Hundreds of Team USA Swimmers Were Sexually Abused for Decades, and the People in Charge Knew About it and Ignored It

USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus, who died last year, came under fire for his handling of sex abuse cases. While he at first denied culpability, he later apologized in a blog post: “I wish my eyes had been more open to the individual stories of the horrors of sexual abuse.” (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)
USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus, who died last year, came under fire for his handling of sex abuse cases. While he at first denied culpability, he later apologized in a blog post: “I wish my eyes had been more open to the individual stories of the horrors of sexual abuse.” (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

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, USA Swimming had taken any steps to bring the organization up to speed on the sexual abuse issue?

“No,” said Wielgus, who died last April after a lengthy battle with colon cancer.

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.

• In the more than 20 years since Wielgus took charge of USA Swimming in July 1997, at least 252 swim coaches and officials have been arrested, charged by prosecutors, or disciplined by USAS for sexual abuse or misconduct against individuals under 18. Those coaches and officials have a total of at least 590 alleged victims, some of them abused while attending pre-school swim classes.

• 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.

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The Orange County Register