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A high school coach is accused of abusing two teens. More feel victimized.

One former Whitman High rower said coach Kirk Shipley dismissed her suicide attempt. Another says he was grooming her.

Whitman High School rowing coach Kirk Shipley in 2019 on the Potomac River. (Laura Chase de Formigny)

Maayan Harris was midway through her sophomore year when she injured her back rowing. But even then, she knew she couldn’t miss practice.

She’d joined Walt Whitman High’s crew team in 2017 as a freshman at the Bethesda, Md., school, and it had quickly become a huge part of her identity. She knew the sport was good for her mental health, too. After her parents’ divorce, the teenager struggled with depression, she said in an interview. Rowing helped clear her head.

What didn’t help — or rather, who — was the head coach, Kirk Shipley. A popular social studies teacher at Whitman, he had led the parent-funded club team for nearly two decades and was not a man who could be easily challenged. Despite Harris’s back injury, he pushed her to continue rowing.

“Finish the piece,” Harris recalls him saying, even as she sobbed with each stroke. She managed to get through practice, she said, aggravating her injury and ending her season early.

When Harris graduated from Whitman last May, she said she was still reeling from Shipley’s emotional abuse, including his callous reaction to one of the worst moments of her life.

But even Harris, now 18, didn’t understand the full extent of the allegations about Shipley’s toxic behavior. It was only after she had moved to Philadelphia for nursing school that she learned Shipley — a three-time All-Met Coach of the Year who regularly sent athletes on to Yale, MIT, Brown and other top colleges — had been arrested and charged with sexually abusing two former Whitman rowers.

They trusted a coach with their girls and Ivy League ambitions. Now he’s accused of sex abuse.

While those women — one who graduated in 2013, the other in 2018 — have not spoken publicly about their experiences, the charges have prompted Harris and other Whitman rowers to confront their own troubled interactions with the 47-year-old former coach.

Hundreds of those athletes are still waiting to learn more about the case against Shipley, who was scheduled for a status hearing Monday in D.C. Superior Court. But, according to court documents, he and Assistant U.S. Attorney Caroline Burrell have filed a continuance motion "as they continue to work out a plea deal.”

Shipley previously pleaded not guilty to the charges.

However, a 14-page criminal complaint that accompanied Shipley’s arrest in August included dozens of graphic text messages, detailing how Shipley had cultivated sexual relationships with the two students.

Read the criminal complaint against Kirk Shipley

The former coach and his attorney did not return calls for comment.

In the six months since Shipley was released as the case moves through court, Harris said she has struggled to contain her anxiety, recalling the times Shipley minimized her pain or left her teammates in tears. She’s also returned to an incident that unfolded soon after the pandemic began in March 2020 — and with it, the return of her depression.

Harris, then a junior, attempted suicide. She was hospitalized, missing the crew team banquet and the last few weeks of school. When Shipley found out, Harris said, the coach had only one question for her:

“So, how did you try to do it?”

Being 'groomed’

When seven graduating seniors drafted a letter to the team’s volunteer parent board in the spring of 2021 that they hoped would get Shipley fired, one teenager decided not to sign it.

The girl — who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the nature of the charges against Shipley — was worried that reporting the coach’s behavior might anger him and jeopardize her college rowing experience. She said she also considered him her best friend.

The girl had rowed for Whitman for four years and was recognized as a top athlete. By her sophomore year, she’d earned a spot in the team’s fastest boat. Her talent caught Shipley’s eye. They began texting during the school day and talking on the phone after practice, she said. She had a boyfriend, but she also realized she cared deeply for her coach, which confused her and filled her with shame.

“All I wanted was for him to be happy and proud of me,” she said. “He knew everything about me. He knows things about me that no one else does.”

When she tore a muscle that should have healed in a matter of weeks, she said Shipley encouraged her to keep training, which only worsened the injury. Eventually, she was relegated to practicing in a storage closet in the Whitman gym, where she and other injured rowers used erg machines and stationary bikes. Shipley explained he didn’t want younger rowers seeing the team’s fastest girls not participating in the full workouts.

At the time, the girl thought Shipley was offering her support and kindness, she said. He created a training schedule for her and contacted the crew coach at his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, on her behalf. Some evenings, he would FaceTime with her, she said, telling her “how amazing” she was.

Her junior year, she met him alone for coffee at a Starbucks near D.C.'s Thompson Boat Center, where athletes from 13 high schools and two universities practice and compete on the Potomac River. Shipley coached there as well as at Whitman.

