Guest Column by Debbie Denithorne-Grodensky, Survivor of Abuser Swimming Coach Andy King: Some Things to Add to the Legacy of the Recently Deceased Richard Thornton

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by Debra Denithorne-Grodensky


Richard Thornton, a member of the 1980 Olympic swimming team (the year the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Summer Games) and a long-time coach, died suddenly earlier this month at 65. There were tributes to his career, which included mentoring many top athletes.

Thornton’s family and loved ones were entitled to some space to honor his memory in peace. Now, as someone who trained briefly with him when he was a swimmer, and swam just as briefly under him at San Ramon Valley Aquatics in California, I feel the need to add a few notes for the historical record.

I was a central survivor of one of the sport’s most horrible sexual abusers, Andy King. To be clear, Thornton himself never abused me: he was just King’s successor at San Ramon. But Thornton could have done better by me – and in the process more for the safety of all swimmers.

The story of King, the pedophile swim coach, is now well known. It culminated in a 40-year state prison sentence following a conviction in nearby Santa Clara County for, among other things, raping and impregnating a 14-year-old swimmer. The district attorney who prosecuted King called him a “monster” for his trail of unchecked sex crimes against youth athletes up and down the West Coast.

At San Ramon, King had groomed me since I was 11. The day I turned 16, he “proposed marriage” to me, after threatening me and my swimming career for five years. The trauma from his sexual abuse, the rumors spoken by adults, teammates, and competitors about my “having an affair,” plus his ideas of crossing state lines to marry me while I was underage, forced me out of self-preservation to leave swimming for a while. Richard Thornton got King’s job in the wake of this scandal.

My history with Rich was varied. I had trained one summer with him while he was still a swimmer. We traveled that summer together and he confided in me about how surfing was his absolute love, even more than swimming. He was into punk rock, wore Doc Martins and bandanas around his ankles. He became a coach in Livermore and dropped the punk look for shorts and a polo. I worked with him for an entire summer developing what is now the backstroke flip turn. I was still swimming for King during that period, but San Ramon shared a pool with Thornton’s Livermore team, so we often combined our practices that summer, while both King and Thornton coached us all.

Probably to Thorton’s surprise – and that of the board of the San Ramon team – I tried to swim for San Ramon when I eventually returned from my swimming hiatus. Many of my teammates were close friends and I had a great rapport and friendship with Thornton.

But Thornton, oddly, refused to acknowledge me, let alone coach me. He gave me the silent treatment. My “friends” on the team did the same. I was crushed. In a strange way, the experience served to confirm that King’s grooming had been apt – that there was nobody in the Bay Area I could swim for other than him.

Unbeknownst to my family and me at that time, Thornton was also bullying my transgender male-to-female sister. Thornton would frequently ask my sister questions about King and me. She quit swimming for San Ramon shortly after I did, and unlike myself, never returned to the sport.

The silent treatment of me, and the questioning and bullying of my sister, didn’t represent the Richard Thornton I thought I knew. Today, on reflection, I assume he was under immense pressure from the San Ramon board to help get rid of the “problem” they had been unable to eradicate themselves.

Across the years, as King matters were litigated, San Ramon board members confided to my attorneys that, if called to depositions, they would lie. The board’s own lawyers prevented Thornton from getting deposed. He had cancer at the time, so it was an easy out. But Thornton did know everything and easily could have just told the truth as he knew it, and my case would have been a slam-dunk.

(There’s a related note involving the case of Suzette Moran, the public accuser of famous coach Mitch Ivey, whom USA Swimming eventually banned. Her father was dying of cancer and suffering cancer treatments and the effects of dementia – yet he was forced to give testimony.)

I guess I’m naively idealistic, but it still surprises me when people pass up the chance to right a wrong. Every adult in my life at that time was complacent. From their perspective more than 35 years later, I’ve concluded, they were ashamed for never protecting a child who, legally, wasn’t able to consent to a sexual affair. Sad.

The story of abuse in swimming has been my focus of advocacy for decades. It’s a story of bad actors like Andy King, of course. But it’s also a story of their many enablers.


Irvin Muchnick’s book UNDERWATER: The Greed-Soaked Tale of Sexual Abuse in USA Swimming and Around the Globe will be published later this year by ECW Press.

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Concussion Inc. - Author Irvin Muchnick