US Swimming sexual abuse scandal continues to grow
Truth of decades of abuse is seeping out with more than 100 coaches banned
Kelley Currin (centre) before she talks to the media after her former swim coach Rick Curl was sentenced for abusing her on May 23rd, 2013 in Washington, DC. Photograph: Getty Images
When young girls in his charge did well in training, they were often rewarded by being told to use the special shower in the locker room. That was the one Hindson had hooked up to video cameras, which filmed children as young as 10 as they undressed and washed. Then a woman bought his computer on eBay and discovered footage of a swimmer showering. Swindon is currently serving 33 years for possession and production of child pornography.
In California, Andy King liked to sit younger female swimmers on his lap when they did well during training. He then sexually assaulted them in his office next to the pool or in his car. Victims were aged 10 and up and one had an abortion when he made her pregnant at 14.
King preyed on kids across two states for more than three decades. When one girl finally told her pastor what was going on and charges were filed, 14 more of his former proteges came forward. He pled no contest and was sentenced to 40 years in jail for committing what the judge described as “every conceivable sex act” against children.
At last count, King and Hindson are just two of more than 100 American swimming coaches jailed and/or banned for life in the past few years for offences against boys and girls.
As that tally of offenders indicates, this may be the largest abuse scandal in the history of sport. With new revelations constantly emerging, the number of victims probably runs into the thousands. Given that some will inevitably choose not to speak up, the true extent of these crimes may never be known.
For anybody who has followed the scandal of the Catholic Church, the pattern of this story runs along depressingly familiar lines. It appears that USA Swimming, the governing body of the sport since 1979, often did its best to conceal the true extent of the problem, made it extremely difficult for victims to get their stories out, and allowed suspect individuals to continue working with children long after allegations and accusations against them began to pile up.
“I write today to respectfully request that you fully investigate USA Swimming’s handling of both past and present cases of child sexual abuse,” wrote then congressman George Miller in a letter to FBI director James B Corney last July.
“USA Swimming is regularly failing to address abuse allegations in a complete and timely manner, even though, according to the organisation, no statute of limitations exists for abuse cases within its ranks.
“Accordingly, it is our understanding that leadership and other staff within USA Swimming possess information about previous and presumably present cases of abuse, that, if ignored or improperly investigated, leave children at risk of abuse.”
After Irish Times sportswriter Johnny Watterson first broke the story of George Gibney and child abuse in Irish swimming in the mid-1990s, some people were incredulous when it later emerged the disgraced coach was working with kids in America.
As it turns out, nobody should have been surprised. Swimming here has long been rife with paedophilia and sexual abuse. Case after case has emerged, some stretching back decades, involving pools in every corner of the country and indicting some of the most famous names in the sport.
In 2013, Diana Nyad earned a footnote in history when, at the age of 64, she became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without the aid of a shark cage. Before and since that 53-hour feat, she has publicly recounted how she was abused by her coach, the late Jack Nelson.
An Olympian as a competitor in 1956 and as the United States’s coach 20 years later, the iconic Nelson worked at the Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale where Nyad and another female student claim he repeatedly raped them when they were teenagers in the early 1960s.
If Jancy Thompson’s story 30 years later has a more modern flavour, including a coach purchasing a webcam so he could have cybersex with her, the manner in which she suffered at the hands of somebody she and her parents trusted is very similar.
Norm Havercroft began coaching Thompson at the West Valley Swim Club in California when she was 11 and began molesting her at 15. Sometimes he made her swim laps while wearing a dog collar to which he held the leash.
Because the offences took place outside the statute of limitations (which varies from state to state), Thompson filed a civil suit against Havercroft that he settled out of court last November.
That case perfectly illustrates how the scandal in swimming goes far beyond lone predators on the pool deck. USA Swimming was first made aware of allegations of sexual abuse against Havercroft as far back as 1996. Much like a priest moving diocese under a cloud, he merely switched swim clubs, continued coaching and resumed attacking swimmers.
Worse again, his was not an isolated case of an offender being allowed access to children for years after warnings had been sounded.
Andy King first cropped up on the radar in an emailed complaint to USA Swimming in 2002. The association refused to investigate that charge against him and counselled the club involved to keep the matter confidential.
When the association introduced mandatory background checks of all coaches to root out predators, King passed with flying colours in 2008. One year later, he was finally arrested and exposed as a serial abuser.
There were others as well. Having won Olympic medals in 1968 and 1972, Mitch Ivey began coaching and quickly became known for two things: his ability to train swimmers to contend at the Games, and his tendency to abuse his female charges.
Ivey’s predilection for underage girls was an open secret in the sport and his relationship with a 16-year-old swimmer was exposed to a national audience by ESPN in 1993.
