Four former swimmers on McGill’s Varsity Swim Team have come forward with reports of allegedly experiencing a ‘toxic’ environment on the team. The former athletes, who departed from the team between 2014 and 2018, claimed that they were treated unethically by one of their coaches, who they claim divulged their confidential personal information to other teammates and encouraged unsafe weight loss. They found McGill’s frameworks and policies for resolving complainants to be unwieldy.
Disclosures on athletics staff
The athletes claim that their coach created an unwelcoming environment that fostered unethical treatment and animosity among the swimmers. Jane*, who left the team after two years, alleges that she was specifically singled out for her performance in the pool and for her social life.
Jane says that her relationship with her coach became unhealthy. At one point, he instructed her to lose 25 pounds, put her on a regulated diet, and told her to record her food intake and provide him with a diary of it. Their interactions fostered unhealthy eating habits and poor self-esteem.
“He had me weighed once a week,” Jane said. “I lost a whole bunch of weight, but it wasn’t healthy, like I just stopped eating [….] He commented, ‘good job losing nine pounds this week,’ and it doesn’t take a medical doctor to realize that no one at my weight should lose nine pounds in a week.”
To Jane’s knowledge, at least three other swimmers she competed with developed eating disorders while swimming for McGill. This is reflective of research indicating that young adult athletes, especially female athletes, are at greater risk for developing eating disorders than non-athletes in the same age group.
According to Kate*, a former swimmer who quit the team after her second year, eating disorders have been a pervasive issue across all the teams she has been a part of, including McGill. She says that the coaches lacked sensitivity to the issue.
“[Eating disorders are] a sensitive subject, now more than ever, and people really need to be careful with what they say to young women,” Kate said.
Kate explained that simply putting players on diet plans is an inadequate way to improve their swimming.
“[When professional swimmers are put on diets], it’s not like [they] just [need] to lose weight, it was like you need more muscle in these areas,” Kate said. “But, like, if you look at someone and tell them, ‘you need to lose 20 pounds,’ that’s not going to make you a better swimmer.”
Coaching guides published by the Coaching Association of Canada (CAC) recommend that coaches handle eating disorders by helping them find professional help, assuring them that their role on the team is not in jeopardy, and doing so in a confidential manner. According to Jane, the coach did not respect the confidentiality of two of the three athletes with eating disorders.
“Swimming is a performance sport that requires significant fitness to be performed at the highest level,” the coach facing the allegations wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune. “To this end, I preach the value of fitness, not weight control. I have, on several occasions, had discussions with both men and women about making changes in lifestyle habits, [which] go well beyond eating, to help them achieve their goals in the pool. These conversations are always handled with great care and support and are always in private.”
But both Jane and Adrian* claim that, on other occasions, the coach divulged information about their personal and academic lives to the team.
“He told a first year that she shouldn’t associate herself with me because my GPA is really low and I failed a course,” Jane said. “His access to my transcript isn’t meant to be shared, especially when it’s used to attack my character.”
Disseminating private information about athletes to their teammates violates the CAC’s Code of Conduct, which asserts that coaches must “maintain confidentiality and privacy of personal information and use it appropriately.” The Code also states that the authority of coaches is derived, in part, from upholding their responsibility to maintain confidentiality.
However, the coach claims to have never shared personal information about swimmers with their teammates.
“I have never shared personal or confidential information without an athlete’s prior consent,” the coach wrote. “When swimmers report that they can’t attend practice because of an illness, the team is informed, though no details regarding the illness are provided—except when the illness could be contagious and thus could put teammates at risk of contracting it.”
Inadequate resolution channels
While grappling with these issues, the former swimmers lacked adequate channels for disclosing or reporting them. The only McGill staff member who oversees varsity coaches is Varsity Sports Manager, Lisen Moore. When athletes have issues that they feel they cannot take to their captains or coaches, she is the designated person to handles their concerns. However, the responsibility of oversight for every varsity sport leaves this position overburdened. Moreover, the process for reporting is untransparent to both athletes and the public.
Both Jane and Abigail* say they attempted to bring complaints about the coach to Moore but were placed at the bottom of a priority list and were unsure about how to properly file a complaint.
“[Moore…] didn’t ask any questions, didn’t follow up, didn’t validate feelings,” Abigail said. “She just did nothing, and [coaches are] not going to be punished.”
The Tribune reached out to Moore for comment on multiple occasions but did not hear back over the course of four months.
In comparison to McGill, University of Toronto (U of T) has a clear four-step appeals process for appealing any matter relating to a varsity sport, including a coach’s decisions about players and their disciplinary procedures, whereas McGill has none. U of T also has external confidential support and referral services for players for when the team cannot find solutions. Moreover, McGill lacks any sort of oversight body or board akin to what high-school-aged swim teams have, leaving athletes to suffer in silence. Many current and past swimmers who spoke with the Tribune asserted that it would be helpful to have an unbiased third-party to hear problems.
“At university, there’s no board,” Jane said. “The coach doesn’t have a boss, so it’s really, really hard to have [them] face consequences when there’s no one to talk to and there’s no one to go to about it.”
McGill lacks adequate mental health resources set aside specifically for student athletes. In comparison, the University of British Columbia (UBC) has an online mental health hub for varsity athletes, while U of T has one counsellor tasked with meeting with varsity student-athletes once per week.
“When I’ve talked with [other] sports psychologists [we talk about] how to [holistically] improve your performance,” Jane said. “The sports psychologist I saw at McGill never asked about any part of my life outside of how I could perform better in the pool.”
The McGill’s Guide to Varsity Sports for Student‐Athletes reflects a similar results-oriented rhetoric, stating that the varsity program is based on the “pursuit of academic and athletic excellence” and “establishing practices that foster positive learning and competitive environments for student-athletes.” Meanwhile, U of T’s guide to student-athlete services states that the university’s varsity program is devoted to “whole person development” and acknowledges that “students are at a crucial stage of their intellectual, physical and social development.”
For Kate, it wasn’t until she quit the team that she truly felt healthy and balanced in all areas of her life.
“The sad thing is that [the coach] will tell you time and time again [that] school comes first, family comes second, swimming comes third, but, in reality, that’s not the way it is,” Kate said. “I had no idea how bad it really was until I was like, ‘wow I’m getting As in school; I’m living my life; I’m going to bed on time; I’m seeing my friends; I’m a healthy person; I might not be working out every day of my life, but I feel healthy.’”