Guest Column: ‘USA Swimming Is Putting a Bullseye on the Backs of Our Children’

Published May 18th, 2012, Uncategorized

by Jeff Renwick

(The author of this guest column is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy. A combat-decorated naval aviator, Jeff Renwick is currently a captain for a major airline. His wife Cary, a graduate of the United States Military Academy [West Point], swam collegiately and represented the U.S. at the 1995 Military World Games in Rome.)

On October 19, 2011, USA Swimming quietly allowed a coaching change in Monument, Colorado, cutting off potential sexual misconduct allegations. The coach in question, Sean Coffey, is now free to continue his career elsewhere. The head coach and club board of directors that hired Coffey are also left without consequence and have largely moved on.

USA Swimming’s failure to pursue alleged abusers despite multiple complaints has allowed convicted pedophiles like Andy King and others to evade detection and repeatedly sexually assault children. Chuck Wielgus, the executive director, and the other leadership at USA Swimming continue to ignore the safety of the children in their charge. USA Swimming is not following the highly publicized guidelines they adopted in response to their damaging exposure in 2010 on ABC’s 20/20.

In this case, my family was retaliated against for my mandatory report to USA Swimming. My children were kicked off their swim team and we’ve been forced to travel to another team 20 miles away. USA Swimming acknowledged that our old team had failed to comply with its recommended hiring procedures, but Mr. Coffey was still hired.

In an email intended to get rid of me, Wielgus all but advised me and my wife to “Do nothing and focus on developing a positive relationship with your children’s new team.”  Business as usual for USA Swimming.

*****

The Woodmoor Waves, our team in Monument, hired Coffey in October 2010. As the club’s announcement included little coaching, swimming, or employment background, my wife and I did a simple Internet search. We found nothing swimming-related but did discover a public social network page littered with sexually explicit posters and profane language:

“party like a rockstar – FUCK LIKE A PORN STAR!!”

“Have you ever wondered if your Mom kissed you goodnight after giving your Father a Blow Job?”

“HELP WANTED – Many Positions Available.”

There were a dozen cartoon depictions in case you didn’t get the idea. The display was so shocking that photos and video of the assistant and our head coach as a world-class Beer Pong team barely registered. This was to be the coach for my 10-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son.

We brought this material to Waves president Sue Hippe for the purpose of addressing three issues: appropriateness of the hiring choice, compliance with recommended hiring procedures, and resolution of legal liability issues if employment was continued.

The team board admitted that no formal interview had occurred, no references were called, and nothing but the mandatory criminal background check was performed. At our request the board contacted Susan Woessner, USA Swimming’s Athlete Protection Officer. We were told that Ms. Woessner reviewed the material and agreed that the assistant’s employment was appropriate. Our follow-up would reveal that no discussion of the specific content and language on the website ever occurred.

Chuck Wielgus will tell you that in September of 2010, USA Swimming enacted sweeping changes to their child protection programs. Susan Woessner will say that they have created the flagship Athlete Protection Program in Olympic sports.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

A computer told Ms. Woessner that the coach with the posters quoted above was most likely not a felon. The Waves directors decided to disregard all USA Swimming recommended hiring procedures. They are optional! That is all it takes. Welcome to coaching with USA Swimming!

We met with Ms. Hippe, Brian Donahue (vice president), Robin Carden (treasurer), and Sonja Griffith (secretary) with hopes of a more honest and accurate presentation to USA Swimming. The board suggested they provide USA Swimming with full disclosure and all of my questions.  The next day, after a meeting with Steve Fair, the head coach, Ms. Hippe and two other board members called to say that the issue was closed and no further action would be taken. They had changed their minds about complying with USA Swimming rules. Ms. Griffith said that if the coaches quit, I would owe them new coaches. The board acknowledged USA Swimming’s rules on mandatory reporting and the guideline “If In Doubt, Report,” but would do no more. Mr. Donahue accepted that I would provide full details to USA Swimming but threatened that whatever happened, the outcome was entirely on me.

*****

I compiled information and wrote a letter for Susan Woessner detailing the events and timeline. On November 2, 2010, I met with her at USA Swimming headquarters in Colorado Springs. She confirmed that the report was both mandatory and correct. Ms. Woessner stated that the material on the coach’s website was “clearly offensive and inappropriate” but “not a Code of Conduct violation.”  She also stated that USA Swimming did not involve itself in local governance and that by doing the basic criminal background check, all hiring requirements had been satisfied. The recommendations for proper employee screening were not mandatory.

Ms. Woessner did agree to assist me in helping the Waves deal with the issues brought by their hiring choice. She emailed the Waves a suggested counseling of the assistant coach discussed during our meeting.

I communicated to Ms. Woessner my view that counseling alone would not address liability if an incident occurred and the assistant coach’s foul website remained undisclosed. I asked for the assistance of USA Swimming in resolving this issue.

