100s of USA swimmers were sexually abused for decades and the people in charge knew and ignored it, investigation finds
For decades the sexual abuse of young athletes by their coaches lingered just beneath the surface in American swimming’s otherwise golden waters.
In 2005, USA Swimming president Ron Van Pool decided it was time to bring the issue to the surface.
Giving his annual State of Swimming address, Van Pool pushed for a more aggressive approach within the sport to taking on sexual abuse.
“USA Swimming is frightfully behind the curve in this process and there are those who would have us continue to lag,” Van Pool said.
The speech, however, didn’t make much of an impression with Chuck Wielgus, then in his eighth year as USA Swimming’s executive director.
“There was nothing that struck me,” Wielgus said later in deposition.
Van Pool’s warning certainly failed to spark a sense of urgency with Wielgus, the man in charge of the day-to-day operations of swimming’s national governing body at its Colorado Springs headquarters, or those around him at USA Swimming.
Five years later, Wielgus was asked in a deposition if, in the wake of Van Pool’s speech, if USA Swimming had taken any steps to bring the organization up to speed on the sexual abuse issue?
The moment and its sense of complacency is indicative of the failure of USA Swimming to effectively address sexual abuse revealed in thousands of pages of documents obtained by the Southern California News Group.
The two decades after Wielgus was hired at USA Swimming have been marked by record-shattering Olympic success and the organization’s inability to check swimming’s culture of sexual abuse, a failure that has resulted in hundreds of new young victims, SCNG has found.
USA Swimming repeatedly missed opportunities to overhaul a culture within American swimming where the sexual abuse of underage swimmers by their coaches and others in positions of power within the sport was commonplace and even accepted by top officials and coaches, according to the documents and interviews with sexual abuse survivors, former Olympians, USA Swimming officials, safe sport advocates and some of USA Swimming’s leading financial benefactors.
The Southern California News Group investigation found:
• Top USA Swimming executives, board members, top officials and coaches acknowledge in the documents that they were aware of sexually predatory coaches for years, in some cases even decades, but did not take action against them. In at least 11 cases either Wielgus or other top USA Swimming officials declined to pursue sexual abuse cases against high profile coaches even when presented with direct complaints, documents show. With some of the complaints, the decision not to pursue the case was made by Susan Woessner, USA Swimming’s current director of Safe Sport.
For example, three U.S. Olympic team head coaches, and a USA Swimming vice president were told in the 1980s that a world-renowned coach has sexually abused a female swimmer beginning when she was 12. Wielgus was informed of allegations against the coach at least three times in recent years. But not only did USA Swimming not pursue a case against the coach, it allowed him to continue to have access to USA Swimming facilities, U.S. Olympic and national team events, and the Olympic Training Center. USA Swimming even awarded the club owned and operated by him more than $40,000 in grants. The coach was only banned after pleading guilty to sexual assault, more than a quarter-century after the abuse was first brought to the attention of the Olympic coaches.
• USA Swimming board members and coaches acknowledged they were aware of statutory rape cases that occurred during U.S. national team trips to major international competitions.
• USA Swimming since at least 2010 has kept a list of more than 30 coaches and officials “flagged” by USA Swimming officials after being arrested or accused by law enforcement of sex crimes including rape and child pornography, but not disciplined by USA Swimming. Some coaches and officials on the “flagged” list have not been banned even after they have been convicted of felonies. Of the 32 people on the “flagged list” in 2010, only six have been subsequently banned by USA Swimming. The “flagged list” is not available to the public. Even when USA Swimming has banned coaches and officials for life for sexual misconduct it can be years before their names are listed on the permanently banned list on USA Swimming’s website.
• Local swim clubs that are members of USA Swimming are insured by U.S. Sports Insurance Company Inc, a company with $31.3-million in assets originally based in Barbados created and solely owned by USA Swimming and governed by former and current USA Swimming officials. While USSIC provides USA Swimming $2-million worth of liability insurance for sexual abuse civil cases, until recently the company provided local clubs only $100,000 worth of coverage for similar cases. This policy of reducing the financial exposure of USSIC at the local level was a factor in generating millions of dollars in “safety rebates” from USSIC back to USA Swimming. In some years the governing body has received back as much as $750,000 in “safety rebates.”
• USA Swimming has also paid $77,627 to lobbying firms to lobby against legislation in California that would have made it easier for sexual abuse victims to sue their abusers and the organizations they worked for or represented in civil cases.
The documents covering nearly a quarter-century provide a portrait of how instead of changing U.S. swimming’s culture of sexual abuse and misconduct, top USA Swimming officials and coaches have continued to enable it by undermining reforms long accepted by other sports and refusing to investigate allegations of abuse even when presented with evidence from multiple sources.
