USA SWIMMING SCANDAL – The First Article
Here is the first article I wrote on the scandal, published back in July. It serves as an extended overview of the decades-long history of abuse within the sport.
**USA SWIMMING SCANDAL – WORSE THEN PENN STATE?**
This article is the result of an exhaustive, seven months-long investigation into USA Swimming. It is a small part of an expansive and complicated story. The goal of this extended column is to inform the readers of important elements of a grossly underreported story. All information contained herein is the result of first-hand interviews and information obtained from reliable and knowledgeable sources. All consideration was made to let USA Swimming answer the more serious charges made against the organization, but on nearly every occasion it declined to respond.
When I contacted Irish journalist Justine McCarthy – she broke the massive story of years of abuse by her nation’s swim coaches – about her feelings on staying professionally detached from this sordid saga, she wrote me: “Maintaining professional detachment was never possible nor did I think it necessary. These survivors have never been fairly represented and that lost voice needs to be compensated for. Besides, this is a totally human story so it cannot be told with clinical detachment – at least, that’s my view.”
I agree. It’s about time that journalists – who cover sports or otherwise – shed their mythical cloak of detachment, their endless false equivalencies when there are the supposed “two sides a story”, and use their words to help foster change. It diminishes the power of the press for journalists to be so accepting of institutional explanations – be it with United States Swimming, the Penn State tragedy or the Wall Street mess. It’s a lesson that needs to be constantly relearned if journalism is to avoid dysfunction.
The following story is, at best, a saga of institutional failure and moral bankruptcy and, at worst, a covering-up of abuse that may lead to criminal investigations of USA Swimming officials.
By Tim Joyce
Sarah Burt is dead.
An outstanding student and competitive swimmer who became a lifeguard and loved teaching children to swim, her private anguish became too much to bear. So after finally telling her parents of the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her United States Swimming coach, she made a decision. On June 29, 2010 Burt drove her car to a busy intersection in rural Illinois, 20 minutes from Peoria. She parked, got out, and ended her years of torment when she walked into traffic and was hit by a semi-truck. She was 16 years old.
Her story has remained a tragic, and largely unknown, footnote to a decades-long history of abuse by USA Swimming coaches.
USA Swimming, a non-governing body (NGB) of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) has been conducting an internal investigation of the matter for over a year and a half with no result thus far. The Burt family, after repeatedly being told that they’d be updated on the status of USA Swimming’s inquiry has heard nothing, only adding to the emotional hell and heartbreak they’ve endured for more than two years.
The same year of Burt’s death, Andy King, a San Jose swimming coach, was sentenced to 40 years in prison after authorities uncovered a pattern of sexual abuse that lasted three decades and involved more than a dozen young on the West Coast.
USA Swimming in 2008 had proudly accepted King into its ranks, stating in an acceptance letter, “Congratulations. Your background screening has been thoroughly reviewed and meets the qualification standards set by USA Swimming.” According to USA Swimming, the organization at the time checked only for criminal convictions and didn’t include background interviews or investigations with local police.
California attorney Robert Allard, who is leading the prosecution and settling of cases against USA Swimming puts the blame squarely on USA Swimming’s leadership – a leadership that is still entirely in place today.
“To understand how this culture can flourish”, Allard said, “one need only look at the individuals in charge of USA Swimming. (USA Swimming President) Chuck Wielgus effectively thwarted any investigation of King by ordering that a swimmer’s complaint of sex abuse be kept ‘confidential’ in 2002. Wielgus then attempted to deceive the American public on ESPN by stating that King was not even on USA Swimming’s ‘radar’ until he was arrested in 2010 for child molestation. Wielgus repeated this under penalty of perjury in legal documents.”
It appears that the leadership of USA Swimming has too often placed a premium on preserving the reputation – of both the organization and its coaches – rather than protect the healthy and safety of its athletes, at any cost.
Does this sound familiar?
Like Penn State, the leaders at USA Swimming were aware of problems with coaches but opted to suppress what they knew rather than cleanse from within. But while football is the national sporting religion and Joe Paterno was one of its saints, swimming is barely on the sporting radar except during Olympic summers, as we’re in now.
So in that sense, the Penn State tragedy was an “easy story” for reporters, with a built-in narrative and one clearly defined evildoer with a cast of complicit characters in the wings.
The USA Swimming story is actually far more comprehensive and layered, which renders it a far more challenging topic to follow.
Simply put, the national media got downright lazy in failing to follow-up on the USA Swimming situation after the story of rampant sexual abuse by USA Swim coaches broke in 2010, after ABC News 20/20 and others broadcast an extensive discussion of the case.
