Meet the Fabulous Djang Boys, Stars of U.S. Masters Swimming — And Learn How USA Swimming’s Carelessness With Sexual Abuse Endangers Both Children and Adults

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by Irvin Muchnick

In 1999, Swimming World magazine reported: “New Mexico Masters Phillipp (Lincoln) Djang set a world mark in the men’s 45-49 100m back, his 1:03.39 besting the 1:04.14 set by Britain’s Eddie Riach last year.”

There were a number of problems here. For starters, there is no such person as “Phillipp (Lincoln) Djang.” There is a Phillipp Djang, who is or would be 66 years old and in 1976 had been a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics All-American swimmer at Southern Oregon State University. There also is a Lincoln Djang, perhaps Phillipp’s brother, who today would be 60 or 61 and was a top swimmer at Columbia University who made the 1980 Olympic Trials in the 800-meter freestyle.

But “Phillipp (Lincoln) Djang”? At best, that is a confused amalgam; at worst, it is another one of swimming’s almost impossibly impenetrable tales. The important question is whether this is all confusion sown by Lincoln Djang, who pleaded guilty to sexual assault the year of the Swimming World reference and who got banned by USA Swimming for it, yet went on to find safe haven — as so many other bad actors have done — in U.S. Masters Swimming.

Also unclear: just how aware swimming insiders, including Swimming World’s then editor Phillip Whitten, have been of this whole scenario and its implications.

Phillipp Djang — if that’s who he is — himself has not responded to my multiple email inquiries, which were sent to what appears to be a good gmail address under his listing as “Sanction Manager” of New Mexico Masters Swimming. (The date of the listing cannot be determined; Djang appears no longer to be an officer.) The same email address shows up online at the curriculum vitae of a researcher who used Djang as a reference from their time together at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory.

Specifically, we have been asking Phillipp or “Phillipp”: “What is your relationship to or association with Lincoln Djang? Are you one and the same person?”

The publisher of Swimming World, Brent Rutemiller, told me this: “The SW article reported results of a competition in 1999 based on the names listed in the entry form. Djang was suspended by USA Swimming at a later date on January 7th, 2000. Reporting results of a competition in an article has no relationship to any controversy connected to the participant revealed at a later date.”

The plot thickened earlier this year when Men’s Health magazine highlighted the uncommon geriatric athletic prowess of Phillipp Djang under the headline “An Elite Swimmer Shared the Secret to Smashing World Records at Age 66.” Nicknamed “The Phish,” he is one of the marquee promoted stars of the National Senior Games, scheduled to be held next May in Fort Lauderdale.

The author of the Men’s Health article, Emily Shiffer, did not respond to emails inquiring about our story’s discovered discrepancies surrounding the Djangs. Nor did the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Richard Dorment, to a follow-up sent by postal mail. (It should be added that, though the possibility that Men’s Health might have fueled dishonest information is embarrassing, the item was standard jock hype, not a deep dive into the subject’s background.)

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The mysteries of Phillipp (Lincoln) Djang matter at a moment of reckoning for sexual abuse and while USA Swimming is under federal investigation for allegations of insurance fraud, hiding assets, and covering up abuse cases.

John Leonard, the former long-time executive director of the American Swimming Coaches Association (which, among services, troubleshoots visas for its members, some of whom hop from country to country in the wake of sexual abuse allegations), told me in 2012 that ASCA is “not an organization that deals directly with children, nor is that part of our purpose in any way, shape or form.”

The same is true, only more intuitively, for U.S. Masters Swimming, which describes itself as “a national membership-operated nonprofit that provides membership benefits to nearly 65,000 Masters swimmers across the country.” By definition, Masters swimmers are adults.

But Masters Swimming is notorious for being a landing spot for coaches who were accused of sexual misconduct, and in numerous cases banned for it by USA Swimming, which sanctions competitive programs for nearly 400,000 youth swimmers.

One of the many things the public doesn’t know about USA Swimming is that, despite being labeled the national sport governing body  with suggestions of government officialdom, it actually governs only USA Swimming. And the sport’s sex criminals and creeps like it that way. Perhaps the organization, interested mostly in distancing itself from legal exposure and moral accountability, likes it, too. In a piece of American exceptionalism, we have nothing like the national sports ministry found in many other countries. Instead, we have a hodgepodge of 501(c)(3) nonprofits anointed by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and given special status per a sclerotic Amateur Sports Act.

Thus, after serving a prison term for sexual molestation, Joe Weber, who had coached under the legendary Dick Shoulberg at the Germantown Academy outside Philadelphia, simply resumed his coaching career at a YMCA in New Jersey, until someone noticed. There are numerous other similar examples.

In 2008, Jesse Stovall, head coach at Bear Swimming based in Berkeley, California, told the parents of his top swimmer, a 16-year-old girl, that he would chaperone her alone to a national meet in Orlando, Florida. During the trip, Stovall twice committed statutory rape on her. The girl confided in a friend, who in turn told her own therapist, a mandatory reporter, and Stovall was served with a fugitive arrest warrant while walking across the campus of the University of California, where he was by then running a U.S. Masters Swimming club. He already had been quietly ousted from the youth Bear Swimming team — for financial improprieties. Soon Stovall was pleading down the criminal charges in Florida and getting banned by USA Swimming. Yet he remained in Masters.