Over the course of several emails, Ms. Woessner became evasive and unhelpful. She clearly did not want to take any action in this matter. The Waves board was included in every email. The Waves ignored Ms. Woessner’s email and my own requests. Within two days they held a secret meeting and voted to remove my children from the team. We received an email stating, “In the best interest of your family, the Woodmoor Waves and coaching staff, our decision as the Board of Directors has resolved to address your concerns of future liability by immediately terminating the relationship between the Woodmoor Waves Swim team and the Renwick family.”

This was the last official communication of the Waves board. No further request for information or justification has ever been answered.

Our family immediately informed USA Swimming of my children’s dismissal. Though we were clearly retaliated against, Ms. Woessner informed me that she could not help. USA Swimming would not involve itself in this situation. USA Swimming’s Athlete Protection Officer had abandoned her responsibility to protect the children of parents making a mandatory and correct report.

*****

Here are the USA Swimming rules dealing with a situation like ours. The last and most important were enacted in September of 2010, just weeks before our children’s dismissal:

304.3.7 (304.3.5 in ’10) – Any sexual conduct, advance or other inappropriate sexually oriented behavior or action directed towards an athlete…

Athlete Protection Guideline 10. Communications between non-athlete adult members and athletes should not include any topic or language that is sexual or inappropriate in nature.

While “fuck” and “blow job” certainly breach the sexual barrier, would material posted on a public website count? For Coffey, this was a gray area, but the Athlete Protection Program guidance is “If In Doubt, Report.” Ms. Woessner confirmed that my report was correct in this regard.

304.3.17 (304.3.15 in ’10) – Any other material and intentional act, conduct, or omission not provided for above, which is detrimental to the image or reputation of USA Swimming, a LSC or the sport of swimming.

This should have applied to the assistant coach and the Waves board (including the head coach). Susan Woessner agreed that this information was potentially embarrassing to the club and sport, but was hesitant about non-criminal acts committed prior to membership by the Assistant Coach. She stated that in her experience this was likely not a Conduct Code violation. When asked, she said her job was more focused on instances of direct physical abuse.

304.2 – Any member or prospective member of USA Swimming may be denied membership, censured, placed on probation, suspended for a definite or indefinite period of time with or without terms of probation, fined or expelled from USA Swimming if such member violates the provisions of the USA Swimming Code of Conduct, set forth in 304.3, or aids, abets or encourages another person to violate any of the provisions of the USA Swimming Code of Conduct.

Had I read this, I would have known that 304.3.17 did apply to the assistant coach. USA Swimming and later Colorado Swimming told me to continue to pursue the matter locally. They said nothing rose to the level of a Code violation.  If this was based incorrectly on Coffey’s status as a “prospective” member, every decision USA Swimming and Colorado Swimming made was wrong.

This breach, however, was not the worst.

If In Doubt, Report (USA Swimming Athlete Protection brochure) – If you suspect abuse, or have specific and credible information about inappropriate behavior, it is your duty as a member of USA Swimming to report to USA Swimming’s Athlete Protection Officer.

306.1 (unpublished but in effect at the time of the incident) – It is every member’s responsibility to promptly report any incident regarding sexual misconduct by a member as described in Article 304.3.7 to USA Swimming’s Athlete Protection Officer.  Reporting must occur when an individual has firsthand knowledge of misconduct or where specific and credible information has been received from a victim or knowledgeable third party…

306.2 (unpublished but in effect at the time of the incident) – No member shall retaliate against any individual who has made a good faith report under 306.1.

I had the brochure but not the unpublished rules. Ms. Woessner was fully aware of 306.1 and 306.2. They were the basis for the creation of her job. I specifically asked about whistleblower protection in my phone call with Ms. Woessner following my children’s dismissal. I was told there was none.

I then contacted Dr. Doug Everett, chair of the Colorado Swimming Board of Review, to question this incident as a Code of Conduct violation. His decision, based on consultation with John Morse, USA Swimming’s general counsel, and Susan Woessner, held that nothing rose to the level of a Code infraction. The Waves board was not addressed as falling outside the Code of Conduct.

The conclusion by Dr. Everett that the Waves as a club did not fall under the Code of Conduct is absurd. The Code of Conduct applies to group members, such as teams, as well as individual members. In any event, Brian Donahue, Waves vice president, does hold individual membership as a USA Swimming meet official.  Brian Donahue’s threat of consequences if I reported was acted on by the Waves board.

These are but a few of the endless errors by Ms. Woessner, Dr. Everett, and Mr. Morse.

*****

In the weeks after my children were attacked, the Woodmoor Waves continued to pursue my family. A swimming professional in the area pulled his children from the Waves over our treatment. The Waves board fabricated a claim of threats by my wife to explain their actions and pacify the remaining parents. The Waves ignored my request to disclose all documents. On the advice of several professionals I emailed an offer of disclosure to all Waves parents. A barrage of hateful and abusive emails followed. Few people asked to see anything and those who did were afraid to stand up against the mob.