The documents also tell a strikingly similar story to that of USA Gymnastics where a culture of abuse enabled U.S. Olympic and U.S. women’s national team coach Larry Nassar’s sexual assault of more than 150 young athletes. In a seven-day sentencing hearing in Ingham County, Michigan that led to Nassar being sentenced to 40 to 175 years for sexual assault, many among the 156 women who testified detailed how USA Gymnastics and Michigan State officials missed clear warning signs and ignored direct complaints about Nassar’s abuse.
“At this time I am convinced that the only way to effectively eradicate childhood sexual abuse in swimming is to, as we are seeing now with USA Gymnastics, completely ‘clean house,’ ” said B. Robert Allard, a Bay Area attorney who has represented several former swimmers who were sexually abused by their coaches and other officials. “If this type of remedial action is justified in USA Gymnastics due to the abuse committed by one pedophile (Nassar), certainly it would be appropriate for USA Swimming where we have well over 100. We are hereby demanding the immediate removal of USA Swimming’s entire Executive Leadership Team, starting with Chief Operating Officer Mike Unger, Managing Director Pat Hogan, Executive Director Debbie Hesse, Managing Director Lindsay Mintenko and especially Safe Sport Director Susan Woessner, as well as its Board of Directors.
“Only then we can ensure that USA Swimming will have leaders in place who take child protection seriously and won’t turn a blind eye to childhood sexual abuse because of a desire to preserve image and reputation and consequently monetary interests.”
Like the Nassar scandal, USA Swimming’s handling of sexual abuse cases has caught the attention of Congress. The House Committee on Energy and Commerce informed USA Swimming on Friday, Jan. 26 that it is “investigating matters related to sexual abuse within organized sports, including USA Swimming.”
“The country attended a seven-day master class on the damage inflicted by sexual abuse. Most people will hear just 5-10 stories like this in their lifetime,” Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an Olympic swimming champion and founder of Champion Women, an advocacy group for girls and women in sports. “We just heard 160 survivors address their abuser, Team USA’s doctor in gymnastics.
“Knowing the true cost, it is gratifying that Congress is looking within the Olympic sports movement and see another sport with over 100 Larry Nassar-types in a single sport; USA Swimming. That’s a much bigger scale of abuse, one worthy of inquiry.
“In my position as head of an organization that advocates for girls and women in sport, I hear the pain too many swimmers have suffered. There are still too many abusive coaches who are either still coaching and still in the Hall of Fame. Almost as bad, ethical coaches who have been blackballed for advocating for athletes, for doing the right thing. They’re offended by a culture of coaches that regularly go to strip clubs in the evenings after a day of competition, offended by the sexualization of young girls, but powerless to stop it.”
USA Swimming emails, memos, letters, reports and notes, Congressional reports, correspondence and files, and court records as well as deposition and law enforcement interview transcripts detail a series of missed opportunities by an organization unwilling to take on its coach-centric power base and obsessed with protecting its image and brand.
Wielgus was the “gatekeeper” and “ had absolute control of the issue of coach-swimmer sexual abuse,” said Katherine Starr, a former Olympian and founder of Safe4Athletes, a non-profit foundation that advocates for athletes and helps sports organizations adopt policies and programs to prevent misconduct toward athletes. “As a result, Chuck could have been a hero and been instrumental to change the dynamic that has haunted so many. But instead he (was) a coward and single-handedly allowed sexually abusive coaching to thrive for decades in the sport, leaving a wreckage of pain that has caused great harm to many swimmers that has lasted a lifetime.”
There has been widespread sexual abuse in American swimming for decades. Wielgus inherited a sport where high profile coaches having sex with teenage swimmers was common knowledge, even accepted.
“As a result of my staff’s investigation, it has become clear that child sexual abuse and sexual misconduct have plagued USA Swimming since its inception in 1980,” said George Miller (D-California), then the senior Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee, wrote in a July 9, 2014 letter to then-FBI director James B. Comey.
But like Wielgus, many of those still at USA Swimming and other positions of power within the sport have not been aggressive, and have even been resistant to attacking the issue. Tim Hinchey, who comes from outside the world of swimming, is Wielgus’ successor and faces the challenge of answering to ongoing investigations and making reforms.
USA Swimming did not respond to requests for comment. Wielgus did not respond to numerous interview requests prior to his death.
A 2014 investigation by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education And The Workforce found that “detailed actionable information” about sexually abusive coaches “has been well known to USA Swimming leadership, yet because of inaction, these predators were allowed to prey with impunity.”