Bill Volckening is a whistleblower of such machinations. In 1998, he moved to Oregon and started coaching Masters at the Tualatin Hills club in the Portland area. Volckening would go on to become editor of the Masters group’s official magazines, Swim and Swimmer.

Volckening told me that the scandals of predators at USA Swimming were “just the tip of the iceberg. In my experience, Masters is even worse, because what people are doing isn’t illegal but it is reprehensible.”

At Tualatin Hills, Volckening arrived during the same period as International Swimming Hall of Famer Paul Bergen, accused serial rapist of Olympic gold medalist Deena Deardurff, and Sean Hutchison, who in 2010 disappeared as the coach of a USA Swimming professional training center in Fullerton, California, after the Washington Post published allegations that he was carrying on an inappropriate relationship with Ariana Kukors, another gold medalist. In 2018, Kukors settled a lawsuit against Hutchison and USA Swimming surrounding her claim that he had groomed and abused her for years at his age-group program in Seattle, KING Aquatic Club.

Other Masters swimmers on the USA Swimming banned list have included Darek Hahn, Scott Gaskins, Aaron Bartleson, and Brian Williams.

Last year Sarah Kwon, a 13-year veteran of U.S. Masters who has set national records, launched a Change.org petition seeking reform of what she called “vague” rules prohibiting sexual misconduct and harassment while providing “no guidance, repercussions, definitions or imperative to actually care for swimmers who have experienced wrongdoing.” The petition narrative states:

“In January, 2020 a man undid my swimsuit and exposed my breasts from another lane at practice. I immediately reported this to my coach. My team president at the time took it upon himself to berate me for being ‘irrational.’ When I went to the regional-state governing body, they kicked me to the National office (based in Sarasota, Florida) where Jessica Reilly, Senior Business Director, said there was nothing they could do and offered me a refund to leave. I went to the police after the Chair of the Florida regional governing body said she couldn’t believe me until I had a police report. Due to the specificity of the law, this is not considered sexual assault and the police couldn’t help me. After nearly two months of being harassed, asked to leave, receiving threatening texts from team mates, I was finally called into the pool and reprimanded that I reported wrong, but told that ‘something was done’ about this man. To this day I still don’t know what that is. The only thing I do know is that my team elected a new team president who re-published the rules on sexual misconduct and told me the way this was handled was not acceptable.”

The Kwon incident and petition resurfaced long-running controversies about the structure and operations of Masters, and their relationship to global swimming programs for all ages. Sarah Ehekircher — a swimmer and coach dating back to the 1980s, who has a prominent abuse case in California court, still being litigated, against USA Swimming and her club coach Scott MacFarland — put together several of the key questions about the Djangs that are the basis of this story.

I first wrote about controversial USA Swimming-to-Masters migrations eight years ago, and Lincoln Djang drew a mention at the time. See “United States Masters Swimming: Where Old Perverts Make Soft Landings,” July 16, 2013, https://concussioninc.net/?p=7873.

Dawson Hughes, the CEO of U.S. Masters Swimming, did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

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Competitive youth swimming, a popular after-school and weekend extracurricular activity gilded with the lures of college scholarships or Olympic glory, has attracted more than its share of known abusers who flew in under the radar at new locales, and of outright con men.

In 2012, a man calling himself James Pantera got a coaching post at Serra High School in San Diego and also somehow made it through USA Swimming’s background check to start a new age-group club. He was a former federal convict whose crimes — falsifying a passport and fraudulently obtaining student loans — were front-page news in Wisconsin and the top line of a basic Google search. Pantera sported no fewer than 11 aliases and three dates of birth. An FBI report cited him as a prime example of a practitioner of fake ID’s.

In securing sanctioned status for his coach-owned team, Pantera claimed he had elite Level 5 credentials from the American Swimming Coaches Association. On Southern California pool decks (where he told people his wife and two daughters had been killed in a terrorist bombing in Israel), he spread gifts arounds to favored swimmers in a suspected scheme to groom them. A dissident former USA Swimming vice president in the area, Mike Saltzstein, spent months exposing Pantera, and swimming finally banned him late in 2013.

Through the same period, James Baechler became a USA Swimming club coach and an officer of the regional governing body in South Dakota. Baechler was a disbarred judge in Washington State who had pleaded out charges that he sexually assaulted a woman after presiding over her drunk-driving case.

The flaws in USA Swimming’s background checks could have a little to do with the fact that its systems consultant, Barry Nadell, had a side business developing a television show that was to be titled Hooking Up with Tawnie Lynn.

In 1998, USA Swimming fired and escorted from the Colorado Springs headquarters its then director of club development, Will Colebank, who had been grooming a 12-year-old male swimmer he’d met at a swimming camp in Florida. Colebank became a public middle school teacher in Colorado Springs. In 2007, his wife and son informed on him to the police for multiple sex offenses against children. In 2014, USA Swimming explained that it had “followed the law and was not a mandatory reporter under Colorado. However, if faced with similar circumstances today, USA Swimming would handle this differently and report the conduct to law enforcement.” Colebank is not on the official banned list; as recently as last year, coach and reform activist Chris DeSantis found hints on social media that Colebank might have returned to coaching.

