Mexican Swimmers Allege Psychological Abuse, Corruption by National Head Coach

On February 18, Mexican senior national team member and two-time Pan American silver medalist Teresa Alonso García took to her social media platforms to disclose allegations of emotional and verbal abuse by national team head coach Adriana Loftus.

“Over the last few years, I have suffered psychological and verbal violence, and a constant humiliation which have caused physical damages as well,” she stated. “All of this because of our coach, the person who should be helping this team, who should be training us. In front of the whole team, she has repeatedly humiliated me, she has told me that I am fat, that I am short, that I have short legs […]. The physical damage that was caused by depression, by stress, and by the harassment to which I was subjected led to intestinal bleeding and a very strong anemia.”

Alonso is a two-time silver medalist at the Pan American Games (2015, 2019), three-time gold medalist at the Central and Caribbean Games, and competed at the 2015, 2017 and 2019 FINA World Championships. She also ranked amongst the top junior athletes in the world, swimming at both the 2012 and 2014 FINA Junior World Championships and achieving some of the best results for Mexico at the 2014 edition by finishing in 10th in solo and 25th in figures. 

“I made myself vomit, I stopped eating, and I couldn’t even think of eating bread or even something sweet because her words would echo in my mind,” she continued. “These are things that have already changed my life. All this has already been known by the Mexican swimming federation, by the president Kiril Todorov, and they have not done anything to stop all the harassment in this sport. I no longer want any other girl or any other athlete to feel like I feel today, nor do I want them to suffer what I suffered.”

Alonso, whose full message is translated below, also pointed fingers at the team’s psychologist, Loftus’ husband Alberto Calderon. She denounced his appointment in this position as an obvious conflict of interest, asserting that none of the athletes could really talk about the situation or get mental health support, and that thus “the national head coach created an atmosphere of fear and repression.” 

Teresa Alonso from Mexico at the 2019 Pan American Games
Teresa Alonso Garcia at the 2019 Pan American Games. Photo courtesy of Alonso on Instagram.

Despite the prospects of the Olympic year and a potential dream come true, Alonso realized she simply could not continue like this.

“I decided to speak up now because I could no longer withstand physically and mentally the abuses that this coach was putting on me,” Alonso told Inside Synchro. “My body reacted, and I had to go to the hospital because of a bleeding ulcer due to the stress from her calling me fat and short every time she could in front of the whole team. I felt humiliated several times.”

The next day, Alonso was joined by teammate Ana Karen Soto who too was part of the silver-winning team at the 2019 Pan American Games, a fellow member of the 2017 and 2019 world championships teams, and a three-time gold medalist at the Central and Caribbean Games in 2018.

In a joint video interview between Alonso and Soto, the latter revealed she started self-injecting carnitine into her legs at the age of 16 to lose weight as fast as possible. Two years later in 2019, she was barely hanging on, had lost a lot of strength, and was nearly 10 kilograms below a healthy weight.

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Ana Karen Soto. Photo courtesy of Soto on Instagram.

“They were telling me that I was fat, that I had very big legs,” she said in the video. “[…] I thought I looked good, but I said that I would lose weight. I even went to a different nutritionist, but the problem was that they asked for fast results, so I started to inject carnitine in the fat of my legs to be able to lose three kilograms per week. I cried a lot. The days before we were weighed, I was so nervous. I could not sleep and I did not want to accept that I had some kind of psychological problem. I continued with stricter diets until my body’s defenses got so low that I got mononucleosis.”

Over the course of the following days after Alonso’s original video, four more former national team members spoke up. Madison López, 2017 world team member, posted a long video similar to Alonso’s describing her experience on the team that eventually led to an eating disorder and a long hospital stay. Yulieth Barreto, Samantha Flores, and Renata Romero also all came forward with the same allegations towards Loftus, who has been coaching for over 30 years, the conflict of interest regarding her husband’s position, and the deafening silence from the federation regarding these allegations. Of note, Ana Karen Mendoza had already spoken up about these issues publicly back in 2017. 

“It has been very hard opening up about this,” Alonso told Inside Synchro. “It is hard and scary because you never know what is going to happen. I was not completely expecting the girls that spoke up to do so, but so many more from other sports have come up to talk to me now about their experiences about being mentally abused and how that marked them for life. That also inspired my other teammates to speak up about the abuses that they lived being in the Mexican national team.”

Alonso and Soto also recounted more details related to the prize money given by the Mexican government to all the 2019 Pan American Games medalists. Both reveal that Loftus allegedly texted the athletes on the team and suggested they give eight percent of their earnings to the entire staff, including her husband. Alonso and Soto felt pressured, and knew that if they didn’t abide, there would be consequences.

