Kentucky accused of ‘complicity’ as former swim coach allegedly committed sexual violence

In August 2019, two swim coaches at San Jose (Calif.) State reported allegations they had heard about University of Kentucky head swimming coach Lars Jorgensen to a Title IX officer at their school. The allegations were that Jorgensen had been in a relationship with one of his swimmers at an earlier coaching stop and that he had sexually assaulted a woman on the swim staff at Kentucky. The Title IX officer at San Jose State then alerted a counterpart at Kentucky.

It was at least the third time Kentucky was made aware or should have been aware of an allegation of misconduct by Jorgensen.

In June 2012, Mark Howard, a former assistant swimming coach at the University of Toledo, sent separate emails to Gary Conelly, then Kentucky’s head swim coach, and UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart. “This is no joke at all and I cannot stomach the fact that (Jorgensen) will be coaching women again,” Howard wrote to Conelly, who had recently added Jorgensen as an associate head coach. He informed both men that a swimmer had told him that she had been in a sexual relationship with Jorgensen while he coached her at Toledo.

In October 2014, a former Toledo softball coach repeated the allegation that Jorgensen had been in a “long-term romantic relationship” with a student-athlete in a wrongful termination lawsuit she filed against that school. The allegation appeared in news articles about the lawsuit and was discussed by some team members at Kentucky, where Jorgensen had ascended to head coach.

After the San Jose State official alerted Kentucky in 2019 about the allegations made against Jorgensen, the UK office that handles Title IX complaints compiled an initial report, which was marked “not urgent.” After Jorgensen denied wrongdoing and the swim staffer he allegedly sexually assaulted declined to speak to a school official, the matter was deemed “closed” after a week.

Last June, Kentucky announced Jorgensen’s resignation in a press release. No reason was given for his exit. It went unsaid that one former Kentucky swimmer reported enduring “years of sexual assault, abuse and harassment” by Jorgensen to the school, and that a former staff member disclosed that Jorgensen “physically violated” her. Another former Kentucky swimmer informed a school official after Jorgensen resigned that she wanted to report a “forced sexual assault” by Jorgensen. Two of those team members said the abuse spanned multiple years. All three have spoken to the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which is investigating Jorgensen.

On Friday, two of the former team members filed a lawsuit against Jorgensen, Kentucky, Barnhart and Conelly in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky. According to the complaint, Kentucky’s “complicity and deliberate indifference” enabled Jorgensen “to foster a toxic, sexually hostile environment within the swim program and to prey on, sexually harass, and commit horrific sexual assaults and violent rapes against young female coaches and collegiate athletes who were reliant on him.”

“When I was a student-athlete I gave my blood, sweat and tears to the school. … But in reality, what was it worth?” said Briggs Alexander, a former team captain and assistant coach at UK and one of the plaintiffs. “They took so much from me.”

Based on interviews, documents obtained from UK via a records request, and the complaint, the allegations against Jorgensen include:

He raped two members of the swim program following team Christmas parties at his home, raped one of those individuals in hotels on team trips and masturbated in front of that same person in his office.

He sent a member of the women’s swim team photos showing his erect penis and videos of him masturbating, and he sent suggestive messages to swimmers over social media.

He told personal sex stories to swim team members and talked about women he wanted to have sex with. He asked swimmers about their sexual experiences, and he commented on their breast size and how they looked in swimsuits. He inquired about swimmers’ menstrual cycles and asked one team member if she was on birth control.

Jorgensen implemented punishment workouts, in violation of NCAA policy, made degrading comments and body-shamed swimmers. He also withheld food from athletes after poor performances and assigned extra workouts to swimmers whose body fat percentage exceeded a limit he determined. He told one swimmer she reminded him of “fat people that walked around the mall.”

Jorgensen, 53, was provided a detailed account of the allegations against him in a phone interview Wednesday. He responded: “None of that is true, so I don’t really have much further comment. I’ve always tried to lead in a positive manner and do what’s best for each individual and the team overall.”

A Kentucky spokesperson wrote in an email: “Mr. Jorgensen is no longer an employee of the University of Kentucky. We do not, as a matter of policy, discuss specific personnel issues.” The spokesperson added that the university takes concerns raised about potential employees or current employees “very seriously.” Barnhart did not respond to a request for comment.

