Her first few months on Berkeley campus were dominated by a singular obsession that consumed every moment, every aspect of her life.
All Danielle Carter wanted to do was to make Cal women’s swimming head coach Teri McKeever happy.
“I was trying so hard trying to please Teri,” Carter said. “In every way.”
But nothing worked.
McKeever, the 2012 U.S. Olympic women’s team head coach, accused Carter of lying that she had epilepsy, according to Carter and five other people. Then McKeever accused Carter, then a freshman, of lying to Cal coaches during her recruitment, saying she concealed the illness from them.
McKeever was screaming at Carter at almost every practice, usually in front of the rest of the team, according to Carter and five others.
She was “lazy,” Carter and the others recalled McKeever yelling at her.
She was “worthless.”
She was “a waste of time.”
She was “a piece of (expletive).”
Carter was unable to eat, unable to sleep. She couldn’t focus in class. Sometimes she was so exhausted from the stress, from the lack of sleep she fell asleep in class. She had panic attacks on an almost daily basis. There were mornings when she couldn’t find the strength to get out of bed. All of which led to an increase in her seizures, according to Carter and her parents.
“Teri made me feel so little,” Carter recalled “and I didn’t want to feel like that anymore.”
So one night in the fall of 2019, Carter 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 said. “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.’”
Carter got scared at the last minute and texted a teammate.
Cal swimmers told McKeever about the incident and the coach confronted Carter the next morning at practice, pulling her out the pool.
“Did you try and kill yourself last night?” McKeever asked her, Carter said. Three other people confirm that Carter shared details of the conversation with them.
“Yeah,” Carter responded. “I don’t want to live.
“Teri literally laughed in my face and said, ‘Do you know how pathetic that is? How stupid that is? How selfish that is?’”
McKeever was particularly enraged, Carter and teammates remembered, that the swimmer had confided to a teammate that she was feeling suicidal. Carter had no way of knowing that the teammate had a sibling who had earlier attempted suicide. McKeever, however, brought it up in berating Carter, yelling that she had created a distraction for the teammate, Carter said.
“You just totally messed up her (practice),” McKeever said, according to Carter.
Carter is one of at least six Cal women’s swimmers since 2018 who made plans to kill themselves or obsessed about suicide for weeks or months because of what they describe as McKeever’s bullying, according to a Southern California News Group investigation.
Cindy Tran, a six-time NCAA champion who swam for Cal from the 2010-11 to 2013-14 seasons, said McKeever’s alleged bullying also helped push her to the brink of taking her own life in 2014.
The women characterize their attempts or suicide plans, verified by more than a dozen teammates, parents and friends, as desperate cries for help from within a toxic culture created by McKeever.
“I didn’t want to exist in a world where I had to see Teri every day,” said former Cal swimmer Chenoa Devine. “I didn’t want to be alive. I didn’t want to exist.”
For parts of four decades, McKeever, 60, has been one of swimming’s leading coaches, the architect of one of college sports’ premier programs, producing Olympians and NCAA champions in the pool and standouts in the classrooms of the nation’s leading public university.
She is the most well known and most successful female coach in the sport’s history. McKeever was the first and only woman head coach of the U.S. Olympic team, leading a squad that included six future, current or former Cal swimmers who earned a combined 13 medals at the London Games. McKeever’s father Mike was a football star at USC and so was his brother Marlin. Teri McKeever swam at USC and was an All-American and then a USC assistant coach before coaching 29 seasons in Berkeley, winning four NCAA team titles and producing 26 Olympians who have combined for 36 Olympic medals.
“It kills me inside that you guys don’t appreciate being coached by the best coach in the world,” McKeever told her team at the Pac 12 Championships this past February, according to three swimmers present during the talk.
But in interviews with SCNG, 19 current and former Cal swimmers, six parents, and a former member of the Golden Bears men’s team portray McKeever as a bully who for decades has allegedly verbally and emotionally abused, swore at and threatened swimmers on an almost daily basis, 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.
The interviews, as well as emails, letters, university documents, recordings of conversations between McKeever and swimmers, and journal entries, reveal an environment where swimmers from Olympians, World Championships participants and All-Americans to non-scholarship athletes are consumed with avoiding McKeever’s alleged wrath. This preoccupation has led to panic attacks, anxiety, sleepless nights, depression, self-doubt, suicidal thoughts and planning, and in some cases self harm.
Tran said. “You do things at Cal out of fear of getting yelled at.”
“You live in constant dread because of Teri,” said Chloe Clark, a former Cal swimmer.
McKeever’s bullying and abuse continues, the swimmers and parents allege, despite repeated complaints about the coach’s behavior to Cal’s athletic department and university officials since at least 2014.
“She’s Teflon Teri, nothing sticks to her,” said Scott Carter, Danielle Carter’s father. “She’s been getting away with this (expletive) for years.”
SCNG’s investigation revealed:
- McKeever recently used a racial epithet and profanities in disparaging rap music, according to five swimmers familiar with the conversation and an email to Cal detailing the incident.
The university’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination has opened a formal investigation into the incident that will initially focus on potential racial discrimination but could be expanded to also consider possible discrimination based on sexual orientation and national origin, according to confidential university documents obtained by SCNG.
