My Coach Failed Me.’ A Former Swimmer Copes with the Lasting Trauma of Abuse.

Washington Post photo by Jonathan Newton
The abuse she suffered during her college swimming career left physical and emotional effects on Katherine Touhey in the decades that followed.

Even decades later, the news that her college swimming coach had been fired struck a visceral blow to Katherine Touhey, who was only beginning to understand the abuse she had endured as an elite athlete.

Touhey had been part of Teri McKeever’s storied program at the University of California for two years beginning in 2000, during which time McKeever, according to a heavily redacted outside report commissioned by the university, allegedly bullied and verbally abused her athletes in violation of university policy, discriminating against them on the basis of race (including use of the n-word), national origin and disability.

McKeever, the most successful female coach in the sport’s history and a decorated coach of the U.S. Olympic team, was fired in late January after the report was released, but the experience of her former athletes such as Touhey illustrates how a coach’s methods can change the trajectory of an athlete’s life and leave ripples for decades.

“My knees buckled and I fell to the ground,” Touhey, now 41, said of the impact of hearing that McKeever had been fired. “The hardest part was that my husband was out of town and I quickly had to turn around for my sons. One of them asked, ‘Mommy, why are you crying?’ The only thing I could say to them was that someone was very mean to me a long time ago and it hurt me a lot. Being a mom, I had to quickly stand up, take a deep breath, push it aside and be there. I’m really good at putting a mask on.”

Touhey and 17 other former Bears swimmers filed a lawsuit against California regents in May, hoping for what Touhey calls “accountability” as she, like the others, still struggles to come to terms with the long-range effects of swimming for McKeever.

The school announced in March that it was taking steps to address the issues raised in the report, though it declined to detail those steps to the Orange County Register at the time, and it has made no further announcements since. Allegations contained in the lawsuit include “incessant” verbal abuse, “psychological exploitation,” “torturous workouts” that left Touhey even to this day with a fear of drowning, “an obsession with image,” threats to revoke scholarships amid a fear of retaliation and the creation of an “environment of fear and intimidation.”

In a statement she released after she was fired, McKeever, who is not a defendant in the lawsuit, said: “I deny and unequivocally refute all conclusions that I abused or bullied any athlete and deny any suggestion I discriminated against any athlete on the basis of race, disability or sexual orientation. There were and should be consequences for violating team rules, not showing up for scheduled appointments, misusing resources, not giving an honest effort and behavior that was not congruent with their individual or our team goals. But those consequences were not applied because of who someone was, only for what they did or didn’t do that hurt the team and the culture we were working hard to sustain.”

But, according to Touhey, “The more time you spent with her, the more you realized that her wrath is so irrational that you lived in this constant state of fear and dread.”

Touhey, then Katherine McAdoo, was a Virginia state champion at what was then known as T.C. Williams High in Alexandria. She was a record holder in the 100-yard butterfly and 200-yard freestyle events, and she competed at the 2000 Olympic trials. She was recruited to California mostly by an assistant coach, but Touhey knew McKeever by her stellar reputation, and the school seemed like a natural fit despite her limited access to her future coach.

“Our only one-on-one time was sitting at the airport Sunday morning before I was about to get on the plane to fly home [from my recruiting visit] and her asking me if I was okay earning my spot and coming in as the third butterflier,” Touhey recalled.

“I had just had an amazing weekend in California, and I’m like, ‘Heck, yeah, I want to earn that spot.’ You’re giving me the opportunity to go to school here and pursue this dream of mine that I’ve had since I was 13 when I qualified for junior nationals. I was like, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’ I was hungry.”

But Touhey didn’t realize that the two had different ideas about what that entailed. It became apparent at her first practice after she joined the program, a dry-land workout on a volleyball court. As she waited for practice to begin, Touhey, who had been a multisport athlete, grabbed a basketball and began dribbling.

Touhey recalled that McKeever told her to stop in a “harsh” tone, singling her out in front of her teammates. “That began to be the rest of my experience with her,” Touhey said. “You constantly had to be on watch that what you were doing would not be a potential distraction, that what you were doing was in line with her expectations.”

From that moment on, she felt targeted. If Touhey arrived for practice in a happy mood, she says that McKeever singled her out for seeming cocky. “I was like, ‘I’m going to come in humble. We’re going to try that one.’ Humble and subservient, if you want to use that word. ‘I’m just going to put my head down and show her that I can do that,’ ” Touhey said. “At the end of the day, she wanted you to show up authentic, but authentic on her terms, and you never knew what that meant. It was an unrealistic expectation for an 18-year-old. That’s why you have coaches, mentors. That’s why you’re at a big university – you’re not supposed to have it all figured out at 18.”

Compounding the disconnect with McKeever was a chronic knee condition, a meniscal cyst, that had caused Touhey and previous coaches to adjust her breaststroke technique. “That didn’t work” for McKeever, Touhey said, recalling that the coach told her to “do what everyone else does. So I did as I was told, and my meniscus was being slowly, slowly worn until it popped,” requiring surgical repair over the summer. When she returned in the fall of 2001, Touhey, who had not been medically cleared to do flip turns, was doing a modified version that she claims caused McKeever to kick her out of practice. She tore her meniscus again that fall and underwent another surgery.

