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Rowing Canada investigate coach for harassment, abuse

Coach investigated for abuse

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.



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