“In the end we all gave that eight percent,” Alonso said in the video. “She put it as a suggestion, but we all knew that it wasn’t really a suggestion. It’s either you give it, or you’re playing with your spot on the team.”

Both have for now decided to step away from the team on their own volition, and await to see the course of action of the Federación Mexicana de Natación (FMN). Alonso has already filed a lawsuit against the federation and CONADE, Mexico’s National Commission for Physical Culture and Sport. 

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Teresa Alonso speaks to deputies and politicians alongside deputy  Enersto Vargas Contreras on February 27.

On February 27, Alonso, Soto and López spoke in front of the Mexican parliament, and with deputy Ernesto Vargas Contreras, the Mexican Federal Sports Commissioner at the chamber of deputy, on the matter. Vargas urged CONADE to take action:

“Mexico cannot keep losing athletes because of this type of situation,” he told El Universal. “That neither CONADE nor the FMN have done anything yet… Well, we know that they will not do anything because since 2013 there have been complaints of this type, and they did nothing.”

Meanwhile, the FMN and Todorov are currently finding themselves embroiled in yet another big scandal where the federation has been accused of concealing its selection criteria for Tokyo. Upon reporting on this story, SwimSwam also detailed some of the multiple major controversies the FMN has ran into under Todorov’s administration over the last few years. Todorov currently faces numerous lawsuits while also being under investigation by the Mexican government.

Ana Guevara, the director of CONADE, only had a few words to say to El-Universal regarding the allegations against Loftus: “We have spoken with Adriana. We are on it.” She also added she had not directly spoken to her. Guevara is also in the middle of her own corruption scandal, as the Ministry of Public Function has found irregularities in CONADE’s finances and denounced the overall lack of transparency of the organization.

Inside Synchro has reached out to the FMN, but it has not responded to a request for comment at this time.

Article by Christina Marmet

  • Statement from Teresa Alonso García, senior national team member since 2015, former junior national team member (2012-2014):

My name is Teresa Alonso García and I have represented Mexico on the national team of synchronized swimming, which I have done for the last 12 years of my life. Over the last few years, I have suffered psychological and verbal violence and a constant humiliation which have caused physical damages as well. All of this because of our coach, the person who should be helping this team, who should be training us. In front of the whole team, she has repeatedly humiliated me, she has told me that I am fat, that I am short, that I have short legs.

I made myself vomit, I stopped eating, and I couldn’t even think of eating bread or even something sweet because her words would echo in my mind. These are things that have already changed my life. All this has already been known by the Mexican swimming federation, by the president Kiril Todorov, and they have not done anything to stop all the harassment in this sport. I no longer want any other girl or any other athlete to feel like I feel today, nor do I want them to suffer what I suffered. 

Like any high-performance team, we have trainers, nutritionists, doctors, and the important part here is to have a psychologist. But in our team, the one in charge of our mental health is her husband, so the national head coach has created an atmosphere of fear and repression. It is clear that we cannot say anything about what is happening, and the corruption is to such an extent that, for example, last year the current country’s president gave [each swimmer] a financial prize, which we were asked to share with them.

I don’t say this for the money. Every athlete or person who knows me, knows that I do this sport all out of passion. I have always done it and accomplished things with all the love in the world: top 10 as a junior soloist in the world, two-time Pan American silver medalist, triple Central American champion, and world finalist. 

People who know me know how much it costs me to talk. I have not slept in several days, I have cried a long time, and I am being treated for depression and severe anxiety. Every day, it is hard for me to wake up and keep going. But I want to emphasize that I am doing it because I do not want anyone to go through this.

I want girls to break the barriers just like I tried and them to fulfill their dreams. I hope that after this video, a change is made. I hope that after this video, it helps someone and that someone listens to me. The physical damage that was caused by depression, by stress, and by the harassment to which I was subjected to led to intestinal bleeding and a very strong anemia. The whole time, my doctors knew it, and they made me train like that. But I really hope that after this video, a change is made, and that people take into account how difficult it is for me as a person and an athlete to upload this.

(Posted on February 18, 2020)

  • Statement from Madison López, former 2017 world championships team member and 2016 junior national team member:

I am Madison López, a former national team member of the artistic swimming team, and today I join the fight against mental and physical violence that is lived in the world and that sadly I had to live within the national team.

It’s very complicated for me to relive everything I’ve gone through in the team, but I would like to be a part of those who speak up against this situation. I retired eight months ago, and even though I now feel so much better physically and mentally, the last few months before and right after my retirement have been a personal hell.

I want to start by explaining why I haven’t spoken up before. First, I was scared to tell the world the truth about this, and second I had close friends within the team like Teresa and Karen, and did not want to get my teammates in trouble right before the Pan American Games. 