McKeever has also complained that a current African American swimmer had too much “attitude,” according to five current swimmers.
- McKeever routinely bullies swimmers by screaming and/or swearing at them, often in front of the rest of the team, all 19 swimmers confirmed.
“Teri swore at me at least three times a week,” said Anna Kalandadze, a former Cal swimmer. “I had a ‘(expletive) attitude.’ I was a ‘piece of (expletive).’”
McKeever has also thrown kickboards and water bottles at swimmers on multiple occasions, current and former swimmers allege.
- McKeever each year targets one, two or three swimmers for almost daily bullying and verbal and mental abuse, according to all 19 swimmers.
“I don’t think there was a practice I wasn’t yelled at by Teri,” said a former Cal swimmer who competed at the World Championships. “She called me a piece of (expletive) every day.”
- Cal swimmers are routinely pressured by McKeever to train and compete despite physical reasons for sitting out, including suffering from chronic illnesses such as epilepsy or Crohn’s disease, injuries such as broken bones or concussions, or while recovering from eating disorders.
Clark recalled a practice during the 2019-2020 season where she was doubled over in pain from Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disease, and what would later be diagnosed as appendicitis.
“I was crying in pain,” Clark said.
McKeever was unmoved, Clark said. “Teri said, ‘No one died from swimming with a stomach ache, get in the water,’” Clark recalled McKeever telling her.
Clark got in the pool. Weeks later she underwent an emergency appendectomy.
- Two swimmers and their parents allege McKeever shared confidential medical information about them with the Cal team, a violation, they maintain, of federal privacy laws.
Clark said McKeever revealed the swimmer’s Crohn’s disease at a team meeting she was not allowed to attend.
“So basically, that’s how my friends found out that I had it,” Clark said.
- 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. Four swimmers on the 2021-22 roster have either transferred or placed themselves in the NCAA’s transfer portal since the season’s end.
“Teri was the only reason I left,” said Kalandadze, now an NCAA qualifier and All-Ivy League swimmer at Penn. “She was awful to me.”
Six of the 12 swimmers of color to join the team during the 2013-14 to 2021 period left before using all of their athletic eligibility.
SCNG contacted the Cal athletic department last Wednesday, May 19, to request an interview with or comment from McKeever. A Cal spokesman was informed of the allegations contained in this report. Cal was provided a Noon Friday deadline by SCNG. That deadline was later extended at Cal’s request to the end of business Friday. That deadline passed without any response from McKeever. On Monday morning, McKeever, through a Cal spokesman, declined to comment on this report.
“Teri creates a culture of fear on that team,” said Nick Hart, a former member of the Cal men’s swimming and diving team, who is close friends with several athletes from the Golden Bears 2019-20 team. “There are one or two people she dislikes and bags on them and if Teri doesn’t like that person, nobody is going to like her, because nobody wants the wrath of Teri.”
A current swimmer, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution from McKeever and the school’s administration, said she dreads “going to bed at night because I know when I wake up, I have to go to practice and deal with Teri.
“Swimming was my safe place. Now it’s the place I want to be the least.”
‘LIKE TALKING TO A WALL’
University and athletic department officials at Cal have received complaints alleging bullying, verbal and emotional abuse since at least 2014 but either ignored complaints, failed to follow up with swimmers or their parents, or handled the matter by simply reviewing university policies with McKeever, according to multiple swimmers and parents and more than a dozen confidential university emails.
Tran said she was sexually harassed by an athletic department official she complained to about McKeever’s abuse. The official has since left the athletic department. Tran said the university did not follow up on the complaint.
“I would hope that athletics follows, is subjected to the same standards as (the rest of) the university,” said Pietro Sasso, an associate professor at Stephen F. Austin University and co-author of the recent College Student Affairs Journal article “In My Feelings: Division I Student-Athlete Seeking Mental Health Support.” “Athletics shouldn’t be above fraternities, sororities and other campus organizations. Hazing is also native to coaches too. So coaches should be held accountable too.”
University and athletic department officials have received multiple complaints about McKeever’s alleged bullying of an African American and a foreign swimmer on the 2021-22 roster, five current Cal swimmers and two others familiar with the complaints confirmed.
Multiple swimmers said LGBTQ swimmers were often targets of McKeever’s alleged bullying. Tran described the Cal program as “extremely homophobic.”
Tran said McKeever forced her to come out in 2014 after learning she was dating a teammate.
“I was the first person (in the program’s history) to openly come out,” Tran said. “We came out against our will.”
In July 2020, Cherie Scricca, then the acting director/Title IX officer for the university’s Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination (OPHD), reached out unsolicited to a swimmer who left the team after the 2016-17 season.
“Our office responds to reports of harassment and discrimination involving students, staff and faculty at UC Berkeley,” Scricca wrote in an email.
“Earlier this week, our office received a report that you have concerns regarding Coach Teri McKeever. We are interested in talking with you to learn more about your concerns and how our office may be able to assist you.
“Please let me know if you are interested in speaking with me about your concerns.”
The swimmer said she responded to Scricca but never heard back from the director.
Cal officials received a complaint from a Golden Bears swimmer in 2014 about a series of “team-building exercises” during a squad retreat in Marin County in which athletes were pressured to reveal sexual secrets and other information about their personal lives.
