Complete headline links to our Shoulberg series are at https://concussioninc.net/?p=10736.
by Irvin Muchnick
As we have chronicled over the years, one of the several world-class swimmers Dick Shoulberg mentored was Hall of Famer David Berkoff, inventor of the “Berkoff blastoff” underwater backstroke start.
Their relationship was more complicated than even I knew at the time of my original reports. When Berkoff decided to run for the USA Swimming board as a reform candidate in 2010, Shoulberg ran against him. This is a mere detail, inasmuch as Berkoff, who got elected on a pledge to root out and expose coach sexual abuse, wound up doing nothing of the sort. Berkoff simply hyped his outspokenness during an earlier period as an athlete representative on the board in the 1990s, and downplayed and tamped down the furor over nationally televised abuse investigations in the months prior to his board restallation.
But without a doubt, Berkoff projected that he revered Shoulberg and in no way placed responsibility for any of swimming’s problems at his old club coach’s doorstep.
Today Shoulberg’s legacy is under the gun, as it becomes obvious that he ran a program in which he abused kids verbally and with sadistic methods, and harbored assistants and athletes who were abusive, sometimes sexually or criminally so. All while posturing “let’s not be like the Catholic church” bromides as he headed a USA Swimming anti-abuse task force that promoted a “zero tolerance” policy (or was zero-plus-one or zero-plus-whatever-the-PR-traffic-could-bear?).
Well, at least there’s always the model of Berkoff’s legendary coach at Harvard, Joe Bernal. Or is there?
Last summer Bernal disappeared from the club in Dracut, Massachusetts, which he had long owned and operated under the name “Bernal’s Gators Swim Club.” On January 27 of this year, Bernal sold the club to Anne Frazier, who “rebranded” it by removing Bernal’s name. Sources say Bernal was in hot water with USA Swimming, though details are not known. A decade ago, rumors had swirled in the New England swimming community regarding misconduct by Bernal’s son.
See “‘Bernal’s No More, Gator Swim Club Formed in Massachusetts,” https://swimswam.com/bernals-no-more-gator-swim-club-formed-in-massachusetts/.
At the time of his disappearance, Bernal had a falling out with his daughter Michelle — now Michelle Bernal Sweeney, wife of another coach, James Sweeney. On her Facebook page, Michelle made some harsh negative comments about her father, then deleted them.
On the comment board below the SwimSwam article, a “Michelle” wrote, “Swim coaches across the country need to stop burying their heads in the sand and support our victims.”
Immediately afterward, a “James” (James Sweeney?) commented, “Please know that this is NOT a comment from Michelle Bernal Sweeney. People assume too much.”
David Berkoff, a tireless online troll, wrote on the same comment board: “Joe was a wonderful mentor and coach. He took me from being an underachiever to a world beater. He made swimming fun.”
At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Berkoff was upset by Japan’s Daichi Suzuki in the finals of the 100-meter backstroke. (Berkoff won gold medals in both ’88 and ’92 on winning American medley relay teams.) I’m not comfortable characterizing a silver medal as a failure, and Berkoff himself was gracious and sportsmanlike about the ’88 backstroke disappointment. He even streams his post-race NBC interview at the website of his Montana law firm.
But to his peers, silver was failure, and swimming sources say it led Berkoff to leaving Bernal’s tutelage and returning to train with Shoulberg in Pennsylvania.
The Berkoff-Shoulberg reunion came during the period of Shoulberg’s creepiest ever association: with the clinically insane industrial heir John du Pont, who fancied himself a potentate of first the modern pentathalon and then amateur swimming, and who in 1996 would murder wrestler David Schultz — the subject of Steve Carell’s bats-in-the-belfry portrayal in the movie Foxcatcher. More on this shortly.