Miller was so concerned about USA Swimming’s history of inaction that he asked the FBI to “Fully investigate USA Swimming’s handling of both past and present cases of child sexual abuse” in the letter to Comey.
“I am confident that the alarming allegations and high-profile reports of sexual abuse in the ranks of USA Swimming necessitate closer scrutiny by the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” Miller wrote to Comey.
Although USA Swimming officials in the past have denied that the organization has been the subject of federal investigations, FBI and other federal investigators have conducted interviews in at least three cases, according to people familiar with those cases.
Still top USA Swimming officials haven’t appeared to share Miller’s sense of urgency or concerns, documents and interviews show.
Hogshead-Makar in recent years asked Woessner why USA Swimming wasn’t investigating published sexual misconduct allegations against a former U.S. Olympic team coach who was also a longtime USA Swimming board member and a one-time member of a sexual abuse task force set up by the organization. Safe Sport was created to investigate sexual and physical abuse cases within the sport as well create education programs and raise awareness to the issue.
“Susan Woessner said, ‘Nancy what does it matter? He’s no longer coaching young swimmers anymore,’” Hogshead-Makar recalled.
“This Safe Sport thing is a complete farce,” said Dia Rianda, a Monterrey-area swim coach and administrator and for several years one of the USA Swimming Foundation’s leading financial contributors. “USA Swimming is all about protecting their brand in any way they possibly can.”
That brand generated $39.62 million in revenue in 2016, according to Internal Revenue Service records and USA Swimming documents. USA Swimming paid corporate officers, trustees and key employees $3.75 million in 2016 and spent another $4.99 million in employee compensation and benefits, according to financial records. Wielgus was paid $966,047 in 2016 plus another $72,931 from the USA Swimming Foundation.
USA Swimming’s priorities are clear in the documents.
Wielgus was asked in a June 2010 deposition if he would confirm that protecting the safety of young swimmers, especially against sexual abuse, was USA Swimming’s top goal.
“No, I would not,” Wielgus said. “…I would say that has never been our number one goal.”
Instead USA Swimming officials have been driven by Olympic success and attracting corporate sponsors, an obsession, critics charge, that has come at the expense of young swimmers.
While U.S. swimmers have dominated Olympic swimming since the inaugural Modern Games in 1896, the transcendent star power of Michael Phelps and the world record performances by American athletes at recent Olympic Games has elevated swimming to equal billing with track and field and women’s gymnastics as the Games’ marquee sports. At each of the last four Summer Olympics at least a third of all U.S. gold medals have been won in the swimming pool. Team USA’s 16 swimming gold medals at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro were as many as the next 10 countries combined in the pool and more than all but five countries won in all sports.
That success has attracted a new generation of would be Olympians in record numbers and corporate partners like NBC Universal, BMW, Marriott and Omega. USA Swimming has more than 400,000 members with over 54,000 athletes joining the organization between 2010 and 2013. USA Swimming reported $7.27 million in annual sponsorship revenue in 2016, up from $2.5 million in 2006.
Protecting the brand
Protecting that brand hasn’t come cheap.
USA Swimming spent $7.45 million on legal fees between 2006 and 2016, according to the organization’s financial records, nearly 10 times the amount USA Track & Field paid in on legal fees during that same period.
In the last three years USA Swimming officials, under pressure from their secondary insurance carrier and wanting to avoid the negative publicity a lawsuit would generate, has arranged settlement agreements in at least three states with victims of alleged sexual abuse by swim coaches before the cases were even filed with a court.
The USA Swimming Foundation has paid at least $132,926 to Ground Floor Media, a Denver-public relations firm, that according to firm’s website, specializes in “crisis communication and reputation management.” The firm was to provide local swim clubs dealing with sexual abuse scandals “direct public relations and crisis communications resources,” according to a USA Swimming memo.
“Our strategy moving forward will have the ultimate goal of improving the overall local swim clubs dealing with sexual abuse scandals perceptions of USA Swimming’s Safe Sport Program efforts,” said a memo co-authored by Wielgus and then USA Swimming president Bruce Stratton.
The foundation has also paid B&D Consulting a Washington, D.C. K Street lobbying firm $2l2,068. B&D specializes in helping companies and organizations in “advancing their objectives within increasingly complex policy environments.”
“I think they were well aware that there were a number of swimmers standing in line if (the legislation) went through,” said Mike Saltzstein, a former longtime member of USA Swimming’s board of directors. “It was no small list of people. It would have been financially devastating.”
