Three former athletes and a former employee of U.S. Ski and Snowboard have accused former longtime head coach Peter Foley of sexual misconduct including sexual assault, unwanted kissing and touching, and coercing them into taking nude photos, according to interviews and documents obtained by ESPN.
The women lodged their complaints last week with the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a watchdog organization authorized by Congress to police issues related to sexual abuse in U.S. amateur sports. SafeSport then temporarily suspended Foley on Friday, pending its investigation. On Sunday, U.S. Ski and Snowboard announced that Foley was no longer employed by the organization.
“Any allegations of sexual misconduct being made against him are false,” Foley’s attorney, Howard Jacobs, told ESPN on Sunday. “Mr. Foley has not engaged in any conduct that violates the SafeSport Code, and he will cooperate with the U.S. Center for SafeSport when and if they contact him.”
Foley, the head coach of the U.S. snowboard team since its inception in 1994, led the national squad to seven Olympics, including the most recent Beijing Games. His athletes, male and female, won a combined 35 Olympic medals.
But those who came forward last week told ESPN the medals came at a high price for women working and competing with the team. They allege women have long had to tolerate sexual misconduct because Foley controlled which athletes were selected to go to the Olympics and they feared he would retaliate by withholding Olympic opportunities or ending their employment.
ESPN has interviewed all four women about their allegations and confirmed that they individually contacted and filed reports to SafeSport last week that included allegations they relayed in their interviews with ESPN.
Allegations against Foley, 56, first surfaced publicly during the Beijing Olympics in February, when former snowboardcross athlete Callan Chythlook-Sifsof, a 2010 Olympian, wrote a series of Instagram posts accusing Foley of sexual misconduct and two male athletes of misogynistic and racist behavior. U.S. Ski and Snowboard said at the time that it took “the allegations very seriously and the allegations are being investigated.”
After Chythlook-Sifsof’s Instagram posts, ESPN attempted to contact every former employee as well as every woman who is a current or former member of the U.S. snowboard team, interviewing more than two dozen sources, including coaches, staff and others connected to the program and the investigation.
One Olympic medalist who has filed an oral complaint with SafeSport told ESPN her report includes an allegation that Foley sexually assaulted her while she participated in a U.S. training camp he ran when she was 19. The athlete, who spoke on the condition her name not be used, said she didn’t perform well at the camp and initially didn’t make the team.
At the camp’s conclusion, she said, Foley drove the athletes to the airport, telling them they would all be sleeping together in the same room until their flights the next day. The athlete said three men slept in one king-sized bed, while she and two other women slept in another.
“I was on the edge of the bed and I was asleep and at one point I feel someone sneak in behind me in the bed,” the athlete said. She said that she realized it was Foley, and that the coach “reached his left arm over my body and put his fingers inside me.”
“I just laid there,” she said. “I remember just laying there in shock. It happened for a while and it just stopped and he got up and left.”
The athlete said she had told only one relative about what happened until she read Chythlook-Sifsof’s Instagram posts in February.
She and several other athletes interviewed by ESPN described a team culture that was celebrated for its party-like atmosphere and informal traveling style, which they said enabled male athletes and coaches, including Foley, to act with impunity while sharing chalets and other types of lodging with their female counterparts.
“It is a good ol’ boys club,” said Erin O’Malley, who was one of the first women to join the U.S. snowboard team in 1995, when she was 16. “Do as we want and keep your mouth shut.”
“There was lots of rowdiness,” O’Malley said. “Boys could behave any way they wanted. I didn’t know any better and I thought, ‘Well, this is how it is. This is how the boys’ team acts. And us girls do what we need to do to make it through the day.'”
The Olympic medalist who said she was assaulted at the training camp told ESPN that by the time she did make the team, Foley “had established himself as a dirty dog.”
“He’s frothing over young girls and says crude comments,” the athlete said. “It was the culture. It was what guys did. We had drunk guys busting into your room, getting in your bed, humping your leg, grabbing bras out of the drawer and running down the hall with them.”
The athlete said it was within such an environment that Foley intercepted her as she exited a postrace event and began to kiss her.
The athlete told ESPN she didn’t feel as if she could tell Foley to stop because he was in charge of seeding athletes and controlled who would travel to World Cup competitions. As a result, he effectively decided which athletes would make the Olympics.
“There is now this power position,” the athlete said. “He can say I can’t start in this World Cup and I can’t be in the Games.”
Foley eventually stopped kissing her, the athlete said. “He stops and I’m like, ‘I’m leaving. This is super inappropriate.’ I said, ‘This should not be happening. You’re a coach, I’m an athlete. You’re married!'”
She said it was several years later, when she and others were celebrating the Olympic medal she had just won, that Foley approached her again.
