Eight years, 24 women: how Wesleyan failed the runners it was meant to protect | Sport

Last week, 24 former members of the women’s cross country team at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University, myself among them, published testimonials detailing their toxic experiences as competitive college runners. Leading the effort was Yuki Christina Hebner, a 2017 graduate who wrote an open letter about the destructive culture pervasive across athletics, bought into by the coach and abetted by a blind administration, of disordered eating, body shaming, injury and high rates of attrition.

With the signatures of 36 alumni in all, we have presented a list of demands to the university. Saliently, they do not include removal of the coach. Rather, they require that this or any coach’s capacity for direct or collateral damage be checked by oversight, education and collaboration.

The testimonials describe experiences going back eight years: stories of second-tier treatment compared to the stick-and-ball sports at the athletic training facilities; fractures in femurs, feet and tail bones; exercise-induced blackouts; panic attacks; the “fat talk”, in which a runner is told that her weight hampers her potential; eating disorders; missed periods; anemia; instructions by a non-specialist to take birth control; increased pressure on runners perceived as faster and decreased interest in those perceived as slower; petty and punitive reactions by the coach after poor athletic performances; scapegoating; and, for many, a loss of the love for running.

Some of the women have chosen to come forward anonymously, believing in the necessity of their stories to effect change but having reservations, for diverse reasons, about being named. Many of the women expressed hesitance about publicly sharing experiences that felt personal not only to them but to the team, the school and even to the sport itself. Above all, however, they have expressed a mixture of disappointment, frustration and anger at: first, feeling isolated when the problems actually occurred; and, second, not being listened to when they did summon the courage to speak up.

A timeline lays bare repeated attempts to discuss these issues with the athletic administration extending back nearly a decade. The second try, in 2013, was an email I myself wrote to the director of athletics. As a then-recent cross country alumna, I had been asked to provide a letter of evaluation on behalf of our coach, who was up for reappointment and promotion. While I had some good things to say, I also stated concerns similar to what ultimately appeared in the testimonials. In 2013, I told the administration I was worried that, unless changes were made, “there will be future Wesleyan students who have profound and echoing negative experiences.” Never have I wanted less to be proven right.

From an exterior perspective, the situation seems impossible. As three-season athletes, we trained seven days a week, 49 weeks out of the year. How could people who ran every single day together, ate together, often even lived together not be immediately horrified that their teammates – and they themselves – were enduring rampant injury, illness and psychic degradation? How could it take eight years to connect with one another and develop a collective awareness of the issue?

This can be attributed in part to the very nature of distance running, which – like gymnastics, swimming and diving – can engender hermeticism. Cross country is a team sport but it is experienced, on many levels, individually. The triumphs can be communal but the burden to perform is individual. Training over the summer, I often logged 40 to 50 miles a week entirely alone. You run together, but only you know how much you sleep, the entirety of what you eat, how you really feel.

The problem is that, in distance running at the collegiate level, even if a coach is not an abuser, he exerts an extreme level of control: over your eating, your sleeping, your class schedule – your body and your mind, which in running are intimately linked. There is a reason those speaking out today are alumni, many like myself more than five years removed from graduation. They say you can’t read the label when you’re inside the jar. While on the team, we were all inside the jar. With no administrative accountability or oversight, with a willfully ignorant director of athletics and NCAA staff, we had only our coach to give us direction – and tell us what we were made of.

Credit also goes to how society currently talks – or doesn’t – about subjects like women’s bodies, eating disorders and mental health. Even when some women – mainly those who had left the team and gained the perspective of remove but remained close with current runners – did recognize that their friends were in pain, they struggled to articulate what exactly had gone wrong. They did the best they could to take care of one another at the time, whether by fostering supportive spaces in their dorms or accompanying teammates to the hospital. Yet they felt stymied by the lack of both a vocabulary to translate their concerns into lasting change and an infrastructure receptive to the message.

