Kristen Lewis Cunnane is associate head coach of the UC Berkeley women’s swim team. But as a teen her own swim coach molested her, with the abuse continuing into adulthood.
It all began in 1993. Kristen and other middle school swimmers looked up to Coach Julie Correa. And Julie took a special interest in Kristen. The two secretly left campus to get Slurpees, Julie gave Kristen gifts, and Kristen began confiding in Coach Correa as she became one of her closest friends.
After several months, the relationship crossed a line. Kristen remembers mentally escaping into a painting of a Labrador Retriever as she was raped on a bedroom floor, but being startled back into reality when her back scraped the carpet.
Julie controlled Kristen by carving out a section of a dictionary, putting a cell phone inside, and insisting Kristen carry it at all times. She also used Kristen’s fear against her:
Your parents will never understand. If they catch us, I will take care of them. This is your fault. I wanted to wait until you were older, but you made me.
When another middle school teacher killed himself after a molestation charge, Julie used that to further intimidate Kristen, telling her that they would both be dead, like him, if anyone learned about them.
Love eventually brought Kristen courage. When she met her future husband, classmate Scott Cunnane, she threw out the hidden cell phone, but not without fear. Kristen expected to die after her 18th birthday, when she finally told Julie to leave her alone.
I no longer cared if she killed me. It’s hard for me to describe to people, but I just hated her so much that it being over was more important to me than living.
When Kristen ended things at a hotel, she called Julie a monster and threatened to run to the hotel clerk. She was surprised that the warning ended the abuse:
The chains I felt around my heart and wrists, they weren’t real.
But, “When I got rid of her, I got rid of the part of my brain that knew that happened.” In 2010 when a USA Swimming abuse scandal broke the memories flooded back and she became anxious, even avoiding her kitchen, afraid of sharp knives.
She reported the abuse to police and then secretly taped a confession. At trial Kristen was surprised that staff from her high school defended her attacker. But Julie eventually confessed and was convicted.
Kristen’s story resonates with experts who explain why kids don’t report abuse. The Hero Project says that children are used to obeying adults and doing things they don’t understand. They may be threatened or they may be ashamed of what they worry is their fault. And they may not have the words to explain what is happening.
Kristen hopes that by telling her story other abuse victims will come forward.
Molestation’s chains melted away, first as a little girl became a young woman who learned that others don’t have as much power over you as you think they do, and later when her courage restored the balance of justice for herself and, she hopes, others.
The complete story can be found in the San Jose Mercury News.