Former Cross Country/Track Head Coach Sylvia Mosqueda traverses the field at the UCSB Gaucho Roundup on Feb. 22, 2020 at UC Santa Barbara. Pepperdine Athletics terminated Mosqueda’s contract March 16 during her second year as head coach. Photo Courtesy of Jeff Golden
Pepperdine terminated the contract of former Cross Country/Track Head Coach Sylvia Mosqueda on March 16, after a March 12 announcement that a change was coming.
The University’s decision came swiftly after it learned of allegations of misconduct against Mosqueda, which team members confirmed after meeting with administration. It is not known who first alerted Pepperdine administration to Mosqueda’s behavior or when a report was made to the University.
During Mosqueda’s nearly two years as head coach, Pepperdine runners said she created an “emotionally distressing” and “destructive” culture. This stemmed from what men’s and women’s team members described as sexually-charged comments about the men, a culture of body shaming for the women and a careless attitude toward athlete injuries.
Sophomore runner Olivia Miller said being around Mosqueda was like “walking on eggshells.”
“She had a very authoritative style of coaching,” Miller said. “Her response would be ‘Because I’m the coach and you’re the athlete,’ or ‘Because I said so.’ Kind of like a bad parenting style, almost.”
The University released the following statement to the Graphic on April 1: “Pepperdine takes all reports about employee misconduct seriously. As a standard practice, the University conducts thorough and timely investigations as soon as a concern is reported, which occurred in this instance. Ms. Mosqueda is no longer with the University.“
Director of Athletics Steve Potts and Associate Director of Athletics and Senior Woman Administrator Amanda Kurtz, who team members said met with them after the allegations emerged, both declined interview requests, instead providing a statement in an email to the Graphic on March 22.
“We are confident that we will bring in a new men’s and women’s cross country and track head coach who will lead these programs in a positive and encouraging manner that is consistent with Pepperdine’s Christian mission,” Potts wrote. “We will not comment any further on this personnel matter.”
Mosqueda also declined repeated interview requests from the Graphic and has not spoken publicly about these allegations.
Eight current and former program student-athletes spoke to the Graphic, describing a toxic running culture surrounding the teams. Of the athletes interviewed, two are on the men’s team, and six are from the women’s program, including one runner who is no longer with the team.
Of the eight athletes interviewed, four spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk to or confirm details to the Graphic, citing worries about Mosqueda continuing to try to contact them and/or the sensitive nature of the subject matter. Four athletes spoke on the record: Miller, first-year Nate Lannen, junior Riley Wright and former Pepperdine runner and current University of Texas student Shelby White.
One runner who spoke anonymously said they felt bad Mosqueda was losing her job, since “running is her life.” Yet, the same runner lamented that there was no change in Mosqueda’s behavior after the runner confronted Mosqueda about it and the coach’s behaviors and methods crossed a line.
“I don’t think she understood that we cared about what she said,” White said. “When she said things that were inappropriate, we didn’t think it was funny — we thought it was just unprofessional.”
Despite the pattern of troubling comments, five athletes interviewed specifically mentioned that they did not believe Mosqueda was a malicious person and that she wanted them to succeed.
“I think she genuinely cares about the runners,” Lannen said. “It was just the means in which she goes about it.”
Abusive coaching in track and field, particularly in distance running, is a prevalent national issue that took center stage in 2019 after The New York Times published a feature on Mary Cain, who became the youngest runner ever to make a World Championships team in 2013. Cain’s career derailed due to injuries, including five broken bones in her feet, an eating disorder and suicidal thoughts that she claims were a result of abuse and mistreatment by her Nike-backed former coach Alberto Salazar.
On March 30, Loyola Marymount University also announced that they are investigating possible misconduct against Head Coach Scott Guerrero, who has been with the program for 23 years, after redshirt junior Rosie Cruz became the first of several current and former Lions runners to accuse Guerrero of mistreatment publicly on social media.
Disparaging Comments About Athletes’ Bodies
In Mosqueda’s case, all athletes interviewed said they saw and heard Mosqueda consistently make insensitive and inappropriate comments throughout her tenure. The severity and frequency of the comments increased since the athletes returned to campus after the COVID-19 campus closure, the athletes said.