NCAA Division III women's cross country championships

‘The problem is that, in distance running at the collegiate level, even if a coach is not an abuser, he exerts an extreme level of control: over your eating, your sleeping, your class schedule – your body and your mind, which in running are intimately linked.’ Photograph: Peter Zuzga/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

For the better part of a decade, we threw our voices into a well and heard only our own echoes. In 2012, Claire Palmer met with the director of athletics to discuss issues of team culture and received no follow-up. In 2013, I wrote to the same director and was led to believe that my “frank and full appraisal” would be appreciated and considered; I received no response. Between 2014 and 2015, a senior repeatedly met with our coach to voice concerns about how weight was discussed with runners and differential treatment of women on the team. In 2015, a group of athletes – track and cross country, men and women – voiced issues about equal access to trainers and injury-care facilities. When distance runners repeated their concerns about coaching at this meeting, the director of athletics claimed that complaints had never been raised before.

In 2018, as a fifth-year student pursuing a master’s degree, Christina Hebner reached out to the Title IX department at Wesleyan and was redirected to the athletic administration. She met with administrators for two hours, outlining everything that appeared in last week’s open letter and more. The administrators reassured her that changes would be made and that her speaking up would make a difference. When she followed up about making uniform sizes other than XS and S available and establishing communication between the cross-country women and a female administrator, however, she never heard back.

Finally, inspired and vindicated by the recent testimonial of former Nike Oregon Project runner Mary Cain, she took an alternate route. With former teammate Rachel Unger, she reached out to alumnae she knew, who reached out to alumnae they knew. I have never met Christina in person, yet learning her story and strategizing with her and fellow runners about how to fairly, clearly and effectively convey our feelings and situations, I feel as though we logged hundreds of miles together.

Over two months, 36 alumni reconnected through a growing network on social media and group chats, discovering commonalities in our experiences across many years. We trawled through years-old email threads and dredged up letters to administration that were long forgotten. We constructed a timeline and a paper trail. We documented an extensive record of receipts that revealed an administration that had purported to take action while issuing non-response after non-response. The lack of baseline acknowledgement from the administration in the face of repeated complaints, combined with a suppressive cultural discourse and the individual nature of the sport itself, had created a climate of isolation that siloed our voices. Now, by finding each other, we have finally accrued the critical mass to trigger, and hopefully sustain, meaningful change.

The demands presented to the university include: prohibiting the coach from advising athletes on the women’s team about issues like weight and menstruation without the accompaniment of a trained professional; establishing a protocol for understanding why and how often athletes leave the team; assigning an athletic injury care staff member trained on the specific risk factors and pathological symptoms associated with endurance sports to each of the school’s racing teams; increasing administrative accountability for both athlete health and coaching; and, when coaching positions do become available, implementing a new, more inclusive and athlete-focused hiring process.

Last week, when faced with the reality of two dozen women going public with testimonials – seven years and nearly 11 months after Claire Palmer first met with the director of athletics to share her concerns – Wesleyan finally launched an investigation. On his blog, the university president apologized for “the profoundly negative experiences that the women recount in their moving testimonies” and pledged to “take all necessary steps to fix any systemic issues and to ensure the health and well-being of our student-athletes”. Since then, an email dialogue has opened up between those who spoke out and the administration, including the president. The response feels dignifying and encouraging after what feels like countless years of silence. But it should have never reached this point for the school to meet its basic duty of protecting the athletes under its care.

This is not just a sports story. This only happens to be about Division III cross country, but it could be about USA Gymnastics, NBC News, healthcare gaslighting or any one of countless other instances where systems intended to provide support repeatedly ignore – or worse, feign ignorance to – the distress of those within its charge. This is about the erasure of voices, particularly those of women. It is also a matter of protocol. If we can’t get the smaller complaints right, how can we hope to handle the big things when they occur?

Our goal is not revenge. Our goal is answers and proper treatment, for ourselves and for others, for now and in the future. When it comes to systemic suffering, no one wants to say I told you so. What we want is for those in positions of power and control to listen – not when they’re forced to, but as soon as they can – and to respond.

  • In response to this article, a spokesperson for Wesleyan University issued the following statement: “The testimonies from this alumna and others from the team are profoundly disturbing. President Michael Roth has apologized for their experiences. An investigation is underway by the University’s Office for Equity & Inclusion, and we’ve asked anyone with information to report it. The coach at the center of these allegations has been placed on leave pending the outcome of the investigation. We have pledged to take all necessary steps to fix any systemic issues that are brought to light, and we are committed to ensuring the health and well-being of our student-athletes.”

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