by Irvin Muchnick
Today’s latest, greatest, hottest story is a Homeland Security task force in Seattle that is investigating swimming coach Sean Hutchison. His former girlfriend, Ariana Kukors, accuses him of grooming her as an underage swimmer, beginning when she was 13, long before their relationship became “legal.” Hutchison’s apartment is being searched for nude photographs and other evidence.
Kukors, now 28, said she was coming forward at this time as part of the movement to empower victims.
To which Concussion Inc. says amen, but also: Stop the presses. We have been reporting the odorous Hutchison-Kukors relationship since 2012. Major media outlets, most notably the Washington Post, settled for telling half the story, in code, and only when they were able to embed it in the thumb-sucking insider politics of USA Swimming.
Neither the Post nor anyone else connected it to widespread youth coach sexual abuse culture, which dominates public conversation in the wake of the Larry Nassar-USA Gymnastics scandals.
The best hope for continued momentum in this direction is a promise of hearings by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which would encompass not only USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University, but also USA Swimming, USA Taekwondo, and the U.S. Olympic Committee.
And that’s why I’m doubling down on my skepticism that Senator Dianne Feinstein’s Safe Sport Act, alone, will prove to be anything more than a media-frenzied exercise in false consensus post-Nassar. Last week the Feinstein legislation passed the House of Representatives by a tidy, Politburo-like, 99.28% (416-3). For whatever incremental value this new law might have (and that’s assuming the Senate re-passes a version reconciled with the House version), there is one thing it will not accomplish: independent oversight and accountability of the USOC.
Independent oversight and accountability remain the missing piece of Amateur Sports Act reform. As things stand, the “safe sport” operations of the various national sport governing bodies — a kind of internal affairs unit or HR department — are simply migrating to the “National Center for Safe Sport,” which seeks to fundraise its way up to speed. Is codifying that sexual misconduct allegations must be reported to police the solution? Or for that matter, even the main point? My dissident feeling is that hearings on this subject, at this stage of revelations, do not merit relegation to the whims of fanboys, flag-wavers, and corporate sponsors. Rather, they should be beamed gavel-to-gavel, from Capitol Hill, on C-SPAN.
Back to Sean Hutchison and Ariana Kukors. In scrolling through this site’s historical coverage of them, I do not emphasize my pique over again getting “big-footed” by larger and more pusillanimous outlets. What I wish to emphasize is the story itself.
Hutchison, out of King Aquatics in Seattle, and his star pupil Kukors were long rumored to have been an item prior to her reaching consent age. Even then, the two continued to keep their relationship discreet, despite the absence of a USA Swimming prohibition against an adult coach consorting with an adult athlete. Kukors was on the 2012 Olympic team in London. (Between 2009 and 2015, she held the world record time in the 200-meter individual medley — though critics say an asterisk should be attached because her best swims were during a window when time standards fell left and right with the help of a swimsuit technology that would soon be outlawed.)
In late 2010 and early 2011, the Washington Post, without naming Kukors, reported on irregularities at USA Swimming’s “excellence center,” the professional Fullerton Aquatic Swim Team (FAST) in California, which Hutchison directed. In what would become painfully clear was a series of leaks orchestrated by a coaching rival, national head coach Mark Schubert — keep reading — the Post’s Amy Shipley reported on allegations of an inappropriate relationship between a coach and a swimmer there.
USA Swimming’s investigation exonerated Hutchison, but the organization also turned right around and accepted his resignation. If those two clauses seem cognitively dissident, you have to remember that this is a group that has long maintained a secret “flagged” list in addition to a published list of banned coaches. (The latter didn’t even exist until 2010.)
A little-remarked-upon offshoot of the FAST fiasco is how it contributed to the flameout of one of the generation’s top swimming prospects, a North Dakota girl named Dagny Knutson. An honors student as well as a great athlete, Knutson had planned to attend a top college. That was before her family got the spectacularly bad advice of USA Swimming that she should turn pro instead. She landed for a while at the program in Fullerton, and though there are no reports that she was an abuse victim, her witnessing of the promiscuous environment of older swimmers there — including Hutchison with coach’s pet Kukors — could have contributed to Knutson’s eating disorder and rapid loss of appetite for competitive swimming.
In a February 2011 email to the membership, USA Swimming’s CEO, the late Chuck Wielgus, addressed “a groundswell of outrage … from the coaching community where people are simply fed-up with rumors” about Schubert and Hutchison.
More than a year later, Tim Joyce — then reporting for WBAL radio in Baltimore and soon to become my reporting partner at Concussion Inc. through 2014 — demolished the lies of Wielgus. The swimming boss denied that USA Swimming had paid Schubert to go away; in fact, they had arrived at a cash settlement of Schubert’s contract, amounting to at least $625,000. Wielgus said, “Mark Shubert never presented USA Swimming with any incriminating information regarding Sean Hutchison”; in fact, Schubert was prohibited from talking about sex abuse issues at FAST or anywhere else, as a provision of his settlement.
The Schubert revelations came about as a result of a lawsuit by Dia Rianda, a Southern California coach and a significant USA Swimming financial donor, who claimed she had been wrongfully fired at Shubert’s Golden West Swim Club in Huntington Beach after her whistleblowing reports on abusive coaches’ practices.
In 2012, Yahoo Sports’ ThePostGame.com sent me to the Olympic Swimming Trials in Omaha to file a long investigative report on the sport-wide problem of coach sexual abuse. But like many a publication before and since, PostGame dithered. On July 24, 2012, I pulled the article and published it myself.
Prior to publication, I exchanged emails and spoke on the phone with Hutchison. In his first, saber-rattling email, Hutchison said, “I will not take kindly to being included in an article about sexual misconduct in any capacity.” The quote that he ultimately agreed to provide for the article said only that he had moved on to a start-up company utilizing breakthroughs in technology to assist stroke victims. (Hutchison soon, however, drifted back to the swim coaching ranks.)
In 2013, disclosures in the Dia Rianda lawsuit proved that Mark Schubert had hired a spy to follow Hutchison and Kukors around in Fullerton and snap compromising photos of them. In his deposition, Schubert also admitted to having been the source for the Washington Post articles that forced Hutchison’s resignation.
Concussion Inc. uploaded the 14-page private investigator’s report, which had been produced under subpoena, to http://muchnick.net/schubertspyrecord.pdf. We obscured the images of Kukors. (Rianda settled her suit against Schubert in 2014.)
Once the FAST furor settled down, Hutchison and Kukors were open about their relationship and were even featured together in an article for the magazine of the American Swimming Coaches Association. [CORRECTION 2/20/18: Hutchison and Kukors were not open about their personal relationship. The American Swimming Coaches Association highlighted their coach-athlete relationship, not their personal relationship. Concussion Inc. regrets the error.]
In December 2016, Hutchison was introduced at an ASCA event by George Block, another coach. Block called Hutchison a “scentiist,” “an artist,” and “a swim whisperer.”