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Stony Brook not bringing back women’s swimming coach; school says decision unrelated to emotional abuse allegations

Former Olympian Janelle Atkinson and assistant coach Jordan Bowen were informed Jan. 26 of the school’s decision to not renew their employment.

Stony Brook Director of Athletics Shawn Heilbron looks

Stony Brook Director of Athletics Shawn Heilbron looks on from the sideline before an NCAA men's lacrosse game between Stony Brook and UMBC at LaValle Stadium on Saturday, March 18, 2017. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Stony Brook University will not renew the employment of the women’s swimming head coach Janelle Atkinson. Athletic director Shawn Heilbron said the decision was not related to published allegations of emotional abuse raised by two student-athletes.

“We decided to make a change in leadership and chose to not renew her employment,” Heilbron said Wednesday.

Assistant coach Jordan Bowen’s employment also was not renewed, Heilbron said. Both coaches were informed of the school’s decision on Jan. 26.

Heilbron said on Saturday that the school has been investigating the conduct of the coaches after receiving complaints from “a number of people at the university and a letter from Ms. [Arianna] Rodriguez,” a former swimmer. “Any time any athlete makes a claim or shares something we take it seriously,” Heilbron said.

Heilbron said Saturday the decision to not renew the coaches’ employment was not related to the investigation.

“I just felt we needed to go in a different direction,” he said Saturday. “It’s a change that was made outside of any investigation . . . All decisions we make are always in the best interest of our student-athletes.”

The school released a statement Tuesday that said: “Athletics has 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.”

Atkinson, 35, a former Olympic swimmer who previously coached at Fairfield University and Connecticut, did not return messages seeking comment. Nor did Bowen.

On Sunday, junior Tess Stepakoff posted an essay on the website for The Statesman, the school’s student newspaper, detailing the emotional abuse that she said led her and six other students to quit the team before the season was over.

“We were told that we were weak, that we were not enough and we were not trying,” she 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.”

She also wrote that the students and their families filed complaints with the school. “For months, our grievances were not taken seriously,” she said.

On Friday, a website called SwimSwam posted a story in which Rodriguez accused the head coach of yelling, cursing and degrading the players in front of others, threatening to take their scholarships away, forcing them to practice when ill and ignoring their injuries.

Neither Stepakoff nor Rodriguez returned messages for comment. Heilbron declined any further comment on Wednesday.

One swimmer’s father contacted by Newsday said his daughter spoke about being “berated verbally on a regular basis” and how Atkinson “played mind games.” The father, who did not want to be identified to protect his daughter, said the athletes felt pressured into swimming when they were ill or injured.

The father said he was pleased with the athletic department’s response to complaints by players and parents. He said as early as October, Heilbron began meeting with the coach and players, trying to foster more of a team atmosphere.

The parent also said Heilbron told the team last week that he did not wait for the results of the investigation before deciding to not renew the coaches’ employment.

Stony Brook’s swim team restarted this season after having been dormant since 2012-13 while the university’s pool was being revamped. Atkinson was hired in February 2017 and the program announced its first nine members in July. Only one had previous Division I experience.

“We’re 100 percent committed to building a competitive program next year,” Heilbron said Saturday. “We’re committed to building the women’s program at Stony Brook University and swimming is part of that . . . We have every intention to compete next year. ”

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