All those who know me know I am a very dedicated athlete, and I would do everything I can to succeed and to reach my goals. However, it has led me to take my body to the limit of its physical abilities, and of my mental abilities. Thinking about eating rice, pasta, tortillas or just a portion of more food was simply unforgivable for the psychological pressure that I was living in there.

It has led me to an eating disorder, to doing prolonged fasting and other very strict diets. I would vomit many times to keep my weight down and to maintain the illusion of the perfect body. It was so much pressure and stress that I would scratch holes in my head, and soon I started to lose my hair. 

Eventually, I realized this was not healthy. But how not to do it when the coach would reward the girls who had lost weight by putting them in the routines, and would humiliate girls who gained weight or were “fat.” Between 2016 and 2017, my performance outweighed my physique. Plus, as a Latin and Mexican woman, my genetics are not naturally like some of the Russians or other European swimmers. But in 2018, it became all about my physique. I lost nine kilograms and 10 percent fat, which for my sick mind was not enough, and I so wanted to approach that perfect stereotype. 

But my body couldn’t continue like this and I became very sick. Because of my poor diet a few months before the Pan Americans, I got cholera. I was so weak. While at the hospital, I still felt the pressure from our coach because she wanted to know when I could come back, when I would be discharged from the hospital to return to training. She just asked me things like, “Where is the Madison I know and does not give up?” For them, it was so easy to just say, “Come back to training!” like nothing happened.

Another fear was that the psychologist was her husband. My parents, frightened by my emotional and physical situation during the week at the hospital, told me that the mental power that these two people had on me was too much, that with a simple message they could make me go to a very bad place mentally.

Multiple times, I wanted to rip off my IVs to run back to the pool and try to make the team. I was so desperate to be well to return to training that I started to increase my dosage by myself, but at night the doctors gave me medications to stop thinking about going back to train. I also checked the IV fluids to see how many calories they had.  But after everything I had gone through, and after hours of crying in between the four walls of the hospital, I decided that the best for me and my health was to stop.

After a few weeks, I sent in my letter of retirement to my coach, and received no answer. I went with my mother to see her, and her and her husband told me I wasn’t making the right choice. That it was my sickness talking for me. They refused to see that it was this atmosphere and this mental pressure inside the team that was making me sick. A few days later, I announced it to the federation and my teammates. For me, it appeared like my hell was over, but it actually continued.

The coach’s criticism of me for having “given up,” and the consequences of my eating disorder led me to something that at that time I already made public. I was committed to a special clinic for people with eating disorders, and was followed by a nutritionist, a psychologist, and a psychiatrist if needed. The recovery and entire process was very difficult, but I was so afraid of living with mental disorders for the rest of my life. Thankfully, I could always count on the support of my family and friends at that time. 

Even now that it’s all over, I still bear mental scars. Even when I feel I am stable, the emotional crises and sequels occasionally still visit me from all the memories and bad feelings. I am still working on the psychological part, because the mental damage was so big that it still costs me a lot to look in the mirror and to accept my new body.

However, I was able to bounce back and change sports to modern pentathlon, which turned my life around. That’s when I realized that it was possible to train in a healthy environment and to enjoy high performance in a completely different way. I have the opportunity to train every day with Olympic athletes, and all of them have made me realize that although being at the elite level has a price, it should not go beyond that line where it becomes so negative and harmful to your own health.

I am making this video so things can change for the next generations, because I know there is a lot of talent in Mexico, a lot of girls who aspire to one day be part of the national team, and I want this to be different for them.

(Posted on February 22, 2020)

  • Statement from Yulieth Barreto, former junior national team member (2013-2014) and member of the senior national team training squad: 

My name is Yulieth Barreto, and I am a former national artistic swimmer. To show support for my former teammates, I want to share my story and explain why I decided to withdraw from the national team at the peak of my career. This was because in one of the national team’s trials, one of the participants was a 35-year-old woman who had been out of the sport for 10 years. I first want to say that I do not doubt anyone’s abilities, but during all the tests in these trials, my teammates and I showed superior skills to her in the technical and physical tests. Nevertheless when the results came out, she was above all of us.

When we asked for a justification, it turned out that she won because of her weight as she had very little fat percentage. After the results came out, I decided not to return because I could not believe the degree of corruption, where someone who is just skinny can beat actual talent and hard work. This girl lasted two weeks in the national team and then decided to leave because her body could not withstand the training. After this, many girls just quit the sport because it wasn’t possible to deal with the level of corruption and discrimination. I join this case as well because I would like future generations to not live what we went through.

(Posted on February 24, 2020)

Thanks to Coral Estefania Alonso Garcia and Julio-Cesar Medina for their help with the translations.

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