USA Swimming failed to effectively address the sexual abuse of underage swimmers by their coaches and others in positions of power within the sport, leading to hundreds of young victims over the span of decades, according to an investigation conducted by the Southern California News Group (SCNG).
Thousands of documents gathered by the SCNG — including emails, memos, letters, reports and notes, Congressional reports, correspondence and files, and court records as well as deposition and law enforcement interview transcripts — indicate USA Swimming allowed the abuse to become commonplace, and was accepted by top officials and coaches. In at least 11 cases, top officials declined to pursue sexual abuse cases against high-profile coaches even when presented with direct complaints, according to SCNG’s report.
One of the chief officials who disapproved of, and actively resisted, an attempt to curving the organization’s culture of sexual abuse was Chuck Wielgus, head of USA Swimming from 1997 until his death in 2017. In a June 2010 deposition (via SCNG), Wielgus was asked 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 No. 1 goal.”
Under Wielgus, USA Swimming dealt with the accusations through public relations firms and lobbying groups with the priority of protecting its image and sponsorships. Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a gold medal-winning swimmer in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and founder of female athlete advocacy group Champion Women, said this financial focus has only led to more victims.
“They’re looking at the small picture, not the big picture,” Hogshead-Makar told SCNG. “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.”
Another detractor of sexual abuse reform has been the American Swimming Coaches Association. Director John Leonard has opposed sexual abuse reform efforts, a stance held even 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 obtained by SCNG to USA Swimming officials.
Wielgus, top officials and coaches also repeatedly ignored warnings about the potential scope of the sexual abuse in the sport, according to the SCNG report. In one notable case, officials reportedly knew of abuse accusations from the 1990s as early as 2010. This information did not result in any punishment for the coach. The coach in question ultimately reached a settlement with his accuser.
Although there have been cases of lifetime bans from the sport, it sometimes take years to reach that point. For example, Erick Lans, a former Massachusetts-based coach, was arrested on rape and child sex abuse charges in January 1999 but 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.
He joins 138 coaches and officials USA Swimming has banned for life for violating sexual abuse and misconduct rules.
Those numbers pale in comparison to what the legal system has found in terms of the breadth of rampant abuse in the organization, per SCNG. Since 1997, at least 252 swim coaches and officials have been arrested, charged by prosecutors, or disciplined by USA Swimming for sexual abuse or misconduct against minors, as reported by SCNG. At least 590 accusers have claimed some form of sexual abuse or misconduct, including some instances from pre-school swim classes.
The report has drawn comparisons to the Larry Nassar sexual assault case involving USA Gymnastics and Michigan State. Nassar was sentenced to 40-175 years for sexual assault. Like with USA Swimming, the 156 women who testified against Nassar detailed how USA Gymnastics and Michigan State officials missed clear warning signs and ignored direct complaints about Nassar’s abuse.
Bay Area attorney B. Robert Allard, who has represented several former swimmers who were sexually abused by their coaches and other officials, suggested to SCNG the only way to reform the system is to have a similar overhaul of leadership.
“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.’ 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.”
Katherine Starr, a former Olympian and founder of Safe4Athletes — a nonprofit foundation that advocacy group for athletes — argues another key change is one that changes the perception of how USA Swimming treats victims; without it, she told SCNG, even complete sweeping change isn’t enough.
“If we continue to not hold accountable our former coaches and officials that have left the sport without paying for their crimes, it gives the impression to the younger generation and parents that they too have to suffer at the hands of their abusive coach,” Starr said. “As a result you have not built the essential trust in the system to allow the next generation to be able to speak up and change the abusive dynamic that continues to remain systemic in the sport.”