It took the school’s OPHD four years to respond to the complaint, according to emails and an interview with the swimmer who made the complaint.
“My office is notified when other campus partners learn about behavior related to sexual harassment and sexual violence, and other forms of discrimination,” Paula Raffaelli, the OPHD’s senior complaint resolution officer, wrote in an April 17, 2018 email to the swimmer. “I am writing to you because my office was informed that you may have experienced sexual harassment from your swim coach.”
The swimmer met with Raffaelli on May 3. On July 19, Raffaelli emailed the swimmer.
“I know it wasn’t easy for you to come forward, and I’m glad that you did,” Raffaelli said. “I’ve assessed the information you provided and discussed with my colleagues. Based on what you’ve reported, I and the Title IX officer will meet with Coach McKeever to share the concerns you’ve raised, review with her the UC Policy on Sexual Violence and Sexual Harassment as well as the non-discrimination, and bullying policies, and discuss appropriate behavior and boundaries. I’ve also reported the information to Athletics management, who will follow up as well. While I can’t share more details about any management actions in light of employee privacy, I will update you (per my office’s protocol) after I’ve spoken with Coach McKeever.”
It took the OPHD officer another 42 days to meet with McKeever and resolve the matter.
“I’m writing to let you know that I was able to meet with Teri and share your concerns with her,” Raffaelli wrote in a Sept. 4 email. “I did not share your name, and reviewed the anti-retaliation policy with her. My apologies for the length of time to get back to you, as we had some scheduling delays.
“In any event, we had a productive conversation. We discussed power dynamics, how words and actions can have a profound impact regardless of their intent, and ways to improve on the retreat in the coming years, among other things.
“Because this matter was resolved under our informal, preventative measure procedures, my office now considers this matter closed.”
Several Cal swimmers and their parents said they have complained about McKeever to Cal athletics director Jim Knowlton and to Jennifer Simon-O’Neill, the school’s executive senior associate athletics director, and senior woman administrator. Those complaints have either been ignored or met with indifference, swimmers and parents said, or in one case dismissiveness.
Four Cal seniors on the 2021-22 roster recently met with Knowlton and Simon-O’Neil and alleged bullying and verbal and emotional abuse by McKeever, according to three people familiar with the meeting. Knowlton told the swimmers that McKeever was just a hard, tough coach.
Darla Carter, Danielle’s mother, recalled requesting a meeting with Knowlton in the autumn of 2019.
“It was almost like talking to a wall,” Carter said.
Knowlton, Carter continued, “said he wouldn’t meet with me unless I was alumni, a graduate or wanted to donate money.”
SCNG requested interviews with Knowlton and Simon-O’Neil. Cal did not make Knowlton or Simon-O’Neil available for an interview. The school did provide SCNG with a statement.
“The allegations that you have described are serious and deeply disturbing and, if proven to be true, would indicate there has been conduct the university would not tolerate,” the statement said. “However, Cal Athletics is regrettably unable to respond to allegations that involve personnel issues and/or privacy rights. We wish that were not the case given how seriously we take allegations of the sort you have shared with us.
“Due to campus policies and confidentiality requirements, generally the campus cannot comment on any case (including whether a case does or does not exist) unless that case has resulted in a finding of violation of campus sexual violence/sexual harassment policy or nondiscrimination policy, and that case has resulted in disciplinary action.
“However, we can discuss our processes: When anyone in Cal Athletics is made aware of any instance or allegation of a violation of university policy involving a coach (or staff member or student-athlete), such as those you have shared, those allegations are referred to the appropriate campus department(s) for investigation. Athletics does not have its own specific conduct process nor does it investigate allegations or cases on its own, but follows the university’s policy and works in concert with campus professionals who are responsible for those areas.
“Every member of our staff shares a strong commitment to the success of our student athletes – academically, athletically and developmentally. We have in place best-practice policies and procedures that enable Cal Athletics to respond quickly and comprehensively when there are allegations of misconduct by coaches that are inconsistent with our values or applicable rules and policies.”
A LIFESTYLE KIND OF JOB
McKeever grew up in Southern California, the oldest of 10 children. Her father Mike McKeever, like his twin brother Marlin, was an All-American lineman for USC. Mike McKeever died in 1967 after spending 22 months in a coma following a 1965 automobile accident.
“From what I know about her life, I know that Teri had to go through a lot of tough things,” said Abi Speers, a member of the 2013-14 Cal team. “And I think she thinks the more (expletive) she puts on us is going to make us that much tougher when we go out into the real world.
“I do think there’s something in her mind that justifies this,” Speers continued referring to McKeever’s alleged abuse. “I don’t think she thinks she’s a monster.”
Teri McKeever’s own athletic career led her to her father’s and uncle’s alma mater, where she was an All-America swimmer and four-year NCAA qualifier for the Trojans. After a three-year stint as a USC assistant, McKeever worked as the head coach of the Fresno State women’s team from 1988 to 1992, head coach of the men’s team from 1990 to 1992 before moving on the Berkeley later in 1992.
She married her husband Jerry Romani in 2007, four years after they struck up a conversation as strangers at a Cal football game.