Conelly said that in 2012 he contacted the woman at Toledo alleged to have been in a relationship with Jorgensen. He said that she told him she began dating Jorgensen only after she stopped swimming (information Conelly said he shared with a Kentucky athletic department official). Asked if it concerned him that Jorgensen dated a subordinate who had so recently been a student-athlete, Conelly added: “Yeah, that bothers me a little bit. But I’m sure you know this – this is not an uncommon occurrence that there is a relationship between a coach and an ex-swimmer.”

Kentucky announced Jorgensen’s resignation in a press release last June. No reason was given for his exit. (Jack Spitser)

Jorgensen competed as a 17-year-old in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, finishing 23rd in the 1,500 freestyle. He then swam at the University of Tennessee before graduating in 1994, then stayed with the Vols as a graduate assistant coach. Following stints at swim clubs in Maryville, Tenn., and in his hometown of San Diego, he was hired in 1999, at age 28, as an assistant coach at LSU. He remained there until 2004, when Toledo gave him his first head coaching job.

Toledo finished sixth in the Mid-American Conference in Jorgensen’s first season. By his last (2009-10), the Rockets were league champions. Two Toledo swimmers said they heard only after graduating that Jorgensen, as alleged in the 2014 lawsuit, may have been in a romantic relationship with one of their teammates. In Jorgensen’s final season at Toledo, swimmers gossiped about him and that woman, who had remained at the school as an assistant coach after her eligibility expired. Players recalled her staying behind with Jorgensen after the team’s Christmas party at his house, and they would sometimes see the two arrive at early morning practices together. In response to the 2014 lawsuit, which was settled the next year, the school said it “lacks knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief as to the truth of the (allegation).” The woman did not respond to The Athletic’s interview requests.

In 2010, Jorgensen resigned from Toledo and returned to Tennessee. It positioned him to succeed John Trembley, who had coached Jorgensen in college. In January 2012, Trembley was fired after he sent sexually explicit messages from his university email account. Jorgensen took over as interim head coach but was not given the head job permanently. Kentucky then hired him in June 2012, putting him in line to succeed Conelly, which he did about a year later.

In December 2013, Jorgensen held a team Christmas party at his home. As the guests departed, he asked a swim team staffer about 20 years his junior to stay behind to help clean up. When they were alone, according to the complaint and interviews with that woman, Jorgensen grabbed her, pulled her into his bedroom and raped her. The woman told Jorgensen “no” and screamed for him to stop. She told The Athletic that she passed out and that when she woke up later, she drove herself home.

The next day, the woman said Jorgensen showed up at her door with flowers and chocolate. He sobbed, telling her it would never happen again. But Jorgensen continued to abuse the staffer, according to the complaint and interviews. He’d call her into his office under the guise of talking about the team, and then he would masturbate in front of her. He’d grope her under the table during staff dinners. The complaint states that he “forcibly raped” her on multiple occasions over the next two years; she told The Athletic that occurred in hotel rooms during team trips. She said Jorgensen repeatedly told her if she told anyone no one would believe her and it would jeopardize her future in swimming.

“I felt like I didn’t have a voice. I felt like if I told people I wouldn’t be able to be in a profession I was so passionate about and loved. That was held over my head and I was told that quite often,” she said.

(Years later, the woman disclosed the incidents to her now-husband, who corroborated that disclosure in an interview with The Athletic. Around this time, she also emailed Jorgensen in advance of a meet they would both be attending and said she didn’t want to have any communication with him.)

The staffer left the program in 2016 for a job at a less prominent program. She told multiple members of the UK swimming team that she wanted to be closer to home. “I was just kind of in survival mode,” the woman said. “I had lost a lot of weight… I think I was coming to terms with what was going on and I didn’t know how to handle it other than leave.”

One of the swimmers who recalled being surprised by the staffer’s exit was Briggs Alexander, who had recently finished her sophomore season. (Alexander swam on the women’s team at Kentucky but later transitioned while serving as an assistant coach. At Alexander’s request, The Athletic is using gender pronouns that correspond with his transition timeline because he wants the reader to understand “who I was in the moment when I was being abused.”)

By the 2016-17 season, Jorgensen had “groomed” Alexander, the complaint alleges: “Jorgensen isolated Alexander, sought to gain her trust, strove to control every facet of her life, and repeatedly made sexualized comments in an attempt to desensitize sexual topics.” If Alexander rebuffed Jorgensen in any way, he threatened to stop coaching her, imperiling her swimming career and Olympic aspirations.

Alexander described feeling like “Pavlov’s dog,” conditioned to comply with Jorgensen’s demands.

