by Irvin Muchnick
In 2013, the criminal assaults and bullying of a teammate by Germantown Academy swimmer “A.L.” surfaced, blowing up the tenure of Dick Shoulberg, the long-time coach and top USA Swimming and American Swimming Coaches Association official. Shoulberg was put on administrative leave, then forcibly retired, then brought back, under pressure from his acolytes, for what was announced as a finite stint as coach emeritus.
Late in 2014, with an obvious black-eye lawsuit against the school headed for filing, head of school Jim Connor faced a new level of crisis. Chris Lear, the head age-group coach, “disappeared from the coaching deck on Nov. 3 with no explanation to the team or the team parents,” Swimming World reported. And the next month, the respected mother-and-daughter assistant coaches Caroline and Collene Boland quit in disgust.
In a December 16 open letter to the community, Connor slickly explained the changes in such a way as to portray that the new head coach, Jeff Thompson, had been hired from Indiana with the chief goal of improving academic performance. Swimming World quoted sources describing a new “prep school-centered environment instead of the former club team-centered one” — whatever that meant. Connor made no direct mention of the hazing-plus athlete-on-athlete sexual abuse and physicial assaults of the Shoulberg-era locker room.
Below is the full text of the Connor letter. What made Germantown’s public relations playbook especially tricky here was the fact that the school knew full well — from previous parallel incidents going back decades, which also came to the attention of the top administrators and had even led to purported structural policy changes — that the toxic environment under Shoulberg was not a suddenly risen development. More on that shortly.
“Dear Parents of Swim Team and Aquatic Club Members:
The recent resignation announcements by Caroline and Colleen Boland have unsettled the swim community. I deeply regret the occurrence of both of these events. Caroline, a former Germantown Academy parent, and Colleen, an alumna, are excellent coaches. I want to take this opportunity to thank them for their service to the Aquatic Club, to GA, and most importantly, to the hundreds of girls and boys who improved as swimmers under their tutelage. I join with everyone in the swim community in wishing them well.
Along with this expression of gratitude and regret also comes a message of confidence about the future of GA Aquatics. True, we have endured a year of uncertainty as to how the program will move forward. With the hiring of Jeff Thompson that uncertainty is now ending, as Jeff has been charged by this administration- Jim Fenerty, Director of Athletics, Rich Schellhas, Head of the Upper School and Head Elect, and me- to “connect the pool to the school.” The values and activities of GA Aquatics will mirror those of the school with the Mission Statement providing direction. As a result, GA Aquatics, while honoring and building upon the great successes of Coach Shoulberg and his team of coaches, will grow only stronger under the leadership of Jeff and his assistants. “Growing stronger” during the Thompson era will entail:
This is the promise Coach Thompson, the GA Administration, and I make to you and your children. What we ask in return is for your flexibility, patience, and understanding as we move through this time of transition. On our end, Human Resources Director Rachel Elwood will be meeting individually with each coach on the swim team and Aquatic Club staffs to discuss this vision, hear from each how he or she is experiencing the transition, and how we might strengthen the program moving forward. Early in the New Year, after these conversations are held, Coach Thompson, Coach Fenerty, and I will meet with the coaching staffs to review the trends we have found in these discussions and hear their thoughts and concerns. Concurrently, Coach Fenerty will design and conduct a review process for the swim team and more advanced Aquatic Club members for the purpose of understanding how they, too, are experiencing the transition, while hearing their opinions as to how they can do their part to help meet the goals stated above.
I hope that this message provides clarity for you as to where the Aquatic Club is headed. We have an opportunity before us to move from strength to strength in our swim programs at GA. For sure, good coaches have stepped down or are retiring, but good coaches will replace them as well. The future of GA Swimming is as bright as it ever was, of that I am confident. I ask for your support of the program, Coach Thompson and his budding team of assistants, and, especially, of the children who swim in our pool. As adults we must come together to ensure that their swimming experience is as exceptional as any educational program we offer at GA.”
Complete links to our coverage of the scandals of Germantown Academy and its legendary swimming coach, Dick Shoulberg, are at https://concussioninc.net/?p=10736.