February 17, 2023
By Bob Hohler
The call came into Cambridge Police headquarters on Independence Day weekend in 2019. A three-time Olympian, the caller said, had filed a complaint with the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee, alleging sexual abuse by her coach, including assaults in Cambridge, when she was a girl.
The officer on duty, Sergeant Darlene Beckford Pearson, took the call from a committee official and asked for the Olympian’s name.
Lynn Jennings, she was told.
Pearson trembled. She and Jennings, one of the greatest middle-distance runners in American history, had been fast friends in the 1970s as teen stars of Greater Boston’s renowned Liberty Athletic Club. In all the years since, Pearson had guarded her own haunting secret: She too had been sexually molested as a youth by her coach.
Her hand quivering, Pearson then logged the name of Jennings’s alleged abuser: John M. Babington. A former US Olympic and Wellesley College coach. Pearson’s former Harvard University coach. And, as her Liberty coach, her abuser.
In her 28 years on the Cambridge Police force, Pearson, now a lieutenant, has witnessed chilling scenes that will trouble her forever, she said. But discovering that Jennings had also been robbed of her innocence by their coach — a running savant nearly twice their age — struck her like no other.
“I’ve seen some horrible stuff on the job, but I’ve never shaken like I did that day,” said Pearson, herself a former collegiate record-setter and world-class runner.
After Jennings lodged her complaint with the Olympic committee, Babington acknowledged to the US Center for SafeSport and the Globe that he sexually abused Jennings, beginning when she was 15, and Pearson, when she was 17, while he was their Liberty coach.
“I wasn’t right in the head,” he told the Globe in a recent phone interview. “I have terrible remorse over it all.”
As Babington rose through the coaching ranks, he concealed his misconduct long enough for the statute of limitations to expire on the offenses. But his scandalous acts had ignited a quiet rage in the girls he abused, and that fire never died.
Jennings and Pearson kept their silence for decades, fearing that speaking out would only lead to further pain. Finally, in 2017, Jennings made it her mission to root out Babington’s misdeeds, shine a light on those who enabled him, and exact a measure of justice.
“It got to the point that I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t try to hold him accountable,” she said. “I feared my silence put others in jeopardy.”
What Jennings discovered, after digging through records and conducting more than 50 interviews over hundreds of hours, cast in razor-sharp relief the damage Babington had done.
By the time SafeSport permanently barred Babington in December from involvement in any Olympic-related sport because of his admitted sexual misconduct, Jennings had helped lead investigators to Pearson and two other women Babington had harmed: a promising runner in the late 1990s at Wellesley College, where Babington coached for 26 years, and an elite high school runner he tried to recruit to train with Jennings.
“My conduct was inexcusable,” said Babington, now 77, of Ashland. “I deserve the punishment.”
‘“My conduct was inexcusable. I deserve the punishment.”’
Jennings also found — and the Globe confirmed — that Wellesley, rather than fire Babington or report him to the police for molesting the student runner, placed him on unpaid leave for only a semester and never formally notified his assistant coaches or the student-athletes he coached over the next 15 years about the abuse.
“We are deeply sorry for the pain suffered by our former student as a result of John Babington’s sexual misconduct at Wellesley in the late 1990s,” the school said in a statement. “Wellesley strives to create a safe environment for our students, faculty and staff and to prevent sexual harassment and misconduct with strict policies, and we do not tolerate these behaviors in our community.”
For Babington, the school’s handling of the case provided him a protected path to retirement in 2013, when he was lionized as one of the great running coaches of his era.
Nearly 10 years later, Jennings brought him down. But why did it take so long?
Assaults begin at age 15
Babington entered Jennings’s life in 1975, when she was a girl from Harvard, a hilly town northwest of Boston abounding with apple orchards. She was 14. He was nearly 30.
Come run for Liberty, Babington coaxed her, after he spotted Jennings at a state high school track championship, flashing early signs of the global phenom she would become.
Lynn Jennings holds a photo of herself running in 1975, when she was a young track star in Massachusetts.ERIN CLARK/GLOBE STAFF
Babington himself had taken early to the sport. He competed at Williams College (Class of ‘67), and while he attended Harvard Law School (Class of ‘71), he began running the Boston Marathon, which he finished every year from 1968 to 1980.
A lifelong bachelor, Babington was new to training elite runners when he recruited Jennings. He had coached boys at the Mount Hermon School during a year off from law school, then helped train girls for the Greater Brockton Striders, before he joined Liberty, the region’s top women’s running club, in 1974.
There, he found his calling — and Jennings.