“I think coaching at the highest level is a lifestyle kind of job,” McKeever told the San Francisco Chronicle shortly before the 2012 Olympic Games. “It’s hard for women to have the time. There’s a reason I didn’t get married until I was 45. There’s a reason I didn’t have children of my own. There’s a certain amount of regret. I’m not so sure I could have been someone who could have had it all.
“There’s a cost to being the first woman to be the (head) coach (of the U.S. Olympic team). It’s been hard. It’s taken an extra commitment to get to this level. I wouldn’t change it, because it’s been an amazing opportunity. What I hope is someday that won’t be such a big story.”
By 2000, McKeever had coached the Golden Bears to back-to-back top-five finishes at the NCAA Championships and recruited Natalie Coughlin, who in 1998 as a 16-year-old was the first swimmer to qualify for Summer Nationals in all 14 events.
Coughlin earned five medals, including golds in the 100-meter backstroke and 4×200 freestyle relay, at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, where McKeever would also make her Olympic coaching debut as an assistant on the Team USA staff.
“Natalie did really well and that expanded (McKeever’s) dynasty, which is what she called it,” Tran said.
“Natalie Coughlin,” Speers said, “is the one who made Teri who she is.”
Cal won its first of its four NCAA team championships under McKeever in 2009. She would coach eight national college swimmers of the year and the Golden Bears have won 66 NCAA individual or relay titles.
“You take these super hyper, overachieving athletes who want to do well in school, want to do well in swimming and they’re at such a vulnerable state in their adult lives and Teri comes in and makes us believe that we’re so special, better than anyone else,” Tran said. “It was like we were in a cult that was better than anyone else. We lived in a cult.
“At first she wasn’t attracting the best swimmers. But then when she started winning titles it got to her head and it became about winning and became very cutthroat.”
Tran and other swimmers said McKeever frequently belittled other programs, especially Stanford and UCLA, to her team.
“She openly made fun of other coaches in front of us,” Tran said. “Because we are so much better than everybody else.”
Cal won its fourth and most recent national team title in 2015. Shortly thereafter Missy Franklin, winner of four gold medals between her junior and senior years in high school at the 2012 Olympic Games, announced she was leaving the Cal program after two seasons to turn pro. Franklin later returned to Cal to finish her degree and train with Golden Bears men’s head coach Dave Durden in 2016. Earlier Coughlin made a similar move, leaving McKeever to train with Durden. Franklin declined to be interviewed for this article.
The Golden Bears were eighth at the NCAA Championships in March, ending a nation-leading 15-year streak of top-five finishes.
Current and former Cal swimmers blame the slide in the NCAA team standings on the fear and anxiety created by McKeever’s frequent outbursts.
“Cal has so many great swimmers, but when it comes to races, there’s so much pressure,” said Jose Allen, who swam for Cal during the 2020-21 season as Mara Allen.
Hart, the former member of the Cal men’s team, recalled a series of meals with female swimmers.
“We would go to the dining hall and no one seemed happy,” Hart said. “Cal has been so successful but you’re sitting in the dining hall and one person would start sobbing and talk about how hard it was.
“Teri is a really great swim coach. She knows what she’s talking about. But she creates an environment and a culture that is fear-based. I don’t think her team has a healthy culture or environment.”
A culture where athletes, even national champions, are made to feel dispensable by McKeever, according to swimmers and their parents.
“Teri used me to get what she needed,” Tran said, “and then she saw me as an expendable athlete when somebody better came along and she jumped on the next train.”
‘ALWAYS THIS FEAR’
It is also an environment where half of the current team is “terrified” to go to practice because of McKeever’s alleged bullying, according to a swimmer on the 2021-22 roster who has scored at the NCAA championships.
“It’s so bad,” said Clark, who now swims at Arizona, echoing the experiences of more than a dozen current or former Cal swimmers. “I woke up scared. I would always be worried about practice. I would be in class worried about what practice was going to be like. Is Teri going to get mad? Am I going to be able to do what she wants? There was always this fear in my mind. And it that was very present, like at the forefront. It was a daily thing I started struggling mentally with that as well. It was a constant dread.”
A member of the 2018-19 team said she was so tense about seeing McKeever at morning practices that she would routinely wake up with her fists clenched and dried blood on her sheets from where she dug her nails into her palms while she slept.
Seventeen swimmers said they had been sworn at by McKeever. All 19 swimmers interviewed said they had witnessed the coach swear at swimmers on an almost daily basis.
“The verbal abuse,” Tran said “spans decades.”
It isn’t just questionable results or rough practices that ignite McKeever’s wrath, swimmers said. Golden Bear athletes said they have been berated and sworn at for their weight, injuries and illness, and even the look on their faces.
Cal swimmers were weighed several times a week as recently as the 2013-14 season, according to three swimmers on the team at the time.
A swimmer on the 2013-14 Cal team recalled being called out of the pool during training by McKeever who told her in front of the team “that swimsuit looks terrible on you.”
Three swimmers on recent teams said they have heard McKeever complain about no longer being able to weigh swimmers.
“The body-shaming is so real and still going on,” said Clark, who remains in touch with Cal swimmers. “There’s a girl on the present team struggling with an eating disorder and wanted to come out about it on social media and (McKeever) told the girl, ‘No, that’s selfish of you to want to that. That makes the team look bad.’ Teri doesn’t want girls to be open about their struggles there. She wants it to be secret.”