Even more devastating has been the toll sexual abuse within the sport has had on hundreds of young victims.
“I can’t sell the Olympic dream anymore because it’s (expletive),” Rianda said. “These people are corrupt and anyone who sits there in a leadership position and allows boys and girls to be sexually exploited, to be manipulated, to be exploited in all kinds of ways just to get that gold medal, it’s wrong and it has to stop.”
Bay Area swimmer Jancy Thompson was one of those kids who chased the Olympic dream only to find a nightmare waiting at the end of the lane line.
“When you’re growing up as a swimmer and a child you’re asked to give up a lot of things,” she said. “You give up your entire afternoons for training, running, weight training. You’re giving up big chunks of time all the time. You give up the normal life of a kid.”
Thompson didn’t mind the sacrifice. She had talent, a tireless work ethic and complete faith in her coach Norm Havercroft and his promise he would lead her to Olympic glory.
“Norm was always telling my Mom and I ‘I will give you the recipe to make it to the Olympics,’” Thompson recalled. “‘All you have to do is follow it.’”
Thompson never imagined following Havercroft’s plan would include being sexually abused by him.
By December 1997, months of being sexually abused by Havercroft were taking a toll on Thompson, she said. She had a nightmare that Havercroft placed a dog collar around her neck and pulled her down the pool in an effort to make her swim faster. After Havercroft found out about the dream, he bought a dog collar and leash for Christmas, Thompson said. One day at practice he pressured Thompson into wearing the dog collar and then had her swim while Havercroft, holding the attached leash, walked down the pool deck beside her laughing. Thompson said she was humiliated.
She was 15.
Earlier that year Havercroft began sending pornography to Thompson, including photos and videos of himself nude or masturbating, and making sexually explicit phone calls to her, according to court documents and an interview with Thompson. That spring Havercroft started molesting her and making her perform sex acts at swim meets, according to court documents and Thompson. Havercroft purchased a webcam in 1998 so he could have “cybersex” with Thompson, court documents said.Three or four times the Havercroft made Thompson have “cybersex” sessions with him, according to court documents.
Havercroft’s alleged abuse of Thompson lasted for five years while he coached her at two Bay Area swim clubs. In 1996, a year before the abuse of Thompson began, a San Jose police sergeant notified USA Swimming with allegations that Havercroft had sexually molested another underage female swimmer he was coaching at the West Valley Swim Club between 1994 and 1996, according to a sworn deposition obtained by the Register.
Two Bay Area swim parents said they also reported sexually inappropriate conduct by Havercroft to USA Swimming and Pacific Swimming, USA Swimming’s regional association for Northern California, in 1996, according to depositions. Later in 2001, a broker for USSIC, USA Swimming’s privately held insurance company, informed the USSIC board of directors that Havercroft sexually molested an underage female swimmer between 1994 and 1996. At the time the USSIC board was made up mainly of current, former or future USA Swimming board members or administrators.
Wielgus and other top USA Swimming officials were aware of allegations of Havercroft abusing Thompson since at least 2010, according to confidential USA Swimming documents.
Confidential USA Swimming documents show that Wielgus and other top officials were aware of allegations of Havercroft’s abuse of Thompson for years. Yet Havercroft has not only not been placed on USA Swimming’s list of individuals banned from the sport for life, the organization has never even “brought a case” against him, Woessner, the director of USA Swimming’s Safe Sport has stated in a number of other emails and documents.
The USA Swimming documents and court records show that the Havercroft matter wasn’t an isolated case. Wielgus and other top officials and coaches regularly ignored warnings about the potential scope of the sexual abuse in the sport.
“I would hate to see our organization ever in the predicament of the current Roman Catholic Church — protecting child molesters!” Richard Shoulberg, a Hall of Fame coach of Olympic medalists and world record holders, wrote in an August 2003 email to members of a USA Swimming task force on sexual misconduct that he was heading.
But more often than not, pleas like Shoulberg’s have continued to go unheeded.
In four of the last the last six years at least 20 swim coaches have been arrested, charged or convicted for sex crimes ranging from rape, sexually assaulting a 3-year-old and 8-year-old, statutory rape, child pornography to secretly videotaping underage swimmers in locker-rooms, SCNG found.
Critics like Hogshead-Makar said the continued high rate of incidents of sexual abuse is largely the result of USA Swimming’s failure to implement policies that would create effective deterrents.
“One-hundred percent,” Hogshead-Makar said, “it’s not getting through.”