And nothing has changed at USA Swimming. No one took the blame, accountability utterly – and shamefully – absent. Consider that the major players who were in charge at USA Swimming when the sex abuse scandals broke in 2010 – long-time Executive Director Chuck Wielgus, head of Club Development Pat Hogan and others – are still wielding the greatest influence in the organization.
“We chose to move on and not dwell on the past,” Jamie Olsen, USA Swimming marketing director, told me when I asked her why the organization has taken no action.
In September 2011, “Jane Doe,” a King victim in San Jose settled her case against USA Swimming. The terms are confidential. Currently there are three pending cases against USA Swimming – Jancy Thompson v. USA Swimming in San Jose, Calif.; and Taflinger v. USA Swimming and Weiss v. USA Swimming, both in Indiana.
There will likely be more lawsuits in the days to come. Just last week the Washington Post published a story about the Washington, DC-area swim coaching legend Richard Curl and his sexual contact with a former swimmer, just 13 years old at the time.
And there are continue to be new cases of sexual abuse by swim coaches around the country, as evidenced by coaches charged with such crimes in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Orange County, California, and Malvern, Pennsylvania.
Stories about sexual abuse in the swim community date back decades. In fact, it’s been something of a global plague, with the United States being the latest country forced to confront sex scandals in swimming.
Sexual abuse scandals destroyed the Irish national swim program in 1998 after revelations that George Gibney and other coaches had abused underage swimmers. Gibney was charged on 27 counts of molesting both boys and girls, but while he contested the charges against him on grounds the statute of limitations had expired, he fled to the United States where, incredibly, he wasn’t put on any “do not coach” list. Numerous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests have been submitted to look into how Gibney was able to come to the United States. But as of this writing, the FOIA queries have all been rejected.
The Irish situation became so extreme that Frank McCann, who had been the Irish swim team manager at the time the scandal was breaking, was convicted of murdering his wife and child in order to prevent them from discovering he had fathered a child by an underage swimmer.
According to multiple sources, among the damning facts regarding USA Swimming include making deals with coaches who have abused minors in order to keep the issue quiet; the influential leader of the coach’s association, John Leonard, stalling attempts by the organization to tighten sexual abuse policies; and USA Swimming creating its own insurance company (United States Sports Insurance Company) that did not include sexual molestation as part of its coverage until the USOC pressured it to on May 3, 1999.
Among the coaches accused of inappropriate sexual behavior is Aaron Bartleson, a former USA Swimming coach who worked with the West Coast Aquatics Swim Club in California. He resigned from that club in 2005 after a co-worker accused him of sexual misconduct. At the time, Bartleson didn’t suffer any repercussions and was allowed to resign quietly.
Bartleson eventually moved to Colorado where he was hired as a coach at Mitchell High School. In 2008, Bartleson applied for membership in a USA Swimming-associated club. After a private investigator reported Bartleson’s past to USA Swimming, it decided not to allow Bartleson to coach. In 2009, Wielgus under advisement from law firm HRO (now Bryan Cave, LLC), entered into a confidential agreement with Bartleson forbidding him to coach at a USA Swimming club.
It was not the first time Wielgus brokered a deal to save face. Former USA Swimming National Team Director Everett Uchiyama was accused of sexual misconduct in January 2006 but he, too, was allowed to resign without explanation. Further, Hogan, the managing director of club management for USA Swimming, was likely aware of the deal and the misconduct, but gave Uchiyama a positive reference when he applied for a job at a Colorado Springs country club. And Uchiyama’s wife Helen worked for Hogan at the time.
When the Penn State story first broke, many made the analogy between the university and the Catholic church for the way it concealed the sinister doings within its hallowed walls. In reality, the USA Swimming abuse scandals are more similar to the Catholic church, as the scope and breadth of the swimming scandal far exceeds that of Penn State.
There are some good guys to this story, those within USA Swimming who have fought back, whistleblowers who wanted – and still want – to restore respectability to swimming. Mike Saltzstein, a former USA Swimming vice president, publicly pleaded with the organization by writing a white paper about its sexual abuse policies. He asserts that USA Swimming retaliated against him by removing him from the USA Swimming Officials List because of his insistence that the organization face the issue of abuse. In 2010, after being vindicated in arbitration, he was reinstated, though he is not present in London be on the list for this summer’s games.
“When [USA] Swimming executives, after publication of my White Paper, finally responded it was in the form of direct threats, retaliation, and actions to ensure no one else had the temerity to come forward.”
Saltzstein said the abuse goes beyond the professional arena. Since speaking out, he says his household trash has been taken from the curb to be investigated and his friends have been “badgered” by investigators.
