VANCOUVER — Lily Copeland felt she had found her purpose in life when she joined the University of Victoria rowing team.
As a coxswain, she steered the boat and co-ordinated the rhythm of the team, applying her love of helping others to a competitive sport.
But soon after Barney Williams became her coach, she says she could barely get out of bed to make it to practice. She alleges the Olympic silver medallist verbally abused and harassed her, plunging her into a self-destructive depression.
“All that mattered was what he thought of me,” says Copeland, 21. “Everything else started falling apart.”
Copeland is one of three athletes and an assistant coach who have filed complaints against Williams with the university and Rowing Canada Aviron, the governing body that certifies coaches in the country. She alleges he repeatedly yelled at her in a cramped, locked room and criticized her weight and appearance until she began cutting herself and throwing up her food.
The allegations have divided the rowing community and revived debate about so-called “old-school” coaching. Six rowers who spoke with The Canadian Press describe Williams as a devoted leader, while six others and two parents say he elevates some athletes while excluding and belittling others, causing some to suffer suicidal thoughts and panic attacks.
Williams says he respects the confidentiality of the university probe and can’t provide a detailed response until it has wrapped, while also declining comment on allegations outside the process.
“I regard coaching as a privilege that comes with responsibility, and am committed to continued professional growth so that I may play my part in helping the student-athletes that are selected to the UVic varsity women’s rowing team become the best version of themselves on and off the water,” he says in a statement.
When the school launched its investigation in April, team members were told Williams was on a personal leave. He returned to coaching at the school last month even though the process is still underway.
The university declined to answer specific questions, saying it is limited by privacy legislation and its own confidentiality policies. It says it responsibly investigates complaints and the process does not always require employees to be absent from the workplace.
Rowing Canada says it doesn’t comment on investigations that may or may not be in progress, but it has a zero-tolerance policy for bullying, harassment or abuse.
Copeland says she felt intimidated and trapped by Williams
Copeland says Williams followed a familiar routine after many practices. He led her into an equipment room that team members called the “sauna,” because it was small and hot, and yelled at her about her performance that day, she says.
She says sometimes he locked the door, making her feel intimidated and trapped as he stood close to her and occasionally poked her to make his point. She and another athlete called the room the “chokey,” a reference to a cupboard spiked with broken glass and nails from the Roald Dahl book “Matilda.”
“He put a lot of pressure on me and he started to scare me pretty early on,” says Copeland.
She also says Williams often shouted discouraging comments through a megaphone while only a metre away from her boat. She says his remarks toward her were more negative than the encouraging words or instructions he offered some other athletes.
“What are you doing? What’s in your head?” she says he would yell at her, sometimes using expletives.
He also implied on some occasions that the petite young woman was overweight and criticized other aspects of her looks, once remarking she must be “from another planet” because she had pulled her hair into two buns, she says.
Copeland says she disclosed an anxiety disorder to Williams but feels he discriminated against her because of it. She alleges he made remarks such as, “You cannot be weak in front of your team,” and “You’re not going to fall apart on me, are you?”
As he yelled at her, she dug her fingernails into her thumbs until they bled, and after practice she sat in her car and screamed at herself and scratched herself, she says. She adds she avoided eating and eventually started purging as well.
She says she complained to the associate director of sport, James Keogh, in October 2018 and in January, but she says he did nothing other than send out a survey to students in mid-March. She says he didn’t tell her about the Equity and Human Rights Office, which handles formal complaints, and when she learned about the office in late March she filed a complaint soon after.
Keogh referred questions to university media relations, which declined to answer specific queries due to privacy concerns. It says the equity office undertakes initiatives throughout the year to raise awareness about its role in handling complaints.
Copeland says she received a report from the university this summer, which she declined to discuss due to confidentiality concerns, but she has appealed. She expects a decision on Thursday.
She has quit the team and hopes Williams will be fired so she can return.
“I just can’t have this happen to more people,” she says through tears.
Rower says mistakes, mental health issues not tolerated
Another former team member, Kate Morstad, says she saw Williams take Copeland into the equipment room several times, and once heard him yelling until she emerged in tears. She also witnessed him shout unhelpful comments at Copeland through the megaphone, she says.
Joanna Waterman, Copeland’s mother, says her daughter told her about these alleged incidents throughout the year and she was “very concerned” about her daughter’s health.
Another parent, Lorry Prokopich, says his daughter was required to train on a rowing machine without proper footwear and ripped off the skin on her heels. Photos show large patches of raw, red skin. The injury plagued her and she was cut from the team, he says.