In addition to prioritizing image, branding and sponsorships, USA Swimming’s failure to create culture change can be traced to his unwillingness to take on a powerful (and almost exclusively male) network of coaches, the refusal of most of those officials closest to him to acknowledge the problem, poor hires and legal strategy designed to protect USA Swimming and not young athletes, former swimmers and officials said.
“They’re looking at the small picture, not the big picture,” said Hogshead-Makar, a graduate of the Georgetown Law Center. “The small picture is they’re only concerned about liability for the US Swimming without looking out for the victim. The victim is not their client. The actions that are designed to protect the institution from legal liability instead of protecting the organization from being infested with molesting coaches.”
Dale Neuberger has been a member of USA Swimming’s board of director since 1990 and was the federation’s president from 1998 to 2002. In a January 2011 deposition, Neuberger was asked repeatedly if was aware of sexual misconduct complaints during his association with USA Swimming. Neuberger repeatedly denied having any knowledge of such cases, even when asked about cases that had been widely reported in the national media and prominent swimming publications. Opposing attorneys were so incredulous that at one point one of them asked Neuberger if he took “any kind of psychiatric drugs” or was under the influence of alcohol during the deposition “or anything that could impair your memory.” Neuberger said he was not.
“I’m not sure there’s the institutional incentive, intestinal fortitude, guts, if you will, to do what needs to be done,” Saltzstein said. “Their attitude is let’s smooth things over. Let’s hide things.”
Among those leading the resistance to reform has been the American Swimming Coaches Association, which has had a major role in influencing USA Swimming policies regarding sexual abuse, according to Starr, Hogshead-Makar, other former swimmers and longtime swimming insiders. ASCA executive director John Leonard has often opposed reform efforts in regards to sexual abuse, sometimes while he was a member of USA Swimming task forces and committees set up to develop new guidelines and policies on sexual misconduct.
“I hate the whole topic,” Leonard complained in an email to USA Swimming officials.
“No. 1 where did he get his power from?” Hogshead-Makar said of Wielgus. “The coaches (were) his power base so (it was) difficult for him to come down hard with strict prescriptions when that’s who hires and fires him.”
A number of top coaches are married to swimmers they once coached which has fueled the resistance to measures designed to deter inappropriate behavior and normalized coach-swimmer relationships within the sport.
“When the organization allows for marriages, allows for the 11-year-old to see her 18-year-old teammate who she thinks is a peer, she thinks they are the same, they go to the same meets, they’re staying in the same hotel, they are working out together, then she sees that (older swimmer) marrying their coach so she thinks this is true love and doesn’t recognize what an inappropriate situation this is,” Hogshead-Makar said.
For several years Jill Chasson, a 1992 Olympian, was chairman of USA Swimming’s national board of review, which handles sexual abuse cases. Chasson is married to her former coach Mike Chasson. Jill Chasson resigned her position shortly after Greg Winslow, who coached for Mike Chasson at Sun Devil Aquatics in Tempe, Arizona, was accused of sexually assaulting a teenage swimmer.
During a June 1, 2010 deposition, Wielgus was asked which USA Swimming employee with the “most knowledge regarding the implementation and development of the child protection program?”
“I would say Pat Hogan,” Wielgus said referring to USA Swimming’s managing director for club development.
A few minutes later Wielgus adjusted himself in his chair.
“Sorry, I was just trying to get comfortable,” Wielgus said.
Wielgus had just been asked about Hogan’s relationship with his first wife, who Hogan began dating when she was an 18-year-old, a year after she began training with him at an Atlanta area swim club. Hogan was 27 at the time. The couple later divorced.
“The relationship began to develop after she was 18,” Hogan stressed in a deposition.
Wielgus said he has never questioned Hogan about his relationship with his first wife.
“It’s the old boy, the good old boy mentality that USA Swimming still has because of the good old boys that still run that organization,” Thompson said. “(Sexual relationships are) acceptable. That’s not acceptable. That’s not protecting children.”
Resistance to reform
Just how ingrained the resistance within USA Swimming’s membership was evident in the fight to pass rules prohibiting any romantic or sexual relationships between coaches and athletes as part of the organization’s Code of Conduct. Such a proposal was voted down by USA Swimming members in 2012. The measure finally passed at the group’s 2013 convention in Garden Grove but only after the U.S. Olympic Committee, under pressure from Hogshead-Makar and others, threatened to cut off funding. USA Swimming was the last national governing body (NGB) sanctioned by the USOC to pass such a rule.
Even then, Saltzstein said recalling the scene at the 2013 convention, “there was a lot of gnashing of teeth, grimacing, ‘we’re not going to do that.’”
It wasn’t the first time USA Swimming had dragged its feet when it came to implementing policies governing sexual misconduct.