Babington became enthralled by Jennings’s talent, he said, and while he trained her to become one of the world’s premier young runners, he developed a self-described “crazy obsession” with her.
Jennings was just 15 when Babington took her to his Cambridge apartment in 1976 and sexually assaulted her. He sexually assaulted her there multiple times over a period of months, and again in a dorm room at the University of Oregon, where he had accompanied Jennings and fellow Liberty runner Joan Benoit Samuelson to compete in the Olympic trials.
SafeSport found by a preponderance of the evidence that Babington, had the statutes of limitations not expired, could have been liable under Massachusetts law for rape of a child and under Oregon law for second-degree sexual abuse.
Jennings had never even kissed a boy before Babington abused her. The experience, she said, “produced an absolute kaleidoscope of terrible, terrible feelings.”
While the molestation continued, Jennings began to gain stardom under Babington’s tutelage. At 17, she was the undisputed best high school girls’ middle-distance runner in America, having posted a 4:39 mile, captured national titles, and stunned a prestigious field of adults to win the inaugural Bonne Bell 10K for Women (now the Boston 10K for Women). Her likeness appeared on Wheaties boxes, and the Globe declared her “New England’s Teen Angel of distance running.”
Jennings kept Babington’s misconduct secret to keep her dreams alive. She wanted to be a world champion, and to get there, she would need a world-class coach.
“I knew that if I said anything, it would have been taken away from me, the thing that I loved,” she said. “I became a whiz at compartmentalizing.”
Second Liberty teen
Pearson, born Darlene Beckford, joined Jennings at Liberty in 1977 at the urging of a club member. She was a city girl, a sophomore at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School, the youngest daughter of a single mother struggling to make ends meet in working-class Cambridgeport.
Pearson and Jennings bonded quickly and trained together despite their different strengths — Pearson at shorter track distances, Jennings on longer road and cross-country courses. Jennings, dutiful and often icily determined, marveled at Pearson’s lighthearted irreverence.
“She was lightning fast, but she hated the longer runs and would let Babington know it,” Jennings said. “She used to make me laugh, giving it right back to him. I would never do that.”
Babington fell hard for Pearson, too. She was 17, he was 33 when she found herself alone with him and he sexually abused her. By then, he had stopped assaulting Jennings.
Prosecuting Babington could have been proven difficult in Pearson’s case because the age of consent in Massachusetts is 16. But there was nothing ambiguous about what Pearson endured.
She said simply, “It changes a person.”
For his part, Babington choked up while reflecting on the harm he had done.
“To this day, I love Darlene,” he said. “She is the finest person I’ve met in my life.”
As a teenager, Pearson, like Jennings, suppressed her feelings about Babington’s abuse in order to focus on her running career. In high school, she won the national Junior Olympic mile championship and captured the 800-meter and 1,500-meter titles in the national AAU Junior Championships.
Her fame as a high school runner catapulted Pearson to Harvard, where Babington joined her, walking away from his legal career to become an assistant coach of the Crimson cross-country and track teams. Babington said he did not tell Harvard about his abusive relationship with Pearson. They both said he did not molest her after high school.
As a Harvard freshman, Pearson set a national collegiate and world junior record of 4:32.30 in the indoor mile. She later became the first Ivy League woman to win a national collegiate championship in track and field, at 800 meters, en route to Harvard’s Hall of Fame.
As for Jennings, she departed for Princeton University, but not before breaking away from Babington. As their relationship frayed, her chance to end itcame when he forbade her from running the 1978 Boston Marathon because it could disrupt her regular training.
“He told me, ‘If you run Boston, this coach/athlete relationship is over,’ ” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘Screw you, pal.’ ”
Jennings was 17, too young to register for the Marathon. But she ran defiantly and was the third female to finish, unofficially less than two minutes behind 30-year-old Gayle Barron’s winning time of 2:44.52. Along the way, thousands cheered the girl running without an official number.
She would not speak to Babington again for more than a decade.
‘A deal with the devil’
Jennings’s teen glory dimmed at Princeton, where she was a three-time All-American and set an Ivy League record at 3,000 meters but fell far short of her potential.
She was miserable and so detached from her identity as a national champion that she left school and was out of competitive running for a year. Over time, she fully grasped the cause of her psychological tailspin.
“The weight and darkness of the secret I carried was a burden I could not overcome,” Jennings said.
‘“The weight and darkness of the secret I carried was a burden I could not overcome.”’
Lynn Jennings on her struggles at Princeton because of John Babington’s abuse
The pain wasexacerbated by seeing Babington coaching Harvard during meets with Princeton. She said she had been accepted by Harvard but chose Princeton to distance herself from him.
