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Sexual Abuse in Women's Sports, Part III: Former Swimmer Katie Kelly on USA Swimming

Rob Trucks interviews swimmer Katie Kelly about Andy King, her swimming coach who pressured her into kissing a male teammate and later went to prison for sexual abuse.
June 13, 2014, 7:45pm
Andy King stares at Katie Kelly. All photos via the author

Katie Kelly swam for the Chabot Junior College swim team and the Chabot Aquatics club team, both coached by Andy King, from 1987 to 1989. One afternoon in that final year, King insisted, in front of the entire Chabot team, including members as young as 12, that Kelly play "the kissing game," a thirty-second kiss with a pre-selected male teammate. King said that if she would participate then he would give the entire team the day off from practice. When she refused, King threatened a much more punitive workout than originally scheduled.

In 2003 Kelly sent an email to Pacific Swimming, one of USA Swimming's 59 regional governing bodies, describing the incident. In 2010, Andy King, who abused at least a dozen young swimmers over his thirty-year coaching career, was convicted of 20 counts child molestation and received a 40-year sentence.

_In part three of a five-part series for VICE Sports, Rob Trucks spoke to Katie Kelly about the incident and dealing with bureaucratic red tape. _

Rob Trucks: What makes you send the email to Pacific Swimming when you do?

Katie Kelly: One of my college roommates and best friends on my college swim team was visiting, and we were just thinking about things that we recognized now in our 30s that we didn't recognize at the time: just a general misogyny, harassment, and things that we didn't even have words for then. And in the course of this conversation it hit me: that was really bad what he did. And even at the time I compartmentalized it as a joke. But as a grown-up, looking back, like, that was very abusive. That was a terrible thing. I tried to look at it like a joke. I was really hurt at the time, and felt utterly powerless. Like, Who am I? I'm just a kid. Why would anybody listen to me? And I tried to define it as something very funny that Andy King did, but it wasn't. As an adult I can now actually see that what he did was just a terrible thing to do.

I'm not a lawyer. I never talked to a lawyer. I'm with my girlfriend and we were talking about this and I don't know what to do. And she said, "You should send in a complaint and then they can have it on file, so if somebody else comes forward there will be some record." I'm like, "Oh, that sounds like a win-win." So that's why I did it. It's not for me. I'm not seeking retribution. I don't need payback. I have a good life, but I want to protect the next kid. And also I had already heard rumors about other coaches, and I thought, Okay if I can do this I might start an avalanche. Maybe they'll start coming forward. That didn't happen. But I wanted them to know that a swimmer, that somebody was mad about it.

The rumors about Andy King came after you swam for him?

I heard a rumor from my coach Steve Morsilli. I swam with Andy King's junior college team, and also on his club team. And the kissing thing happened at one of his club team workouts. My home team was the Pleasanton Seahawks, and this is a couple of years later. I had transferred to California State, Bakersfield, and then I was home on summer break, and I heard Steve Morsilli bitching about Andy King. I can't remember the exact term. I don't know if he said pedophile or child molester, but he was talking about a girl he had seen on Andy's lap at a swim meet. I overheard him. Steve was really pissed off about it, so I knew there were grumblings if he's talking about it with another coach at practice. It wasn't to us. It was to another coach and just to each other. I don't think he knew that I could hear. And it was really confusing. I did hear something way back then.

You've written about this on your blog and in 2011 you wrote, "More than 20 years later I am still so angry". Three more years have gone by. Are you still angry?

I'm [even] more angry. Why can't Chuck [Wielgus], or why couldn't he then, say, I screwed up? He only admits fault, as Nancy Hogshead said, when he's almost got a gun pointed to his head. Chuck Wielgus did apologize to me, but only when I had emailed him. And in my email to him I was telling him that he needs to apologize to these people. As far as I know he hasn't apologized to the Jane Doe. It's like they would rather ... it's like it's worth making one person look like a fool than admitting a mistake.

You've been dealing with this for a while. Do you have any idea why Wielgus would act the way he has, seemingly trying to cover up when he could've been cleaning house? Has his motivation become clear to you at any point?

