by Irvin Muchnick
A swimmer and coach in Colorado has given Concussion Inc. an extensive and documented account of her alleged grooming and abuse by her age-group coach starting in the late 1980s. She also discussed her subsequent failure to get a successful hearing of her charges in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 televised investigations of USA Swimming, which led to the formation of the “Safe Sport” program.
In addition, Sarah Ehekircher told us of bizarre behavior, including sexual harassment, by American Swimming Coaches Association (ASCA) executive director John Leonard during the job interview for her eventual 2004 position as director of SwimAmerica, ASCA’s nationally marketed learn-to-swim program, and during her two disastrous months there. Ehekircher’s allegations against Leonard will be chronicled shortly in the second part of this series.
First, there is the story of her seven-year cohabitation with Scott MacFarland, her coach in Aurora, Colorado, and his initiation of sex with her beginning when she was 17.
The Ehekircher-MacFarland relationship is a timely story because it parallels that of Ariana Kukors, an Olympic champion, and her coach Sean Hutchison. Investigations by law enforcement and the U.S. Olympic Committee’s new National Center for Safe Sport have followed Kukors’ account last month of Hutchison’s grooming and abuse of her from the age of 13.
Another parallel: the accusations of flawed USA Swimming investigations of both coaches — each around the time of the installment of the organization’s Safe Sport regime in 2010, and each culminating in clearance of the coach of a charge of conduct code violations in his relationship with a swimmer under his supervision.
Shortly prior to Susan Woessner’s February 22 resignation in disgrace as Safe Sport director, she and the organization had announced they were “proactively” forwarding to the national center their 2010-11 investigation of the relationship between Hutchison and Kukors, who was 21 at that time. (Woessner resigned after admitting that several years prior to the investigation, she had herself “engaged in kissing on a single occasion” with Hutchison.)
Back in 2011, responding to a report in the Washington Post that Hutchison and a swimmer were consorting — a story planted by Hutchison coaching rival Mark Schubert, then the head Olympic coach — USA Swimming announced that its investigation “exonerated” Hutchison in the allegation of an inappropriate relationship. However, Hutchison soon thereafter resigned from directing the professional training center in Fullerton, California.
A key question emerging from this article is whether USA Swimming likewise will forward to the National Center for Safe Sport all materials associated with swimming’s 2010 National Board of Review (NBOR) hearing into Ehekircher’s allegation that MacFarland moved into her bed to initiate their first sexual encounter when she was 17. Concussion Inc. has acquired documents recording the highly ambiguous language by which the NBOR declared the coach not guilty of the cited conduct code violation.
In response to requests for comments, Scott MacFarland’s lawyer issued a statement, which is reproduced below. ASCA’s Leonard had not responded by publication time. A USA Swimming spokesperson, Isabelle McLemore, suggested that the organization might have something to say about this situation by Tuesday afternoon.
In an interview, Ehekircher, now 49, said what happened to her began the way so many anecdotes of swimming sexual abuse begin: with trouble at home.
“In the swimming community, especially in those days, everyone talked about which coach was sleeping with which swimmer,” she recalled. “These were open secrets. Where there was abuse involved, it was obvious in retrospect that the coaches doing the abuse knew where to spot vulnerability in their victims.”
In Sarah’s case, her mother died when she 13. In 1985 her father and his new wife, Sarah’s stepmother, kicked her out of the house. Scott MacFarland, her coach, invited her to move in with him.
Ehekircher said she was 17 and a junior in high school when MacFarland began having sex with her. It was on a trip to a meet in Irvine, California, where Sarah was sharing a motel room with a teammate. MacFarland and Ehekircher stayed over in Irvine an extra night, and he moved into the motel room to take the departed roommate’s bed. That night, he slid over to his swimmer-ward’s bed, professed his love for her, and commenced intercourse.
MacFarland was 34.
Sarah said they went on to have sex on hundreds of occasions. The two traveled together to Las Vegas in the company of another USA Swimming coach and his wife.
At 18 she left Colorado to swim at the University of Arkansas. But her college career ended in the middle of her freshman year with the first of her two abortions. Ehekircher said McFarland was the father both times.
Their on-again, off-again relationship ended in 1993, when she was 24.
In 1999 Sarah would be hospitalized after a suicide attempt in Virginia, and she underwent counseling. She has had a long career as a swimming coach at age-group programs in Virginia and Colorado.