Five sources interviewed said Mosqueda treated the men’s team more favorably than the women’s team. While one men’s and one women’s runner said they believed it was because the men’s team has performed better in competition, all runners interviewed confirmed that Mosqueda often made sexual comments directed at the men’s team.
“She made a lot of comments about the guys’ team to the girls’ team, probably thinking it was in confidence, which is an incredibly inappropriate way for a coach to act,” Lannen said.
Miller confirmed that she heard several sexual comments firsthand and compared them to the way she heard Mosqueda talk about the women.
“She would glorify the men’s bodies in general and say it to the girls, like, ‘This is a feature that I like about him, don’t you think he looks sexy today, that feature is such a turn-off,'” Miller said. “There’s just so much wrong with that.”
By contrast, Miller said Mosqueda relentlessly criticized the women for “not working hard enough” or not being fast.
All women interviewed said Mosqueda frequently made comments related to their bodies and weight. After the first race of the 2021 season, Miller said Mosqueda told her she wouldn’t be fast again unless she lost 5 pounds.
The women runners interviewed said weight was Mosqueda’s go-to excuse for why any female athlete had a slight drop in performance or didn’t perform to the coach’s expectations. Two athletes recounted an instance where Mosqueda grabbed a runner’s stomach and said she “looked out of shape.”
Mosqueda frequently criticized the women’s team for not having “enough abs,” eating too much junk food and constantly “getting bigger,” sometimes asking athletes to tell her their weight in front of the team. One runner said Mosqueda followed her around the grocery store while the team was on the road for a meet to make sure she picked out healthy food.
Miller said Mosqueda didn’t need or try to get proof that any weight was actually changing to make these comments to the women.
“She just said it,” Miller said. “She had no idea how much any of us weighed or what was healthy for each of us. In my example — when she told me to lose five pounds — throughout my whole time at Pepperdine I have a net gain of zero, so it’s interesting that all of a sudden, after I have one off race, the only issue is that I must be 5 pounds heavier when I haven’t gained any weight at all.”
Not every woman in the program has been able to brush off Mosqueda’s comments, Wright said.
“I’ve had teammates who have told me that after hearing these comments from Coach Mosqueda, they felt differently about their bodies or they had changed their eating habits, and not necessarily for the better,” Wright said.
While some runners, such as Wright, said Mosqueda was the first coach they experienced making comments of that nature, others, like White, said they have seen it before.
“I’ve heard this with a lot of different people at a lot of different schools,” White said. “I don’t know why this is such a thing with running.”
A Disregard for Injuries
Miller said Mosqueda did not respond well when players got hurt.
“I had a sprained ankle at the beginning of the season, and the first thing she said was, ‘Why are you hurt? Why did you go to the trainers?’” Miller said. “It was an interesting way to deal with it; not ‘I hope you get better, let’s work through this.’”
Lannen said Mosqueda forgot he had a stress fracture in his foot when athletes returned to campus this spring. After sustaining the injury in December, Lannen spoke with Mosqueda and began to slowly progress through recovery, essentially coaching himself.
“[Mosqueda] doesn’t really give individual training plans,” Lannen said. “She just tells the whole group what to do, and if you can’t keep up with it, you just sort of go off of feeling.”
After one workout where Lannen — still nursing the injury — finished behind a walk-on runner, Lannen said Mosqueda began to yell in front of the team that Lannen “should never lose to” that runner.
When Lannen told Mosqueda he was recovering from his stress fracture, Mosqueda continued to yell and asked why he never told her about the injury. Once Lannen showed her texts and calls from his phone where he and Mosqueda had spoken about the injury, Lannen said Mosqueda dismissed the situation by saying she “had too many athletes.”
Lannen said he was a frequent target of vitriol from Mosqueda. Lannen believed he received “constant beratement” from Mosqueda because he was a highly-regarded recruit who hadn’t been performing up to expectations and was struggling with several injuries.
“I was dreading going to practice,” Lannen said. “I hated running. I was strongly considering transferring or quitting the sport, for no other reason than the way I was being treated by her.”
