This story was updated at 6:25 p.m. May 23, 2013.
Richard Jay Curl spent decades guiding and training swimmers in the U.S. and abroad to compete in the Olympics. But the legacy he hoped to leave behind came crashing down on Thursday, after a Montgomery County judge ordered him to serve seven years in prison for sexually abusing one of his star swimmers nearly 30 years ago.
“She was this naive young girl who wanted to please ... and you sought her out,” Montgomery County Circuit Judge Marielsa Bernard told Curl, who is now 63.
“This is a classic example of someone in a position of trust [who] abuses that position,” Bernard said.
“I have a picture of a little girl swimming under your tutelage when she’s not even 10. She respects you, she trusts you, she believes you, she looks up to you. What a terrible situation for her — she’s in love with you. ... Such psychological damage was done to her,” Bernard said.
Kelley Currin, now 43, began training with Curl when she was 9 years old, she said in court. She quickly fell under his thrall.
“I loved Rick Curl. I loved him. He was my hero. I have yet to find someone who has impacted me as much as he did. There was nothing I wouldn’t have done for him,” Currin said, recounting the special signs they would give each other before her races, or the dinners he spent with her, or the special swimsuits he bought her.
He began molesting her in the 1980s, when she was about 13 years old and he was 33.
Currin said that after Curl kissed her — it was her first real kiss, she said — he called her. “He told me he was on cloud nine,” she said in court.
He promised her they would get married and have children, she said. After he did finally marry, he told her he would name his first daughter after her, she said.
If they were caught, he would take half of the blame, Currin said.
They first had sex when she was 15. Curl abused her at homes in Montgomery County, in hotels while on the road at swimming competitions, and even at her home, where Curl sometimes stayed with her family.
The abuse continued until 1986, not long before she began attending the University of Texas on a swimming scholarship.
Her parents discovered the relationship after reading her diary, then faced an agonizing decision about whether to have her continue training with Curl or try to find another coach.
Dozens of Curl’s supporters packed the courtroom on Thursday.
Bernard said in court that she received 72 letters from people writing on behalf of Curl and the positive effect he made in their lives.
Curl, dressed in a dark suit, and wearing a salmon-colored silk tie, spoke little during the 90-minute-long sentencing.
“Kelley, I want to tell you I’m profoundly sorry for what I did to you and your family,” Curl said shortly before being sentenced. He also told Bernard that he had tried to redeem himself.
His attorneys argued that Curl’s conduct had been an “aberration,” and that he had both admitted his crimes from the beginning and sought to redeem himself since the abuse ended 27 years ago.
“This case deals with redemption and renewal, and puts the court in position of looking backwards after a person has followed actions that were by all counts indefensible,” said Bruce Marcus, one of his attorneys.
But Assistant State’s Attorney Deborah Feinstein said: “This was not a brief incident, not a one-time mistake — this was a lengthy course of sexual abuse.”
Police began investigating Curl in the summer 2012, after learning of the allegations. Curl, the co-founder of the Curl-Burke Swim Club, has coached Olympians and other elite swimmers for decades. One of his most famous athletes was Tom Dolan, who medaled in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics.
The club, which has since changed its name to the Nation’s Capital Swim Club, has coached hundreds of swimmers in nine locations around the metropolitan D.C. area. In the 2011-12 season, the club produced an Olympic gold medal and 20 Olympic trial qualifiers, along with a slew of regional and national records and champions, according to the club’s website.
Currin considered pursuing criminal charges against Curl in the 1980’s, but was dissuaded by prosecutors at the time, she previously told The Gazette. Her family reached a confidential settlement with Curl in 1989 instead.
In that agreement — which Currin later shared with the media — he agreed to pay her family $150,000 if they agreed to not tell anyone about the abuse.
“I was in torment, and I could tell no one,” she said in court Thursday.
Currin suffered from eating disorders and alcohol addictions, she said. In college, the stress of all she had been through derailed her Olympic dreams, she said.
She came forward last year after seeing him coaching on TV.
“It was time,” she said after the sentencing.