McKeever expects Cal swimmers to play a significant role in recruiting and regularly grades them on their efforts to convince high school or international prospects to sign with the Golden Bears. She would often scream, swear and/or belittle team members who she thought were not doing enough in recruiting, according to more than a half-dozen current or former Cal swimmers.
“At team meetings they ask you to grade yourself in front of everybody and then tell you that the grade you gave yourself was bad,” said a member of a recent Cal squad. “You rate yourself on recruitment, sitting in circle. I got a D. And in front of everybody Teri said, ‘For what this program gives you, you’re not giving back enough. I would give you an F.’”
McKeever kicked three swimmers out of practice this month saying, “I don’t like the look on your faces,” according to three people familiar with the incident. Two of the swimmers removed from practice were African American.
“She breaks you down,” a former Cal distance swimmer said of McKeever, “but doesn’t always build you back up.”
‘TERI BEATS YOU DOWN’
While most Cal swimmers lived in fear of McKeever’s verbal and emotional abuse, all 19 women allege that each season she targets one, two or three swimmers for almost daily bullying.
“It’s like she always needs someone to (expletive) on,” said a recent Cal graduate, who was a Pac-12 scorer and NCAA qualifier.
“Without a doubt,” agreed Devine, who ranks second on Cal’s all-time list in the 1,000-yard freestyle and third in the 1,650 free. “Every year (McKeever) needs someone to take her anger out on.”
Fourteen women said they were targeted by McKeever for regular bullying. All 19 swimmers said they witnessed McKeever target swimmers for almost daily verbal and emotional abuse.
“Teri beats you down, beats you down, beats you down and then wonders why you have no self-confidence,” said the recent graduate. “Why is that? Well you took it when you called us a piece of (expletive).”
And more often than not, the expletive is delivered in front of the rest of the team or at meets with rival swimmers and coaches nearby, swimmers and their parents said.
“It seems like she gets joy when she gets a chance to shame you in front of everybody,” the recent graduate said. “One hundred percent public shaming.”
The recent graduate recalled an incident where McKeever accused her of having a “bitch face and you’re bringing everyone on the team down.” She said McKeever once told her, “I don’t know why you’re crying. You clearly don’t give a (expletive).”
Another swimmer said during the 2013-14 season McKeever yelled at a swimmer to “fix her (expletive) face.”
The tone within the program for the targeting and bullying is set during preseason retreats and other team-building exercises, swimmers said.
“The retreat felt like ammunition to be used against you later,” Speers said.
Speers was suspended from the team in April 2014 for telling McKeever and Cal assistant coach Kristen Cunnane she felt “very uncomfortable” completing a survey in which swimmers were told to rate and rank their teammates.
Cunnane described the survey as a “cornerstone to our program” in a follow-up email to Speers.
“This survey is anonymous, it is required to be a part of this team,” Cunnane wrote in the email.
McKeever, Speers said, “called that night and screamed at me for a half-hour. I was just shaking. I hyperventilated.”
The fear of McKeever that swimmers felt is evident in Speers’ email to McKeever and Cunnane after the coach’s call.
“Thank you for your email, and for taking the time to call,” Speers wrote. “I have completed the survey. I am so sorry that my earlier message was taken to be a questioning of your authority, and that I offended you. I have always believed that it is an honor and a privilege to be a part of this program.”
Speers said in the email she assumed she would be expected at practice.
“This is not that simple,” McKeever responded in an email. “Please do not attend any practice or coach-initiated team activity until I have time to schedule a meeting with you.”
Speers left the program shortly thereafter.
The 2014 complaint that led to the 2018 OPHD investigation stemmed from a retreat in the Marin Headlands. During one exercise swimmers stood in a circle. They were told to take a step forward if they had been sexually assaulted.
“I remember thinking, ‘This doesn’t have anything to do with swimming,’” a foreign swimmer on the team at the time recalled in an interview.
Before long the foreign swimmer and two other former Cal swimmers said she was a target for McKeever’s regular bullying.
McKeever once threw a kickboard at her in a rage, the swimmer said. The coach grabbed her by the arm “hard enough to bruise” to pull her to a side of the pool out of range of the security cameras to berate her, the swimmer alleged. McKeever kicked her out of practice on a regular basis for technique mistakes or not meeting certain interval times, the woman said.
And McKeever swore at her on an almost daily basis, said the swimmer, a veteran of two World Championships.
“Why can’t you just (expletive) do it? If I say something you (expletive) do it you (expletive) piece of (expletive),” the swimmer recalled McKeever swearing at her.
When the swimmer was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, McKeever pushed her to take the prescription drug Adderall, the woman said. The drug is an amphetamine and is banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency and the NCAA. Athletes needing the drug for legitimate medical reasons can be granted a Therapeutic Use Exemption.
“Teri pushed me to take Adderall, pushed me into getting a prescription,” the swimmer said. “If I didn’t take it I would be kicked off the team.”
The swimmer also recalled McKeever yelling at her, “How dare you waste my time by being so (expletive) up.”
The woman also applied for a TUE with her national antidoping agency. But the TUE request was delayed when the nation’s Olympic committee asked for additional information. The swimmer was concerned she would test positive during drug testing at the upcoming national championships and stopped taking the drug.