Morstad, 20, says Williams created a high-pressure environment where athletes were not allowed to make mistakes or struggle with their physical or mental health. She had suffered from depression in the past but had previously felt safe turning to coaches or teammates for support, she says.
Late one day in September 2018, Morstad remembers waking up in a pool of her vomit. She says she had two immediate thoughts: one, that she had tried to overdose, and two, that Williams would be furious she had missed practice.
She says the coach isn’t directly responsible for her suicide attempt but his actions contributed to a decline in her mental health.
“When you’re dealing with high-performance athletes, you’re asking them to push themselves to their physical and mental limits every day,” she says. “A coach has that duty of pushing you but also knowing when to support you.”
After she woke up, she says she called an assistant coach and told her she had missed practice for mental health reasons. She says she doesn’t know what Williams was told, but when she approached him the next day, he turned away and began speaking to someone else.
At that point, she says she saw what was written on the board: “Land squad: Kate.”
Morstad and Copeland say Williams banned team members who hadn’t met a certain time standard from practising on the water. But they also say he placed people on land squad because they had missed a practice or for unclear reasons. Some were stuck there for months with little or no coaching while they used rowing machines or ran, they say.
Morstad was allowed back in a boat after a few days, but says she realized she couldn’t be a part of a team that treated people so harshly.
She quit in late September 2018. She filed a statement in support of the complainants but did not file her own complaint because she believes others were treated worse.
The allegations made by Morstad and Prokopich were put to Williams, but he declined comment.
Some athletes defend Williams as blunt but effective coach
The claims against Williams have shocked some team members. Layla Balooch and Gillian Cattet say they never experienced or witnessed any mistreatment.
“He is very, very clear with his expectations, very blunt,” says Balooch. “But he always does what he believes is best for the athlete.”
They also say Williams never held one-on-one meetings with them in the equipment room, nor did they see him take anyone else in there.
Balooch says the land squad was for team members who hadn’t shown they were fit enough to be on boats. Rowing is a high-performance sport, she notes, and athletes need to prove they can contribute to the team.
McKenna Simpson says she had an “amazing” experience last year with Williams, while Madi Adams, who joined this fall, says she’s had “all good, positive experiences.”
Ty Adams, who recently represented Canada at under-23 world championships, attributes all of his success to Williams.
“I’ve met a lot of people who like Barney and I’ve met a lot of people who don’t like Barney,” he says. “I’ve never met anyone who is fast and good at rowing who doesn’t like Barney.”
Andrea Proske, a national team member who has qualified for the 2020 Olympics, says she wouldn’t be where she is without Williams.
“He never asked me anything that I wasn’t able to give,” she says.
Rowers from top Canadian program, U.S. school speak out
Jamie Ferguson recalls cycling to practice in February 2014. He says Williams had harassed and verbally abused him for months and he’d begun to seriously contemplate killing himself.
“If there’s a big enough truck coming in the opposite direction, why don’t I just steer into traffic?” he remembers thinking.
Ferguson joined the talent development program Row to Podium in 2012. He had a good experience, he says, until he performed disappointingly at national championships in November 2013.
After that, Ferguson says Williams sidelined him at practice and used expletives and insults while treating other athletes as “golden.”
He says once he suffered a concussion and a doctor told him not to do physical activity for three to four days, but Williams ordered him to come back the next day and exercise on a spin bike. He returned after two days. Another time, he says he had a torn muscle and was required to train so hard he vomited from the pain.
Ferguson says, as his mental health worsened, he sent his coach a TED Talk on depression. But he says Williams told him, “if you want to kill yourself, go to the hospital and get medication. If not, show up to practice.”
Emails show Ferguson met with a Rowing Canada official to discuss his concerns about Williams in March 2014. He didn’t file a formal complaint and quit the program later that year.
Williams focuses on athletes he sees value in while ostracizing others, say three members of the Cornell University team coached by him in 2017-2018.
The coach also declined comment on allegations by Ferguson or the U.S. rowers.
Julia Reimer says she caught a cold but felt pressured to show up to practice at Cornell. She developed a severe respiratory infection and for months used an inhaler, which she had never used before.
“Because of that toxic environment he created and the segregation, I felt like I was lower-class,” Reimer adds.
Reimer and another teammate, Sheehan Gotsch, say it’s normal to sometimes train on land but the size of Williams’s land squad, and his reasoning for putting certain people there, were unusual.
Gotsch says the coach began to ignore her after he saw her perform poorly once while she was injured and his treatment caused her to suffer frequent panic attacks.
Sophia Clark notes she became the fittest she’d ever been while Williams was coach. But she ended the year so miserable she remembers swearing, “I will never touch an oar again.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 17, 2019.
Laura Kane, The Canadian Press