On the final weekend of last September, the UC Berkeley women’s swimming program held a team bonding retreat on a beach near San Luis Obispo.
At one point, Cal head coach Teri McKeever and her assistant coach Dani Korman met separately with each of the team’s classes.
“During the freshmen meeting, they all sat in a circle while Teri asked them to raise their hands if they thought one of the girls was a problem and had ‘an attitude,’” recalled Cal sophomore Emily Gantriis, an NCAA champion swimmer, in a journal she provided to the Southern California News Group.
The swimmer McKeever singled out for having “attitude” was African American.
“Teri did this in front of her!” Gantriis continued. Gantriis’ account has been confirmed by four other members of the 2021-22 Cal team, three former Cal swimmers, and five parents.
“I could tell that Teri wanted to pit the rest of the team against her. Almost all of the freshmen in that meeting left in tears, and many were confused about what Teri even expected of them.
“Teri then met with the other three classes and made us decide which of the freshmen were ‘gems,’ and who we should not spend any time and energy on. It was clear that her aim was to divide in the team, between those who were ‘on board’ and those who were not. The freshmen who were not catching on quick enough would be the ones to face Teri’s daily wrath. But it wasn’t just those freshmen that Teri targeted.
“Anyone else on the team who refused to reinforce her message was at risk. When Teri asked me who I thought was weighing the team down at the meeting on the beach, I refused to answer because I felt super uncomfortable and that it would just be putting wood on the fire. At that moment, Teri realized that I did not buy into her bullying tactics. That made me a target too.”
Gantriis is the first swimmer on the 2021-22 Cal roster to publicly come forward and be named in describing the alleged mistreatment by McKeever. The three-time Pac 12 champion, in a series of interviews with SCNG in which she shared her journal and emails, not only alleges that she was bullied by McKeever, the 2012 U.S. Olympic team head coach, on almost a daily basis, but that the coach also targeted freshmen Stephanie Akakabuta and Reed Broaders, both African American, for regular verbal and emotional abuse.
Gantriis, a multiple European Championships medalist for her native Denmark, also said senior associate athletic director Jennifer Simon-O’Neill, a longtime close friend of McKeever’s who until recently had direct oversight of the women’s swimming and diving program, dismissed allegations of bullying against the head coach. These allegations are supported by dozens of current and former Cal swimmers and divers and their parents.
Gantriis is one of 36 current or former Cal swimmers and divers, 17 parents, a former member of the Goldens Bears’ men’s swimming and diving squad, two former coaches and two former Cal athletic department employees who have told the SCNG how 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 or dealing with chronic illnesses or eating disorders, even accusing some women of lying about their conditions despite being provided medical records by them.
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.
McKeever, the most successful female coach in the sport’s history, was placed on paid administrative leave by the university on May 25, a day after an SCNG investigation detailing her alleged bullying of swimmers was published. The university has also hired a Los Angeles-based law firm to conduct an investigation into the allegations. The probe will be overseen by the school’s human resources office.
“I’m just happy this is out and Teri is never going to be able to coach again,” Gantriis said in an interview with SCNG. “Because I don’t want anyone else to have to go through this hell again.”
McKeever, 60, declined comment.
A spokesman for the university said the school was unable to comment for this report because of “stringent laws and campus policies” regarding personnel, privacy and due process. Cal is not making Simon-O’Neill available for comment for similar reasons, an athletic department spokesperson said.
Gantriis confirmed she has been interviewed by the university’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination as part of a formal investigation into allegations that McKeever recently used a racial epithet and profanities in disparaging rap music. The investigation into the incident initially focused on potential racial discrimination but has since been expanded to also consider possible discrimination based on sexual orientation and national origin, according to five swimmers, two parents and confidential university documents obtained by SCNG. The OPHD investigation was launched prior to the initial SCNG report.
Gantriis and four other members of the 2021-22 squad said McKeever repeatedly made comments about an African American swimmer’s appearance this past academic year.