I think, based on his emails to me, he sounded very—I mean, I didn't speak with him; this is just based on his writing—he sounded very, on the one hand, sincere. But also, abuse and sexual harassment ... In my mom's generation and how I grew up, it was something you had to learn how to deal with. And so there was much more tolerance. I'm really amazed. It's comforting to me that people now are so angry about this, like nationally, but this has been going on forever, and they're only mad about it now, which tells me there's been a shift. And Chuck Wielgus is in the process of shifting. And I guess it's harder for some people than others. But he and everyone who supports him represents everything that's wrong. This tolerance of treating women and girls like what happened to them is incidental and not a big deal. And that has to change. We have to acknowledge these people. And the way he treated me is how a lot of people treated me back then and it can't be acceptable anymore.

It's worth making one person look like a fool than admitting a mistake.

The petition to withdraw his name from Hall of Fame consideration was successful. Why don't people have a problem with him still working at USA Swimming?

I think people do have a problem with him still working there. But USA Swimming loves him. And it's not just him. It's their whole organization. They're just, like, totally in denial. Why do they defend him? They minimize his actions or inactions. It's not just Andy King. There's seven line items on that petition.

Does the culture around swimming make situations like this, the abuse, the harassment, more likely than in other sports?

No. What happened at swim practice and Andy King? I swim to this day. I only saw that at Andy King's swim practice. Nowhere else. Nothing close.

The Pleasanton swim team was such a wonderful place. I mean, swimming saved me. I was never going to be an Olympian, or anything close to that. But when I was a freshman in high school, my best friend was murdered walking home from school. That was also national news, but that's a separate topic. I had a terrible time in high school, and I finally joined the high school team when I was a sophomore. And then my senior year I wanted to make varsity. I was not a very strong swimmer. And I joined the Pleasanton Seahawks. And the age group coach at that time—I had to swim with the younger kids—he was so wonderful to me. He didn't care that I was so slow. It wasn't about where I was coming from. It was about where I was going. And it was such a great experience and I thought that would be all swimming.

And then I joined Chabot because it started later in the year. My parents were auto-crossers, car racers, and I went to the autocross nationals as a 17-year-old to go compete at the national championships. And if I did Chabot I could start the school year later and not miss this event. So that was why. But it was such a terrible ... I mean, I didn't like his swim practices at all. He was just no fun. He was mean. But he had this ... I can only say this in hindsight: it was like a cult and all these kids were so brainwashed. He would like yell at us for like a half-hour straight to break us down. I mean, we'd all be sitting on the pool deck, and he would just berate us, and break us down. And then build us back up again in a new way. And swimmers just thought he was the best coach they ever had. Like, "Only Andy King cares about us. Nobody else." And it allowed him, I think, to get away with terrible, terrible, things.

Kelly, far right, and King, far left, at a CHABOT awards dinner.

You said that swimming saved you.

Certainly. Yeah.

I know that you weren't training for the Olympics, but you still spent many hours in the pool. Your teammates are your friends, the people who you spend the most time with. I would think you would be scared of losing all of that if you, for example, said something bad about Coach King.

Yes. I really was. I really, really truly was. I didn't like him as much as the others did. And there was already pressure. Because I really questioned his coaching, all the time, because it just wasn't like Pleasanton at all. There was some thought behind the workouts at Pleasanton. They taught you technique at Pleasanton. Andy King said technique was overrated. He just believed in heavy yardage, and you get better by swimming a lot. And I just didn't believe that this was true. And it created a lot of ... Already there was tension. So yeah, if I were to speak out about what he had done ... I was off the team a few weeks after that anyway, but if I were to speak out, yeah, they would have hated me.

Chabot had swimmers as young as 12. They probably don't have any experience to compare Andy King to.

No.

What Andy King did to you was creepy and wrong and it shouldn't have happened, but that's not why he's in prison.

No. What Andy King did to me was pretty bad, but I'm only involved in this because of this complaint, because I emailed USA Swimming and then how they handled it. Or didn't handle it. And how they are handling it now and what they say about it now. Like, nothing ever adds up. But they have great lawyers and they are making it sound like it's adding up, but it's really not.

I only saw that at Andy King's swim practice. Nowhere else. Nothing close.

Your actions caused a relatively rare, honest-to-goodness paper trail. You did what you were supposed to do and they didn't. And that's why you are part of this. Chuck Wielgus can't say, Oh, I never knew about this.

