Mary Jane Richards closes her eyes and remembers what it was like to run.
“I just felt like I was flying,” she says.
In the 1990s, for three straight years, Richards was an Ontario and Canadian cross-country champion. She was the first to cross the finish line in almost every big race she entered. She had an international ranking.
But when she crashed, it wasn’t an injury that brought her down.
Rather, it was the gradual grooming, Richards says, by her running coach, Peter Des Brisay — which started as something akin to a father-daughter relationship but crossed the line to include inappropriate massages, explicit emails and sexual intercourse.
Now 44, Richards remains athletic — but running is no longer part of her regime.
“It was just so intertwined with the trauma,” she says. “The trajectory was looking like I was going to end up going to the Olympics [and then] the entire thing imploded, because of the abuse.”
A ‘father figure’
Richards was just 13 when Des Brisay became a big part of her life.
Along with being her coach, Des Brisay was also her home room teacher at Ottawa’s Bell High School from Grade 9 until graduation. He was a “father figure,” she said, and they were close throughout her teenage years.
At some point, the connection went from comfort to confusion to attraction. But what she thought was love, Richards now says, was an abuse of power — the culmination of years of grooming on Des Brisay’s part.
Des Brisay, now 59, has not been charged with any crime, but he is currently suspended from teaching and coaching.
The Ontario College of Teachers launched an investigation in 2019, after receiving a complaint from Richards, and has issued a notice of hearing that details the allegations against him.
Des Brisay is not accused by the college of sexual abuse, but rather acts considered “disgraceful, dishonourable and unprofessional,” as that was the legal language used in the 1990s.
If found guilty, Des Brisay could lose his teaching certificate.
CBC tried to contact Des Brisay for his side of the story. He did not respond.
For decades, Richards held on to the secret of what really went on with her coach, only telling a few close friends.
But she came to realize she would never get accountability if she didn’t expose the truth.
“I thought I had this ‘affair.’ That’s my fault, right? I got what’s coming to me and I lost everything,” she said, through tears.
If she believed it was an affair, that’s because Des Brisay used those words himself in one email from 1997, printed out and hidden away in a box at Richards’s parents’ house.
In the email, which Richards shared with CBC, Des Brisay calls what they had an “all-out affair.” He writes that he shouldn’t have let it go as far as it did, and “for that I take full responsibility and I am sorry.”
When Richards joined Bell’s cross-country team in 1990, she had raw talent and an old pair of tennis shoes.
It was Des Brisay, she said, who saw her potential.
“I had this really awesome adult who happened to be a really popular teacher and an amazing athlete, an amazing coach, thinking that I was worthy of that attention and special,” she recalled.
My training, my nutrition, my sleeping … everything was just really dictated by him.”– Mary Jane Richards
They ran together every day. The intensive training made her stronger, faster. Richards was invited into her coach’s home, even becoming friends with his wife.
While she remembers the time as “idyllic,” Richards said she now sees it as part of the grooming process.
“I voluntarily gave up agency over myself and my life,” she said. “My training, my nutrition, my sleeping … everything was just really dictated by him.”
Richards said her closeness with Des Brisay became normalized to the point where no one questioned it. But the training was paying off: all the first-place medals around her neck were getting heavy, and by Grade 11, she’d qualified for the world championships.
“Peter started lobbying Athletics Canada to be allowed to come to the event,” she said. “Which I think is pretty rare.”
A concerning closeness
The Ottawa Citizen interviewed the pair before that trip to Spain in March 1993. Des Brisay told the reporter he’d been “her only coach” and felt he should accompany Richards “so she can get her best performance.”
But his presence caused some consternation, said Kristin Marvin, who was Richards’s teammate at the Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club and also competed at the worlds.
“He’s not a national team coach. Why did he get to come in? Our coaches don’t come,” Marvin still wonders.
We maybe thought or hoped nothing untoward was happening.– George Aitkin
Some adults also raised eyebrows at the relationship, including George Aitkin, who was at the meet as a photographer with Athletics Canada.