Gantriis is one of at least six athletes on the 2021-22 Cal roster who has either transferred or entered the NCAA’s transfer portal since the season’s end. She said she will likely transfer to Wisconsin or Louisville.
Of the 61 swimmers who joined the Cal team as freshmen between the 2013-2014 and 2020-21 seasons, 26 (42.6 percent) left the program before completing their NCAA eligibility.
“Swimming for Teri is not about being excited about swimming anymore,” Gantriis said in an interview. “It’s only about not messing up. That’s how you feel because you’re so afraid. She makes you doubt yourself.
“The screaming, being called a piece of (expletive) all the time, the PTSD, I don’t want to live that again.”
‘She changed me as a person’
Gantriis, a sprinter, has been a member of the Danish national team since 2016 and competed in the 2019 World Championships. A year later she joined a Cal program that was world famous after winning four NCAA team titles under McKeever and producing 26 Olympians who have combined for 36 Olympic medals.
“I had the unique opportunity to attend one of the best academic institutions in the world while I was swimming under one of the most accomplished coaches in the world,” Gantriis wrote in her journal. “It seemed to be the best place for me because I wanted to come out of my comfort zone and be surrounded by dedicated and ambitious people.
“I knew going in that I would be pushed and held to a high standard. However, I never thought daily emotional abuse would be part of my life the past two years. There’s a difference between being a “tough coach” and being an abuser. I am relieved the truth is out, so no one ever has to go through this again. There is NEVER an excuse for coaches in a position of power to abuse or humiliate athletes. NEVER!
“A good coach can be demanding and still empathetic. However, Teri was definitely not empathetic.
“She would see people leave practice in tears and it would not touch her. There is a difference between being tough and demanding and then being abusive! Teri’s attacks would often become personal. She was good at finding a person’s weakness and then latching onto it. Her insults felt calculated and strategic. She would constantly play mind games, trying to manipulate her swimmers into believing that they were crazy. She would coach through fear and intimidation.
“She changed me as a person and made me feel so bad about myself every single day.”
While Gantriis claims McKeever verbally abused her during her first semester at Berkeley, she was not one of the coach’s targets for almost daily bullying. But it was also clear to Gantriis that McKeever had what Golden Bears swimmers refer to as the coach’s “(expletive) list.”
“For Teri’s victims, it became more about surviving each day than striving for excellence,” Gantriis said. “Then, she would manipulate the rest of the team into believing that there was justification for her abusive behavior. She would try to convince everyone else on the team and yourself that you were the sole cause of these problems.
“Her main target that semester was another freshman. Teri would scream at her all the time and the last practice before we never saw the girl again was when Teri told her she was not working hard enough and everyone could see it, so she did not deserve to wear the Cal cap. I remember feeling so bad about it all, but I was just trying to survive, so I was relieved that it was not me who was Teri’s main target or punching bag; so I just watched it all happen.”
Alleged bullying became a nearly daily routine
Into the winter of 2021, however, McKeever was screaming at Gantriis almost daily.
“‘You’re useless, you’re a piece of (expletive), you’re a piece (expletive),” Gantriis recalled. “And she would get really close to you when she screamed. Right in your face. So close. You could feel her spit in your mouth really. She was really aggressive, really intimidating. You were really scared at that moment.”
At times McKeever would get physical, Gantriis said.
“She would grab me and tug really hard on my arm and scratch her nails into me,” Gantriis said.
Although Gantriis was part of three victorious relays at the Pac 12 Championships, she said she continued to swim in fear of incurring McKeever’s wrath. “She would scream in a way that was extremely degrading,” Gantriis said. “This would make me always be on edge and I had anxiety every day coming into practice.”
Gantriis and two other swimmers said she was badgered repeatedly in abusive terms about slow starts on relays.
“My first night competing at the 2021 NCAA Championships was an emotional roller coaster,” Gantriis said.
She was on the winning 200-yard freestyle and swam a personal best in the 50 freestyle.