“He whispers in my ear, ‘I still remember how you were breathing,'” the woman told ESPN. “I knew. I knew exactly what the f— he was talking about. It gave me chills. It brought me back to being 19.
“What compels someone to think or say that?”
She and the other three women told ESPN that they have agreed to cooperate with SafeSport’s multistep investigatory process that will include written and verbal statements of alleged wrongdoing.
Foley, right, became U.S. Snowboard head coach in 1994. He most recently guided Lindsey Jacobellis and Nick Baumgartner to gold medals in snowboardcross at the Beijing Olympics. Here, he discusses the course with two athletes at a 2011 race in Colorado. Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Lindsey Sine Nikola, who worked for U.S. Ski and Snowboard from 2006 to 2010, told ESPN she also filed an initial report with SafeSport last week alleging that Foley coerced her into taking nude photos and later sexually assaulted her at a World Cup ski race in December 2008.
Nikola started with the organization in the communications department while she was still studying at the University of Utah. “My first and growing impression of the snowboarders was they’re, like, a family,” Nikola said. “It felt like a fun family that you wanted to be part of. It was everything you could want in your first professional experience, to be accepted by your peers.”
Nikola said she was raised in the Mormon faith and “grew up in a little bit of a bubble.” During the 2008-09 season, Nikola wanted to go to the X Games in Aspen, Colorado, an event she typically wouldn’t attend. “If I wanted to go, I needed to find a place to stay and then talk to my boss [the VP of communications] about going,” she told ESPN.
Nikola said Foley invited her to stay at one of the team houses. In return, she said, he asked if he could stay with her at a World Cup ski race in Beaver Creek, Colorado, where he wasn’t coaching. “He did photography. He was always shooting events and said, ‘I don’t have a place to stay. Would it be OK if I bunk with you?'” At the time, Nikola said, she thought the request seemed “normal.” She said she assumed that either the room would have two beds or Foley would sleep in a cot that the hotel provided.
“But he should never have asked to stay in a room alone with me based on his position,” Nikola told ESPN. “I didn’t have the experience to deal with that because I thought it was a normal thing to do based on how the team traveled together. I didn’t know the position I was putting myself in.”
Nikola said when racing was postponed due to weather, Foley showed her “gorgeous” photos he’d taken of an athlete who was clothed and asked if she’d like to do a similar photo shoot. “I said I’d love to do that.” But she said that when she returned to the room for the shoot, Foley asked to photograph her sitting in bed with her bare back visible, in what she recalled him describing as “artsy.” She said she “felt stuck” but agreed because she didn’t want to seem difficult or uptight.
“There’s this person I think is friendly and trustworthy and I’m part of this team community and I don’t want to do anything that makes him feel like I’m being prude or standoffish,” she said. “I want to seem like I’m easygoing. So, I let him.”
Nikola said Foley continued to pressure her to slowly reveal more and more of her body until she was totally nude. “I felt very anxious afterward. I felt like I had given someone a lot of control because I would never want anybody to see those,” she told ESPN. “I thought through a litany of worst-case scenarios. What if he showed someone and I lost my job? Or he showed someone and they thought less of me?
“I think an important question is why is a person in a position of power asking to take photos of a much younger employee and colleague? He’s the head coach. The power dynamics were inequitable.”
Nikola said when she read Chythlook-Sifsof’s posts in February, which accused Foley of taking “naked photos of female athletes for over a decade,” she realized she might not be the only one. She said she believes the photos were a way to groom her for what happened next.
“Thinking back on it made me realize the intent [of the photo shoot] was, ‘We have a secret.’ Once photos like this exist, they become their own source of power. They were absolutely a tool for keeping me quiet. I felt like I couldn’t say anything because there were these images of me to discredit me.”
On a separate night at the same event, Nikola said, she left early from a team dinner because she was tired. She went back to the hotel room and fell asleep in the bed, assuming Foley would sleep in the cot in her room like he had the previous night. “I hear him come through the door and the next thing I know, he crawls in my bed,” she said. “He asks me to rub his back.”
Nikola said she felt uncomfortable but convinced herself she was overreacting and consented to a back rub.
“At some point, he says that he wants to do something physical with me,” she said. “I am stunned because my gut was trying to tell me all along that I should remove myself from the situation and I was telling myself I was overreacting. But I wasn’t. I said ‘no.’ I said, ‘Listen. No. You’re married. There’s a million reasons why this isn’t going to happen, but no.'”
Nikola said she then moved away from Foley in the bed, but he began to ask her intimate questions, including whether she wanted them to touch themselves in front of each other. “I said no. Then he started to touch me physically. I was stunned because I said no and there he is with his hands on me, touching me under my clothes and I’m frozen,” she said. He continued to touch her breasts and genitals without her consent, she said. “I just kind of mentally shrunk within myself and waited for it to be over.”