“Teri got so mad about it,” the swimmer said.
She transferred to an SEC school after the 2013-14 season.
TRIGGERED INTO A DARK SPIRAL
Another swimmer said McKeever bullied her despite the coach’s knowledge that the athlete was struggling with an eating disorder. The swimmer was in and out of treatment centers for her illness
“Coming back from treatment, that was tough and degrading,” said the swimmer, who just missed making the 2016 U.S. Olympic team. “I was battling two huge obstacles and (McKeever) just piled on.”
McKeever “triggered her into a dark spiral,” said Clark, who was a friend of the swimmer.
During a 2019 race, the swimmer was so depleted that 25 yards from the finish she all but stopped swimming.
“I had to be pulled out of the water,” the swimmer said. “I was terrified. I was paralyzed when I was pulled out of the water.”
The swimmer was taken to the pool’s lifeguard office for medical treatment. There, the swimmer said, McKeever finally acknowledged her illness.
“She said, ‘I think you need help,’” the swimmer said of McKeever. “She always knew that, but didn’t help me out.”
The swimmer also transferred to an SEC school.
Clark also became a target after she told McKeever she had Crohn’s disease.
She began experiencing severe symptoms shortly after entering Cal early for the Spring 2019 semester.
Even when Clark was throwing up and passing blood, McKeever refused to believe her, the swimmer said.
“Teri said, ‘Chloe you don’t look like a Crohn’s patient. You don’t have Crohn’s,’” Clark recounted. “She didn’t think I had the body because I had too much weight on me. (McKeever said) ‘I wasn’t skinny enough for Crohn’s. Hearing that was one of the first really (moments) like this is messed up. You’re telling me because first of all because I’m too big to have Crohn’s? And she said you’re not allowed to tell people this, ‘Don’t tell people this. You’re just trying to make an excuse for why you’re struggling right now.’
“She did not believe there was anything wrong with me at all. She thought I was faking it. I was literally, what do you want? I have all this documentation. Anyways that was really terrible. I was literally so sick. I was losing weight.”
The bullying and harassment escalated, Clark said, when McKeever learned that Clark’s mother Alyssa was telling people in her hometown of Granite Bay and in Northern California club swimming circles of her daughter’s condition.
“I was not allowed to go home. She told me to stop talking to my parents about things because my parents were crazy,” Clark said. “I was also still 17 at the time. Told me to stop talking to my parents because my parents were telling people that I had Crohn’s and that’s a lie.
“Teri said, ‘Why is your mom doing this? It’s putting a bad rap on us. You can’t be saying you have Crohn’s.’ I was like so confused because she was like, ‘Don’t talk to them anymore. You need to talk to me and my doctors.’ She told me my doctors at home weren’t qualified like her doctors. So I went to the Cal doctor and they’re not a GI specialist and (the Cal doctors) were like, ‘I don’t know why Teri told you to come to us we can’t help you. You need to go back to your specialists. We can’t help you at all.’”
Crohn’s eventually prevented Clark from training.
“Then Teri was pissed that I wasn’t training,” Clark said. “Ended up suspending me from the team at the beginning of the (2019-2020 school) year and then she told the team in a team meeting, and I was still not allowed to tell people I had Crohn’s at this point in her mind, she told the team I suspended Chloe, not because she had Crohn’s but because (I wasn’t training) … she told the team I had Crohn’s in that meeting.
“That made no sense to me, because I wasn’t allowed to say that.”
Clark said she met with Simon-O’Neil, the Cal athletic department’s senior women’s administrator, to complain about body-shaming issues and that McKeever violated federal privacy laws by revealing her Crohn’s disease to the rest of the team without her permission. Simon-O’Neil apologized for the privacy breach and said she would talk McKeever about privacy issues, Clark said.
But Simon-O’Neil added, according to Clark, “‘Teri is producing Olympians, she’s an Olympic coach. There’s really nothing more I can do for you.’
“She was so biased. I was trying to bring up real issues. She totally had Teri’s back. She did not have the athlete’s back.
“That was really disappointing. I eventually left because the atmosphere is so bad. Everyone there is afraid of Teri and swimming in fear. Meets aren’t fun. Everyone is crying. You’re just swimming in fear. I think she produces athletes by fear factor. And they’re so scared and they want to perform so well that they’re not getting screamed at or bullied. I guess it works for some people but in terms of mental health, girls are not OK there. I really like hope someone listens.”
THE (EXPLETIVE) LIST
Targeted swimmers were on what their teammates referred to as “Teri’s (expletive) list.”
“There is a (expletive) list,” Speers said.
Teammates wouldn’t console or encourage swimmers on the list and even avoided being seen speaking to them for fear they would end up on McKeever’s list as well, all 19 swimmers said.
“She did have a (expletive) list,” Devine said, “and anyone who interacted with anyone on Teri’s (expletive) list knew they could be next.”
“Because Teri, she would hear about it and you would be next on the chopping block.”
One morning, Tran, an early riser, was at the pool for practice when she realized her roommate had overslept. She drove her scooter back to the residence, woke her roommate up and brought her back to practice.
“Teri yelled at me,” Tran said. “If (the roommate) is going to screw up, let her screw up. Don’t let her bring you down.”