“My last event of the night was the 400 medley relay,” Gantriis said. “I was swimming the freestyle leg. As I stood on the block, anticipating my teammate’s finish, I kept telling myself, ‘Emily, do not jump too slow, do not jump too slow, do not jump too slow.’ I was so traumatized from Teri leaving practice in anger that one day a week prior, and I did not want to witness her reaction to another delayed relay start. Paralyzed with fear, I accidentally dove into the water 2 or 3/100 of a second too early and disqualified the relay.”
Gantriis returned to Berkeley to train for the Danish Olympic Trials.
“As I was walking into the pool, Teri stopped another girl on my team and asked: ‘Why are you here?’ She answered that she wanted to train,” Gantriis wrote in her journal. “Teri flew into a rage and made her feel so unwanted. Teri would then say: ‘Okay __, I just want to let you know that I will not be focusing on you at all.’ Teri would also tell this girl that she was the weakest link on the team or that Teri could not believe she was wasting so much time on someone so slow. I would also hear her talk about other swimmers and say: ‘I would never have recruited her if I had seen how she swam’ about another girl or our team.”
Gantriis wondered if McKeever wasn’t also having second thoughts about recruiting her.
“I asked her after NCAAs whether she wanted me to come back because I felt like she did not want me to be there,” Gantriis wrote. “She answered: ‘If I did not want you to be here, I would make your life very miserable.’ I already felt like she made my life miserable.”
It would only get worse.
McKeever kicked Gantriis out of practice several times a week for seemingly no reason, according to Gantriis and four other Cal swimmers. And McKeever’s bullying became increasingly personal during her sophomore season, Gantriis said.
“Teri convinced me and other team members that I had psychological problems,” Gantriis said. “I never had any problems before coming to Cal. She told me multiple times I was mentally ill, just as she did to other swimmers she targeted. I was already seeing a sports psychologist and a therapist because I needed professional help on how to cope with the way Teri treated myself and others. However, Teri told me that counseling was required before I could come back to practice. She made me meet with a life coach, who also happened to be a good friend of hers. When I told my feelings to the life coach, she would respond with: ‘Have you never had a coach scream at you before?’ She invalidated my feelings and made me feel like I was overly sensitive for feeling upset.
“I stopped seeing her because I liked my own certified psychologist more. Teri later blamed me for not talking with the life coach, but I wasn’t the only one on the team who had problems with her methods. Two months before I was required to talk with the life coach one-on-one, Teri brought her in to do an activity with our entire team. We all taped a blank piece of paper on our backs. Then, we all had to go around and write what each of our teammates should keep doing, and what they should stop doing. When we got home, we could take off the piece of paper and read it. Many of my teammates were in tears after receiving such negative anonymous feedback. I remember thinking how wrong the ‘team building’ exercise was, but because no one did or said anything it was very normalized.”
Dividing the team
McKeever tried to convince Gantriis that her teammates disliked her and wanted her off the team, according to Gantriis and four other swimmers and four parents of Cal team members.
“I was terrified to fail,” Gantriis said. “Before my races, I was consumed with fear, not because of the actual race itself, but because of her reaction to my swimming afterwards. After every single race, I ran straight from the pool to the toilet to throw up. At this swim meet, I did not receive any positive or constructive feedback, just insults. I just wanted to avoid the screaming in my face at all costs, and my body started reacting really badly.
“Teri would tell me, ‘I do not trust you, and your teammates do not trust you.’ But I knew that most of my teammates did trust me, and those who didn’t were likely basing their opinions off of Teri’s narrative. Teri wanted me to believe that I was alone, and that no one on the team supported me. And she did everything in her power to convince my teammates that they should not support me.”
But when McKeever decided not to take Gantriis to the NCAA Championships last March, much of the team rallied around the swimmer creating a mini-revolt against the coach, according to Gantriis, four teammates and four parents. The four swimmers said they were traumatized by McKeever’s treatment of Gantriis,
“Teri really crossed the line with Emily,” a swimmer said.