“Seeing him, while I was emotionally fractured, was a slap in the face, a fresh reminder of what he had done to me,” she said.
Babington, in hindsight, understood.
“She was troubled, and it was because of my conduct,” he said.
Jennings turned pro two years out of Princeton, running for Nike, then its affiliate, Athletics West. Mostly coaching herself, she earned her first Olympic berth and finished sixth at 10,000 meters in the 1988 Seoul Games. But she wanted a medal and believed she needed a coach to secure it, spurring an unsettling decision.
She asked Babington to be her trainer again.
“I literally remember thinking, if you do this, you are making a deal with the devil,” she said. “But I also remember thinking, I’m 29 now, fully in command of myself. I will have total control.”
So, Babington, already coaching for Wellesley and Liberty, went to work for Jennings. She paid him roughly $1,000 a month plus travel expenses. They never spoke about the sexual abuse, although she thought about it often.
“I disliked being around him, but the disdain drove me even harder,” she said.
Babington said his memories of abusing Jennings were buried “somewhere in the dark recesses of my mind.” He was “singularly focused” on training her, he said.
With Babington back, so was the magic for Jennings. In 1989, she won the first of five consecutive Boston 10Ks for Women, a feat that remains unmatched. More remarkably, she won three straight World Cross-Country Championships from 1990-92. She set the world indoor record at 5,000 meters, the world road record at 8,000 meters, and the US road record at 10,000 meters.
And in perhaps her greatest achievement, Jennings won bronze at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, setting a US record at 10,000 meters on the track and becoming the first American, male or female, to medal at the distance since 1964.
At age 32, she had forged her legacy. There would be richer sponsorship deals, endorsement contracts, speaking and appearance fees — so many financial rewards that she would be set for life.
And yet she continued to employ Babington. But while she was training for one of her final races, the 1999 Boston Marathon, Babington confided to her that he had been temporarily barred from the Wellesley campus for taking a student to his apartment.
“I knew exactly what that meant,” she said, “and it sickened me.”
She would walk away again from Babington, this time forever.
Emboldened, she strikes back
In retirement, at age 40, Jennings moved to Portland, Ore., far from New England and Babington. But even there his shadow loomed.
In 2006, she was inducted into the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame and was invited by Nike mogul Phil Knight to fly to the ceremony on his private jet. But she declined to attend, too discomfited by the prospect of publicly citing Babington’s role in her career.
She also discovered in 2006 that Wellesley College was prominently featuring her in its website profile of Babington, and she called the school to demand her name be removed.
But she felt powerless to hold him publicly accountable. That changed one autumn morning in 2017, after she had moved deep into the Maine woods, when she read a first-person account in the New York Times by famed long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad about the “perpetual trauma” she had endured since her coach sexually molested her as a girl, decades earlier.
“I could feel my heart rate go wild as I read it,” Jennings recalled. “It’s what happened to me.”
Long burdened by misplaced shame — “It was humiliating to say somebody had done that to me and I hadn’t run away screaming,” Jennings said — she became emboldened by Nyad’s story.
Her first step was to contact the Globe. She was not yet ready to be publicly identified, however, and her account lacked corroborating evidence.
Then came the “SafeSport Authorization Act of 2017,” signed into law amid outrage over USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar sexually abusing scores of young athletes.
Jennings reported Babington in 2019 to the Olympic committee, which notified SafeSport, and when an investigator asked her for leads on other possible victims, she went to work with an Olympian’s tenacity.
Her case was placed on hold for a year while the FBI offices in Boston and Oregon, and the police in Cambridge and Eugene, Ore., all alerted by SafeSport or the Olympic committee, investigated her allegations; no charges were brought. All the while, Jennings scoured old Liberty and Wellesley rosters and questioned former athletes and officials. She ultimately provided SafeSport leads to Pearson and the women Babington mistreated in his Wellesley career.
In 2021, nearly two years after the Olympic committee’s call to the Cambridge Police, SafeSport contacted Pearson to ask if Babington had abused her. She replied, “I’ve been waiting for you to call.”
Pearson had phoned Babington after taking the Olympic committee’s call about Jennings. She had confronted him for the first time about him sexually abusing her, but he offered little in the way of contrition.
“I told her that I couldn’t imagine what was going on in my mind at the time,” Babington recalled. “It was like it wasn’t me.”
Pearson ended the call by saying, “You are never to contact me again.”
