by Irvin Muchnick
Yesterday we introduced Sarah Ehekircher’s story of sexual harassment and abuse in swimming: her account of living and having sex with her coach, starting in Colorado when she was 17, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and of her unsatisfying USA Swimming complaint against the coach, Scott MacFarland, at the start of the “Safe Sport” era in 2010.
The second part of Ehekircher’s story is in her full adulthood. But it’s equally illustrative of the abuses that seem to have been woven into this sport’s fabric and culture for so long.
[After suggesting that USA Swimming might “circle back” to a comment on Tuesday, spokesperson Isabelle McLemore did not respond to a follow-up request for comment. We forwarded yesterday’s article to the new U.S. Center for SafeSport, whose spokesperson Kate Brannen gave us this statement: “The purpose of the Center is to provide a professional, responsive and confidential place for individuals to report sexual abuse in the Olympic and Paralympic Movements. To protect those individuals who report, as well as the integrity of the investigative process, we do not speak about individual matters or provide referrals of reporting parties. More broadly, when the Center receives a report, it is part of our investigative policy to gather any existing materials from the reporting party and/or any involved organizations. but have not yet heard back.”
[Past the deadline of our request, but just prior to publication, Concussion Inc. received an email from Craig Lord, who said he was responding on behalf of John Leonard. The text of that statement is at the bottom of this article.]
In 2003-04, Sarah, by now an accomplished coach, applied for the position of director of SwimAmerica, the learn-to-swim program marketed by the American Swimming Coaches Association (ASCA), and served two disastrous months in that role.
What Scott MacFarland’s alleged predation brings to mind is the topic of grooming and its discontents, as exemplified by coach Sean Hutchison’s relationship with his swimmer Ariana Kukors. Sarah’s ASCA experience shines light on the creepy ways of John Leonard, its long-time executive director, who is arguably the figure in the swimming establishment who is the biggest impediment to meaningful reforms — worse than anyone at USA Swimming itself.
Leonard, who has said that ASCA is not an “organization that deals directly with children, nor is that part of our purpose in any way, shape or form,” is near the top of the list of those suspected of enabling former Irish Olympic swimming coach George Gibney, the most notorious at-large sex criminal in sports, to cross from Ireland to the United States in flight from dozens of allegations of abuse. More generally, Leonard is an intractable proponent in swimming’s higher councils for the position that coaches facing serious allegations should be untouchable absent a criminal conviction, and should be subject to criminal court “beyond a reasonable doubt” evidence standards rather than to “preponderance of the evidence” administrative standards.
Sarah Ehekircher is here to tell us that she believes Leonard also practices what he preaches — in a bad way.
“The way he latched onto me during the job application process for SwimAmerica was absolutely chilling and disturbing,” Ehekircher said. “I honestly had the impression that he thought he was doing more than hiring a staffer. He was ‘hiring’ a new wife.”
At the time, Leonard’s marriage to his wife, the former Karen King, was ending. (Leonard has been married multiple times; I don’t know the number.)
More from Sarah: “I met John at a clinic in California. He invited me out to drinks. Throughout the months when we spent time together, he told strange, dark anecdotes of his exploits in Vietnam. He said he’d been a sniper with over 100 kills. How I came to process this was that it was his way of impressing and intimidating.”
(I have not yet been able to track down information on Leonard’s military record.)
She told Leonard about her grooming and abuse experience with MacFarland. Leonard was unsympathetic and also betrayed no inkling of a sentiment that this was anything other than the norm. “He said, ‘You need to get over it, Sarah. Get on with your life. It happens all the time.’”
Leonard flew Ehekircher from Colorado to Florida for a job interview. She said her “interview” lasted three days and included such professional interactions as an outing on his boat. She wondered, Who does that?
Still, Ehekircher needed work and SwimAmerica was a prestigious position, so when the call beckoned she took the job. Working for ASCA was when the real misery started.
“Leonard took me out to lunch every day. I mean every single day. Here was the supervisor parading his underling through the office and past the staff and out the door, ostentatiously, at the break hour, without fail. It was humiliating. The dynamic was that he was ‘secretly’ dating me, and I had no choice other than to go along with the boss.
“I was afraid to do anything to piss him off. I lived four blocks from the office and he’d drive by every day. He’d assign me to pick him up at 3 a.m. at the airport. I thought he’d kill me if I didn’t.”
Her predicament wound down the hard way when, only weeks into her employment, Ehekircher’s appendix ruptured and attached to her intestine. She underwent major, life-threatening abdominal surgery. She was hospitalized two weeks. Ehekircher said that when she returned home, still unable to stand straight thanks to a still-healing seven-inch scar, Sarah asked the office if someone could please send lunch over to her — again, four blocks away — but Leonard refused. She said he told her, “You can’t expect anyone to care about you when you’ve only worked here for a month.”
The boss also forced her back to work prematurely and docked her pay for the cost of an unused plane ticket for a business trip she was no longer in condition to take.
After fighting her way through direction of a SwimAmerica training class, weeks earlier than her doctors had advised a return to full activities, Ehekircher asked for a Friday off to fulfill a longstanding commitment as a bridesmaid at a friend’s wedding. Leonard said no.
Ehekircher thereupon walked out of the office and never returned.
“I emailed my resignation and told Leonard off. He started sending me nasty emails, but after I began raising the subject of sexual harassment, his tone changed.”
Leonard took one last shot at his female subordinate — deducting from her severance check the cost of airfare and expenses at the Olympic Trials, where the two had been scheduled to travel together.
John Leonard statement:
Irvin, Craig Lord here: I edit and write on SwimVortex.com.
I have a statement from John Leonard which I am about to publish. In that, he describes you as “a public relations blogger for a lawyer whom I characterize as constantly having to search for new business”.
That could be interpreted as an arrangement of like minds, friends, colleagues of a financial arrangement.
I ask the following by way of your right to reply:
1. Have you ever received money from a lawyer to present the arguments of a legal case they are handling?
2. You describe yourself as “author” on your blog. Is that the only definition applicable or do you have journalistic qualifications and do you see yourself “reporting the news”, “campaigning for clean sport”, or in some other term that defines in deeper terms the role of ‘author’?
Thanks for your attention.
I reply: I have never received money from a lawyer to present the arguments of a legal case they are handling. And my bio is at ConcussionInc.net.