by Irvin Muchnick
As the world processes the backwash of global stories of coaches George Gibney (Ireland and U.S.) and Alex Pussieldi (Brazil, Kuwait, U.S., and other points), a former swimmer at the Germantown Academy outside Philadelphia, under the legendary Dick Shoulberg, has sued the school for its abusive environment and for being subjected to alleged athlete-on-athlete assaults.
The swimming media didn’t seem to pick up on the story earlier this week, or at least they haven’t yet. Here’s the Philadelphia Inquirer link: http://www.philly.com/philly/education/20160211_Ex-swimmer_sues_Germantown_Academy_for_alleged_abuse.html.
Shoulberg is another one of those beloved old figures of the sport whom I’ve learned to become thoroughly sick of. He never responded to our most basic inquiries, and in his deposition in a lawsuit about sexual abuse elsewhere in a USA Swimming program, he sealed his lips like an omerta clam. (Shoulberg famously had penned an internal memo decrying cover-up, with specific language warning against becoming another Catholic Church pigpen.)
Later today or tomorrow I’ll try to pull together a compendium of all our coverage mentioning Shoulberg. His protege David Berkoff, among others, sang Shoulberg’s praises. Berkoff, of course, is the Hall of Fame swimmer who in the early 1990s admirably started pressing for exposure of and accountability for swimming’s huge abuse problem. After he got installed on the USA Swimming board for a second time in 2010, “Back Off” Berkoff sang a different tune. Once his board term ended, he again uttered tough-sounding but perfunctory pronouncements. These worms …
The more I found out about Shoulberg, the worse he looked. One of his ex-athletes, after swimming at Notre Dame, got drummed out of a Germantown assistant coaching position under a cloud of allegations; she was shuffled over to a club in nearby Allentown, and got drummed out there when word of her Germantown conduct reached her new community. (Meanwhile, a former head coach from Allentown had moved to Michael Phelps’ original team, the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, under then-head coach Bob Bowman, where horrifying hazing-plus and swimmer-on-swimmer abuse ran unchecked.)
Parents and ex-swimmers at Germantown also have painted a different picture of Shoulberg’s Germantown through the years. Though Shoulberg has never been implicated in sexually abusing one of his kids, the place reeks of Lord of the Flies absence of adult boundaries. One common and long-tolerated practice, “tea-bagging” — that is, bullying another male into mouthing your scrotum — is one of the Germantown locker room’s signatures. This comes up in the new lawsuit, as does Shoulberg’s history of body-shaming female swimmers.
The school sources say Shoulberg became adept at planting in the regional media stories about his selfless love of the sport, in particular the joy of teaching little kids how to swim, and successfully staring down the Germantown administration, diva-style, whenever scandals surfaced. His luck started to run out in 2013 when headmaster Jim Connor preemptively announced Shoulberg’s retirement — only to backtrack and bring him back for an 18-month stint as “coach emeritus” in the face of a campaign by swimming alums. Last year Connor cut Shoulberg loose for good, and wisely had a prefab statement by Shoulberg already in the can.
Good riddance, Dick Shoulberg, and now let’s get to the bottom of your program’s contribution to the scarring of boys and girls, in the name of imbuing them with life skills and athletic achievement.