More violations and concealment
Babington, as it turned out, had been violating ethical boundaries for nearly a quarter-century. In 1991, he was in Belgium, recruiting Melody Fairchild, a high school sensation from Colorado who won a bronze medal for the US at the World Junior Cross-Country Championships. Babington wanted Fairchild to move to Boston so he could train both Jennings and her.
He was 45 and Fairchild was 17 when they crossed paths at a postrace party in Antwerp. Fairchild told SafeSport and the Globe that Babington chastised her for dancing with a fellow athlete, as if it showed a lack of commitment to competing, then he removed her bandanna and caressed her hair. He denied doing so to SafeSport and the Globe.
A year later, Babington took Fairchild to dinner in Colorado. There, she said, he bought her alcohol while she was underage. Over her objections, she said, he then began walking her home, tightly hugged her, and, while she resisted, said something like, “Do you know how you make me feel?” She then broke free and ran away.
Babington said he may have provided Fairchild alcohol and hugged her but not in a sexual manner. SafeSport, however, found that Fairchild’s version of the events was credible.
Fairchild, who went on to become a national champion and Hall of Famer at the University of Oregon, told the Globe, “I was put into situations with him that felt threatening to my young nervous system, but which I came out of physically unscathed.”
She also said, “The knowledge of my hero, Lynn Jennings, and other women who I admire enduring horrific abuse at his hands is heartbreaking, enraging, and confusing.”
One of those other women was a gifted runner who enrolled at Wellesley in 1996, just after Babington returned from helping coach the US Track and Field team at the Atlanta Olympics. The woman, who asked not to be identified because she remains traumatized, said in interviews with SafeSport and e-mails to the Globe that Babington took her to his Cambridge apartment, where he provided her alcohol and made sexual advances. She was 19. He was 51.
The woman and her parents reported Babington to Wellesley College. Babington acknowledged to the school that he kissed her, fondled her, provided her alcohol while she was underage, and used marijuana in her presence, he said.
ButWellesley, rather than fire Babington, placed him on unpaid leave for the 1998 fall cross-country season, on the condition that he receive counseling and produce a psychologist’s written opinion that he would not pose a risk to other young women.
Soon, Babington was back. He did not inform Wellesley or the psychologist about his previous sexual misconduct, he said, and the school reinstated him, based in part on the therapist’s opinion that his improper behavior was an isolated episode.
Babington and Wellesley then concealed the reason for his absence from his interim replacements, assistant coaches, and student-athletes, many of them said in interviews. They recalled him saying he had taken a sabbatical.
“It’s shocking for me to learn the truth,” said Laura Woeller Hill, who served as an interim coach during Babington’s leave. “It almost makes me feel like I was complicit in something that I wasn’t.”
Alison Wade, who accepted Babington’s offer to serve as his last assistant coach at Wellesley, said, “It certainly would have changed things for me if I had known what he had done. In retrospect, Wellesley should have gotten rid of him in the first place.”
The Wellesley runner who was abused by Babington felt so betrayed by him and the school’s handling of her complaint that she transferred to another college. She said the experience irreparably damaged her.
Babington “robbed me of my innocence, made a college coming of age story that should have been beautiful and memorable into something I have tried to forget in order to survive,” she wrote to the Globe.
Babington described his misconduct with her to the Globe as “a midlife crisis.”
Unburdened at last
While Babington avoided criminal prosecution, he became haunted by the anguish he caused. Speaking of Jennings and Pearson, he said, “I understand the anger and betrayal they must feel. They were part of some sort of strange total obsession that I had with them, which obviously got into a very dark and bad area. I understand how permanently I have harmed them.”
In a gesture of remorse, Babington told SafeSport and the Globe he would offer to financially compensate the two women, with no strings attached. He said he would return to Jennings the $120,000 she paid him over a decade and give Pearson $100,000.
“I can’t undo the harm, but I can hope that by telling their story, Lynn and Darlene gain some measure of closure and satisfaction,” Babington said. “Although we never spoke about it, I have deeply regretted my misconduct ever since it happened, and I will regret it for the rest of my life.”
The women declined to comment on the financial offer, saying they have received nothing and haven’t had the promise confirmed by anyone associated with Babington (SafeSport banned him from contacting them).
Meanwhile, their lives go on. Babington, living alone in retirement, has lost his place in the running world. Pearson, 61, continues to serve the city where she grew up, and Jennings, 62, remains an exceptional athlete, training regularly as if for another race.
But she no longer chases Babington.
“I am unburdened now in ways I have never been since I was 15 years old,” Jennings said. “Telling what happened has freed me.”
Bob Hohler can be reached at email@example.com.