The list is usually enforced by upperclassmen and favorites of McKeever.
“She had favorites and these favorites could do horrible things and they would be fine,” a former swimmer said.
Said Allen, “One of the captains last year told me it was like a cult and that’s 100 percent like a cult. It’s very much. Everyone is watching what you do. Everyone is so terrorized and scared of Teri that there are very few that actually step up and say, ‘Hey, you can’t do this.’ So it just goes on.”
One of the swimmers who would become suicidal after landing on the list was Devine. Former teammates said Devine, an NCAA qualifier in three individual events as a freshman and an academic All-American, was one of the most surprising athletes to be targeted by McKeever.
“I never figured out why she went after Chenoa because she was performing well,” said a distance swimmer on Cal’s 2016-17 team.
Devine and other swimmers maintain McKeever has a tendency to target distance swimmers because Cal hasn’t had the success in those events it has had in other areas.
“So this led to a lot of verbal beatdowns day after day after day after day,” Devine said. “She never offered me any guidance. She just tore me apart. Blamed her failure to coach me on me.
“‘You’re a piece of (expletive).’
“‘Why are you in school?’
“‘Why are you on the team?’
“I had this overwhelming feeling of being just being shredded apart for something I didn’t understand at the time.”
When her teammates backed away from her, it only added to her sense of confusion and loneliness.
“I started to feel very isolated,” Devine said. “I was very lonely, away from the other people on the team.
“I had no energy, just enough energy to keep living at that point.”
And increasingly, Devine said she questioned whether she even had the energy to want to live.
“Teri made me feel insane,” Devine said. “Her office was like this seat of power. She would talk at me without allowing me to get any words in, (she would yell), ‘You’re lying.’
“She made me feel completely insane.”
Devine began second-guessing herself, questioning facts and events, to believe that McKeever was right – she was the problem.
When she suffered an injury she “immediately dismissed it as just in my head, I was just making it up.”
When she suffered an ankle injury she didn’t tell McKeever. She later learned she had suffered a fracture.
“I felt like killing myself,” Devine said. “I felt so crazy and so insane because it was so easy for her to gaslight me because none of my teammates would say anything to Teri.
“It was not a kind of abuse but torture.”
Devine, one of the top three distance swimmers in Cal history, quit before completing her final two years of eligibility.
“After I quit the team it was made very, very clear, extremely clear that my name was never to be mentioned at the pool,” Devine said. “No one was to talk about me, talk to me.”
Speers had a similar experience with a twist when she left the team: her roommate was still on the team.
“The team was not to speak to me,” Speers said. “So I was living with a silent roommate. I was a ghost.”
‘I NEEDED A WAY OUT’
Other Cal swimmers said in interviews they found coping with McKeever’s alleged bullying and abuse pushed them to consider disappearing permanently.
“Suicidality especially in young athletes is often tied to a sense of hopelessness,” Sasso said.
One swimmer recalled contemplating crashing her car while driving to her Bay Area home after a series of rough encounters with McKeever. She decided against it because she had teammates in the car with her.
Five former swimmers said they spent weeks or months considering or planning on how they would take their own lives.
“I was thinking about killing myself sometimes,” said a swimmer on the 2020-21 team. “There was a whole week where all I could think about, like as soon as I woke up, I thought about how to die. It would be very graphic too.”
A swimmer on a recent Cal squad described how in the midst of her struggles, McKeever actually made a crack about suicide.
“Teri said, ‘I’m surprised you haven’t killed yourself, you’re struggling with swimming, struggling with class,’” the swimmer remembered McKeever telling her. “That really took me back. I really didn’t know what to do with that information.”
The swimmer eventually transferred to another school.
“I wasn’t safe there anymore,” she said. “I couldn’t stay there another two years because I wouldn’t make it.”
The swimmer on the 2020-21 team said McKeever continued to bully her through the fall and early winter of 2020 despite the coach being aware that she was in therapy.
“At that point, I’d had enough,” the swimmer said. “I needed a way out. I cannot just do this anymore. I didn’t feel like I could tell my parents. I wanted to quit swimming. But I didn’t feel like I could keep going either. So I guess I will just die
“So I kind of did my homework a little bit. That Friday was a bit of a blur. And then I called my boyfriend. Basically, I did write a lot of suicide notes to my friends, my family, my boyfriend. He was the last person I talked to and I said if I did it, would you forgive me?
“At first my boyfriend tried to calm me down. ‘Oh, we can go for a drive, clear your head.’ And I was no, that’s not going to change the fact that I still have to wake up tomorrow, and Saturday morning and go to practice. I need something that will physically stop me from having to go to that practice. Like I didn’t want to go that badly that I was willing to cut myself open.
“I was actually about to self-harm but he called the police and the police showed up and I got 5150.”
The term 5150 refers to a section of the state Welfare and Institutions Code, which allows a law enforcement officer or mental health professional to involuntarily commit an individual that may be a danger to themselves or others.
She was hospitalized for a week.
“I needed some space to process what had just happened to me,” the swimmer said. “I’m a college student in my freshman year who just got escorted by the police and got sent to two different psych wards. I needed to think about what I needed to do next.”
She said she informed a Cal team doctor and the athletic trainer for the swim team of her situation “to see where I stood medically and think about my next steps because I’m back in the real world.”
