Sex Abuse Haunts Former Olympic Swim Hopeful
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We are about halfway through the Summer Olympics, and millions of viewers have been thrilled by the feats of the world's athletes. For Americans, it's been especially exciting to watch America's swimmers - Michael Phelps, who set a record for the most medals won by any Olympian, as well as the young upstarts Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky.
But as viewers around the world are being reminded of the glamour and excitement of sport, one former athlete is reliving painful memories of the ugly side. This is probably a good place to say that this is one of those conversations that might not be appropriate for all listeners because it touches on the subject of child sexual abuse.
We are speaking to Kelley Currin. She started swimming for Rick Curl, founder of the famed Curl-Burke Swim Club in the Washington, D.C., area, when she was just 11 or 12 years old. Hers was, she says, a swimming family. And her family thought she was thriving at the club, one of the largest amateur clubs in the country. But by the time she was 13, she says now, her coach began having sex with her. This behavior continued for four years - until her parents read her diary, just before she went away to college on a swimming scholarship - and confronted Mr. Curl.
Mr. Curl was never prosecuted, but he did agree to pay her family $150,000 in compensation. We have reviewed what we understand to be the document that outlines this. In the document, Kelley Currin and her family agreed not to talk about this. But Kelley Currin, now 43 years old, has decided to speak out publicly. Her charges were first disclosed in the Washington Post last week.
And Kelley Currin joins us now. Welcome, thank you so much for speaking with us.
KELLEY CURRIN: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: We do want to mention that we did reach out to Rick Curl's attorney, Thomas Kelly, who said, "We have no comment at this time." And we should also say that Rick Curl is on leave from Curl-Burke Swim Club, and he's facing an investigation by USA Swimming. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: By the time this story aired, Rick Curl had resigned from the Curl-Burke Swim Club.] So with that being said, Kelley Currin, do you mind if I just start by asking, how are you? How are you now that you've decided to come forward with these - with this information?
CURRIN: You know, the timing of these things, you never know for sure. I had no idea that it was going to break exactly when it did. But I'm doing well, and I've got - I've had a lot of support from a lot of different people, all over the countr. And so I'm doing well.
MARTIN: Why did you decide to speak out now?
CURRIN: Well, it was an accumulation of things, really. You know, I have a daughter that is 12 and a half; and what has gone on with the Penn State issue coming out, that has certainly played a part in this. But it really got kind of mixed up - or stirred up for me in - it was right after the "20/20" investigation. I think that was about two years ago. You know, I was at my kids' lacrosse game and I had - it was a Friday night, and I had people from both sides of the country calling me and asking, are you watching this? And I said, no. And of course, I went home and watched - online - the story and...
MARTIN: An investigation of USA Swimming - why were they asking you this? I mean, did they suspect that you had some connection to this story, or is it just because they knew you were a swimmer?
CURRIN: Oh, no. They knew. They knew. I cannot tell you the number of people that have come forward and said - you know - we're sorry. Not just in the last, you know, week, but over the last 20 years, I've had - or the last 10 years, I've had, through different social media outlets, I've had people come forward and say, you know, I feel horrible about this; I couldn't do anything; I didn't know what to do. And these were mostly, you know, teammates and, you know, peers. They - it wasn't - I have never received a message like that from a coach or anything. But they knew.
MARTIN: How did it start, if you don't mind my asking? And I apologize because I realize this...
MARTIN: ...can't be easy to talk about. But I just think it's important for people to hear this.
MARTIN: How did it start?
CURRIN: You know, the coach-athlete relationship - at least in swimming; I know that other sports may be different - but in swimming, it is - maybe I should just speak for myself, but it's sacred. I mean, it is - you're with that coach so much. You're in the water four to five hours a day. And as a 12-year-old, I looked at Rick as - he was my hero. I mean, I just - he had my ticket to being the swimmer that I really wanted to be.
And, you know, my family - I grew up in an athletic family. And we all, as a family, placed all our eggs in the basket of, you know, swimming for the United States. I mean, we all were - we were just a swim family. And so Rick would just - I think before anything inappropriate happened, I knew that he really liked me. I mean, he would - I think he favored me. I think he would joke around more with me than he did other girls and, you know, he would hug me and - I mean, he would hug me in public.
But I - he would kiss me on the cheek, and then he would - one time, he kissed me on the lips. And then one day in March, right after a practice, in the hallway - there was nobody around, and he put his tongue in my mouth. And I went home thinking oh, my gosh, what is this? And I was eating dinner with my family - we ate dinner together every night - and he called. And I picked up the phone, and I took it in - it was on the wall, back in those days. And I just - I took the phone into the dining room, and he said he was on cloud nine.