Kevin Griffith, the Waves secretary’s husband, emailed my children’s new team to request discipline against us. His own rant toward me and my reasonable request for disclosure was included. At least this made clear to our new team that the assault was unfounded.

Absent USA Swimming action, for my family’s reputation, my only recourse was to put some of the abusive emails and a few suggestions to improve the team online. I had no desire to see the other children of the Woodmoor Waves suffer under a vindictive and dangerous Board. Truth and information are the only way to combat ignorance, maliciousness, and cover-ups. Incompetence can’t be tolerated or left unaddressed. This is a lesson my former team and USA Swimming are learning the hard way.

When the campaign against my children failed, the Woodmoor Waves tried one more tactic. One of our new coaches stated that the Woodmoor head coach informed him the Waves would boycott all of our meets as long as my family remained members. The Waves’ boycott was not done as a courtesy to spare my wife and children the pain of encountering their abusers. The Waves intended to exact a financial toll for another team allowing my children to swim at all.

This prompted me to return to USA Swimming in March of 2011, newly armed with the rules above. Susan Woessner took this information and ultimately did nothing.

Ms. Woessner again offered to mediate between me and the Waves. I proposed a solution to avoid damaging the old team with a Board of Review. When asked how it was received she told me she never presented it. She explained that her action in November stopped because she thought the situation had been resolved. When asked what she thought the resolution was and why she felt the issue had been settled she gave no answer. She simply asked if I wished to pursue a formal complaint.  I was dumbstruck that my complaints of the previous five months had been considered anything other than official. Was showing up at USA Swimming headquarters to meet with her directly not an indication that I was serious?

I then asked why I had not been informed of USA Swimming’s obligation to protect my children’s status, what she had done on their behalf, and what prevented her from taking action. With these questions in the open and unavoidable, Susan Woessner either chose or was ordered not to answer and ceased all communications with me. She disappeared.

The only further communication I received came directly from Chuck Wielgus. His carefully worded email suggested we deal with the Waves directly or through Colorado Swimming – both routes we had already tried. He did state that we could move forward with a complaint, a process which Ms. Woessner had tried to dissuade me from previously. Tellingly, perhaps, his first suggestion was this: “Do nothing and focus on developing a positive relationship with your children’s new team.

*****

USA Swimming has been repeatedly called out for intimidating or retaliating against their critics and accusers. It would seem the culture problem that enables so many abuses goes to or starts from the very top.

With every incident we seem to confirm that USA Swimming’s Athlete Protection Program (a title since softened to Safe Sport) is little changed from the old procedures. Ms. Woessner has no apparent authority to interpret or act upon the rules she oversees. She takes all complaints to Chuck Wielgus, who makes the decision as to what is investigated and what is not. If you have an issue that would be detrimental to USA Swimming’s reputation, months later you will be asked if you wish to “file a formal complaint.” This is not an actual requirement: USA Swimming has the authority to initiate an investigation at any time. They did so this spring to clear a nationally recognized coach.

Chuck Wielgus started that investigation based only on Internet rumors. No one is sure what really happened. If a named complainant was required there would be no point in USA Swimming’s anonymous reporting option. No investigation could be initiated.

A capable and independent Athlete Protection Officer with the authority to implement effective policy and intervene in developing situations would prevent many incidents. Effective leaders in the executive director and athlete protection roles could accomplish more change in two weeks than USA Swimming has in Mr. Wielgus’ entire tenure.

The zero statistic we all desire for our children’s safety may be a practical impossibility, but could we reduce the incidents by a factor of 10? 100? My belief is that we can, but not with this leadership and its unenforced and inadequate rules.

Why would USA Swimming not want the best protection policies available? What motive would prevent USA Swimming from bringing their procedures up to date? The likely answer is that USA Swimming’s leadership has a lot to lose by admitting their incompetence. Acknowledgement of USA Swimming’s failure would mean the end of Chuck Wielgus’ employment and a general housecleaning in Colorado Springs. Wielgus, making over $730,000 for running a roughly $30 milllion budget non-profit, would lose his paycheck and deferred compensation.

For those who would argue such money is justified, please remember that the U.S. Olympic Committee chairman makes only $450,000 for managing a $535 million budget.

Who knows what an investigation of USA Swimming’s for-profit, Barbados-based U.S. Sports Insurance Company would find. Is it possible that millions more have flowed through that vehicle into the pockets of our sport’s leadership? The only reason I can fathom for Wielgus & Company to knowingly accept huge risks to our children and aggressively hide USA Swimming’s abysmal record is to protect their ludicrous salaries.

By not bringing their rules up to the minimum standards and not enforcing those that are in place, USA Swimming is effectively putting a bullseye on the backs of our children.