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Saint Mary’s College of California, supposedly “committed to fostering a culture of care and responsibility, respect, awareness, and community,” in fact fosters a culture of disability discrimination and sexism on its women’s rowing team

Lina Rak, an accomplished rower, and childhood cancer survivor has filed suit against Saint Mary’s College of California (“Saint Mary’s”). Coaches for the women’s rowing team at Saint Mary’s not only denied Ms. Rak accommodations, but also subjected her to vicious commentary based on her disabilities that arose from her battle with cancer as a toddler. 

Ms. Rak survived stage four neuroblastoma when she was only sixteen months old. She underwent lifesaving radiation treatment that affected her pituitary gland, causing Ms. Rak to have a small face, an underbite, and to be shorter and of lighter weight than the average adult woman. Ms. Rak also has hearing loss either from the cancer treatment or from the sepsis she survived during her treatment. Before she began rowing at Saint Mary’s, Ms. Rak underwent a jaw surgery to correct her underbite. Complications arose because of her previous radiation treatment, leaving her with extremely limited jaw movement and partial facial paralysis. Even after two subsequent jaw surgeries, Ms. Rak’s face is still partially paralyzed and she has such limited movement in her jaw that she requires a mostly liquid diet. Due to the abnormal functioning of her facial muscles because of the complications from surgery, Ms. Rak cannot participate in high-impact exercises such as running without risking severe symptoms such as muscle spasms and slurred speech.

The women’s rowing Coaches during Ms. Rak’s tenure on the team, led by Head Coach Anna Pytlak, refused to accommodate Ms. Rak by using an electronic megaphone to allow her to hear their instructions during practice. Adding insult to injury, the Coaches, including Head Coach Pytlak and then-Assistant Coach Gulliver Scott, who is now the Head Coach for women’s rowing at the University of Portland, then blamed her for making “stupid mistakes” during practice because she could not hear their instructions. Head Coach Pytlak asked on multiple occasions, “Why don’t you just get a hearing aid?” even though Ms. Rak informed her many times over that a hearing aid would not be helpful for her hearing loss during practice, when the noise of the moving water, the voices of other team members, and the Coaches’ voices overlapped. 

Head Coach Pytlak’s discriminatory conduct was not only offensive, but it was downright dangerous for Ms. Rak on numerous occasions. Head Coach Pytlak, aware that Ms. Rak could not participate in high-impact exercise, required her to join the team on a vigorous seven-hour hike, causing Ms. Rak to experience severe facial muscle spasms and slurred speech in front of her teammates and coaches. During a team lunch, one of many team meals and snack breaks during which Head Coach Pytlak failed to accommodate Ms. Rak’s mostly liquid diet, Ms. Rak choked because no appropriate food options were provided for her as they were for other team members with dietary restrictions, including vegetarians and vegans. 

Head Coach Pytlak targeted Ms. Rak based on her weight and facial appearance, which likewise arose from her cancer treatment. She pressured Ms. Rak to overeat to make weight for races, which in turn caused other rowers to restrict their eating and pressure Ms. Rak to overeat. Head Coach Pytlak cultivated this toxic diet culture despite her knowledge that rowers could simply accept sandbags from race officials so their boat would make weight. Head Coach Pytlak and Assistant Coach Ilyana Achziger accused Ms. Rak of being “challenging” because she asked them to repeat themselves during practice and because they could “just see” that she did not want their feedback. The Coaches’ bias against her because of her facial paralysis and processing delay caused by her hearing loss was deeply hurtful and humiliating for Ms. Rak. 

Ultimately, Ms. Rak resigned from the team during Fall semester of her senior year, sacrificing her passion for the sport she has loved and in which she has excelled for more than half of her life. She outlined the discrimination to which the Coaches subjected her in her resignation letter and sent it to Head Coach Pytlak as well as to senior members of the athletics department and to the President of Saint Mary’s. Saint Mary’s Human Resources department conducted an inadequate investigation in which it failed to investigate and address in its findings the multitude of offensive comments to which the Coaches subjected Ms. Rak, took the accused Coaches at their word that Ms. Rak challenged their feedback, and failed to interview other members of the team, which would have revealed discrimination at Head Coach Pytlak’s hands extending far beyond Ms. Rak. 

Rather than taking appropriate corrective action to address Head Coach Pytlak’s discriminatory conduct, Saint Mary’s ironically granted her a position as a Compliance Coordinator in the athletics department, in which she is now tasked with investigating the very kind of wrongdoing she perpetrated. This move on the part of Saint Mary’s is unfortunately unsurprising given the college’s pattern of systematically sweeping female athletes’ complaints under the rug. A couple years before Ms. Rak’s resignation from the team because of Head Coach Pytlak’s wrongdoing, several rowers reported instances of her misconduct to a senior member of the athletics department. Saint Mary’s did nothing. Another female rower quit the team because of Head Coach Pytlak’s abuse and reported the wrongdoing directly to Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics Mike Matoso. Saint Mary’s did nothing. Even Ms. Rak made a complaint to the athletics department about Head Coach Pytlak’s discrimination against she and another team member with disabilities months before her resignation from the team. Saint Mary’s did nothing. Had HR interviewed other team members as part of its investigation into the allegations Ms. Rak raised in her resignation letter, it would have uncovered Head Coach Pytlak’s discrimination against multiple female rowers with disabilities, aside from Ms. Rak, during Ms. Rak’s time on the team. 

As Childhood Cancer Awareness Month comes to a close, Ms. Rak is bravely calling for justice and positive change from Saint Mary’s. Ms. Rak is represented by Larry Organ and Emily Kohlheim of the California Civil Rights Law Group and are available for comment: (415) 453-4740.

About California Civil Rights Law Group

The California Civil Rights Law Group, led by prominent trial attorney Larry Organ, won the largest race harassment verdict in American history in Diaz v. Tesla. CCRLG is dedicated to furthering the cause of civil rights by fighting discrimination in all its forms. Learn more about California Civil Rights Law Group.