And that was the beginning. I loved him; would have done anything that he told me to do.
MARTIN: How did the sex start?
CURRIN: That was very gradual as well. One of the very first times, there was a swimathon. And the person that raised the most money got to go out to dinner with Rick; that was the prize. And the Redskins were playing on a Sunday, and every time the Redskins scored, my grandmother would call and say, oh, they just scored again; well, that's another - I don't remember what she gave; 50- or a hundred dollars.
So anyways, I won. Rick took me out to the Gaslight Club, in Georgetown. I don't know if it still exists, but it was the Gaslight Club. We had lobster, and he brought me home, and he ended up - we had workout the next morning, so he ended up just staying at my house, which he did frequently. And he told me to come see him in the middle of the night. And that was really the first time that I was - I became aware of what it meant to be sexual with a man. I had, you know - I learned a lot that night, you know. It just...
MARTIN: And this is in your house?
CURRIN: In my house, yeah.
MARTIN: Because you know what I think - I'm thinking, and what a lot of other people are thinking, is where are your parents when all this is going on?
CURRIN: They were asleep, and they just - I mean, they had no reason to suspect him of anything.
MARTIN: Now, we're going to take a short break, but please stay with us, and we will continue our conversation with Kelley Currin in just a few minutes. This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
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MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are continuing our "Behind Closed Doors" conversation now. And I want to say, again, that if you just joined us, the following conversation might not be appropriate for all listeners. That's because I'm speaking with former competitive swimmer Kelley Currin. She says when she was a young swimmer, her former swim coach, Rick Curl, founder of the prominent Curl-Burke Swim Club in the Washington, D.C., area, began having sex with her when she was just 13 years old.
Forgive me, but you were obviously too young to be involved with this kind of conduct. And he was - what, 33 at the time when you were 13.
MARTIN: So he is 20 years older than you. He is a grown man.
CURRIN: He is actually 19 years and 10 months older because...
MARTIN: Older than you.
CURRIN: Ten - his birthday is August 1st, so - yeah.
MARTIN: Which you still remember. Interesting that you still remember all that.
CURRIN: Oh, absolutely. Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: Can I ask you what you thought about this, at the time? Did you think this was OK? Did you think that this was a good thing? Did he encourage you, in how you should think about this? Or did he try to shape your feelings about it? Or did you think it was wrong, but you kind of wanted to do it anyway? Or...
CURRIN: Well, I will tell you that, for - you know, I know my daughter, and I know myself. And there is no connection between a sexual act and an emotion. I would have done whatever he said, at that time. I would have - you know, if he told me the sky was purple, the sky was purple. And if he said, the grass is blue; I would have said, OK. That is how much I trusted him. I knew that this was - gosh, I knew it was different. And the way Rick put it - you know, he said it was a special thing, and I just took it as special.
And later on - I mean, as I got to be interested in other boys, you know, that were my age, they would try things and I would say, no! So, I mean, I knew that it wasn't right. But as a child, when you love somebody, when someone is so connected to you, you know, as in the coach-athlete relationship - and I just speak for myself - there were no boundaries. I just trusted him. I trusted him to make things right, and he did. I mean, if I ever had a problem in school, he would fix it. If I were late for this or that or the other, he'd write a note, you know. I mean, he - in a sense, he was God to me and I just - so...
MARTIN: Did you ever tell anybody?
CURRIN: No, I never told anybody. No.
MARTIN: Well, why do you think that is?
CURRIN: Because I was afraid of it ending. Mm-hmm. I was terrified, yeah.
MARTIN: And it did end when your parents read your diary. I wonder why they read your diary? Do you think that they had some suspicions? Did you ever talk about that with them?
CURRIN: No. I don't - no.
MARTIN: And you said that when it ended, you were devastated, actually.
CURRIN: Oh, absolutely. It was the biggest loss - I mean, even to this day - that I've ever experienced.
MARTIN: He did sign a settlement, paying your fam - you; I think, your family - a sum of money. We have a copy of the settlement. We have reviewed it. Can I ask, you know, why your parents didn't pursue criminal charges?
CURRIN: My parents - in essence, they went to the district attorney, Judy Catterton, who talked to Andrew Sonner, who was - my goodness, I'm - my terminology's not...
