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Abuse Allegations Against USA Coaches Rock the Swim World

With the prospect of another Michael Phelps Olympic gold rush still two years away, at the 2012 London Games, and the rubber suits that rewrote swimming’s record books now banned, the sport’s biggest news this year is of a seamier variety.

USA Swimming, the organization that fields the Olympic swim team, has been hit with a firestorm of allegations that it has done little to prevent or punish coaches accused of sexually abusing underage female swimmers.

The latest came Wednesday when 28-year-old Jancy Thompson appeared at a news conference announcing she has filed a lawsuit alleging her former coach at a Northern California swim club committed a range of offenses, from unlawful sexual touching and harassment to molestation and sexual abuse, over a five-year period beginning when she was 15. USA Swimming is named as a defendant, along with coach Norm Havercroft. Attempts to reach Havercroft were not successful.

LAWSUIT: California coach, USA Swimming sued

“I am here today in hopes that USA Swimming will retain new leadership and clean up its program – get rid of abusive swim coaches and create a safe environment for young swimmers,” she said.

Like the Thompson case, all of the incidents alleged in the five lawsuits pending against USA Swimming involve club-level coaches and athletes. Only one Olympian, 1972 Olympic medley champion Deena Deardurff Schmidt, has made any claims – saying at a March news conference that in the 1960s her coach repeatedly molested her – and she is not a plaintiff in any suit.

Nevertheless, swimming’s problems have put the U.S. organizations that govern Olympic sports on alert, spurring them to unprecedented discussion and action on an issue that affects them all because of the hundreds of thousands of coaches and young athletes they oversee but one that they admit has been difficult to openly address before.

“What’s happened recently has sensitized people to the fact that they may have issues in their own sport that they didn’t know or didn’t think about in the past,” says Scott Blackmun, chief executive officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Lynn Johnson, who filed a lawsuit against USA Swimming in April, says his Kansas City firm has received calls in recent months alleging sexual misconduct by coaches training athletes in four other Olympic sports. No lawsuits have been filed.

“This is not just USA Swimming,” Johnson says.

USA Gymnastics has been shadowed by the long-running case of gymnastics coach Steven Infante, who in May was found guilty of child rape and molestation, crimes he committed against underage female athletes in Connecticut and Massachusetts beginning in the early 1990s. USA Gymnastics revoked Infante’s membership in 1998.

Putting an even finer point on the issue right now is the inaugural Youth Olympic Games, which open Saturday in Singapore. The USOC sent 82 athletes, ages 14-18, to the Games, designed to boost Olympic enthusiasm and participation among younger fans and athletes worldwide.

Nina Kemppel, an Olympic cross-country skier in charge of a USOC task force investigating the best ways to ensure safe training environments, including protections against sexual abuse of athletes, says her group’s work “certainly is a good proactive measure to be taking with the Youth Olympics” premiering.

Robert Allard, Thompson’s lawyer, says it is “beyond shocking” that an organization such as USA Swimming, the umbrella organization for swim clubs across the country with more than 300,000 members, did not have better protection, reporting or response procedures in place before this.

“It’s mind-boggling to me,” he says. “The more I look into this, the more appalled I am that little, if anything, has been done to protect children.”

‘Reluctance to actually confront the issue’

USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus, who agreed to be interviewed only via e-mail, notes that his organization has had a code of conduct for all members, including coaches, which “expressly prohibits physical or sexual abuse,” in place since the late 1990s. He also says USA Swimming was one of the first Olympic sports governing bodies to implement background screening of coaches, starting in 2006.

Background screening beyond fingerprint checks has been available only in recent years, says Sally Johnson, executive director of the National Council of Youth Sports, of which USA Swimming is a member. The NCYS began working with the FBI on a pilot program in 2003.

Mike Saltzstein, an international swimming referee who was a vice president at USA Swimming from 2000 to 2006, claims neither the code of conduct nor the background screening in place during those years was very effective since action could be taken only if there were criminal convictions.

Saltzstein also says that a child-protection policy passed by USA Swimming’s board in 2004 never was fully implemented. The policy, Wielgus responds, had a “very limited scope, that focused primarily on staff and volunteers traveling on national team trips.”

“I think it was a reluctance to actually confront the issue because it’s not one that fits cleanly into the swimming model of being a very good sport, which it is,” Saltzstein says.

“I think there’s a resistance because you just don’t want to find some of your own members guilty, if you will, of these problems.”

Counters Wielgus, executive director since 1997, “We have never been reluctant to face challenges, and we are always looking to improve.”

After the allegations and lawsuits, USA Swimming is working with the Child Welfare League of America to strengthen its policies and procedures.

“What they had in place was, in 20/20 hindsight, not adequate,” says Linda Spears, CWLA vice president of policy and public affairs. “But I don’t think it was uncommon.”