No, he can't. Steve Morsilli, who was my coach in Pleasanton and was on the Pacific Swimming board, he wrote to me in 2009 and he said, among other things, "I'm writing to tell you that your complaint from a number of years back has been 'lost.' And after an incredible number of phone calls no one remembers it other than me." So they no longer have it. They're claiming they don't have it. I made a deposition about his contact with Bob Allard and a lawyer from San Jose Aquatics and USA Swimming, and I had to describe what was in it based on my memory. And then I heard Steve Morsilli's statement about it and it was slightly modified. He left out the kissing part. That was completely omitted. So now it's going to be USA Swimming's word against mine.

Then I don't know what happened. It was after Chuck Wielgus went on national television and said he had never heard of Andy King until 2009. Then my complaint resurfaced and I was validated. Everything I said was validated. So I emailed Chuck Wielgus myself and I asked him if he was as enraged as I was that it had been lost. And this is what he wrote back: "As for this "lost email" file, there are two aspects to this. The first is what is kept on file at USA Swimming, and in this regard there was no lost file. Your letter and the exchange of communications from 2003 remain on file today." So wait a minute. They did have it. Why did I have to make this deposition? That doesn't make sense. Nothing adds up. That doesn't make sense.

I don't understand how someone can remember the complaint, but not the kissing incident**. What's the complaint if you don't mention the kissing?**

I appreciate you saying this because that seems so obvious to me. When I heard that, [lawyer] Bob Allard read it to me, and my heart sank. That broke my heart. Because Steve Morsilli was like this father figure to me. That guy taught me ... I mean, after I trained with Andy King for two years and was miserable, I took a year off between Chabot and transferring to Cal State so I could finally swim in Steve Morsilli's group. Because there was a senior group and I was finally fast enough to swim with them. And he taught me how to swim. And when I went to Cal State, Bakersfield I was such a new swimmer. Nobody knew. They thought I'd been a swimmer my whole life. And it was because of Steve Morsilli. And I learned things about integrity, following through. I mean, just being a good person. I learned from Steve Morsilli. And for him to change his story, that hurts me more than any of this.

Kelly continues to swim.

He had to make a decision between you or the organization.

Right. And to this day that hurts me, because I think the world of him. I cannot erase all the good that he brought into my life.

Swimming saved you.

Oh God, yeah.

Does having this happen tarnish that for you? Are you still thankful for swimming?

I love the tactile sensation, where you feel like you're flying. It's quiet. I love the technical term they call, like, maximum steady state, where your body is producing all of this lactic acid and you're training your body to convert it into fuel. That's an incredible feeling. It's like this altered state of consciousness, and I love that. I'm on a wonderful swim team. We have a huge Masters team, and there's an age group program, and the coaches are so great. We all share this love of this swim team. It's like our church, or our temple. We speak of it with such great reverence, and it's so fun, also. I've been very blessed in that I've known so many people wonderful people in this sport. My college swim coach at California State, Bakersfield, Pat Skehan, was so wonderful. She's just an angel. I mean, these people just gave me so much. And there are so many levels to it. You know, in life there will be people you trust and then you're going to learn that people will betray you. And that's just across the board. So you just find the people that are good and align yourself with them. I mean, they are people I want to be like. I aspire to be like them. It's just this very upward spiral.

How did you feel when you learned that the petition you've signed, the protest you've joined is successful and Chuck Wielgus will not be inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame?

An absence of depression. I'm not happy, because this shouldn't even be an issue. I can't celebrate ... all I'm asking for, or any victim is asking for, is a) that these things don't happen at all, and b) just respect. And then you get that respect, but I'm not going to celebrate something that should just be. Had he been inducted I would've just been really sad, and now he's not so I'm not sad. I'm happy about other things in my life, but this is just deplorable.

Is his withdrawal, the fact that he will not be inducted, is that a beginning, or is it more like the end of something?

It's a beginning.

Then what's next?

When we no longer have to have these conversations, then we'll know it's at the end. We've reached the end. When we don't need Bob Allard and Nancy Hogshead to come in and be a champion for this, then it will be over. But I don't see that [happening] any time in my lifetime. But we have to keep talking about it. So it's a start. I'm glad that we can finally talk about it.

Read more: Part I Part II Part IV Part V

_Katie Kelly is a former national autocross champion and now lives in San Rafael, California where she works as a technical writer for a scientific software company and swims with North Bay Aquatics. _

Rob Trucks interviews people. And not just former athletes. His latest book is on Fleetwood Mac's Tusk album, and some of his many conversations with 49-year-old Americans may be found at McSweeney's. Follow him on Twitter, if you must: @eyeglassesofky.