A heartbreaking story in Outside magazine drills deep into the scourge of sexual abuse in competitive swimming. Written by Rachel Sturtz, the piece moves from the case of Anna Strzempko, who alleges that her middle-school coach raped her repeatedly in a storage room above her YMCA pool in 2008, to the USA Swimming officials who for many years went to perverse extremes to look the other way in situations like hers.
This is not a new story. In 2010, ABC’s 20/20 and the ESPN documentary series Outside the Lines sparked a flare of publicity with its pieces on Brian Hindson, an Indiana coach who secretly videotaped female swimmers in the locker room shower, and Andy King, a serial rapist and coach who preyed on at least 15 girls as he drifted between California towns. Those earlier reports also revealed a bigger pattern of abuse in the sport. As of 2014, more than 100 USA Swimming coaches have received life bans—and those bans reflect only the small sliver of incidents that were reported, then adequately investigated, then justly punished.
Sturtz’s deeply researched article makes clear that many sex crimes committed against young athletes never leave the locker room shadows. In the wake of allegations that prominent Washington, D.C., swim coach Rick Curl sexually abused a 13-year-old butterfly champion, the blog Cap and Goggles ran a post on how often these crimes occur and how rarely they’re discussed. Allegations like the ones against Curl (who was later convicted of child sexual abuse and sentenced to seven years in prison) are “not news at all—not to the swimmers and coaches and parents who grew up swimming,” wrote author Casey Barrett. “This has been an open secret for ages.”
Sexual abuse cases in youth sports “happen with much greater frequency than people realize,” Sturtz asserts in the Outside piece, and then goes long on the institutional forces that have allowed the abuse to silently metastasize. Unlike most European countries, the United States has no government agency dedicated to protecting kids from molestation by their youth coaches. Instead, that responsibility falls to the United States Olympic Committee, which then outsources the task to national governing bodies, or NGBs, like USA Swimming, USA Football, and USA Taekwondo. This decentralized structure ensures that the people dealing with complaints of sexual abuse are those with the closest ties to the athletic community under investigation, officials who are more likely than disinterested third parties to wish to preserve appearances and reputations. With “the fox … guarding the henhouse,” Sturtz writes, “the USOC’s system historically protected the institution and its coaches more than children, dragging out investigations and lawsuits until sexual-assault survivors lost what little fight they had left.”
Until 2011, USA Swimming had no formal procedure for prescreening coaches, training them, or processing accusations of abuse. When a complaint arose, it generally went to a three-person panel chaired by USA Swimming’s own legal counsel—the very same defense lawyers who might later try to poke holes in the victim’s case in court. Most victims were lucky to get a panel hearing at all. According to USA Swimming, individual swim clubs were not required to report sexual abuse accusations to their NGB until 2010 (although Sturtz uncovered a 1999 code of conduct mandating that all complaints be sent to the USA Swimming president). That meant the people with the authority to handle sex crime allegations were not typically aware of the allegations (though victims and their supporters, including long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad and Olympic gold medalist Deena Deardurff, allege that USA Swimming higher-ups did see the accusations and chose to ignore them; this suspicion ultimately forced executive director Chuck Wielgus to withdraw his name from induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame).
Furthermore, should a suit ever get off the ground, USA Swimming’s defense lawyers stood ready to drown it in tedious, unnecessary paperwork. The “standard tactic,” according to Strzempko’s lawyer, Jonathan Little, was “filing every single motion they could file, even shit that didn’t’t make sense,” to wear the complainant down. During the Strzempko case, Little himself was sued for taking part in a “frivolous lawsuit,” though a judge quickly dismissed the charges. (The judge couldn’t dismiss Little’s $10,000 legal bill, however, or his increased rates for malpractice insurance.)
There is some good news. The burst of publicity and disgust around sexual abuse scandals in youth athletics has forced the USOC to evolve. In June, it announced the creation of a new agency, the National Center for Safe Sport, to investigate accusations of molestation and assault. Even Wielgus, who once asked incredulously whether he needed to apologize to victims, has become contrite. “I’m sorry, so very sorry,” he wrote in a recent statement. And in 2013, California congressman George Miller asked the Government Accountability Office to research the sexual abuse culture in youth sports, especially USA Swimming. The results of the yearlong investigation will be released this spring, according to Sturtz.
The Outside piece is long and powerful. But one of the most affecting parts, for me, was when Sturtz spoke to an expert about “grooming,” the process by which “children are conditioned to believe that inappropriate behavior from an adult is a logical outgrowth of their relationship.” Adults groom kids by gently, imperceptibly nudging boundaries. First, a coach may take a special, friendly interest in a swimmer, then meet with her alone, then touch her hand, then remove her suit. At no point on the slippery slope does a single act register as inappropriate, yet the seemingly natural flow of events deposits the child in an alien, nightmare world.
Isn’t this also how our culture of complicit silence takes root? In a horrible, unintentional way, sitting with rumors becomes minimizing their importance becomes sanctioning abuse. What feels like cautious inaction slides irrevocably into moral failing territory. For members of the swimming community—those for whom the prevalence of assault is apparently “an open secret”—maybe one act of silence simply begat another.