The cover-up in the pool

Svimming is a big sport at the Olympics. Sport Executive tells here a story about the life of the athletes in the pool. The story was first published in December 2015.

The cover-up in the pool

“Don’t cry Anna. Didn’t you say I am like a father to you? (smack, blood in my ear) You have all those boyfriends anyways. I want to keep you focused on swimming. I am thirteen and in a private discussion with my coach that was set up after nationals. Ripping pain, grunts that sound like the monster in a horror movie, blood, my hair pulled out lying on the ground, the smell of fear. It smells like fresh chlorine and metal.”

From an essay by Anna Strzempko, describing an alleged 2008 rape at the hands of her swim coach. Publish in Rachel Sturtz: Unprotected. Outside magazine. 

“Local swim coach banned from sport for life admits sexual misconduct allegations.”
“Former Malvern Prep coach arrested for child sex assault.”
“Assistant swim coach in Indiana accused of having sexual relationship with student.”
The three articles are popping up, when you “google” “USA swimming and sex abuse”. The articles are all from 2015 – and there is a lot of such kind of articles.
But swimming in the USA is not the only one with a big problem. New data from Belgium, summarized in 2015, shows that 24.4 percent of LGB athletes, 25.9 percent of elite athletes and 31.4 percent of disabled athletes have experienced moderate or severe sexual abuse.
“This is a major problem in sports. Sexual abuse has been going on forever. And it is not just women as victims, men are too. So if you think doping is the biggest problem in sports, think again. This is a much bigger issue,” Celia Brackenridge says.
She was until august 2010 director of the Centre for Youth Sport and Athlete Welfare at Brunel University, West London, and is now Professor Emerita at Brunel. And she has for decades been researching on sexual harassment and abuse in the sporting world.

Power imbalances

“Sexual abuse is a process and not an event. It comes out of a cultural context in which there is a lot of power. Power imbalances are at the core of the issue,” Celia Brackenridge explains.
“You know, sports are old fashion with an authoritarian structure. At the top is a lot of power – and at the bottom, where the athletes are, is none. That is a dangerous cocktail,” Celia Brackenridge continues.
“It’s a blind spot – and we are frightened to tackle it. Because it strikes us in the heart. But you have to recognize that sport is good, bad and ugly,” Celia Brackenridge says and continues:
“You have to change the whole organisation. Recruitment, disciplinary systems, education and so on. Because it affects every corner of an organisation. And this is not about economics or developed and underdeveloped countries. Some of the most developed countries have done nothing about prevention – and some of the underdeveloped quite a lot.”
According to Celia Brackenridge there are numerous myths about sexual abuse in sports. One of the myths is that sports are free of the problem. That is not correct. Another is that you can point the finger to specific sports. You cannot. A third is about clothing. Also, that swimming has a larger problem than icehockey. It is not necessarily true. A fourth is that it is all about coaches with power. It is not. Senior athletes can be a much bigger problem when it comes to sexual harassment.
“It is a lot about authoritarian power structures in sports. And the higher you go the worse it gets,” Celia Brackenridge argues.

Back to the pool

Authoritarian structure and power imbalances seem to be the case in USA Swimming. A federation with 400,000 swimmers and 12,000 club coaches and the middle-class favorite sport in USA. In the spring 2010 ABC´s 20/20 and ESPN’s Outside the Lines put together TV shows on USA Swimming’s knowledge of abuse by coaches. In the wake emerged a series of lawsuits – alleged that some youth swim coaches were molesting their athletes and the abuse went unreported to the Colorado Springs-based organisation or, if so, the safeguards were inadequate.
The allegations forced USA Swimming to address the problem, including starting its “Safe Sport” program in September 2010. The program seeks to facilitate the reporting and investigation of violations of a code of conduct and to educate, train and provide model policies for swim programs around the country about sexual misconduct. USA Swimming even publishes a list of banned coaches. Up till now (December 2015) more than 100 coaches are on that list.
Sport Executive would have liked to talk to Safe Sport’s director, Susan Woessner, but the director refers to USA Swimming’s director of communications & pr, Scott Leightman. He says to Sport Executive:
“USA Swimming takes any allegations of abuse seriously and thoroughly investigates all complaints. We stand by our Code of Conduct and Athlete Protection Policies and are deeply committed to the safety and welfare of all its members. We have zero tolerance when it comes to sexual misconduct.”
“Our focus is on the 400,000 members of USA Swimming and those who look into joining our sport.  The Safe Sport mission is to increase awareness to reduce the risk for abuse in sport and our organisation has no tolerance for violations of our Code of Conduct,” Scott Leightman continues.
“It has been a process, a successful one, to build programs for our clubs to implement at the local level. We see increased levels of engagement by our clubs, athletes and coaches every day. This is very encouraging and they see what peers are doing and then employ their own programs,” he says, and emphasizes that USA Swimming Safe Sport program involves six key components:
Policies and guidelines, screening and selection, training and education, monitoring and supervision, recognizing, responding and reporting and grassroots engagement and feedback.