Spears adds that the alleged incident rate of misconduct among swim coaches “is not out of line with what’s normal in an environment where there are kids and grownups in these kinds of roles.”

Other sports taking actions

The volley of allegations, though, has set other Olympic sports organizations in motion.

USA Diving has expanded its requirements for criminal background checks, and USA Track & Field has begun a coaches registry, which requires elite-level coaches to adhere to a code of conduct and pass biennial background checks to be credentialed for USATF competitions.

The USATF measures were first proposed in 2006, in response to concerns about coaches dispensing performance-enhancing drugs. That same year, the organization began requiring background screening of youth-level coaches and volunteers – checks that now will be necessary for all coaches.

“Once the allegations and the findings came out at swimming, the board felt like we needed to accelerate” checks at the elite level, says Stephanie Hightower, USATF president, and chairwoman.

The USOC in May put together the Kemppel-led task force, which is looking into safeguards against not only sexual abuse but also offenses such as bullying. The 10-member task force includes an FBI security consultant, a psychiatrist, and a lawyer who have all worked on child-welfare cases.

“As an athlete myself, I didn’t experience this directly,” Kemppel says of sexual misconduct by coaches, “but I certainly saw incidents occur.”

The group’s findings, after approval by the USOC board, most likely this fall will be used by the USOC and passed on to the national governing bodies of Olympic sports, such as USA Swimming and USATF, and other grass-roots sports organizations.

“Is it an issue that we probably needed to focus on whether or not the swimming thing happened? Yes, it was,” Blackmun says.

The USOC, which doesn’t control the various governing bodies in any way other than providing funding, can only suggest guidelines. Each sport will be responsible for putting safeguards in place and meting out punishments.

Of the Olympic sports organizations, USA Gymnastics is among the most progressive in having policies and procedures in place. It began keeping a list of banned coaches in the late 1980s. Criminal background checks began in 2007.

Even so, USA Gymnastics’ “participant welfare policy,” which includes very specific definitions of sexual abuse and mandates background screening for staff members and volunteers, wasn’t adopted until June 2009.

“I don’t think we were lax,” says Steve Penny, USA Gymnastics president since 2005. “I just think that no one likes to talk about these issues. The unfortunate reality is these things do occur.”

Alongside that reality is the difficulty that Olympic sports organizations, some of which have minimal staffing and get by on shoestring budgets, find in regulating every coach, staffer, and volunteer working with every athlete, from youth to elite levels, across the country. In addition, background checks do not uncover behaviors such as bullying and sexual harassment, or even sexual abuse unless there was a conviction.

“Realistically, you have to have the educational materials so that everybody surrounding the athlete or everybody in that sphere of influence understands the warning signs – so that it’s not just left to the very end when they say, ‘Why didn’t the (governing body) do something?’ ” says Skip Gilbert, executive director of USA Triathlon and chairman of a group of Olympic sports executives.

Since the first lawsuit was filed in March, USA Swimming now publicly posts lists of coaches whose USA Swimming memberships have been revoked or suspended. It has adopted a policy to report all sexual-misconduct complaints involving a minor to law enforcement. The USA Swimming board will vote next month on proposals that expand background screening to all swim-club employees and volunteers.

USA Swimming will work to better educate all of its members, including parents, about preventing, identifying, and reporting sexual abuse and might partner with an anonymous helpline for reporting incidents, according to Wielgus.

Creating a clearinghouse

Olympic sports leaders say an independent agency, similar to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which handles the adjudication of all doping cases in the USA, could help to create consistent standards, track coaches who move from sport to sport, and provide a central clearinghouse for complaints.

“We simply can’t keep taking credit for gold medals and world records and yet not taking any accountability for what goes on to create those opportunities,” says Saltzstein, the former USA Swimming vice president.

Sarah Ehekircher, who says she had a sexual relationship with her club swim coach for seven years beginning when she was 17, remembers feeling as if she had nowhere to turn during that time. She was rebuffed when she told a coach, she says.

“I do know as I got older and I was more conflicted with the relationship – because I didn’t want to be with this man – when I was ready, there wasn’t a place for me to go,” says Ehekircher, 41. “It wasn’t like I could call the USOC and say, ‘Oh, blah, blah, blah.’ ”

Like others who have come forth with allegations and filed lawsuits, Ehekircher says she felt empowered to speak after a 14-year-old girl came forward last year with claims against veteran swim coach Andy King. King is serving a 40-year sentence after pleading no contest to 20 felony child molestation charges last September.

“At the end of the day, if it happens to even one young athlete, we failed and we need to try harder,” the USOC’s Blackmun says. “Can we ever succeed in preventing it from happening? Probably not.”