“Brutal,” is how another swimmer described McKeever’s treatment of Gantriis.
Swimmers viewed by their teammates as team leaders confronted McKeever about her treatment of Gantriis. The encounters were heated, according to nine people familiar with the conversations and emails.
“She created a culture where if you did not participate in talking bad to her about certain people on the team, then you would just be the next target,” Gantriis said. “She picks people out and bullies them. She would single people out a lot. Furthermore, the consequences are not the same for everyone – it depends on who you are. In meeting with people on her good side, she would ask, ‘Do you think this person deserves to be on this team?’ ‘Do you think this person deserves to be on this team?’
“If Teri asks, ‘Who on this team is a problem?’ you want to tell her the people she already does not like so you can get even more on her good side. She creates an atmosphere that is about dividing the team. She would try to put people against each other and ask after she threw people out of practice, ‘Isn’t it much better now that this person is not here?’
“She would try to put in the back of our minds that these people were bringing the team down. You do not want to be affiliated with a person she has on the (expletive) list, because then you are also going to be on her (expletive) list. This is a very effective way of isolating people she does not like.
“Teri would ask people on the team in front of me, ‘Do you agree that she is not doing this?’ They would say yes and later tell me they did not mean it and just felt like they had no choice in front of Teri. No one wanted to say anything to Teri because of fear of getting on her bad side. A girl decided to stand up for me, but she just ended up getting on her bad side because of it.
“She is very strategic about everything and makes sure you feel like no one wants you to be on the team. You feel like the team would be better without you. Teri would tell you that the whole team did not want you to be on the team. She also, by saying other things, makes you feel like no one wants you on the team. As a young girl coming to college, you are in an age trying to find yourself, and Teri just tries everything to tear you down.”
Administrators didn’t act on complaints
Dozens and dozens of young women, some of sport’s top athletes and students, were repeatedly put into that position, Gantriis said, because McKeever’s alleged bullying was repeatedly ignored by a series of administrators, in particular current Cal athletic director Jim Knowlton and Simon-O’Neill.
Gantriis is one of several swimmers who said McKeever boasted during heated meetings or discussions about her relationship with Simon-O’Neill.
“Teri assured me that anything I told Jenny would not be taken seriously, because Jenny believed her and not me,” Gantriis said.
Multiple current and former Cal swimmers have portrayed Knowlton as condescending and patronizing in meetings with swimmers about McKeever’s alleged bullying, telling them they would appreciate McKeever’s “tough” coaching later in life. Interviews with Gantriss and other current and former swimmers as well as eight parents reveal that Simon-O’Neal has repeatedly ignored, dismissed or failed to take effective action on allegations of bullying against McKeever. Cal removed the women’s swimming and diving program from Simon-O’Neill’s direct supervision on May 25, according to university documents and emails. When recently asked about Simon-O’Neill’s status at Cal, a university spokesman would only refer to the recent change in direct supervision of the swim team.
“The school failed dealing with this because of Teri’s success and the conflict of interest there was!” Gantriis wrote in her journal. “This abuse was only possible because the school administration did not listen. I can understand if two or three swimmers complained. However, if more than 40% have transferred or stopped on a team that shows that there is a problem!
“Jenny Simon O’Neil would have Teri’s back and not the athletes. I talked with Jenny and her response was just that ‘it sounded like me and Teri were not a personality match’ and ‘Teri had great success and was a phenomenal coach.’
“I had a meeting with (senior associate athletics director for performance, health and welfare) Ryan Cobb where he just told me that the next step was to meet with Jenny Simon-O’Neil. It took me a lot of courage to even talk with them and it was first after I decided to transfer, I had the courage because I had nothing to lose. However, no one would listen, and I knew I was not the first that had tried to contact them. It is so hard to prove verbal abuse because there is such a fine line between tough coaching and abuse, but Teri definitely went over that line.”
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