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Young Fencer Says Coach Was Abusive

PHOENIX (CN) - A fencing coach hit his world-ranked student over the head with a wine bottle in Belgium, though he knew she had recently suffered a head injury, the woman claims in court.

Sophie Keehan sued William Becker and four fencing groups on Monday in Maricopa County Court. She seeks damages for negligence and assault and battery, from Becker, the United States Fencing Association, the Rocky Mountain Section of the United States Fencing Association, the United States Fencing Association Arizona Division, and the Fencers Club of Arizona.

"Keehan, a promising fencing athlete with the drive and skills necessary to compete on an international stage, was abused by her coaches and let down by the governing body of her sport," 19-year-old Keehan says in the complaint. "She was subject to verbal humiliation and physical abuse by the men to whom she had entrusted her training."

Keehan says she was ranked 11th in the world by the International Fencing Federation in 2012 when she traveled to Arizona to train with the Fencers Club of Arizona and Becker. By the time she left the club in 2014, she had dropped to 78th.

Keehan wore a breast protector and a mask during her lessons with Becker, who coached her five days per week.

"Becker advised Sophie that he would not feel compelled to hold back if she wore her fencing jacket during lessons," the complaint states, but Keehan says she was too scared to wear her jacket for fear that Becker would hit her harder during the lessons.

"Sophie received welts, cuts, and bruises as the result of being hit by Becker's blade if she missed an action, such as a parry, during her lessons," the lawsuit states.

In February 2014, Keehan and Becker traveled to Ghent, Belgium for a joint U.S.-Belgium training camp with other fencers.

Keehan says she and Becker attended a dinner together, where Becker was given a bottle of wine as a gift. She says Becker handed the bottle to her to carry for him, but she didn't want to, so she sat it on the sidewalk.

Becker went back to retrieve the bottle, and when he "caught up with Sophie, he swung the bottle at Sophie's head," striking her head and leaving a welt, Keehan says.

She says Becker knew she had suffered a head injury two months earlier that gave her a concussion.

And she claims that during one dinner in Belgium, Becker yelled at her and caused her to cry, to the alarm of other diners in the restaurant.

Keehan - who is no longer a competitive fencer - says her mother, Terese, filed a safe sport complaint with the United States Fencing Association against Becker about his physical and emotional abuse, and because he hit Keehan over the head with a wine bottle in Ghent. A panel reviewing the complaint found Becker's conduct "constituted physical misconduct," but Becker was not banned from coaching, according to the complaint.

The fencing association promised athletes that all of its club employees and volunteers had passed a background screen, but Keehan claims it did not perform a proper background screen on Becker.

She claims Becker has a history of violence against women, including a 1997 domestic violence charge against his then-wife in Florida.

She is represented by Jonathan Little, with Saeed & Little of Indianapolis.

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