Prior to Colorado, MacFarland had coached under Mark Schubert in Mission Viejo, California. Through the years, Mission Viejo Nadadores have been rife with abuse issues. In 2013 a club coach, Ad’m Dusenbury, was permanently banned by USA Swimming after acknowledging a relationship with an underage swimmer. The same year, another figure from the Schubert coaching tree, Bill Jewell — by then an assistant at Schubert’s Golden West club in Huntington Beach — resigned following reports of his inappropriate behavior toward young swimmers; months later USA Swimming handed Jewell a three-year suspension.
In April 2010, Ehekircher watched the investigative report on ABC’s 20/20 about the widespread problem of coach abuse. “I said to myself, ‘Hurray, thank God, someone is finally going to do something,” she said. She emailed the late Chuck Wielgus, USA Swimming’s executive director, just as Wielgus (in response to the horrible publicity from 20/20, worsened by his own halting and defensive interview denying the existence of a problem) was announcing the start-up of the Safe Sport program. Athlete protection officer Woessner (later called director of Safe Sport) was hired in September.
On September 15, 2010, Indianapolis lawyer Jonathan Little was an observer on behalf of Ehekircher at what she described as a nightmare National Board of Review hearing of her allegations against MacFarland. Little and his frequent associate in abuse cases, B. Robert Allard of San Jose, are the country’s most prominent legal representatives of victims in amateur sports. They did not file a lawsuit against USA Swimming for Ehekircher because the statute of limitations had expired on her claim.
The NBOR hearing was held on an evening during the national swimming convention in Dallas.
“I testified for five hours, with only one short break, from 5:00 until past 10:00 p.m.,” Sarah said. “I felt totally revictimized, like I was the one on trial. They plowed through my credit reports, they turned old friends against me. The ‘prosecutor’ on behalf of USA Swimming, Jennifer Bielak, was antagonistic toward me; she didn’t care about my interests.”
A coach who lived with MacFarland and Ehekircher for a period confirmed their living arrangement but added that he didn’t know what was going on in their bedroom. This coach is now on the USA Swimming board of directors.
Aside from the uncomfortable conditions and the lopsided procedures that seemed a lot friendlier to USA Swimming than to the woman who claimed she had been abused as a girl, the crux of the ultimate decision not to find MacFarland guilty of code of conduct violations was that the review board couldn’t penetrate his denial of the Irvine incident. MacFarland conceded that he’d had sex with Sarah on multiple occasions, but insisted that not one of those times was in California. The majority age of consent is 18 in California, 17 in Colorado.
Until 2013, USA Swimming’s code did not altogether ban coach-athlete sex. In 2010, the only thing that could have nailed MacFarland in the eyes of swimming was a possible offense in California under the criminal code.
On October 7, 2010, the NBOR declined to take disciplinary action against MacFarland.
This reporter has acquired, from a USA Swimming source, an email with NBOR chair John Morse’s reflections on the decision. Morse wrote:
“The panel struggled with this matter for some time. We have tried our best to do the ‘right thing’ by all parties involved (including Ms. Ehekircher). Because most of the events at issue here took place about 20 years ago and documentation that might otherwise be available in a case about conduct which happened a year ago, for example, has long ago become unavailable, several critical factual issues suffered. Given that the burden of proof in these matters falls on the Petitioner, this ultimately worked to Petitioner’s (and the victim’s) disadvantage. Although the conduct of Respondent in this matter left a lot to be desired and represented poor judgment at best (and no doubt caused Ms. Ehekircher pain and emotional damage), the Board could not find that the Petitioner met its burden of proof to the preponderance of the evidence standard required.”
That is Sarah Ehekircher’s account, and I believe her.
MacFarland’s lawyer Wade Whilden, gave us this statement:
“Three judges presided on behalf of the National Board of Review at the hearing in 2010 related to Ms. Ehekircher’s demonstrably false allegations against Mr. MacFarland. After hearing testimony from several witnesses with personal knowledge of the events from several decades ago, evaluating the credibility of Mr. MacFarland and Ms. Ehekircher (both testified at the proceeding), and reviewing the results of a lie detector test Mr. MacFarland took about the allegations, the three judges unanimously found that Ms. Ehekircher’s claims were not supported by the evidence.”
Eight years later, post Kukors and Hutchison, post the implosion of USA Gymnastics in the scandal of Larry Nassar’s mass molestations, it is a new day in the world of Safe Sport. With the U.S. Olympic Committee’s new national center, what we have, at minimum, is the era of “Safe Sport reboot.” Let’s see what the authorities at swimming and the National Center for Safe Sport have to say about Sarah’s story in the fresh air and light of 2018.
Next: Sarah Ehekircher said that when she recounted her grooming and abuse to John Leonard, chief of the American Swimming Coaches Association, Leonard blew off her concerns. Also, her account of a harrowing two months of working under Leonard.