“This is where you’re treated subhuman,” she said. “If you’re not producing for her, then you’re disposable.”

Three semesters into her college career, she decided to leave the team, and she says that McKeever told Touhey’s parents that she did not have room in the lanes to rehab Katherine. When she told McKeever of her decision, Touhey said the coach “never once asked if this could be difficult for me,” only whether she needed to purchase a ticket for Touhey to compete with the team in Hawaii.

She had been “in and out of the water” that fall but realized that, while she wasn’t done swimming, she “was done swimming for her. And that meant I was done swimming and feeling like my career didn’t end on my terms.”

Touhey went on to attend classes in a blur, isolating herself from her former teammates, who went their separate ways and have only recently gotten in touch with one another again. She earned her degree, specializing in U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War, but has no fond memories of college. Her experience with McKeever left her adrift academically because she “didn’t know how to establish a relationship” with her thesis professor. Her diploma “is in a bin in our attic,” and she has not set foot on campus since she graduated. “I don’t wear any Cal gear, and the few friendships that I had, I let go and they did, too. It’s the body’s way, a defense mechanism to protect you. But the problem is if you begin to dissociate long enough, it’s almost as if you didn’t go to college.”

In the ensuing years, the experience continued to manifest – in flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, depression and irritable bowel syndrome. Swimming was “literally painful,” psychologically and physically, so Touhey found other outlets – some extreme – for her elite athleticism.

“I ran the Marine Corps Marathon, and then I continued to push it further,” Touhey said. “It got to the point where unless I was doing something extreme, a marathon, an Ironman or ending up in the medical tent, it wasn’t worth doing. I ended up in a medical tent twice with hyponatremia [low sodium levels in her blood]. When I qualified for [the] Boston [Marathon], I was literally, like, counting down the minutes, the miles, the last six miles, and I said, ‘You know what? If worst comes to worst, I end up in the medical tent. No big deal.'”

Disassociation became “a habit,” Touhey said, along with an “ability to deny my experience. I’m very good at that.”

That began after graduation, when, with few job prospects or contacts and admitting, “I’m lost,” she headed for Europe. She returned to Virginia, then found a paid internship through a family friend in Washington. She got married, had three boys and, when asked, “my normal go-to story was I swam in college and I got injured. My body failed me then. That’s the story I would tell. My body failed me – which is so false. If my body failed me, why did I continue to run marathons and do an Ironman and qualify for Boston? My body didn’t fail me, my coach failed me.”

Her intensity never flagged. She took up CrossFit and, when she was “so done with being pregnant” with one son, she said she “went to a workout to induce labor.” Years after her experience at Cal, she says she is “able to look back at examples like that and realize that’s not normal,” so she began a “deep dive into trauma and what that looks like . . . how the body holds trauma and processes it.”

Her journey back from her college experience took a quantum leap forward when an Orange County Register story detailed McKeever’s abuses in May 2022. Touhey read it as she watched one of her sons in swim practice, an unnerving confluence of events. “I was, like, ‘What is the universe telling me here?’ It took me three times to get through the story, and the line that will forever stick in my brain is how she targeted one or two athletes. It wasn’t until then that I was able to make the association that that was me.”

Touhey began reaching out to others who had swum for McKeever and, like her, had closed the door on the experience and their relationship with one another. Realizing that their experience was shared, they decided to sue regents at the university. According to the Register’s story last year, allegations had been reported to school and athletic department officials, including Athletic Director Jim Knowlton, multiple times since 2010. (The law firm representing the university in the former swimmers’ lawsuit has not responded to requests for comment.) Touhey says one purpose of the lawsuit is to try to get redacted material in the outside report unsealed. Many of the former swimmers in the lawsuit were unaware of the extent of the alleged abuse until the report’s findings were revealed and McKeever was fired.

“Sure, this is my experience as a woman on an elite college swim team,” Touhey said, “but this kind of abuse can happen to anyone, in any sport, on any kind of team at any level. My hope is that others who’ve been victimized can hear my story and start their own healing journey. And that we as a society can move toward a place where psychological abuse of athletes is no longer tolerated or ignored.”

As the lawsuit proceeds, each plaintiff is dealing with what it means when an athletic career ends because of traumatic experiences rather than injury or choice.

“Now that I’m a mom of three kids and I’m married and I have this life that is not defined by sport, I can recognize all the amazing things about myself, that I am who I am because of that. It’s made me stronger and resilient and it’s made me . . . healthy and fit,” Touhey said tearfully. “. . . It’s not the end-all, be-all, and I think for so long that’s the agenda that has been pushed, that if you compete at this elite level, you’re going to be fine, and that’s not the case. I’m still understanding how the trauma shows up, how the body remembers, and unpacking decisions I made in the past. I’m still grieving the loss of opportunity, but I can move away from it defining me.”