Stony Brook University’s athletics department is in search of a new women’s swimming and diving coaching staff, as the former head coach faces allegations of mental and emotional abuse made by former members of the team.
After a five-year hiatus due to renovations of the school’s pool, the Division 1 team returned to competition in 2017 with two-time Jamaican Olympian Janelle Atkinson as head coach. In a Jan. 26 article on the website www.swimswam.com, a list of allegations of emotional and mental abuse at the hands of Atkinson was attributed to former team member Arianna Rodriguez. According to the site, the allegations were corroborated by at least one other teammate, even though no other swimmer was named in the article, and shortly after posting, multiple members of the Fairfield University swim team, which Atkinson coached in the past, reached out to the website saying they had similar experiences with the coach.
Tess Stepakoff, a former team member and managing editor of SBU’s student newspaper, The Statesman, published an editorial Jan. 28 on the paper’s website
alleging emotional and mental abuse while a team member.
She said despite the initial excitement of the team’s return, as the 2017 season drew to a close, the roster dropped from 13 swimmers to six. In Stepakoff’s editorial she wrote that it was a dream for her to join the Division 1 swim team, but her experience soon turned into a nightmare when she said Atkinson broke the team members’ trust and spirits.
“We were told that we were weak, that we were not enough, and we were not trying,” Stepakoff wrote. “We were cursed at and screamed at during every practice for months. As our physical and mental health declined, we were told to get over it.”
In the editorial, Stepakoff said if a team member missed practice for injuries or illnesses there was the potential of losing their spot on the swimming and diving team. She said the teammates and their families filed complaints, made phone calls and had meetings with the athletics department to discuss the alleged abuses.
According to the Stony Brook Athletics website, compliance with NCAA, America East Conference and university rules and regulations is a part of its mission. As a member of the NCAA, SBU is responsible for the actions of its coaches, student-athletes, faculty and staff, alumni and friends of the program.
Atkinson and assistant coach Jordan Bowen are no longer listed on the SBU athletics website as part of the coaching staff. No allegations have been made against Bowen.
Lauren Sheprow, a spokeswoman for the university, said SBU could not comment on the allegations as it does not discuss personnel issues but confirmed the athletics department is looking for new coaches.
“Athletics decided to make a change in the leadership of the swimming and diving program and will initiate a national search to identify a new coach to lead and grow the program,” she said in an email.
In her editorial, Stepakoff said that Atkinson’s past employers, Fairfield University and University of Connecticut athletics departments, did not provide reasons as to why the coach’s contracts were not renewed.
“These colleges were able to get away without any bad press, but now Stony Brook does not have that option because we, past and present Stony Brook swimmers, decided to fight back publicly,” Stepakoff wrote.
Atkinson, Rodriguez, Stepakoff and other members of the team did not return messages for comments.