Sometimes, the girl said, Shipley spoke about the 2018 graduate who later accused Shipley of sexually abusing her. Shipley referred to her as a “cancer” and claimed that she “ruined the team,” the rower remembered. Eventually, Shipley began making comparisons between the girl and the 2018 graduate. In one moment, the teen said, he would tell her that she was “so much better than anyone else on the team.” In the next, he would also accuse her of “ruining the team.”

By her senior year, the rower said she and the head coach were bickering so much that, in a meeting before the prestigious Stotesbury Cup Regatta in Philadelphia, an assistant coach at Whitman described them as “co-dependent” and like a “married couple.”

Though her teammates warned her that Shipley’s behavior wasn’t normal, she said she didn’t believe them — until one spring afternoon in 2021, when she was helping her coach repair the oars on a boat. He reached for a screwdriver that she’d been holding between her thighs.

“That’s when it really clicked,” the teen said, “that he was comfortable reaching between my legs.”

Soon after, she said she confronted him about his behavior, telling the coach that she thought she was being groomed by him. Shipley screamed at her and called her a name, she said, so she reported him to the parent board, a group of mothers and fathers who volunteered to oversee the program.

Later that month, Shipley asked to speak with her in his classroom, the teen said. She repeated to him that she thought his behavior was inappropriate. When it was time to leave, he asked if he could give her a hug. She said no.

“I firmly believe that Shipley groomed me,” she wrote in an Aug. 16 email to the parent board after she learned he had been rehired despite the complaints by her and her teammates. “ … I hope you understand that as a vulnerable 15 year old who was looking for support on mental health issues, there was a questionable power dynamic between us … I just want to move on which I am unable to do while knowing Shipley feels no remorse for his actions.”

Shipley was arrested a week later, prompting the parent board to apologize for renewing his contract despite two investigations into his behavior.

“We are incredibly sorry for the pain and anguish that all of our athletes and parents are experiencing,” the board told families of Whitman rowers in an email. “We regret offering Shipley a position for this fall season and, in retrospect with what we now know, that was clearly the wrong decision.”

After Shipley’s arrest, the girl said she began having nightmares in which the coach raped her. She feels uncomfortable and anxious being alone with her male professors during office hours and with male coaches at practices, she said. She still grapples with not feeling heard.

“We were winning, so who cared?” the rower said. “I told myself it was all in my head. But when Shipley got arrested, I realized it wasn’t in my head. It actually happened — and it just took me longer to recognize than it should have. I felt like no one was protecting me. No teachers, no administrators, no parents recognized the signs. A lot of people were scared to say no to him.”

Not signing the June letter written by her teammates is one of her biggest regrets.

A panic attack

In a private Facebook group that was created after Shipley’s arrest, former rowers have discussed how Shipley manipulated them — and how he contaminated a sport that had once brought them joy and a sense of purpose. Now, it’s difficult for them to untangle their identity with rowing from the man who is accused of victimizing their teammates.

“I’m sure there’s a lot of self blame involved in these victims’ stories that they shouldn’t have,” said Harriet Dark, who rowed for Whitman and graduated in 2011.

In the group, rowers recalled conversations and experiences that they hadn’t framed as abusive at the time: when Shipley pitted friends against each other for the chance to compete at the Stotesbury Regatta. He even had sisters race for the same spot in the top boat.

One former student, who rowed competitively at a top college, remembered a time shortly after her grandparent died when Shipley surprised the team with a 2K competition. When she confided in him that she wasn’t in the right mental space, he told her to do it anyway.

“That was probably one of the worst pieces of my life,” said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the nature of the charges against Shipley. She recalled having a panic attack as she rowed. Stopping, she said, wasn’t an option.

“I always knew he made me uncomfortable, but there was this element of, ‘He’s your coach, and if you don’t adhere to what he wants, that will impact your placement in the boat,’ ” she said. “Now, we’ve truly realized that he was a predator. Processing that fact, that I was around that type of person — day in and day out for years — is terrifying.”

Shipley’s court appearances have been rescheduled repeatedly, leaving Harris unable to shake her former coach from her mind. She said she sees Shipley in men bundled in hats and winter coats, with the same height and build as her former coach.

On her walks to class, Harris often passes a dark gray Volkswagen parked on her street. Shipley, she knows, had the same vehicle. Harris realizes they aren’t the same sedan — but every time she walks past it, she finds herself pausing.

“I have to do it,” Harris explained. “I have to think about it. It doesn’t feel like a choice.”

She checks to make sure that the vehicle isn’t his.

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