“The issue of sex abuse of swimmers was something that I raised to the (board of directors) in 1990 or 1991,” David Berkoff, an Olympic champion and USA Swimming board of directors member said in a July 14, 2010 email to other board members. “I suggested background checks and a formal code of conduct. That was shot down by the coaches as unfeasible and intrusive. As you know, it took seven years from the date we formed an abuse subcommittee in 1992 to get a code of conduct in place and 13 years to get background checks implemented. A few of you have mentioned that you made similar recommendations to USAS and that these requests fell on deaf ears.
“I cannot accept the status quo. I cannot accept abuse in this sport any pedophile coaches in our midst. I am not going to stop until USAS institutes significant and meaningful changes and I ask that you join this effort.”
In October 2002, USSIC’s board largely made up of former, current and future USA Swimming officials recommended USA Swimming form a task force on sexual abuse. “One of the fasted growing areas of litigation is sexual misconduct,” a USSIC memo said adding that “USA Swimming has seen an increase in this area.”
The task force led by Shoulberg was told to develop a “Zero Tolerance Policy” for sexual misconduct. But the task force’s plan to implement stringent guidelines to identify and deter the sexual abuse and harassment of young swimmers by their coaches and other adults in the sport was watered down by USA Swimming’s board of directors and other top swimming officials and coaches.
“I am disappointed on the outcome of the Board,” Shoulberg wrote in a November 2003 email. “I feel that there are too many coaches still coaching who have destroyed kids’ lives and there will be more coaches in the future who will destroy kids’ lives.”
Also in 2003 USA Swimming formed a task force, again at the urging of USSIC, to create a background screening program for coaches and officials. USA Swimming’s board of directors adopted a Child Protection Program (CPP) in 2004. But Wielgus did not implement the CPP that was approved by the board, failing to hire a Director of Child Protection or to require volunteers to go through screening before sanctioned meets or U.S. national team camps. In 2010, Hogan removed the CPP from the organization’s website without approval from the board. Hogan continues in his position at USA Swimming with annual compensation of $273,653.
Safe Sport program ineffective
Another indication of USA Swimming’s lack of commitment to the sexual abuse issue is its funding of the Safe Sport program. The organization spent $345,470 on the program in 2016, substantially less than a third of the $1 million USA Swimming spent on its Golden Goggles award gala. Safe Sport was implemented in September 2010 in the wake of criticism of USA Swimming’s handling of sexual abuse case. USA Swimming officials said they hoped the move would mitigate against the appearances of “the fox guarding the hen house” that had hounded previous cases, according to a USA Swimming memo.
“What sends a bigger signal is that they hired somebody who had no background in any aspect of safe sport,” Hogshead-Makar said of Woessner. “The fact that they continuously hire people that have no prior experience. They have the money to hire the best person in the country and they don’t.”
Woessner, a former Indiana University swimmer, oversees the investigating and adjudication of sexual abuse cases as well as guidelines and educational programs dealing with the issue. Prior to being named director of Safe Sport in Sept. 2013, Woessner worked in USA Swimming’s business operations and national team division. Neither of those positions dealt with safe sport.
Woessner did not respond to requests for comment.
“Susan Woessner doesn’t have the background for the job,” said Hogshead-Makar. “She’s not a lawyer. She’s never worked with victims of abuse (prior to getting the job). She doesn’t have the professional background to do these types of cases. Susan was somebody hired from within USA Swimming who doesn’t have the expertise for the job.”
“Susan Woessner is a great person,” Saltzstein said. “However, most people didn’t have their first job trying to change culture.”
Reports, but no action
A culture that allowed high profile coaches like Rick Curl and Andy King to continue to coach young swimmers for years after the sexual abuse of underage athletes was first brought to the attention of USA Swimming officials and top coaches.
In the mid to late 80s, University of Texas swimmer Kelley Davies told three Longhorn coaches that she had been sexually abused between 1983 and 1986 by Rick Curl, her Maryland club coach. The abuse, Davies said, began when she was 12 and Curl was 34.The Texas coaches were Longhorn men’s coach Eddie Reese, Richard Quick, then the Texas women’s coach, and Mark Schubert, who replaced Quick as the Longhorn women’s coach. All three men would coach Team USA at multiple Olympic Games.
Schubert said Davies asked him in 1987 not to go to authorities about the abuse because a confidentiality clause that was part of a financial settlement she and her family had reached with Curl. Rumors of the abuse, however, were widespread within the sport. Yet Curl’s career continued to thrive. He was named to U.S. national team staffs. Swimmers coached by Curl won medals for four countries at the 2000 Olympic Games.