It becomes a culture

But critics say it is too little. Some even says, that youth coach abuse in USA Swimming is the most widespread setting of authority figure rape in America, outside the Catholic Church. And others emphasize that USA Swimming has too many reasons to support its coaches and minimize their crimes. That sexual abuse will continue as long as there isn’t an independent body outside USA Swimming evaluating reports of abuse. And as mentioned at the top of this article sex abuse is still going on in the pool.
One of the critics is Jonathan C. Little, attorney at law at Saeed & Little in Indianapolis. He has been dealing with sexual abuse in sports for years and has led many of the cases in swimming to court:
“The proper way to handle sexual abuse would be the way that public school would handle the allegation. The teacher is immediately suspended, a hearing is held in short order, and if the finding is creditable the teacher is fired. An independent sex abuse committee would be a good start but Swimming and Olympic Sports in general struggle with “independent”. Swimming needs to obtain objective legal advice,” he says to Sport Executive and continues:
“What is wrong with swimming in my opinion is that for decades male swimmers have come through the USA Swimming ranks and have witnessed their coaches having sexual relationships with teenage girls, as you can imagine that becomes the culture. So in United States Swimming the attitude for years was a coach of a club might make a salary of 30,000 or 40,000 dollars but one of the perks was sexual relationship with teenage girls. Boys grew up and emulated their coaches and the problem grew.”
“Swimming has done very little to deal with the problem of coaches abusing athletes. First no one from the National Office in Colorado Springs lost their jobs over the scandal. Have you seen Chuck Wielgus (CEO at USA Swimming, ed.) on ABC’s 20/20 in 2010? If you have tell me how on earth does he still have a job,” Jonathan C. Little asks.
“So any changes in USA Swimming that have taken place have been forced on swimming by outsiders.”

Window dressings

The position is shared by Robert Allard, a California attorney at Corsiglia, McMahon & Allard L. L.P., dealing with sexual abuse in sports, especially in swimming, since 2009:
“On the surface, the changes have been good.  However, I have serious doubts over whether the current leadership core, starting with Mr. Wielgus (CEO at USA Swimming, ed.) and the so-called “Safe Sport Director” Susan Woessner is committed to changes.  New rules and guidelines are only effective if enforced.  Time and again we have seen how this leadership seemingly bends over backwards to protect coaches even in the face of clear acts of sexual misconduct.  Until these leaders have been replaced, we consider these changes to be nothing more than window dressings,” he says to Sport Executive.
“USA Swimming remains the judge, jury and executioner when it comes to claims of sexual misconduct through its so-called “National Board of Review”, which is led by its lawyers who over the years has actively defended claims on behalf of USA Swimming.  The reviewing body needs to be totally and completely independent from USA Swimming,” Robert Allard states.
And while sports officials, lawyers and athletes are fighting in USA Swimming, sexual molestation continues. Not just in USA and in swimming, but all over the world and in all sports. Even the legendary boxer Sugar Ray Leonard tells about sexual abuse by his Olympic coach in his biography, and the former high jump world record holder Patrik Sjöberg shocked the Swedish athletics world by revealing that his coach and stepfather sexually abused him as a young boy. It can strike anyone.

Sport Executive would have liked to talk with the international swimming federation, Federation Internationale De Natation, and American Swimming Coaches Association and World Swimming Coaches Association about sexual abuse in swimming, but the organisations won’t answer questions from Sport Executive (December 2015).



The typical case is a young woman usually between 13- 16 from a conservative home, or a home without a father, who started having a “special” relationship with her coach. That “special” relationship with her coach progresses over the years from things like rides home, then first sharing a dirty joke or two, then accidental touching, to more deliberate touching, to then full on sex. These coaches are very calculated and know which kids to pick on.

By Jonathan C. Little, Attorney at Law, Saeed & Little, Indianapolis, USA.