Written by, Alexis Candelaria
Two things happened.
1. The assistant coach had sex with a student athlete.
2. The head coach was caught trying to cover it up.
Well, actually, three things happened:
3. I found out about it.
So what do you do when you are in this situation? The law is pretty clear on what you must do- you must report it. There isn’t any vague language or room for interpretation. My decision to inform our principal was already made for me. But my voice shook as I made that call, the enormity of my actions rested squarely in my chest as I began the call by saying, “it has recently come to my attention…”
But how did I get here? And why was I the one making this call? No less than four adults were aware of the inappropriate sexual relationship between the coach and the seventeen year old- the same seventeen year old who “jokingly” asked the other coaches to buy her a cocktail at the last banquet; who showed up in a shear dress and stiletto heels that to most adults was a plea for help. A shout, a scream, for help. She didn’t need the cocktail, she needed someone to help her. While the other coaches side eyed her and shook their heads, trying to stifle a wry grin, one did not.
He was a lonely twenty five year old whose only goal in life was to be the head swimming coach at a high school. He thought that if he had that job, he would have made it. His life would have meant something. He spoke softly, timidly, as though he wanted to reach out into the air and take back each word as it left his mouth. He only worked with the swimmers who did the Butterfly-the most demanding stroke in swimming, that required raw upper body strength with agile hip movement to propel the athlete through the water. Usually these swimmers were bulky and tall, but not her. She was lithe and elegant, and moved gracefully, swiftly through the water. He could see in her face that no one had ever told her she was a beautiful swimmer.
There was an email circulating between the coaches that detailed the affair. She’d sent it. And I imagined that she waited. And waited. And then grew embarrassed that she even sent it in the first place. What was she looking for, anyway? Protection? Justice? That’s not how these things work. That’s not how they are designed. Shear dress, remember? She asked for the cocktail. She wasn’t even a virgin anyway. She should just forget it and move on.
I’m only an assistant coach and I work on starts and turns-you know, dives and those flip turns swimmers do. I had our top boy on the block when I hear the heard the head coach say that he’d talk to her next week. I blew my whistle and watched the athlete briefly ascend into the air, stretch out his wiry body and then descend into the water. I turned and asked the head coach who he needed to talk to, and without any prompting, he pulls out his phone and proceeds to show me this email he’s been holding onto.
She asked for help. You know the first thing they ask is, Did You Ask for Help? Did You Tell Anyone? Check and check. It started that night at the fall banquet when he took her up on that drink. After everyone had long gone, back in their warm homes, with their families, she was sipping a daiquiri that he purchased just for her while he drank ice water. He offered to drive her home and they ended up having sex in a parking lot while her parents slept soundly in their 2.5 million dollar home. And he’s been driving her home almost every day since then.
I told our head coach that he had to tell our principal. He shook his head. Another athlete steps onto the blocks and calls for me. Coach, he says, a freshman with wild red hair, I’m Ready. I blow my whistle.
It’s just a misunderstanding, he said so confidently. Besides, he adds, that girl is trouble. I urgently tell him he needs to tell our principal, my voice dropping in tone. He looks at me and then quickly shifts his eyes. He will, he says, after he conducts his own investigation.
That’s how these things perpetuate, right? We do our own assessment of the situation, giving latitude to the accused and nothing else to the victim. We keep these things hidden, delete the emails, text messages, and say it was all a misunderstanding. Then we take it one step further-we force the victim to accept this. We force her to renounce all claims of harm and wrongdoing, then, just to be cruel, we turn around and place blame squarely on her shoulders. She wore the sheer dress, the hooker heels, and drank with a man nearly ten years her senior until last call on a Thursday night. She got into the car with him, he didn’t drag her, force her, jump out from behind the bushes. Besides, she didn’t even use a condom because that’s just how she rolls.
Within twenty four hours of making the call, the school fired the lonely 25 year old coach who said he never bought her alcohol. He’d never purchase alcohol for a minor, he said, it’s against the law. They removed the head coach of his duties for trying to cover it up and asked me to take his place. Me? The whistleblower?
But she wasn’t going down like that. She never wrote any email, she said, I lied and it was my fault we lost two great coaches. She told her parents it was all a lie while she drove in her white BMW with custom white leather seats. That old bitch lied, she screamed into her Bluetooth at her parents. That bitch lied and now she’s trying to break up the swim team. Even as she’s screaming at her mother, hitting her hands on the steering wheel as she drives, chipping a perfectly manicured nail, she’s still screaming for help. If I could hit the pause button in that moment for her, I could show you the fear creased just beneath the anger. I’d point just right there, where the whites of her eyes meet her brown irises, that’s where her shame lives. If I could pause this moment for her, I’d tell her, in no uncertain terms that I get it. I do. It’s not her fault, it doesn’t matter that you wore the sheer dress or those heels. It doesn’t matter that you accepted the drink and got into his car. It was never your fault.
And one day, when your older and perhaps have kids of your own, after you leave this town and the nightmares fade, you might actually believe that.
One email begat two, which begat three, which didn’t stop. Day and night parents from our swim team barraged me, asking me why the head coach was removed. Telling me I wasn’t good enough or trustworthy because they knew the head coach. They really knew him and he was a good guy. Everyone knew he was a good guy. That’s what Everyone said. Everyone said that Everyone knew he was a good guy and if anyone disagreed, we’ll, they just didn’t know him. At first I read each email, immediately recoiling at the incestuous loyalty that comes with small, homogeneous towns. I couldn’t tell them that the person everyone said was a good guy was willing to cover up rape or that this wasn’t his first time covering up for his coaches. I couldn’t say a word. Eventually, I just uninstalled my email from my phone.
The athletes wanted the coaches back too. He was their coach, they said. I was no one. They loved him, they said, and soon I was down to three swimmers in the water. Gone was my top wiry swimmer and the freshman with wild orange hair. They were gone and I was left standing. They protested, barged into the principal’s office, and demanded their coach be reinstated. Which coach? Both of them, of course! And get rid of that lying bitch.
A whistleblower. Someone who calls out wrongdoing when they see it, especially if it’s ingrained or systemic. I sit by the edge of the pool and question why I’m still here, offering to coach the children on the wrong side of history. Whose parents have emboldened them to lean into their tunnel vision, their ignorance, and never take no for an answer. But then, why am I surprised? This is how it was always meant to go. Asphyxiatingly small towns with their old money drying up like all the oceans and lakes around us, powerless to the March of time, until they see an opportunity. And for a moment, they don’t feel so powerless, they didn’t wear the shear dress or those ridiculous stilettos, and they aren’t becoming irrelevant in a world that is slowly turning against them. For a moment, they aren’t the villains.
How did I get here? Well, I blew the whistle.