“Denying knowledge of Rick Curl, Mitch Ivey and others banging their swimmers! It’s a flat out lie,” Berkoff said in a July 26, 2010 email to another USA Swimming board member. “They knew about it because we (coaches and athletes) were all talking about it in late 1980s and early 1990s. I was told by several of Mitch Ivey’s swimmers that he was sleeping with (a female swimmer) in 1988,” Berkoff said in a July 26, 2010 email to another USA Swimming board member. Ivey, a former University of Florida coach, was banned in 2013, 20 years after his allegations of sexual misconduct was extensively reported by the media. “… I was told Rick Curl was molesting Kelley Davies for years starting when she was 12 by some of the (University of) Texas guys.
“That was the entire reason I formed the abuse subcommittee. I was sick and tired of this crap. No one was standing up. No one was willing to take on these perverts.”
Including Wielgus, documents indicate.
Former U.S. national team director Mark Schubert said in a sworn 2013 deposition and again in an interview with the Register, that he first informed Wielgus of Curl’s abuse of Davies in 2007. Schubert, then the national team director and concerned about Curl’s presence at USA Swimming training camps and at USA Swimming and USOC facilities, said he later brought up the Curl-Davies situation again with Wielgus and USA Swimming assistant executive director Mike Unger. Schubert also said he approached Wielgus and other top USA Swimming officials about Curl in January and July of 2010.
More than three years after Schubert said he first raised the Curl-Davies issue with him, Wielgus in a May 2010 deposition was asked if he had ever received “any information about (Curl) having an inappropriate sexual contact with one of his swimmers?”
“I have never received any information about that,” Wielgus said.
Wielgus later said nothing could be done without a victim coming forward. Yet even when Davies filed a claim against Curl with USA Swimming in the spring of 2011, the organization refused to take action. Davies’ 2011 complaint with USA Swimming included a copy of the settlement agreement signed by Curl, she said.
A year later, Curl was spotted at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials on the competition pool deck and in the arena’s VIP section wearing an official credential issued by USA Swimming.
Wielgus said nothing could be done without a victim coming forward. Not only did Wielgus and the federation fail to act on Schubert’s information, USA Swimming awarded the Curl-Burke swim club, founded and owned by Curl, $40,023 in grants between 2006 and 2012, $30,425 of the funding coming after Schubert said he first told Wielgus about Curl’s abuse.
Curl was only banned for life by USA Swimming in September 2012 after an emergency hearing was called by the federation following a Washington Post story detailing Curl’s sexual abuse of Davies. A Maryland court in May 2013 sentenced Curl to seven years in prison for molesting Davies.
By the time King began sexually molesting a 14-year-old female swimmer in San Jose in 2008, Wielgus had already been informed twice of prior sexual abuse by King.
King began coaching at a club in Hayward and soon had a history of dating teenage swimmers he was coaching. After divorcing his first wife, who he began a sexual relationship when she was minor, King proposed to another swimmer on her 16th birthday.
A former swimmer told executives at Pacific Swimming, USA Swimming’s Northern California branch, in January 2003 that King had forced her and other underage swimmers to perform sex acts on the pool deck in front of other teammates when he was coaching in Hayward in the 1990s. The reports of King’s “sex games” were forwarded to Wielgus along with assertions from two Pacific officials that the former swimmer was a “very reliable individual” and “very upstanding.”
A Pacific official wrote to Wielgus for advice on how to handle the matter. In a Jan. 27, 2003 email, Wielgus told the Pacific official to do nothing and that “this matter should be kept confidential by both you and us.”
A few months later parents in Oak Harbor, Washington complained directly to Wielgus that King had sexually abused their daughter while coaching in the Puget Sound area in the late 1990s. While USA Swimming promised it would investigate the matter, according to court documents, the probe never took place.
King was arrested in April 2009 in Northern California after a 14-year-old San Jose swimmer told police King had molested her from May 2008 to March 2009. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison after pleading no contest to 20 counts of felony child molestation in September 2009. Some of his victims were as young as 10 years old.
Curl and King are among the 138 coaches and officials USA Swimming has banned for life for violating sexual abuse and misconduct rules. Among the new additions to the list are Tim O’Brien and former Harvard coach Joseph Bernal. O’Brien, a coach with Nitro Swimming in Austin, Texas, was banned after being arrested in December 2016 for indecency with a child. The arrest came a year after USA Swimming named O’Brien the organization’s national development coach of the year. Bernal, who coached Berkoff and four other Olympians and was a member of the 1984 and 1988 U.S. Olympic coaching staffs was banned in February 2016 for sexual misconduct.
