Omaha, site of the Olympic Swimming Trials, June 25 through July 2, is a company swimming town. One of its leading corporate lights, Mutual of Omaha, is a long-time sponsor of USA Swimming – the U.S. Olympic Committee’s arm of competitive swim clubs, in which 12,000 coaches supervise 300,000 kids across the country. In anticipation of the Trials, Warren Buffett’s Omaha World-Herald is running a series of features. The latest I read was about the contract for Myrtha, another sponsor, to build a special pool for the occasion.
What media, sponsors, and most unfortunately, even the vast majority of swimming families don’t want to talk about is the grim backdrop of the kickoff of this year’s Olympian exploits of Michael Phelps, Natalie Coughlin, and Ryan Lochte. That is the sport’s tawdry cover-up of youth coach sex abuse.
Two years ago, building on past work by ESPN’s Outside the Lines, ABC’s 20/20 began exposing the magnitude of the problem; the broadcast included chilling testimony of the molestation, beginning at age 11, of 1972 gold medalist Deena Deardurff Schmidt by a Hall of Fame coach (now known to be Paul Bergen). But the Colorado-based national swimming organization still has not come close to taking account of its damaged lives or instituting appropriately proactive corrections.
Astonishingly, Chuck Wielgus, USA Swimming’s executive director, retains the job he has held since 1997, which pays him more than $700,000 a year. In court filings subsequent to 20/20, as part of the spate of lawsuits by alleged victims, the group has been sanctioned repeatedly for failure to produce discovery documents, and Wielgus himself arguably has committed perjury more than once.
Perhaps Wielgus’s most pathetic lie, in a case involving an Indiana coach named Brian Hindson, was the statement that Peeping Tom coaches who clandestinely videotape swimmers disrobing in locker rooms were “not even on the radar screen” until a couple of years ago. In fact, a collegiate and USA club coach in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, John Trites, went on the lam in 1998 after being caught secretly recording his nude swimmers from a camera hidden inside a towel. The Trites manhunt made the television program America’s Most Wanted, and the FBI, through USA Swimming, issued a nationwide alert to aquatic facilities and programs.
In the wake of 20/20, USA Swimming set up what it is now calling its “safe sport” program, directed by Susan Woessner, who swam at Indiana University. The organization also began publishing a list of coaches banned for life for various infractions of its conduct code, including sex offenses.
The list has grown to 63 names. These do not include – yet – Christopher Johnson, the Murfreesboro, Tennessee, club coach who left under a cloud, then was arrested two weeks ago at a middle school there for soliciting sex from a 12-year-old student. Nor do they include Kenneth Fuller, the club coach in Malvern, Pennsylvania, who also coached at a Chester County high school, where he was recently arrested for faking a doctor’s excuse for a student before taking her to a hotel, serving her alcohol, and committing statutory rape.
USA Swimming had begun criminal background checks of coaches in 2006, and it is possible to sympathize in two respects (as well as to recognize that there is no such thing as foolproof eradication of pedophiles in youth programs). One obvious limitation is that criminal background checks cannot catch offenders whose first offenses still lie ahead. The other is that due process – requiring a formal complaint of some kind, if not an actual criminal charge – can frustrate well-intentioned efforts.
Those factors, however, do not excuse USA Swimming’s continued bad faith, or its culture of intimidation of and retaliation against accusers. In the fall of 2010, parents Cary and Jeff Renwick alerted their kids’ team in Monument, Colorado, the Waves, that a newly hired assistant coach, Sean Coffey, had a MySpace page steeped in profane cartoons and language (“Have you ever wondered if your Mom kissed you goodnight after giving your Father a Blow Job?”). Cary Renwick had swum at West Point and at the 1995 Military World Games in Rome; her husband, an Annapolis-educated combat-decorated naval aviator, is a commercial airline pilot.
The response of the club was to kick the Renwick children off the team and, later, to notify their new team that the Waves would boycott meets including them. There were also false claims that the Renwicks had threatened Waves families or board members. Since he lived in the backyard of USA Swimming headquarters, Jeff Renwick met with safe sport director Woessner, who eventually blew him off with the explanation that his dispute was a “local matter.” Executive director Wielgus would write Renwick, in part, “Do nothing and focus on developing a positive relationship with your children’s new team.”
The chance that meaningful reforms will be enacted, absent regime change in Colorado Springs, is next to nil. Two-time gold medalist David Berkoff, who went to Harvard and is now a lawyer in Billings, Montana, got appointed to the national swimming board in 2010 right after he was one of the loudest post-20/20 whistleblowers. In his one interview with me, he defended Wielgus. Then he stopped returning messages.
As in past abuse scandals involving Olympic feeder organizations, such as the Amateur Athletic Union, the root problem is a combination of the big money at the top and the way the goal of developing talent for international competition obliterates all other values. With the image of fit young people in Lycra bathing suits, the USA Swimming saga adds its own unique elements.
Meanwhile, the group’s captive “reinsurance” company, registered offshore, gets tax breaks from the elaborate process by which laundry service is performed on civil claims and sealed settlements are choreographed.
After the sensational case of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky broke, states have begun toughening laws on reporting of child sex abuse. One of those states is Nebraska – capital this summer of swimming’s televised glory, and hidden shame.
PENN STATE IN THE POOL: The Cover-Up of the USA Swimming Youth Coach Sex Abuse Scandal is available on Amazon Kindle at http://amzn.to/JoS53m, or as a plain PDF file by sending $1.49 via PayPal to email@example.com.