USA Swimming Scandal – David Berkoff

by timothyjoyce



“Denying knowledge of Rick Curl, Mitch Ivey and others banging their swimmers! It’s a flat out lie. They knew about it because we (coaches and athletes) were all talking about it in the late 1980′s and early 1990′s. I was told by several of Mitch Ivey’s swimmers that he was sleeping with ******* in 1988 … I was told Rick Curl was molesting Kelly Davies for years starting when she was 12 by some of the 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. John Leonard (head of the American Swim Coach Association) was on the subcommittee and told me he was opposed to an all-out ban on swimmer-coach relationships because he had married one of his former swimmers. I finally threw in the towel out of frustration because no one wanted to stand up for background checks or banning coach-swimmer relationships.”  David Berkoff, 1988 Olympic Gold Medalist, writing in an email dated 7/26/2010. (The email was first made public last week on writer Irv Muchnick’s site,



“As for the 2010 email you posted, this is old news. More critically, what I wrote was true as to my recollection of 22 years ago. There were rumors. I heard them. However, I had no first-hand knowledge of whether these rumors were true …David Berkoff, now the Technical Vice President for USA Swimming, in an email dated 8/23/2012, responding to the posting of the above referenced email on a swimming blog site



Indeed, those rumors that David Berkoff – one of the great and most innovative swimmers this country has ever produced – heard were all too painfully true, as has since been revealed.


And he knows it.


But why does Mr. Berkoff now cast off his original anger and passion as just “rumor” and saying it was all those years ago, when in fact so much has come out in recent weeks that validate the accusations against Rick Curl and others?  Is it because he is now part of the proverbial system, a cog in the all-powerful non-profit that is USA Swimming?


If so, it’s an apparently marked change from his pattern of behavior as one who challenges authority.


Just consider his stellar swimming career. While at Harvard under the tutelage of legendary coach Joe Bernal, Berkoff invented what became to be known as the “Berkoff blast-off,” whereby Berkoff would begin each race by diving five feet into the water, with hands locked together, and then launch himself, submerged, with a dolphin kick and then surface more than 30 yards into the race where he would then carry on with the conventional backstroke.  

It was a revolutionary innovation that forever changed competitive swimming. And many in the sport weren’t happy about it. The ever-conservative bodies that rule over the swim world were furious, to put it mildly.  Especially angry was the Federation Internationalse de Natation Amatuer (FINA), the world swimming governing body. FINA was so displeased that they imposed an immediate ban on the Berkoff tactic.


The New York Times reporting on the ban at the time stated, “Berkoff is the fastest backstroke swimmer in history, the man who revolutionized a stroke so well that his new method has been banned internationally.” Berkoff himself was irritated by FINA’s all too predictable squashing of innovation, stating, ”I ruffled their feathers. They smacked me on the head. I did something to their game. I thought of it before they did.”


The ban was eventually removed.


And Berkoff was a trailblazer in terms of voicing his disgust with what he heard and trying to effect change at USA Swimming when he was on the Board of the organization. Said Berkoff in the same email exchange that is referenced at the start, “22 years ago—when I was a 24 year old swimmer—I confronted a problem that I saw as unjust. I formed the first abuse subcommittee in 1991 and the committee’s work formed the basis for the Code of Conduct. I quit the Board for several reasons in 1992.”


In September of 2010, while USA Swimming was reeling from the initial reports of sexual abuse by their coaches – especially Andy King – Berkoff was elected to the Board where he now serves as Technical Vice President.


Was Berkoff brought in to clean things up? Or did USA Swimming want to, as they say, keep their enemies close.  By having Berkoff in their camp, USA Swimming was able to maintain a close watch on a person who previously had been one of the organization’s harshest critics, as well as being someone of unimpeachable integrity, and an Olympic champion.


Berkoff has made strides in advancing child protection. Berkoff stated in that same email to a blog site that, “I got back into the USAS arena in 2010 largely because the athlete protection issue seemed to need more work. I drafted several versions of a new athlete protection policy before ever stepping onto the Board. I advocated for mandatory reporting, a reporting hotline, defining sexual misconduct, education, and no statutes of limitation. That year USAS passed the most ground-breaking and cutting edge athlete protection policies of any NGB .”


And this should be commended.


Yet where Berkoff’s credibility comes into question is in the area of accountability.  Now that it’s become obvious that many higher-ups at USA Swimming were aware of Rick Curl and other abusive coaches, why doesn’t’ Berkoff speak out? Does he feel that the past is the past and there’s no point in punishing those who enabled abuse to go on unchecked for decades?  Is there some sort of unspoken agreement that Berkoff can rant all he wants about changing the system but there is to be no mention of accountability for those entrenched individuals who were in charge of the house when all the abuse issues were occurring – like USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus or individuals at the Bryan Cave law firm that oversees all their “investigations” into abuse, or John Leonard, the de facto head of the swim coaches association.


I go back to the quote from this past January from Jamie Fabos Olsen, the marketing director for USA Swimming, mentioned in my first article in this series, when I first inquired about this scandal – “We chose to move on and not dwell on the past.”


But there is no statute of limitations on accountability, most especially when these same people are in power and not one major figure – no one – has resigned from USA Swimming.


A person who is deeply familiar with the matter, speaking anonymously of Berkoff, said, “it seemingly appears that when politicians get elected to office in places such as Washington, they suddenly drink that water from the Potomac and something definitely changes them. Perhaps the water at Colorado Springs is no different.”


Emails to Mr. Berkoff and others were not returned.