Ban take years, even after convictions
Even if coaches are convicted of violent sex crimes it can take years for USA Swimming to issue lifetime bans. Erick Lans, a Massachusetts coach, was arrested on rape and child sex abuse charges in January 1999 at a Hyatt Hotel in New Brunswick, N.J. while attending a swim coaches conference. Lans wasn’t banned until March 2013, 12 years after he was convicted of intent to commit rape, indecent assault on a child under 14, and rape and abuse of a child. Lans had raped a 12-year-old girl and forced a 10-year-girl to perform oral sex on him at the pool facility he was coaching at.
“He told her he was going to give her something that would enhance her swimming capabilities. He referred to it as a Gatorade Popsicle,” an assistant district attorney later told the Boston Herald.
Even after they have been banned for life some coaches continue to coach at USA Swimming sanctioned meets. A coach convicted of molesting a 12-year girl in recent years has coached a Mexican team in recent years at USA Swimming meets in Southern California.
“I did not think it was our role at USA Swimming to be following someone around and track where they’re working and — someone we’ve banned,” Wielgus said in a deposition. “That’s just not something we do.”
USA Swimming also keeps a list of individuals suspended for conduct violations. But once a person’s suspension is over there no mention of it on USA Swimming’s website, even if it is for sexual misconduct.
There is currently no record of Jewell’s suspension on the website.
Since at least October 2010, USA Swimming officials kept a “flagged list” of at least 32 “Persons Associated With Swimming Arrested For, Charged With, Or Convicted Of A Crime Involving Sexual Misconduct But Not Banned By USAS.” The list is not available to the public. Of those 32, only six have since been subsequently banned by USA Swimming.
Joe Weber was flagged by USA Swimming in 1995, the same year he was arrested for having oral sex with a 14-year-old swimmer and later pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. At the time he was coaching at Team Foxcatcher, the Pennsylvania athletic club once bankrolled by John du Pont, the eccentric philanthropist portrayed in the film “Foxcatcher.” Du Pont murdered Olympian David Schultz, Foxcatcher’s wrestling coach in January 1996.
USA Swimming was aware in October 2010 that Weber was working with a New Jersey YMCA swim team but took no action, according to USA Swimming files. Weber worked as a consultant with the team for six years until he was fired in July 2012 after team officials became aware of his conviction. USA Swimming finally banned Weber on Feb. 25, 2013, nearly 15 years after his case first came to the organization’s attention.
Among those on the “flagged list” is Willard Colebank, USA Swimming’s former director of educational services. Colebank was convicted on child pornography charges in 2008 while teaching at a Colorado Springs middle school.
USA Swimming officials said they have not pursued some of the cases on the flagged list because victims have not come forward or have been reluctant to cooperate with USA Swimming. A limited review of the Safe Sport program by the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center and commissioned by USA Swimming found that the governing body maintains “a number of ‘non-compliant victim’ files in which a survivor has given a clear statement of abuse but is unwilling or unable to testify.”
“These dynamics may result in an offending coach having ongoing access to children,” the USA Swimming commissioned review concluded.
Miller wrote FBI director Comey that “Together, USA Swimming’s historical failures to address child abuse, the existence of ‘non-compliant victim’ files that leave children exposed to future harm, and the fact that Safe Sport Program appears not to work for all victims raise significant concerns around USA Swimming’s ability to police its ranks sufficiently.”
A system that fails the victims
Thompson and other former swimmers said some victims have not come forward because of the way USA Swimming has previously treated victims and a belief within the sport that the organization will side with accused coaches.
Abused swimmers, Thompson said, “just want to know if there’s a problem they can go to the organization that’s supposed to protect them and know that they’re not going to be thrown under the bus. They’re not going to be left out and hung out to dry.
“It’s harder to relive something when you’re made to feel like it’s your fault. Instead of squashing victims, (Wielgus) should be reaching down to help them so they can stand back up again.”
Starr, an Olympic swimmer for Great Britain and herself a survivor of sexual abuse, agreed.
“Having a transparent process of knowing what decisions have been made, and what coaches are being investigated is essential knowledge that parents are missing to be able to make an informed decision about their well-being of your child,” Starr said.
In October 2010, Havercroft was one of six coaches on a list of “Persons Involved With USA Swimming Who Have Been Publicly Accused Of Sexual Misconduct By An Athlete,” kept by USA Swimming administrators. Of those six, only one has since been banned. In at least three of the remaining cases the swimmers involved in those cases or their lawyers have filed direct complaints with USA Swimming.