Denial about sexual abuse is rampant in the swimming community, particularly at the coaching level. John Leonard, longtime leader of the American Swim Coaches Association, has protested having to deal with the issue, even going so far as to oppose laws curtailing “deck changing” (where swimmers change out of their suits/clothes with hardly any protective screen). Said Leonard, “banning deck changing will not protect a single child from sexual abuse.”
Additionally, Leonard went so far as to tell a reporter from Aquatics International magazine that, sexual abuse is a “societal issue” and that “portraying it as a USA-Swimming sex scandal was totally unfair, incorrect and irresponsible.”
When I asked Leonard if he ever opposed improving safeguards against abuse, he replied, “I have always been in full support of all efforts to improve child protection in our sport. I also would like to make sure that all USA Swimming members are protected, including doing all we can to prevent unproven accusations from negatively affecting a coach’s career.”
At least Leonard responded to some hard questions. That’s more than can be said for Wielgus or his legal team at Bryan Cave. Or even USOC Executive Director Scott Blackmun. The USOC is a powerful group that can, if they choose, wield tremendous influence over their National Governing Bodies; it was the USOC’s actions in 1999 that forced USSIC to have sexual molestation covered in its insurance policies. When I queried Blackmun about the scandal in general or Bryan Cave’s influence on USA Swimming specifically, I received no reply.
And that didn’t surprise me. After all, Blackmun was a former law partner of Richard Young at HRO (now Bryan Cave). And Young has negotiated contracts for Wielgus and also oversaw the hushing up of coach abuse and other investigations for USA Swimming. And the three of them all live in close proximity in Colorado Springs.
USA Swimming is a manifestly incestuous and secretive organization where big money is at stake and tremendous perks can be enjoyed by those at the top; be it Wielgus’s nearly $800,000 per year salary or the first-class travel accommodations and level of Olympic access afforded those at USA Swimming.
And it’s likely only going to get worse for USA Swimming. As further lawsuits are put forward, the Watergate-like shroud that protects the organization will gradually disintegrate. And, according to sources, possible criminal investigations are not out of the questions.
Says Allard, “Mr. Wielgus has been asked under penalty of perjury for all known information about three coaches who have engaged in sexually deviant behavior involving USA Swimming member swimmers, including sexual molestation. On each occasion, Mr. Wielgus denied possessing such knowledge. Based upon the information that we have gathered, Chuck Wielgus and/or USA Swimming had extensive knowledge on each of these matters. In two of them, Mr. Wielgus was intimately involved and in fact provided direction as to how the matters were to be internally handled. Without knowing the elements of a crime of perjury in the appropriate jurisdiction, I cannot say definitively if a criminal act has been committed. Based upon how I understand the crime in accordance with an ordinary lay person’s understanding, it certainly appears to me that Mr. Wielgus has perjured himself on multiple occasions.”
LOST LUGGAGE IN MONTREAL REVEALS USA SWIMMING’S DESIRE TO STIFLE ANY NEGATIVE PUBLICITY
In November of 2011 Jeff Renwick received a bizarre email from a person he had never met. In the message, a woman inquired as to whether Renwick was missing a briefcase because her husband’s got mistakenly exchanged with another passenger’s at the
Montreal airport. As he was reading the email, Renwick obviously wondered why she would think it was his. The answer came with the next sentence.
The woman wrote that, after she opened the briefcase, in an attempt to figure out the rightful owner, she came across only one piece of possible identifying information; an email from Chuck Wielgus, the president of USA Swimming (USS) sent to Renwick and cc’d to Sue Woessner, another official at USS.
Renwick thought this highly strange but quickly deducted who the briefcase might belong to – a lawyer from Colorado Springs, Richard Young, outside counsel for USA Swimming. Sure enough, Young was the owner of the briefcase and the exchange of luggage was made without a hitch.
But why was there an email sent to Renwick in the lawyer’s possession? After all, it had been seven months since Renwick had any email contact with USA Swimming. Seven months since he last communicated with an organization that he feels had treated his family with disrespect, scorn and flat-out intimidation, in a blatant violation of their own code of conduct standards. Renwick had been outspoken in his complaints about the lewd nature of social networking pages of a coach who worked at the club where Renwick’s children swam. As a result of Renwick’s persistence, he was told he was no longer welcome at the swim club.
Young replied via email that there had been a simple mix-up in luggage and that he had Renwick’s email because it had been the topic of Internet postings and he wanted to discuss it with the USA Swimming Board. But why not contact Renwick himself? If the matter was closed, why would it rise to the level of such importance? Was it all in the name attempting yet again to stifle any negative publicity?