Former Irish Olympic swimming head coach George Gibney, arguably the most notorious at-large sex criminal in sports history, coached for a USA Swimming club in suburban Denver — likely with the help of a top ASCA official who had been his coaching assistant in Ireland — months after a 27-count indictment for molesting minors got quashed by a technical ruling of the Irish Supreme Court in 1994. After Gibney’s Irish past became known in Colorado and he left coaching, he proceeded to join the board of directors of a state college program for at-risk youth and to chair a local Catholic church’s medical mission for children in Peru. His movements are under investigation by a human trafficking finance specialist at the U.S. Justice Department’s Money Laundering and Asset Recovery Section.

In 2006, the U.S. Olympic team head coach, Everett Uchiyama, secretly resigned when a swimmer in California came forward with allegations that he had molested her. Uchiyama promptly got a job down the road in Colorado Springs at the Country Club of Colorado. Multiple USA Swimming board meetings were held at the country club, where, from the business center, participants could look down at the pool where ASCA had granted Uchiyama a license to run a local chapter of the “SwimAmerica” program. Uchiyama’s job application materials at the country club included a reference letter from Pat Hogan, USA Swimming’s club development managing director, calling him a “great people person.”

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Whether or not he is a great people person, Lincoln Djang was certainly an elite swimmer. He and his recent and likely current wife, Amanda, are also ASCA Level 2 certified coaches. Lincoln boasts four Masters world record times, according to a 2010 article in the newsletter of Western Washington Masters. The Djangs appear still to co-own the Tri City Atomic Sturgeon Master Swim Club in Richland.

Extraordinarily, both Lincoln and Phillipp Djang in 2010 held Masters record times for their respective age groups in the 200-yard backstroke: Lincoln at 2:01.39 for men 50-54 and Phillipp at 2:05.90 for men 55-59.

All this despite the events of the late 1990s that ended Lincoln Djang’s membership in USA Swimming and left him banned for life. During a training session at the Carlsbad High School Natatorium, in May 11, 1999, a female 16-year-old swimmer was guarding Djang’s son Doug in a water polo scrimmage, when the dad, a team assistant coach supervising the session, repeatedly grabbed the girls’ butt underwater. Every time the girl slapped Lincoln’s hand away or protested, he joked or smirked.

The family swore out a police complaint, and Lincoln was charged with four counts of felony criminal sexual contact of a minor. In a plea bargain, he copped to three counts of misdemeanor aggravated battery. He got a three-year suspended sentence conditioned on agreement to attend Alcoholics Anonymous and explain the facts of the incident to a meeting of the entire swim team. In the summer of 2000, the family settled a civil lawsuit against Djang, the school district and USA Swimming.

While ass-pinching may sound middling on the scale of heinous sexual abuses, there was a context. For one thing, it was the culmination of escalating grooming practices across a period of months; these included Lincoln Djang’s inappropriately massaging swimmers and lacing their dialogue with double entendres. Moreover, as a casual employee under the high school’s head swimming coach, his then-wife Shea Djang, he already had been at the center of an investigation of his sexual relationship with an 18-year-old swimmer. There was evidence that Lincoln had groomed this girl from an even younger age, and the relationship was administratively actionable even if it didn’t cross the line into statutory rape. But the school had let him off the hook.

Both that 18-year-old girl and the 16-year-old from the criminal case would be vilified by other swimmers and their parents, who feared more than anything else the loss of a reputed top coach.

Incidentally, son Doug Djang went on to swim under and serve on the coaching staff of Sean Hutchison, the Ariana Kukors abuser, at Seattle’s KING club. Asked about Lincoln and Phillipp Djang, Hutchison messaged me: “I have never met Doug’s father. So, I have nothing to contribute.”

Lincoln’s LinkedIn profile, which seems to be dormant, called him a software engineer at Nuclear Waste Partnership LLC in Carlsbad, New Mexico. My examination of the U.S. Masters Swimming public database showed no times for a number of years for “Lincoln P. Djang (60).” (The P stands for Peter, not Phillipp.)

Meanwhile, the LinkedIn profile for “Philipp” — spelled there with a single L — calls him a semi-retired contractor in Las Cruces, New Mexico. In 2015, he swam Masters in Adelaide, Australia. Now he’s in Florida.

Where is Lincoln Djang today? Somewhere along the way, did Lincoln morph into Phillipp? Even if he didn’t, why isn’t Phillipp, who has been a Masters regional sanctions official and today is one of the faces of senior sports, speaking up?

The swimmers of U.S. Masters, among others, have a right to know.

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PREVIOUSLY:

“USA Swimming’s struggle to cover up its sexual abuse crisis,” Salon, June 26, https://www.salon.com/2021/06/26/troubled-waters-usa-swimmings-struggle-to-cover-up-its-sexual-abuse-crisis/

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