In the light of that revelation, the University of Florida fired him, but he continued to find coaching gigs at clubs and private schools. USA Swimming didn’t move to ban Ivey until 2013.
The fact that a coach with that type of reputation could continue to earn a living in the pool for another two decades points to one of the more unique aspects of this particular scandal. It wasn’t just those in power who were willing to turn a blind eye.
There must have been parents at the schools and clubs where Ivey worked who were aware of his past transgressions and simply figured his coaching excellence trumped his crimes. That may sound a tad far-fetched – until you learn the story of Kelley Currin.
“At Olympic Trials in 1984, each swimmer had his or her own room,” said Currin in her victim impact statement, delivered in Maryland Circuit Court at the sentencing of her former coach, Rick Curl, in 2013.
“The night before I was to swim, Rick came into my room at midnight, lay down in the bed, got up, urinated on the wall, and then fondled me for an hour until I told him that I needed to sleep. I didn’t understand why he urinated on the wall . . . now I know he was drunk.”
Curl is another coach with proven ability to turn prospects into Olympic medallists at his eponymous Curl-Burke Swim Club outside Washington, DC. He kissed and fondled Currin (then one of the most promising butterfly specialists in the world) for the first time when she was 13 and the abuse progressed from there.
Her parents found out in 1986 but, on the advice of a lawyer, they negotiated a six-figure settlement with Curl in order to spare their daughter a public ordeal. Moreover, they also allowed him to continue to coach her in supervised circumstances because they didn’t want to jeopardize her chances of a swimming scholarship to the University of Texas.
“My parents made a huge mistake,” said Currin last year.
When Curl was being sentenced to seven years in jail, 50 of his supporters filled the courtroom and his attorney filed 72 letters about his good character that had been written on his behalf.
It appears his relationship with Currin had been known to many prominent figures in swimming for decades. Indeed, Currin herself has publicly named all the coaches she told about her plight over the years.
Some of them turned out to be abusers themselves; not a single one took any action against Curl. To many in American swimming, it seemed this was just part of a very peculiar and warped culture.
“The key reason swimming became the ‘perfect storm’ setting of youth coach sexual abuse has to do with the career cycle of female athletes in this sport,” says Irvin Muchnick, who has co-led a campaign to hold authorities to account through the website Concussion Inc.
“In track and field, by contrast, women peak a bit later, so the scandals tend to involve coaches’ inappropriate interactions with those they oversee at the collegiate and pro levels. In swimming, the common paradigm is a 30-something or older coach and the star a 13- to 16-year-old girl.
“She has just developed hips and breasts, and if she is still driven to dominate her competitors as she did when she was younger, she will need to take her training and commitment to a new level – all at the same time she is developing the body of a young woman.
“She becomes uniquely dependent – in terms of hours spent together, and both career advancement and generic male approval sought from – on an authority figure who might be oblivious to boundaries. This is where ‘grooming’ sets in.”
Despite the growing litany of cases, some in swimming still don’t appear to grasp the true horror of what happened.
Last year, Chuck Wielgus, executive director of USA Swimming since 1997, was voted into the sport’s International Hall of Fame. Aside from being the man in charge when the association failed to properly react to the problem, Wielgus gained national infamy in 2010, when he was asked by a television crew if he wanted to say sorry to the abuse victims. “You feel I need to apologise to them?” he responded.
The Hall of Fame accolade was only rescinded when abuse victims, including Diana Nyad and Jancy Thompson, and the Women’s Sport Foundation publicly protested.
“Not until Wielgus was heavily pressured by the United States Congress, by heart-breaking media stories on the unrelenting parade of victims, by lawsuits, and by new United States Olympic Committee rules, did USA Swimming start to protect victims,” stated the petition against him.
“In short, when it comes to sexual abuse, Chuck Wielgus has not been a leader in protecting victims; he has instead responded to outside pressure, and only after other avenues of obfuscation have been exhausted.”
Having met with the FBI shortly after congressman Miller’s letter last summer, USA Swimming has been taking steps to get its house in order.
In 2010, it established a SafeSport initiative to combat abuse. Next month in Colorado, it will host a conference on the topic for leaders within swimming.
However, critics claim there remains a troubling lack of accountability. As long as those in charge remain in power when files of complaints against coaches mysteriously went missing and internal investigators regularly claimed that victims (who were on social media) couldn’t be tracked down to give evidence against offenders, the sport has a long, long way to go.
Meanwhile, in Massachusetts last month, superior court judge Bruce R Henry ruled that Stephen Embry can proceed with a lawsuit against Harvard University because the statute of limitations did not apply in his case.
Now 57, Embry claims that from the age of 12 onwards he was molested at least 100 times at the campus pool by his now-deceased swimming coach, Benn Merritt.
The cases pile up.
The courts hear more and more harrowing testimony.
The truth continues to seep out.