Alexander said Jorgensen asked her to download Snapchat so they could communicate while Alexander competed at the 2017 World University Games in Taiwan. In the months that followed, according to the complaint and interviews with Alexander, Jorgensen sent sexually graphic photos showing his erect penis and videos of him masturbating. Alexander said that she sent a few topless photos to Jorgensen, afraid that if she didn’t reciprocate she’d be punished at practice. Eventually, Alexander deleted Snapchat.

In 2017-18, Alexander’s final season, Jorgensen suggested that Alexander remain at Kentucky and become an assistant coach. Jorgensen would take Alexander, who was by then working on her master’s degree, out to dinner under the guise of career planning. During these outings, he’d hug Alexander, kiss her on the forehead and put his arm around Alexander’s waist, according to the complaint and interviews.

In December 2019, Alexander, then a volunteer assistant coach, said she was wiping down a counter after the team’s annual Christmas party at Jorgensen’s home, helping to clean up at Jorgensen’s request, when Jorgensen began groping her. According to the complaint and interviews, Alexander tried pulling away and telling him to stop but Jorgensen brought her into a bedroom, pinned her down by the wrists and raped her. When she tried leaving later, Alexander said Jorgensen grabbed her arm and threatened her if she told anyone what happened.

During the 2019-20 season, Alexander began dating a woman, which Alexander said Jorgensen fixated on. According to the complaint and interviews, Jorgensen twice raped Alexander at Jorgensen’s home in the spring of 2020 – once in March 2020 at his home while “pinning her down by the neck” and later that spring on his couch at home.

Alexander left to coach at the University of Buffalo for the 2020-21 season, but Jorgensen kept in contact. According to the complaint and interviews, Jorgensen sexually harassed her, asking Alexander for photos and videos of Alexander engaging in sex acts with her girlfriend; Alexander refused. In April 2021, Jorgensen offered Alexander a job at Kentucky, a full-time coaching job that included a significant pay raise. Alexander was reluctant to return but was also unhappy in Buffalo. Before she accepted the position at UK, Alexander said she made Jorgensen promise their relationship would remain strictly professional. But according to the complaint, Jorgensen sexually assaulted Alexander on multiple occasions once Alexander returned, which included groping him at a staff dinner and raping him on one occasion during the 2021-22 season.

By this time, Alexander had begun transitioning and said Jorgensen seemed to grow increasingly “more aggressive with him,” according to the complaint and interviews. Jorgensen told Alexander he knew what Alexander actually liked sexually.

“It was almost as if I was writing with my left hand as a child … and my mom would put the marker in my right hand to correct the behavior,” Alexander said.

(Alexander later disclosed details of Jorgensen’s alleged abuse to his fiance and a victim’s advocate, both of whom corroborated those disclosures.)

Alexander resigned from his coaching position in May 2022 but Jorgensen continued to sexually harass him and sexually assaulted Alexander one more time in April 2023, forcing Alexander to perform oral sex on him, according to the complaint. It stopped after Alexander threatened to go to the police. Alexander said the support from his now-fiance, Julia Vincent, a two-time Olympian and former volunteer assistant coach for Kentucky’s diving team, was essential. “A lot of the strength for me came from Jules. We were in this together,” Alexander said.

The third person who accused Jorgensen of wrongdoing, a former swimmer and team captain, was, according to the complaint, groomed similarly to Alexander. Jorgensen “sought to assert control over (her) personal life” and he “would often punish her by embarrassing her at practice” if she did not respond to his many calls. He also frequently talked to her about her body and sex and asked her if she was having sex with her boyfriend.

In December 2022, the woman, then a volunteer coach, said Jorgensen took her to dinner for what he said was a discussion about her future in coaching. After dinner, he asked her to come inside his home to discuss a book he said he was working on about leadership and team culture. Once inside, she said he asked sexually explicit questions and tried to kiss her, according to the complaint and interviews. He also groped her breast, buttocks and thigh. She repeatedly told him to stop and pushed him away. He told her he thought she’d be good at sex and said: “What did you expect when you came over here?” She told him she had to leave and exited.

The next day, she sent Jorgensen a text that read: “Lars, I want to let you know that what happened last night was not fun for me… You have a position of power over me and touching me, asking for sexual favors, and asking sexual questions is unprofessional. I do not want you to pursue me in any sexual or harassing way again.”

Jorgensen pleaded with her via text to discuss the incident over the phone and asked if she could meet for coffee or dinner. They later spoke on the phone, and the woman said Jorgensen cried, telling her he was upset another assistant coach was leaving and that he wasn’t acting like himself. He said it would never happen again and offered her a paid coaching position, which she later accepted, on her condition that he adhered to professional boundaries

“I didn’t know it was a pattern,” said the woman, who left after the season for a coaching position elsewhere.

