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The runners on the Harvard women’s cross country and track teams have been on a winning streak recently.
“In my four years on the team we went from being [near] last of the Ivy League to, by the time I graduated, we’d won seven out of the eight track championships,” Paige V. Kouba ’16, a former captain of the women’s cross country team and current assistant coach, said. “In the fall, the cross country women won the first [Ivy League Heptagonal Championship Title] since 1985.”
The success has coincided, more or less, with the arrival of distance running coach Patrick Wales-Dinan from California State University, Long Beach. Many runners currently coached by Wales-Dinan credit his approach with the recent achievements.
With success, though, Wales-Dinan has brought controversy. More than half a dozen former and current athletes who have competed for Wales-Dinan say he created a culture characterized by an expectation of total devotion, unhealthy training habits, and deep divisions about the direction of the program.
His critics have raised concerns with the Athletics Department staff, the College’s Title IX Office, Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, Athletics Director Robert L. Scalise, the program’s faculty fellows, human resources employees, and at least one external investigator.
During Wales-Dinan’s tenure, the number of athletes on the team has dropped dramatically. When he began coaching at Harvard for the 2014-2015 season, the women’s cross country roster listed 23 athletes, a figure consistent with the preceding five years. The 2016-2017 roster lists 11 athletes, five of whom are freshmen.
Harvard’s women’s cross country team is the smallest in the Ivy League. The second smallest is Dartmouth’s with 27 athletes.
While many current runners have attributed the decline to natural attrition, some of the former athletes themselves charge that Wales-Dinan was one of the main reasons they quit. In an email to Scalise and Khurana last October, eight former student-athletes asked that the Athletics Department fire Wales-Dinan.
“We all ran under Patrick [Wales-Dinan] at one point or another, now are no longer members of the Harvard Cross Country and Track programs, and feel strongly that he should not be either,” the former athletes wrote in an email obtained by The Crimson. “We believe that he made it clear there was no place on the team unless you were ‘all-in’ and put athletics as your single highest priority.”
Wales-Dinan did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story. Scalise declined to grant an interview, instead sending an emailed statement.
"Harvard Athletics takes seriously its responsibility to support every member of our community - including student-athletes, coaches and administrative staff,” he wrote. “We have an obligation to work together to create an environment that is inclusive and requires our members to adhere to the highest standards of integrity, ethics and sportsmanship."
The letter to Scalise came after some athletes say they had raised concerns multiple times to coaches, an Athletics Department administrator, and faculty advisers since Wales-Dinan’s arrival.
These complaints came to a head in October when a video of a team practice session posted on a running website drew attention to what some called Wales-Dinan’s inappropriate physical contact with an athlete, while others saw it as an innocuous effort to help a struggling athlete.
The controversy surrounding the video ultimately led Emily J. Miller, the College’s Title IX Coordinator, to begin a brief review of the team, though that investigation changed hands after Thanksgiving. A representative from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences human resources department hired an outside investigator “to look into multiple allegations involving the team,” according to emails obtained by The Crimson.
Wales-Dinan’s leadership has also drawn the attention of the team’s faculty fellows, who act as academic advisers for the men and women’s cross country and track programs. Biology professor Daniel E. Lieberman and Business School professor Paul A. Gompers, whose daughter is a member of the program, have criticized Wales-Dinan’s influence on the team’s culture. In December, after collecting accounts from over 20 former and current members of the team, the pair filed a 17-page single-spaced report to University administrators detailing their complaints.
“When two of out of three athletes on a team are quitting, something’s wrong,” Lieberman said in an interview.
Talking to members of the program can make it seem like Wales-Dinan is two entirely different people. As some women on the cross country and track teams hold him up as a mentor and empowering trainer, others deride him as unprofessional and responsible for creating a toxic environment. But the two camps seem to agree on one thing: Wales-Dinan’s influence as a coach over the lives of his athletes is enormous. The months of administrative review of the team illustrate how Harvard proceeds when a coach is called into question.
For Erin L. Dietz ’19 and other current runners who support Wales-Dinan, the continuous scrutiny of their coach—including the reporting and publication of this story—because of allegations they vehemently dispute has been disruptive and upsetting.
“I feel like I speak for most of the team when I say that Patrick [Wales-Dinan] is a really important figure in all of our lives, and understandably, all these allegations being raised really bothers him and really bothers all of us to see him so upset, especially over something that seems to not be founded in any truth,” Dietz said.
