University of Victoria rowing coach Barney Williams is photographed in the stands during the Greater Victoria Invitational at CARSA Performance Gym at the University of Victoria in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, November 29, 2019. The University of Victoria says Williams has resigned effective immediately. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

University of Victoria women’s rowing coach resigns by mutual agreement

University of Victoria women’s rowing coach resigns by mutual agreement

VICTORIA — The University of Victoria says the head coach of its women’s rowing program has resigned effective immediately.

In a statement posted Monday on the school’s varsity athletics website, it says the decision was reached by mutual agreement as Barney Williams and the athletic department determined it was in the best interest of the program so that “the circumstances associated with the 2018-19 season are not a continuing distraction.”

A member of that team filed a lawsuit last summer accusing Williams of demeaning treatment amounting to verbal abuse.

The lawsuit alleges that Lily Copeland suffered injuries including stress-induced physiological symptoms and lost self-esteem, while also claiming that the university failed to provide her with a safe environment for learning and training.

Williams and the university deny the allegations in a statement of defence, saying the training environment was not hostile and communication was always professional.

None of the allegations or statements have been proven in court.

In its statement Monday, the university says Williams has also had “some significant personal challenges” over the past three years and will take time to support his family.

“Our main focus at this moment is squarely on the student-athletes,” said Nick Clarke, director of varsity performance sport.

“We recognize that this was difficult and unexpected news for them. We are committed to continuing to provide the student-athletes and other members of the team the necessary support and resources to focus on their health, safety, and academic achievement and to begin preparation for the seasons to come.”

In their response to Copeland’s lawsuit, the defendants say the training was “competitive and rigorous intended to foster the athletic abilities” of Copeland and the other coxswain.

They say Williams’s communication with Copeland was “respectful and appropriate for team coaching designed to maximize performance.”

Copeland’s statement of claim filed in British Columbia Supreme Court alleges Williams would berate her inside a locked storage structure known as the “sauna,” standing close to her and speaking aggressively.

But the statement of defence denies the allegations.

“At no time did Williams ever have a meeting with (Copeland) in any locked room, including the sauna,” says the response, filed in November.

“While Williams would have debriefing meetings with (Copeland) and others,” occasionally in the sauna, “they were always professional, objective, and constructive intended to provide feedback,” it states.

“The door is often kept closed to retain heat … but other athletes and coaches would regularly enter the room at any time.”

Copeland alleges in her lawsuit filed last July that she was often late or missed academic classes as a result of the so-called “sauna episodes.”

The lawsuit alleges the university failed to train or supervise Williams properly, didn’t adopt appropriate coaching standards for varsity athletes or take adequate steps when Copeland complained informally to the associate director of sport in October 2018. She later made a formal complaint through the university’s equity and human rights office.

The school hired an adjudicator who found the coach’s behaviour did not breach the campus discrimination and harassment policy.

The university has since implemented a professional code for coaches and added various resources to support student-athletes. It also hired a director of varsity performance sport last fall to oversee varsity athletics “with a clear focus on safe sport,” it said in an update posted online in December.

Rowing Canada is also conducting an investigation into Williams.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 19, 2021.

The Canadian Press

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