The women’s team has also experienced a poor retention rate, with several runners leaving the team in the past two years. The women’s cross country roster shrunk from 19 in 2018, the year Mosqueda came on as an assistant, to 10 in 2020, with just four upperclassmen.
White started at Pepperdine in 2018, during Mosqueda’s season as an assistant coach. White said she thought she and Mosqueda were close, but then White got injured, and Mosqueda started barely talking to her.
“It was like I wasn’t on the team anymore,” White said.
After a year plagued by injuries, White left the team midway through the 2019-2020 season and transferred from Pepperdine to the University of Texas. White is not running cross-country for the Longhorns.
“I loved running,” White said. “When I first came to Pepperdine, it was the same experience with [former Waves Head Coach Robert Radnotti] because he just wanted us to be happy and do our best. But, when Coach Mosqueda became coach, it just became so intense and it wasn’t fun anymore. So that was a big part of why I stopped running.”
Saying “Anything To Anybody”
Multiple runners interviewed used the phrase “no filter” to describe Mosqueda, and described a culture in which Mosqueda seemed to believe she could say anything about anybody to anybody “with no repercussions.”
In one particularly crude comment — overheard and confirmed by three runners who were interviewed — Mosqueda made a remark correlating the amount of acne on Lannen’s body to what Mosqueda described as his masturbation habits and said Lannen needed to “get laid.” Although Lannen said he did not hear the comment directly from Mosqueda, it was told to him by other teammates.
Miller and another anonymous source confirmed that comments made by Mosqueda made their way to the @Blackatpepperdine Instagram page in a July 22 post. The post described the team playing a game where they were naming things that started with a particular letter, and that a coach, which three different eyewitnesses confirmed was Mosqueda, said “KKK” when the letter in the game was K.
Another racially charged comment allegedly occurred in Mosqueda’s office, where one runner said Mosqueda and another coach teased the runner for her supposed attraction to Black men, an attraction that the coaches claimed they personally lacked.
Four different runners said members of the team planned to talk to the school about Mosqueda at the conclusion of this season, intending to wait because they said they were thankful to be competing at all after COVID-19 sidelined them for nearly a year. Multiple runners also mentioned they were concerned the University wouldn’t fire Mosqueda if they complained, and that ruining their relationship with Mosqueda if she remained the coach would derail the season.
White said she considered talking to administration when she left Pepperdine in late 2019 but decided not to since track season was about to start.
“I had an email typed out that I thought about sending to Potts — I totally could’ve gotten her fired back then,” White said. “But I didn’t want to leave the team without a coach, so I decided not to.”
A Change of Scenery
Since her termination, five runners said Mosqueda has texted them despite Pepperdine telling the runners that she was not allowed to contact them.
It is not known precisely when University administration first learned of the allegations against Mosqueda, but Potts and Kurtz first contacted student-athletes within the program the evening of March 9, asking to schedule meetings with the team. Potts and Kurtz began meeting with and interviewing groups of runners March 11. By March 12, Mosqueda had been publicly terminated.
“I think Pepperdine handled the situation really well,” Wright said. “They were very concerned for the well-being of me and my teammates.”
Kurtz serves as the interim head coach. While the search for a permanent replacement likely will not finish until next year, the interviewed runners said they were happy with the infusion of energy that Kurtz, as well as the absence of Mosqueda, has brought to the program.
“Amanda has done more for us as a coach in a week than Coach Mosqueda did in her two years,” Miller said.
Kurtz has previously worked in Title IX, compliance and other administrative roles for Pepperdine Athletics and has no coaching experience but ran cross country collegiately.
Wright pointed to Kurtz’s administrative organization as the biggest area that the team is thankful for help.
“Even if it were possible for us athletes to come together and throw together a workout plan, handling all the organizational aspects of going to meets and getting food and working around this evolving meet schedule due to COVID-19 would have been much more difficult without Amanda stepping in,” Wright said.
Follow the Graphic on Twitter: @PeppGraphic
Contact Paxton Ritchey on Twitter: @paxtonritchey_ or by email: email@example.com