MARTIN: Yeah, I hear what you're saying. He was a prosecutor. He was the prosecutor who had jurisdiction over that area.
CURRIN: Exact - OK, there you go. Exactly. And he told Judy that Rick would get a slap on the wrist. There was nothing - you know, nothing would happen to him. And the Olympic trials were right there, and they did not want a media circus - for my benefit. I mean, they just, they were trying to protect me. They knew I had an eating disorder at the time. And my plan was that if I don't make the Olympic team, I'm going into treatment in Austin - which I did. And, you know, we got $100,000 out of it and, I tell you, every penny and then some, you know, has been spent on just trying to fix what happened.
MARTIN: I was going to ask you that. You feel that these issues that you had - which are detailed in the complaint, by the way. I wanted to mention...
MARTIN: ...that we have reviewed the settlement...
MARTIN: ...we've also reviewed your legal complaint - detail - intense emotional and psychological distress, long-term.
MARTIN: In fact, the complaint says permanent, resulting from this. Do you think that that's true?
CURRIN: I'm definitely - yeah. On one hand, absolutely. An abuse - a child that is abused, is going to have that in their memory for the rest of their life, and - whether it is, on a day-to-day basis, a conscious thing that brings it back; or whether it's a dream, you know. I still have dreams about Rick, probably once a month. And it's always there; it never goes away. But, I mean, I'm functioning. I'm doing great. I've got four amazing kids and, you know. So, I mean, my...
MARTIN: But what is the part of this that you think holds on to you? What is the thing that grips you about this, so many years later?
CURRIN: For me, it was that I - I had two worlds that I - one, that I created, the Rick world and how I managed to keep that secret; and then I had the world that everybody else saw - my peers, my schoolmates, my teammates, my family. So the whole secrecy thing. There's a piece of me that loved - not loved but just, that's what I knew and so therefore, it became comfortable. And life is not about living in this fantasyland. It's about, you know, dealing with what's reality. And so I don't know if that makes, you know, a lot of sense, but it's just - vacillating back and forth between what is truly real and a fantasy world, has been difficult.
MARTIN: We're speaking with Kelley Currin. She says her former swim coach, Rick Curl, molested her starting when she was 13 years old. Kelley, since this issue has surfaced publicly, right?
MARTIN: The Washington Post wrote about this in detail; you've talked about this - started talking about this publicly; and you're getting calls from people even before this who, you say, they all knew. Why do you think that they all knew? And if they all knew ,why do you think your parents didn't know?
CURRIN: I think my parents were extremely naive. That's all I can say. My parents were great parents, and you know what? They live with this every single day, and there is a lot of guilt that they place on themselves. And Rick was so good at fooling everybody.
MARTIN: Is there anything that you think, with the benefit of hindsight, of course, that...
MARTIN: ...you started talking about this - red flags that you think people should be aware of.
CURRIN: I say - you know, I would say kids need to - they don't need to be isolated from their team. You know, for swimmers it's - you know, it's hard to imagine that this could have happened because you think, there were probably 40 to 50 kids on deck daily. And yet I was told to, you know, tip-toe down the end of the hall after practice, and go see Rick. And I just think that if your kid is being isolated in any way, then that's a red flag.
MARTIN: Did you ever talk to any of these kids who said - they're grown-ups now...
MARTIN: ...who said that they knew something was going on, but they didn't know what to do...
MARTIN: ...have you ever explored that further? Like, what is it that they saw?
CURRIN: I've had several of my former teammates say - you know - I'm so sorry; I didn't know. And my reply has been, you couldn't have known because I didn't - I mean, you could've have known for sure. I knew people were jealous of me and the time that I spent with Rick. They were very jealous of that; I knew that. But I was a competitor, and as much as I enjoyed being with those girls on my team, they were also my competition. And so I cherished the attention. I absolutely loved it. And I can't quote them for sure, but that was what - they would say that they knew that I spent more time with Rick than anybody else. And I think they always suspected, but they - no one ever came out and asked me directly.
MARTIN: Are you OK?
MARTIN: Is everything OK with - there? Is there something going on? Is he touching you?
MARTIN: Is something - being asked. Nobody ever just came right out and said, you know what? Something...
MARTIN: ..doesn't seem right, you know?
CURRIN: But even if they had, I would have protected that. And I would've lied.
CURRIN: I would've lied because I didn't want to lose it.
