an Ivy League champion and All-American at Penn, said she planned to transfer after the season, McKeever kicked her off the team, the suit alleges, and said, “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.”
By this time Knowlton, Simon-O’Neill and other Cal officials were aware that “several swimmers leaving the team after experiencing depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideations,” the suit said.
Yet Knowlton extended McKeever’s contract through 2024.
“Teri McKeever is an iconic coach with an international reputation that is second to none,” Knowlton said in a statement at the time. “As much as she develops student-athletes to reach their potential in the pool, Teri also cares deeply about them as individuals and works just as hard to ensure they graduate from Cal prepared to be leaders in their post-collegiate careers. We look forward to having Teri lead our program for years to come.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255, visit the website at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/.