Nikola said Foley undressed, rolled her onto her stomach and ejaculated onto her back before going to his cot and falling asleep. “I remember saying, ‘You’re an a–hole,'” Nikola told ESPN. “The next day, he said something to the effect of apologizing for forcing himself on me. I recall that.”
Nikola said she tried to continue working alongside the athletes she respected and admired but carried a fear of people finding out what she said had happened and not believing her side of the story. She left the position about a year later.
“For me, this comes back to inequitable power dynamics,” she said. “When someone has that level of control, there has to be very clear boundaries because it puts women in a vulnerable position and it raises the question of whether or not consent can actually be given.”
Like Nikola, O’Malley came forward publicly for the first time in an interview with ESPN after seeing Chythlook-Sifsof’s posts. In spoken and written complaints to SafeSport, O’Malley said Foley followed her and another female athlete into an elevator after a postrace event, pinned her against the wall and tried to kiss her.
“What I can see in my mind is Peter’s body pressed against me and my back against the wall of the elevator,” O’Malley said. “From there I remember thinking ‘Oh s—, Peter is following us to our room.'”
The other female athlete, who asked for anonymity, supported O’Malley’s account. “Peter has her pinned up against the wall,” she told ESPN. “He’d been drinking. She’s like, ‘Foley, stop. Stop it.’ He’s trying to kiss her and he has her pinned. We run out and we’re trying to get away and he’s like, ‘I’m coming with you,’ and I’m like, ‘No.'”
O’Malley told ESPN she remembers, “running into the hotel room and hiding. I’m trying to get under the bed to avoid further contact from him.”
Her fellow athlete added, “I have a picture in my mind of him getting in her bed and sitting in her bed and saying, ‘I’m not leaving until you come out.’ And I’m like, ‘You need to leave.'”
Foley eventually gave up and left, according to both women.
Chythlook-Sifsof told ESPN she made her initial social media posts after trying to change the team’s culture from within for years, first as an athlete and later as a development coach who trained young women identified as Olympic prospects.
“I see him doing weird grooming stuff with the next generation of athletes,” Chythlook-Sifsof said. “I’ve been focused on how, over the long term, am I going to do something about Foley and change coaching with the hope that maybe things will be different.”
Chythlook-Sifsof, who is queer and one of few athletes of color to compete on the snowboardcross team, told ESPN that she regularly endured racism and sexism from her male teammates. Rather than punish them for that behavior, Foley rewarded those athletes by “bringing them into the fold” and icing out those who spoke up, Chythlook-Sifsof said. She went along and even participated at times within this culture, she said, because she felt she had to. “That’s how you survive.”
Through her attorney, Chythlook-Sifsof submitted a written report to SafeSport on Thursday detailing a list of allegations she witnessed and personally experienced during her 14-year tenure with the team.
In 2014, Chythlook-Sifsof complained to Foley and an assistant coach about what she calls a “frightening” confrontation with a much larger male athlete after he continually used the N-word in what she believes was an attempt to taunt her. She said Foley reprimanded the athlete but soon after retaliated against her by notifying her she would not receive a spot on the 2014 Olympic team. Several months later, she was cut from the team entirely.
Additional sources connected to the team told ESPN they too have been afraid to come out publicly with their allegations for fear of retaliation and a belief that nothing will change.
Multiple sources told ESPN they did not feel there was a woman in a position of authority whom they could trust if they found themselves subjected to unwanted sexual advances. Since U.S. Snowboard’s inception in 1994, it has had only one female coach — and none at the Olympic level.
“Female coaches could be a valuable resource,” Nikola said. “There are absolutely women who are more than capable to help athletes succeed, and we should be seeing those women coaching all the way up to the Olympic level.”
Nikola, O’Malley, Chythlook-Sifsof and others said they are now speaking out publicly, and filed their complaints against Foley with SafeSport, with the intent of creating a safer environment for current and future athletes and employees of U.S. Ski and Snowboard.
“My hope is this can be part of normalizing reporting abuse and for anyone who might be out there with an experience like this to feel more empowered to come forward,” Nikola said.
“I know there are probably still people who will think that people like me bear responsibility in instances like this, but I am not responsible for a man assaulting me after I clearly and repeatedly said no.”
Current and former members of the U.S. Ski and Snowboard team as well as anyone associated with a sport that falls under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Center for SafeSport can make a report 24 hours a day by calling 833-5US-SAFE (587-7233) or by reporting online.
All survivors of sexual assault can connect 24 hours a day with a trained staff member from a sexual assault provider in their area by calling the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (656-4673).
Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer and Tisha Thompson is an investigative reporter for ESPN. Reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. On Twitter, their handles are @alyroe and @TishaESPN.
ESPN’s John Mastroberardino contributed to this report.