FIELDS: Coaching Lolita

When sports become a means of abusing children

Lolita was 12 years old when Humbert Humbert first saw her with an obsession that could fill a book. “Lolita” became a best-selling novel about a perverted older man, a pubescent girl and a tragic tale of sexual abuse, dissected with the insights and illuminations of a brilliant writer.

But “Lolita” was a novel.

When such things happen in real life, we try to align the law with the act. The sports world was roiled by similar scandal at Penn State, a coach was sent to prison for abusing boys, and one of the legends of college football was tarnished, probably permanently.

Dealing with such scandals isn’t easy. It took Kelley Davies Currin, once one of the top swimmers in her sport, almost 30 years to summon the courage to tell authorities how Richard J. Curl, her coach on a suburban Washington team and a trainer of gold-medal athletes, began a sexual relationship with her when she was 13 years old. He was 33. The relationship continued for four years, until she was about to leave home for college. That was in 1987.

The lurid facts cover a multitude of sins, perpetuated by a man who had the responsibility of a child in his care. His task was to help a young woman to reach for her dream, to become an Olympic competitor. Unlike the fictional Humbert Humbert, Rick Curl was a real-life hero loved by the child he abused.

“I loved, trusted and cherished him as much as a young girl’s heart and mind could,” says Ms. Currin, now 43, who has finally spoken out in newspapers and radio interviews, and in a Maryland courtroom.

As a girl, Ms. Currin pursued her dream at the Curl-Burke Swim Club in the Washington area, one of the largest amateur clubs in the nation, where many Olympic athletes have trained. The coach took her under his wing and, she says, “He had my ticket to being the swimmer that I wanted to be.”

She enjoyed the attention he gave her in front of her teammates, the public hugs and kisses on the cheek that made the other girls watch with envy. But this didn’t arouse her suspicions. Suddenly, one of the hallway kisses turned passionate; he called her at home that night to tell her he was on “cloud nine.” After the call, she “would have done anything he told me to do.” And so she did.

He took her out for lobster at a chic Washington club, and stayed overnight at her house — he was often a guest of her parents — and summoned her into his bed in the middle of the night. She learned “what it meant to be sexual with a man.” Frequent sexual adventures followed, at her house, in his private school office, in hotel rooms when they were on the road to swimming meets.

When Michel Martin of National Public Radio asked her whether she thought it was “right,” she said it wouldn’t have been “right” with boys. “But as a child, when you love somebody, when someone is so connected to you as in the coach-athlete relationship there were no boundaries. I just trusted him. If I ever had a problem at school, he would fix it. If I were late for this or that or the other, he would write a note. In a sense, he was God to me.”

Her parents weren’t suspicious, and she wasn’t about to tell them. She thrived on the attention and power she enjoyed in competition with the other girls on the team. She didn’t want it to end.

Then her mom and dad read her diary. Soon the coach once more sat at their kitchen table, and they confronted him. He confessed, but they didn’t press criminal charges. The sexual relationship was over, and the coach paid them $150,000 and signed a letter testifying to what he did. Nobody seemed to worry that he would continue as a predator.

Kelley Currin says her parents were “naive,” and rationalized the money. The media attention exposing him might harm their daughter, and the money would pay for therapy.

Last week, Rick Curl pleaded guilty to child sex abuse in a Montgomery County, Md., courtroom and was sentenced to seven years in prison. Now, Ms. Currin, married and the mother of four, wants others to pay. She wants further scrutiny of USA Swimming, the governing body for competitive swimming. Congress created it, she says, and Congress should look more closely at the “culture that protects predator coaches.” There have been several lawsuits against coaches and their behavior toward underage female swimmers.

Parents could pay closer attention, too. And the rest of us could look to the idolatry of sports heroes. It’s not healthy.

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