PREVIOUSLY IN THIS SERIES
As noted in the last post, the University of Utah today announced that swim coach Greg Winslow’s contract will not be renewed, and he is on paid administrative leave.
by Irvin Muchnick and Tim Joyce
The most psychologically heinous Greg Winslow anecdote is the one about his hazing the only African-American swimmer on his team by making him do underwater drills with a PVC pipe taped to his body, on Martin Luther King Day, until he passed out. We’ll have more on that.
But by far the most physically harrowing story we’ve heard is from the University of Utah team’s vacation and training trip in Mexico, late December 2008 and early January 2009.
In a nutshell, Coach Winslow came close to killing a kid in a dangerous hypoxic event. As he fell unconscious on the pool deck, the swimmer knocked out half a tooth, which needed an expensive crown and may eventually require root canal work.
It is astonishing that the university has managed to keep this one covered up for so long.
The mother of the swimmer shared with us her extensive documentation to Utah officials and others.
It begins with her recounting a series of emails she received from her son in Mexico, repeatedly complaining of physical and emotional exhaustion and how he did not think he could make it through the week. One email mentioned that he had chipped a tooth and needed to see a dentist, nothing more.
As the team swung back toward Utah, with two meets in Texas, the mother and her husband got daily multiple calls from their son, sounding in distress if not in crisis. (The son also noted that he was taking Ibuprofen for the pain of his “chipped tooth.”)
During this period, the mother also spoke on the phone with Winslow’s assistant Charlie King (now head swim coach at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse). She questioned King about the chipped tooth but got no direct answer.
On January 20 — three weeks after the incident — the swimmer reported to his parents that he had gone to a dentist for a crown for the chipped tooth.
It was yet another six weeks before the mother learned the full extent of what had happened. She was lunching with her son and teammates during a break at the Mountain West Conference Championships in Oklahoma City (This was prior to Utah’s switch to the Pac-12.) One of the teammates said to the son, “Tell your mom the real story about the tooth.” And he and the other teammate proceeded:
In Utah, the team had a drill in which Winslow expected the swimmers to hold their breath underwater the full 25-yard length of the pool. Some had difficulty with that. In Mexico, they were training in a long-course pool, 50 meters in length — more than twice as long as the short course pool. But the swimmer expectation was not to come up for air, wall to wall.
This woman’s son somehow made it. But at the far end, she reports from the second-hand accounts, “something was not right.” According to one teammate, the son was “convulsing in the water.” As another was pulling him out of the water, Charlie King was quoted as saying, “He’s OK, he’s OK. Don’t baby him. Let him go.” (King was coaching the long-distance group; Winslow was elsewhere on the pool deck with another group.)
The swimmer who was holding up the son let go. The son fell face down by the side of the pool, knocking out the half of a tooth.
Over the course of the week in Oklahoma, the mother heard other stories from other parents of disregard for safety in the Utah swim program.
“I became increasingly concerned,” she told us. “I also felt that Charlie had lied to me in our earlier conversations about the tooth.”
The mother began interviewing teammates about the incident. In one version, her son started “shaking” at the 35-meter mark and was in full convulsions by the end. His nose and mouth were blue.
According to one account, coach King attended to the son and asked if they needed to call an ambulance.
Once the crisis passed, one swimmer told the mom, “it was never talked about again.”
In communications with the university, the mother was given an incident report, which was clearly incomplete. “The trainer was nowhere nearby when the accident occurred and did not see it first-hand,” she wrote to one administrator.
The mother researched the dangers of underwater hypoxic training. She concluded (and many experts agree) that the episode involved a hypoxic seizure — a serious neurological event caused by deprivation of oxygen to the brain.
Quoting again from the mother’s email to a university administrator:
“I am concerned that this incident report does not adequately document what truly happened. I am quite concerned that the coaches either covered up, or did not perceive the inherent dangers in what actually took place that day and dangers in this kind of training. My research (and you have all the links) certainly documents the dangers of shallow water blackouts, drowning and seizures as a consequence of such hypoxic challenges.
“I hope this allows you to better understand my position and my concerns with regards to this incident. Also my concern that the next practice day after I asked for a copy of this incident report, that Greg started quizzing [my son] about the accident in practice.
“Also my concern that once I talked with Pete [Oliczcsak, associate athletic director] about this incident and concerns in general by phone, [my son] suffered the repercussions last week from Greg making a statement to [my son] in front of his peers talking about a specific dry land exercise ‘Be careful not to hurt yourself doing this, especially you, [name of son]’ and ‘Don’t go crying to your Mommy.’”
Utah’s associate athletics director, Liz Abel, referred us to today’s press release announcing that Winslow’s contract is not being renewed; the full text is viewable at http://muchnick.net/utahpr.pdf. “We will not have any further statements at this time,” Abel said.
We have not heard back from an email sent to King in Wisconsin.