The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee has hired a law firm to launch an independent investigation into questions surrounding the U.S. rowing program based in Oakland, according to letters to the athletes obtained by the Bay Area News Group.
The letters from the USOPC and Arent Fox, the law firm hired to run the investigation, do not mention anyone by name. However, a follow-up email between lawyers discusses Olympic coach Mike Teti, who led the Cal rowing program from 2008-2018.
“I am aware of the assessment that the USOPC has begun and will participate in the review as I fully support their efforts to help USRowing and our athletes,” said Teti, a four-time Olympic coach. “In the meantime, I remain focused on preparing the men’s team for the best possible performance in Tokyo this summer.”
The investigation began with a letter sent to unnamed rowers on Jan. 8, 2021. It said the USOPC retained Arent Fox to conduct an “independent review and assessment to identify root factors contributing to feelings of distrust and concern expressed by certain segments of the athlete population.”
The letter, which also was copied to Teti and U.S. women’s Olympic coach Tom Terhaar among other rowing officials, said investigators were charged with determining “what is necessary within USRowing to maintain and/or create a healthy culture so that its elite athletes can have successful rowing careers while maintaining their physical and mental wellbeing.”
According to the letter from Arent Fox’s lawyers, the investigation will cover four areas:
— The Olympic team selection process and its fairness and accessibility to all competitors.
— The mental and physical health resources needed by elite athletes.
— How USRowing, the sport’s national governing body, allocates financial assistance to athletes.
— Whether elite athletes’ concerns are capable of being heard in a fair and neutral way that does not contribute to a fear of retaliation.
The letters do not level specific allegations against anyone, but two-time Olympian Greg Ruckman said Sunday that some rowers felt intimidated by Teti, a three-time Olympian.
“Fear of falling out of his personal favor and being cut, fear of losing funding, fear of being attacked physically, or attacked professionally, or attacked socially,” said Ruckman, who rowed under Teti for a decade.
Ruckman, a 1999 world champion, said he has been trying since 2005 to get USRowing to change its methods for selecting Olympians.
Arent Fox’s letter to athletes said the national law firm will write a “confidential report for the USOPC’s ‘eyes only,’ ” outlining athlete needs and an “assessment of all potential compliance issues (if any) identified during the course of the review.”
Amanda Kraus, USRowing’s chief executive officer, said Sunday in an email that the organization has responded to athletes’ concerns since she was hired a year ago.
USRowing “has been taking specific steps to ensure a competitive culture where athletes can thrive in a safe and healthy way for the last year,” she wrote. “Among other steps, USRowing requested an outside perspective from USOPC and we welcome that assistance in the form of this independent review. We encourage our athletes and personnel to participate in the review and cooperate as much as possible and we look forward to getting valuable feedback as a result.”
Arent Fox’s letter also said the lawyers will make recommendations to resolve any impediments they might find that could interfere with the “creation of a healthy and successful culture for elite athlete competitors.”
A separate report will be given to USRowing leaders, the letter said.
Onye Ikwuakor, the USOPC’s associate general counsel, encouraged athletes to “speak openly and honestly” with investigators in a separate letter that was included with Arent Fox’s letter in January.
The review has been limited to the U.S. rowing program, according to a March 10 email from San Diego lawyer William Caldarelli to Arent Fox investigator Jeffrey Watson.
Caldarelli, who represents some of the former U.S. rowers, wrote, “Would you be interested in speaking with an athlete that was on the UC Berkeley rowing team run by Teti, but who did not row for the US Rowing or US Olympic teams?”
Watson replied, “We are limited to the assignment of focusing on USRowing that we were given by the USOPC. However, if that should change, we will let you know.”
In 2016, the University of California hired an outside investigator to examine a sexual assault complaint against a member of the Cal men’s crew, this news organization reported at the time.
The alleged victim, a former female crew member, said at the time that Teti knew she had been sexually assaulted in December 2013 at a rowing team party. She said instead of reporting the incident, Teti told her to stop crying, saying, “You’re no angel anyway.”
Teti, 64, is preparing rowers for the Tokyo Games, which run July 24-Aug. 9. He left Cal in 2018 to take over the national team program that uses the Golden Bears’ rowing facility on the Oakland Estuary.
The United States men earned berths for the Tokyo Olympics after finishing fifth in both the four and the eight boats at the 2019 World Rowing Championships.
A selection camp in Oakland opened last month with 20 rowers trying to earn places on the Olympic team. They include Stanford alumnus Austin Hack, Cal graduate Alex Wallis of Cupertino, and coxswains Colette Lucas-Conwell of Palo Alto and Cal’s Julian Venonsky. The teams are scheduled to be announced on June 4.
The women’s selection camp is underway in Princeton, New Jersey. The women’s eight is a three-time reigning Olympic champion.
Teti was the subject of information sent to federal lawmakers last year charging rowing officials had failed to cooperate with an investigation by the U.S. Center for SafeSport, an independent body that handles some cases involving Olympic sports.
Denver employment lawyer Beth Doherty Quinn sent a letter saying the Center for SafeSport “requested a report, or information about a report, generated by an investigator or other third-party hired by USRowing prior to the 2008 Olympics to investigate certain behaviors by then USRowing Head Coach, Mike Teti.”
USRowing representatives acknowledged last year that SafeSport officials asked about the report in 2018 as part of an inquiry into alleged financial improprieties. But they said SafeSport officials told rowing executives financial improprieties were outside the center’s purview.
Congress created the Denver-based center four years ago as an independent body to investigate all forms of sexual abuse claims in Olympic sports in the aftermath of the case involving former physician Larry Nasser, who is serving a life sentence for abusing hundreds of female gymnasts under the guise of giving them medical treatment.
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Author: Elliott Almond
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