‘A CLASH OF VALUES’
Many runners point to the transition between Wales-Dinan and his predecessor Priscilla Bayley as the source of discord on the team.
“[Bayley] was more about doing the sport for the sake of having fun with not as much emphasis on trying to be great at it, and so I think that she recruited some people and then Patrick came in as the new coach, and there was a clash of values,” Dietz said.
Kouba also said she saw the coaching transition and the team’s increased intensity under Wales-Dinan as a source of dissatisfaction for a group of athletes on the team who were uncomfortable with the new level of commitment.
“When you sign up for one coaching style and get a different one, that can feel unsettling,” she said. “For sure, I think the coaching styles of [Bayley] and [Wales-Dinan] could not be more different, and I happened to thrive on that transition. Some did not.”
Bayley did not respond to request for comment.
For some, the concerns about Wales-Dinan started before he even arrived in the Athletics Department. Two athletes in the program describe a team meeting they attended at Wales-Dinan’s house in the fall. According to those athletes, Wales-Dinan told the team that one of his former athletes had emailed Jason S. Saretsky, the head coach of track and cross country, detailing concerns about him. Wales-Dinan said that Saretsky had chosen to disregard the email.
Saretsky declined multiple requests for an interview, instead sending along an emailed statement. Both Saretsky and Wales-Dinan did not respond to specific allegations detailed in this story.
“Our entire track and field/cross country coaching staff is committed to the mission of education through athletics and we work hard to teach young men and women through the pursuit of both academic and athletic excellence,” Saretsky wrote in the statement.
“Our team has always been open to people who want to work hard, who love their sport, who appreciate the process of self-improvement, and who support their teammates all while being committed to pursuing excellence in the classroom,” he added.
Several current and former athletes said they feel Wales-Dinan’s style has polarized team members and negatively impacted their social lives, academics, and mental and physical health. The Crimson has granted these students anonymity because they said they fear retribution from teammates and coaches.
In an article published in the Huffington Post in August 2016, Erika M. Veidis ’15 described intense pressure from coaches to overtrain during her senior year.
“Even though it soon became clear that I was experiencing severe overtraining syndrome... I kept on accepting the guilt and doubt inflicted by coaches and teammates,” she wrote. “I kept pushing until my body gave out even more. My head coach, in an effort to strong-arm me into competing, told me that if I couldn’t run at Ivy League championships, then I was off the team.”
Three current runners in the track and cross country programs said they have felt pressure from Saretsky and Wales-Dinan not to pursue certain classes or other academic opportunities because they might conflict with or detract from athletics. Four current and former student-athletes said Wales-Dinan has told women to lose what they consider an unhealthy amount of weight. They also allege that Saretsky and Wales-Dinan have allowed women to overtrain and miss meals. All told, six current and former runners, in interviews, characterized the coaches’ actions as harmful and inappropriate.
The majority of the current runners on the team, however, swear by Wales-Dinan. They say he and Saretsky have created a healthy, positive team environment by emphasizing nutrition and health, supporting academic pursuits, and serving as mentors.
Elianna M. J. Shwayder ’18, a pre-med student, said Wales-Dinan has worked with her to accommodate her academics by organizing independent practices and travel arrangements to meets. “I have been able to resolve any conflict that has arisen by talking with them,” she said.
Both Kouba and current captain Madeleine V. Ankhelyi ’17 said Wales-Dinan and the coaching staff have been supportive of their academic pursuits, including their decisions to write senior theses. In his statement, Saretsky wrote that the team has earned Academic All-American with distinction every semester of his tenure. The current team’s grade point average is a 3.4, according to the Athletic Department’s website.
Ankhelyi said the team is healthier than it’s been in the past due to Wales-Dinan’s emphasis on proper nutrition. In an interview, current runners Judy Pendergast ’20, Eliza Rego ’20, and Brooke Starn ’20 credited Wales-Dinan with creating a supportive emotional and athletic environment.
Pendergast called being part of the team “the greatest part of my college experience.”
‘WHAT’S GOING ON HERE?’
Discussions of Wales-Dinan’s conduct have circulated far beyond the cross country and track programs. In the last few years, criticisms of Wales-Dinan’s leadership travelled through a number of Harvard offices, including the College’s Title IX Office, the FAS human resources department, and the Athletic Department itself—even as faculty fellows also began their own formal review of the team.