MARTIN: You know, days after - I mentioned that the Washington Post wrote about this story in detail. Days after the Post broke the story, the staff at Curl-Burke Swim Club sent a letter to parents of current swimmers. And the letter said - I'm just quoting in part - "We want to be clear that our priority is on the future of this club, and that future does not include Rick Curl. Convinced that we have the finest coaching staff in the country, we will lead our swimmers and families to the completion of this season, and the many years ahead, with some new direction and some immediate new directives." The letter goes on to say that they've spent more than a year crafting a new employee conduct and parent/family handbook. And as we mentioned earlier, Rick Curl is on leave from the Curl-Burke Swim Club, and he's facing an investigation by USA Swimming.
Does any of that give you any comfort?
CURRIN: Yes. And, you know, I want to be really clear that I know there are great coaches on that Curl-Burke staff - I mean, phenomenal and - just like USA Swimming is going to continue because it's not the board of directors that really makes USA Swimming. It's the kids that are getting up at 4:30 in the morning, to go swim 8,000 yards. And, you know, USA Swimming is going to be fine, even if the directors - or the people, the governing body is wiped out, which is what I think should happen. But as far as Curl-Burke is concerned, it breaks my heart because there are several of those coaches who absolutely knew. My parents, in fact, told one of them face-to-face, and before we signed any documents, that this had happened to me. And this guy still coaches for him. And it breaks my heart because this was, this coach was my very first coach at Curl, and I loved him. And anyways...
MARTIN: When your parents confronted him and told him, what did he say? Do you recall?
CURRIN: No. I wasn't there; I don't know. I just know that my parents told him and he, he's still there. And he ended up marrying one of his swimmers, you know. So I just - that is what almost hurts more than, you know, what happened. It's just these coaches knew and yet, they still - they're still coaching for him.
MARTIN: But I have to ask you - this is not your responsibility to know, but I am interested in your perspective on why do you think nobody did anything?
CURRIN: Rick was so powerful in local swimming, no one was going to directly approach him. I think these coaches - they're getting their paychecks from Curl-Burke. I mean, as horrible as that sounds, I cannot, in my own mind - I have just wondered and cried, you know, many nights over why these coaches who loved me - in a good way, in an appropriate way - would continue to stay on with Curl. But I think that people - they probably suspected, but they either were too scared to come forward and say anything; or they just couldn't wrap their minds around it, that something like this would be going on. And I think that's where my parents were.
MARTIN: You did sign this confidentiality agreement. Can I assume the payments have all been made, at this point; that the payments that he was supposed to make have all been made?
MARTIN: But the confidentiality agreement does say that both parties are not to speak about this.
MARTIN: You have - obviously - not complied with that, at this point.
MARTIN: Do you expect to be sued? Do you believe that he is going to take legal action against you?
CURRIN: I don't know. I would hope that he wouldn't but at this point in my life, unfortunately, I have really nothing to lose. If that happens, I will get on the stand and tell the truth and - I mean, I've come this far and I'm not - I'm not afraid anymore. And if I get sued for $150,000, I will pay $50 for the rest of my life, you know, per month until I die.
CURRIN: It's just, it's not about the money. It never was about the money.
MARTIN: What is it about? You obviously have something you want to accomplish with this. What is that?
CURRIN: This - yeah. This happened to me, but it's not about me. It is about 12- and 13-year-old girls being taken advantage of. And every child - every child - deserves to enter adulthood with a full set of weapons in their arsenal. And the tolerance, the cover-ups, the laws need to change. I personally am not going to stand for it anymore. And I just pray that, you know, my story can be a part of that change because - I mean, the Sandusky thing and the Catholic Church, and the different cover-ups that have gone on. The cover-up is not worse than the crime, but it is a huge crime. And kids deserve better. You know, I have such a heart for the middle-school kid. That's when it happened to me. And those middle-school kids, you know what? Some of them may look like an adult, but they have the brain of a 5-year-old. I mean, they're babies. So that's my goal.
MARTIN: Kelley Currin is a former swimmer with the Curl-Burke Swim Club, founded by Rick Curl. That's in the Washington, D.C., area. She is now speaking out about sexual abuse that she says that took place there, beginning when she was 13 years old. And she is now a real estate agent in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and she's speaking with us from there.
Kelley Currin, thank you for speaking with us.
CURRIN: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Again, we want to mention that we did reach out to Rick Curl's attorney, Thomas Kelly, who said, "We have no comment at this time." And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.
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Editor's note Aug. 10, 2012
By the time this story aired, Rick Curl had resigned from the Curl-Burke Swim Club.