AUSTIN (KXAN) — For track star Erin Aldrich, it all began as a dream. She still vividly remembers a prediction she made in 1984.
“When I was six, I told my parents that I was going to be an Olympian someday,” Aldrich told KXAN in an exclusive interview on Thursday.
Aldrich would eventually get to that stage, qualifying for the 2000 Olympic games in the high jump. But that success came only after years of traumatizing and debilitating sexual abuse and harassment at the hands of one of her most trusted advisers.
A new federal class action lawsuit filed on Wednesday by Aldrich and two other women claims a former University of Texas at Austin track coach sexually abused and harassed several of his student-athletes between 1998 and 2000.
The three female plaintiffs listed in the lawsuit say 59-year-old John Rembao, who was an assistant coach with UT Track and Field and one of the most powerful coaches for Team USA at the time, would inappropriately touch them and threaten to strip them of their scholarships behind closed doors.
“Looking back, its horrifying and heartbreaking,” Aldrich said. “This can’t happen anymore. There should never be a relationship between an athlete and a coach.”
The National Collegiate Athletic Association [NCAA] and the Board of Governors of the National Collegiate Athletic Association are also listed as defendants in the lawsuit.
“The NCAA facilitated a national epidemic by perpetuating a cycle of sexual abuse—like that seen in the Catholic Church—because it chose not to implement rules or impose any sanctions that would require schools to take steps to prevent and report abuse by coaches and deter perpetrators,” a statement from the law office representing the plaintiffs says.
KXAN has reached out to the Rembao and the NCAA. We are still awaiting an official response.
“The behavior alleged in this story is disturbing. Our current coaches and staff know that such behavior is totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated at The University of Texas.”Spokesperson, The University of Texas at Austin
For Aldrich, who first competed for Rembao at the University of Arizona before transferring to the University of Texas, the lawsuit alleges years of grooming and sexual advances.
Aldrich says she first met Rembao at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. She said Rembao, the chair of USA Track and Field High Jump Development, began promising opportunities of grandeur for her athletic career.
Rembao took a personal interest in Aldrich, speaking with her on the phone for hours, asking for her high school pictures and accompanying her on long-distance competitive trips.
Aldrich admits she was naive, impressionable and highly flattered at his apparent interest.
“At the time, 20 plus years ago, people didnt’ know to look out for these things. But that was the grooming process.”Erin Aldrich
Eventually, after she turned 18, Aldrich says the relationship became physical.
On a flight to Sydney, Australia to compete in the World Junior Championships, the lawsuit states “Coach Rembao penetrated Ms. Aldrich with his fingers, and joked with her that they were now members of the “mile high club.”
“To know that he was married, twice my age, my coach, on a plane, is disgusting to me,” Aldrich said. “An adult person should never have to go through life thinking about their first sexual experience being with their coach.”
Aldrich said their physical relationship eventually ended when her University of Arizona roommate caught Rembao hiding in her dorm room closet. The coach would ultimately leave UA to work at the University of Texas.
39-year-old Jessica Johnson, whom Rembao recruited to UT, said he would often make crude comments to her about her appearance. The lawsuit lists several instances of inappropriate touching, including one instance where he forced her onto his bed in a hotel when the team was competing at the Oklahoma Invitational.
“[Rembao] pushed [Johnson] backwards so that she was laying down, and told her to relax. He reached under her shirt, and she felt his hand slipping underneath the waistband of her shorts. Ms. Johnson panicked and feigned sleep,” the lawsuit alleges.
“That’s a hard thing to carry when you are an 18 and 19-year-old girl and you don’t have any experience with stuff like this,” Johnson told KXAN on Wednesday. “This person is a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing. You are trained to listen to people who are your coaches, you know? What do you do? I don’t wish that situation on anyone.”
For Londa Bevins, the lawsuit claims Rembao would verbally assault her, constantly critiquing her performance and threatened to punish her to damage her career. The lawsuit claims he would call for meetings in his office to critique her performance, but in reality, those meetings “were a ruse for sexual assaults.”
“[Rembao] would wrap his arms around her in an embrace that would last for minutes at a time. He would hold his body against hers and rub his erection on her,” the lawsuit states.
“I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t perform well. I couldn’t do well in class,” Johnson said. “I became depressed and anxiouus under the weight of being abused by someone who had control over my entire collegiate career.”
Johnson said she left the University of Texas after only one year of her scholarship, citing the physical and emotional trauma that followed these reported instances of sexual abuse.
She went on to compete at the University of Arkansas where she was a two-time All American, finished 2nd in the NCAA Outdoor Championships (2003), and would go on to try out for the Olympics.
Aldrich, Johnson and Bevins want to end the pattern of sexual abuse in college sports. They say the change has to come from the top.
The NCAA is listed in the lawsuit for its failure “to punish, coaches, trainers, and other athletics department personnel who commit the same or similar acts.”
“The suit seeks retribution for class members’ significant physical and emotional distress and aims to hold the governing collegiate body accountable for failing in its duty to keep student-athletes safe. It also seeks injunctive relief centering on the implementation of significant and meaningful reforms including outside oversight to ensure adherence to the highest and strictest standards of behavior by the athletic department faculty and their coaches, and the guaranteed safety of student athletes going forward.”Firmani + Associates Inc. on behalf of Erin Aldrich, Jessica Johnson and Londa Bevins
“Predators like Sandusky, Larry Nassar, doctors at USC, have continued to create a problem for athletes and other students. The schools are allowed to sweep it under the rug because there are no institutional controls,” said Elizabeth Fegan, the lawyer representing Johnson, Aldrich and Bevins.
Rembao is currently listed as the Assistant Director Employer Relations at the University of California Santa Cruz.
“The allegations being reported are serious and deeply disturbing. UC Santa Cruz has launched an internal review. The employee is on leave.”Scott Hernandez-Jason, Director of News and Media Relations, UC Santa Cruz
“If change is going to happen, it has to happen at the NCAA level, because that’s the entity that is supposed to be protecting athletes,” Aldrich said. “That’s what we are after here. To have a safe place to report, a system where [allegations of abuse] are documented and for there not to be a safe place for predators to hide.”
These women are speaking up now because they think this type of abuse is going on all around the NCAA. Jonson said now is the time for other student athletes to come forward if they are going through something similar.
“I think in 1999 and 2000, nobody wanted to hear what I had to say. But I think in 2020, people have come to realize that these things do happen and that we need to listen,” Johnson said.
UT Policy Changes
Just this month, UT President Greg Fenves updated the policy for handling sexual assault, harassment and other similar cases.
The new policy now calls for firing employees, following a thorough investigation. This will be the presumed punishment from now on.
Information regarding the case and punishment will now be made public. If a UT employee is not fired for any reason, then the University will also explain that decision.
These new policies came out of an eternal review by a law firm. UT had come under fire for not responding appropriately to cases regarding faculty and staff.