The uneven progress of the investigations began with Shanna Kornachuk, the Athletics Department’s assistant director and the program director for the track and cross country teams. On several occasions, starting in 2015, athletes brought concerns about team culture to Kornachuk in meetings they understood to be confidential, according to three current and former runners.
After these meetings, however, the three runners said that Saretsky and Wales-Dinan, apparently informed of the complaints by Kornachuk, rebuked them for going to others with complaints and imperiling the coaches’ jobs.
Kornachuk did not respond to The Crimson’s requests for comment.
In October 2016, still frustrated by the program, eight former athletes emailed Scalise, the Athletics Director, and Khurana calling for Wales-Dinan’s termination. In that email, the eight former athletes also wrote that current team members felt uncomfortable bringing grievances to the Athletics Department.
“Though only ex-athletes are included in the names below, we believe it important to note that current athletes agreed with the sentiment expressed here, but were unwilling to put their names to any note, fearing retribution,” they wrote. “Last year, athletes who communicated with the Athletics Department about the coaching staff and team culture then faced punishment from that coaching staff.”
A day later, Scalise responded, writing that “we are interested in hearing more about your experience with Patrick [Wales-Dinan] and the cross country program” and directing the women to speak with Kornachuk.
An official administrative review into the program came weeks later, after a video of a women’s cross country practice session posted Oct. 19 by the running site Flotrack became the subject of eight pages of forum discussion on LetsRun, an online running site. In the video, Wales-Dinan held an athlete’s waist in one moment and rubbed her back in another. While some users called the contact “inappropriate,” others defended Wales-Dinan’s actions, writing that his behavior was not unusual.
“It looks to me like a coach working to console an athlete having a bad day. There’s definitely nothing that is inappropriate shown,” wrote one user. LetsRun’s moderator, Robert Johnson, removed the post three days later.
“I looked at [the video] and immediately thought ‘Whoa, what’s going on here?’” Johnson said.
Johnson, a former Cornell men’s distance coach, said he spoke with both Saretsky and Wales-Dinan about the video after it attracted attention on the message boards.
According to Johnson, Wales-Dinan “said that there was a medical issue going on that wasn’t visible in the video, and he was really helping her in a time of need.” Johnson ultimately took down the thread at Saretsky’s request.
On Oct. 22 , a person close to the women’s track and cross country program reported the video to Miller, the College’s Title IX coordinator, who is responsible for responding to allegations of sexual harassment, violence, and discrimination. This informal report prompted Miller to begin meeting with athletes to discuss the video and the team’s broader culture.
The majority of women currently on the team said they were never contacted by Miller about the video and that there was little communication about the process. In an email, Miller wrote that she “definitely cannot comment on investigations.”
After Thanksgiving, the FAS human resources department took over the investigation from Miller, according to emails obtained by The Crimson. Gary P. Cormier, director of human resources consulting in FAS, and William Hoch, an independent legal consultant, were tasked with reviewing the program.
By Dec. 9, Hoch had begun contacting current and former athletes to discuss the team. In an email to a former cross country runner, Hoch described himself as “an independent investigator hired by Harvard to look into multiple allegations involving the team.” Hoch also wrote that he and Cormier hoped to speak with over 20 former and current athletes.
Ten people interviewed for the investigation said that in meetings with Hoch he asked for their perspectives on team culture and coaching within the program.
Hoch declined to comment on the investigation or its results.
As Harvard’s office of human resources began reviewing the team, Gompers and Lieberman submitted their own report to University administrators on Dec. 12. The 17-page, single-spaced report came after the professors spent months interviewing over 20 current and former athletes about the program’s culture.
Current members of the team criticized the faculty fellows’ report, saying they had not been contacted by Lieberman or Gompers.
“Why are they not coming to us with this information?” Shwayder asked.
Gompers and Lieberman did not not respond to requests for comment about how they conducted their review.
Regardless of how the investigations conclude, its results are unlikely to satisfy everybody. To his critics, Wales-Dinan has polluted the program and divided the team. To his supporters, he deserves praise—not seemingly unending scrutiny—for the success and leadership he has brought to the program.
As administrators and investigators continue to consider the future of the program and Patrick Wales-Dinan’s place in it, athletes keep running on their regular schedule. They’re slated to compete at the Hurricane Twilight Invitational in Miami this Saturday.
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