She was told by the trainer she could slowly start back up training or transfer or choose to stay in Berkeley as a regular student.
A video meeting was set up for the morning of New Year’s Eve between the swimmer, McKeever and an assistant coach.
“I was preparing what I was going to say because I really thought I would be given the space to say what happened and tell them, put them in the loop of what actually happened,” the swimmer said. “Because I thought it was a big deal for someone to be 5150, to be put a freaking hold on them, it’s not even voluntary anymore. I think I deserve to explain myself, you know? And I thought they would want to hear that. But I log on and it was very tense (video conference) and then she was like ‘have you talked to anybody?’
“She was already a little aggressive. She would say I haven’t heard from you in a while, you’ve been AWOL. The thing that got me was it wasn’t from a place of concern and I could see that. It was from a place of I need to move on with whatever business I have and you’re slowing me down. It was the same old attitude, just repackaged.
“I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me? This is the first thing you say to me when I’m going through this and I’m trying to open up about this experience?’”
The swimmer told McKeever she had spoken with the team doctor and trainer to see “if I had a medical problem.”
“‘Is this a medical problem?’” the swimmer recalled McKeever saying. “‘I didn’t cause this medical problem.’”
McKeever, the swimmer said, also reminded her, “Well, you’re paid to compete for the University of California. Have you competed for the University of California?
The coach “would always hold the amount I was receiving over my head and I couldn’t really do anything, but when I asked about what would happen if I did end up quitting, suddenly it was a big deal,” the swimmer said.
McKeever also added, the swimmer said, “a lot of the older girls are saying they can tell that you don’t want to show up and you’re not really in it.”
“If those quote-unquote older girls want to talk like that behind my back, they should have told it to me,” the swimmer said. “That was one of the things that hurt. If you felt that way, we’re all adults, come talk to me. Don’t go running to her so you can hide behind your cowardice. ‘Oh, I want to talk trash without consequences.’”
McKeever gave her a choice, the swimmer said.
“You either quit right now, or you start swimming right away,” the swimmer recalled McKeever saying. “It was an ultimatum. there was no way I would be able to hop back in.”
The swimmer told McKeever, “I’m quitting. I’m done.”
Carter and her parents said they also had a contentious meeting with McKeever after she planned a suicide attempt.
It had been a series of stressful months for the family.
“I never considered suicide prior to being at Cal,” Carter said. “I never had anxiety, panic, or depression of any kind growing up. I was always a really happy girl who didn’t get in any trouble.”
But that young woman disappeared in a fog of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts, teammates, friends and family recalled.
“I saw how Teri tore Dani down,” Hart said. “Dani became a different person because of the way Teri tore her down.”
“The thought that you might not see your daughter again is really hard,” Scott Carter said.
The meeting did not start well.
“Teri was painting a picture about what a liar Dani was,” Darla Carter said. “(McKeever) said, ‘You’re a (expletive) liar.’”
McKeever accused Carter of drinking and vaping at a party put on by some of the older Cal swimmers at one of their residences. The older swimmers provided Carter, who was underage at the time, with the alcohol and vaping device, according to the Carters and two people present at the party.
Darla Carter reminded McKeever that one of the team’s top swimmers regularly smoked marijuana and that there were photos of the athlete with a bong, and throwing up, and she and other older Cal swimmers intoxicated at the party and on other occasions.
The meeting grew more and more heated.
At one point, Darla Carter said, McKeever “said, ‘I’m not dealing with this piece of (expletive) for three years,’ and she pointed right at Dani.”
Carter left Cal. She now attends UC Santa Barbara, where she is a member of the swim team.
“For someone to want to take their life because of the way they were treated by another human being is criminal,” Darla Carter said.
‘I THOUGHT I WAS A HORRIBLE PERSON’
Former Cal swimmers say they continue to have nightmares about McKeever’s alleged outbursts. Many said they continue to struggle with mental health issues related to their experiences in the Cal swimming program and are in therapy.
Most acknowledge that it will take years, likely decades, to fully understand and come to terms with their time with McKeever.
“When I left, I thought I was a horrible person because I couldn’t swim fast and Teri didn’t like me,” said a swimmer on a recent team who transferred to another school. “I was a horrible person because people didn’t want to be around me because I couldn’t swim fast.”
Said a member of the 2016-17 team: “I’m the problem, me leaving will help the program. That’s the lie we tell ourselves: we’re the problem.”
For years after she quit, Chenoa Devine continued to believe she was the problem, that she was crazy.
“I had a nightmare in the back of my head that I would run into Teri on campus,” she said. “And I would be completely terrified.”
Then she started reconnecting with former teammates.
“It was kind of reaffirming,” Devine said. “My former teammates said it was truly as bad as I remembered. It was harming to them. It was so horrific that it scarred them.
“It made me feel not so crazy.”
Recently a woman who had swam for Cal this decade reflected back on her career. She had competed in the NCAA Championships in multiple events, swam in the Olympic Trials, and earned academic All-American honors.
But one moment stood out from her time with McKeever in Berkeley. She had met her mother shortly after she said McKeever had bullied her and the older woman’s reaction to the incident continued to haunt her.
“Why does Teri not like you?” the woman asked her daughter. “Is this safe?”
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/.