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Jorgensen swam at the University of Tennessee before graduating in 1994, and returned as a coach in 2010. (Jack Spitser)

By April 2023, Kentucky’s compliance department was probing whether Jorgensen violated NCAA rules related to punishment swims and non-voluntary practice hour overages. “We were just getting tons of complaints from athletes,” a compliance official commented in one document, obtained via a public records request. (Jorgensen was previously suspended for one week for similar violations of NCAA rules, which occurred during the 2021-22 season.)

As word of the compliance review spread, more alumni of the program contacted the school about Jorgensen’s conduct. In one anonymous email sent to Barnhart, the athletic director, on May 14, 2023, a woman who said that she swam for Jorgensen for four years accused him of running punishment workouts, making degrading comments, explosive outbursts and routine body-shaming. The woman also wrote that Jorgensen “continuously demonstrated inappropriate relationships with female swimmers during his time at Kentucky” including sending suggestive messages to swimmers via social media.

That email was forwarded to Kentucky’s compliance department on May 16.

Around that time, the former staffer who said Jorgensen sexually assaulted her in 2013 contacted Alexander on Instagram. She had heard Jorgensen was being investigated and asked Alexander about his time swimming and coaching with him. Eventually, they shared their experiences regarding Jorgensen and expressed a desire to stop him from working with other athletes.

The former staffer then sent an email to three school officials in which she called Jorgensen “a predator to young women in the (sport).” In that email, she accused Jorgensen of sexual harassment, body shaming, and said Jorgensen would show up at her apartment unannounced and uninvited. She wrote that Jorgensen “physically violated” her at a Christmas party at his condo.

That staffer, along with other team members, described in interviews with The Athletic how Jorgensen assigned swimmers a set body-fat percentage – it ranged from 10 to 16 percent – and if they failed to meet that benchmark they would be assigned extra training and/or told to not eat. According to the complaint, Jorgensen closely monitored their caloric intake and the swimmers’ “dangerously low body fat percentages” often resulted “in the cessation of their menstrual cycles.” Jorgensen told some swimmers that they performed better when hungry, and he withheld food from swimmers after poor performances. Two individuals told of an instance when the team had to wait on the bus outside a fast-food restaurant while only the coaches went in and ate.

On June 1, Barnhart notified Jorgensen that he was suspended pending an investigation. On June 15, Alexander had a Zoom call with a UK Title IX official and told about his experience with Jorgensen. Less than two weeks later, on June 28, Jorgensen resigned from his job, taking a settlement worth $75,000, forgoing the $402,500 remaining on his contract through the 2024-25 season.

About four months later, the former team captain and UK assistant coach who said Jorgensen sexually assaulted her at his home in December 2022, emailed the school’s interim Title IX coordinator, writing that Jorgensen was a “dangerous man” and that she wanted to report a forced sexual assault. That official wrote back that since Jorgensen was no longer employed by UK, the school’s office of Institutional Equity and Equal Opportunity had no jurisdiction to investigate, but said she could file a report with the local police department or her current employer. Three days later, that same official reversed course, writing that the IEEO office wanted her statement on file.

The conflicting messages, as well as correspondence in the ensuing months in which she felt UK officials were being evasive about what they would do with the information she shared, prompted her to instead pursue an investigation with the U.S. Center for SafeSport. “I have lost all confidence that UK is capable of handling such an investigation,” the woman said in an email to an IEEO official.

According to the complaint, the other two swim team members felt they were “vigorously discouraged” by a Title IX officer from reporting Jorgensen’s abuse. They have also spoken to SafeSport investigators. Jorgensen’s name now appears in the SafeSport disciplinary database for “allegations of misconduct” with temporary restrictions that include no unsupervised coaching, training and contact with athletes.

The Kentucky spokesperson wrote in an email: “It is entirely up to the victim or complainant to decide whether they want to participate in such a review or not. Part of ensuring the well-being of our people is giving them the opportunity to decide whether they want to participate in an investigation of this kind.”

In November, Alexander and one of the other former swim team members, retained attorney Megan Bonanni of Pitt McGehee Palmer Bonanni & Rivers.

“He had so much power over me. I don’t want any athlete to feel like they have no control in their life,” said Alexander, currently a doctoral student at Kentucky. “They have a voice. You’re not an athlete. You’re a person.”

(Top image: Eamon Dalton / The Athletic; Photo: iStock)

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