“She was in her coach’s room … when she wasn’t with the rest of us,” said Aitkin. “We maybe thought or hoped nothing untoward was happening.”
“Nobody’s allowed [to have] closed doors,” added Marvin. “That’s a policy. If ever coaches were in rooms, the door always had to be open.”
One coach who was at national competitions with Des Brisay and Richards said he also suspected something inappropriate was going on.
Ray Elrick said he told Des Brisay “to keep the f–king door open” when Richards was with him.
Elrick doesn’t know if anyone ever reported Des Brisay to the school, the running club or Athletics Canada. But he did not.
Richards was 16 at the time of the worlds, and said it was on this trip things with Des Brisay would change forever.
She would spend time with him in his room, lying “completely naked” on her back for massages that she says included her breasts and buttocks.
Other things happened when they were fully clothed.
“I was laying on top of him and he put his hands around my bum and, like, pulled me into him … we kissed,” Richards recalled. “Then he said, ‘I can’t do this.'”
She placed 43rd in the world at that meet, but Richards said she left Spain confused and upset.
‘Hooks are in too deep’
Over the next three years, they continued to train together. His control was intense, she said, and included intimidating boys she dated.
One of Richards’s former high school boyfriends at Bell, Ian Rapsey, said Des Brisay was always hovering nearby.
“As a 16, 17-year-old kid, you don’t necessarily question these things. But you have enough emotional quotient to say,’ Hey, this seems a little too personal,’ or ‘The hooks are in too deep,'” he said.
Des Brisay taught Richards biology during her final year in high school, and that was when another line was crossed.
The pair went from flirting to kissing, Richards said, and then to having sex.
“I used to think, OK, maybe he just got way too close to me by accident, like emotionally close, and just made a terrible mistake,” she said.
“The more I hear stories of other teachers and coaches that do this kind of thing, the stories are so similar. Like, I hate to say, it’s almost like a playbook.”
According to the Ontario College of Teachers, members who have sexual relationships with their students — no matter what their age or whether there was talk of consent — are “violating professional, ethical and legal parameters” and any such relationship “would be considered sexual abuse.”
‘I was horrified’
The end of Richards’s running career would be abrupt and painful.
In the fall of 1996, at the age of 19, Richards headed off to the University of Wisconsin on a full athletic scholarship.
Des Brisay kept in touch. The pair would have phone sex, Richards said, and Des Brisay would send “graphic emails” from his school board account.
But during her second semester, Des Brisay cut off communications.
Richards said the sudden lack of contact from Des Brisay brought her world crashing down. She told Marvin, her former running teammate, what had been going on.
“I was horrified,” recalled Marvin, now a teacher in Vancouver. “There’s nothing OK about somebody being put in that situation, especially when it’s somebody of authority.”
As for Richards, she wound up in a deep depression.
“I really wanted to kill myself. I bought sleeping pills,” she remembered. “I didn’t have the courage.”
She quit running, left university and moved home to Ottawa. She would never compete in a cross-country meet again.
Richards did eventually pick up the pieces, becoming a lawyer and raising a son.
But she said she’s been haunted by what happened with Des Brisay, and due to shame and guilt it took her years to muster the courage to open up publicly.
In the end, it was a CBC investigation about historical sex abuse of students at Bell High School by other teachers that inspired Richards to reach out.
“I also just want others to know, if they are carrying this alone, there is one more person out there who’s speaking up and talking about their experience,” she said. “It’s really hard because it’s the most shameful thing that’s ever happened to you.”
Richards said she still worries, however, that the safeguards and processes in place — including the Ontario College of Teachers’ investigation mechanisms — are lacking. Twenty months after launching her complaint, the regulator still hasn’t held a hearing.
She also wants her former coach to know the irreparable damage he did to her.
“It happened so early in my development into an adult. The trauma of it is almost like a cornerstone of my personality, my being,” she said.
“I would have loved to have not been interfered with. I would have loved for my trajectory not to have had a monkey wrench thrown into it. I would just have loved to see how far I could have gone without things changing the way they did.”