by Irvin Muchnick and Tim Joyce
We know that Olympic gold medalist Deena Deardurff Schmidt has offered unrefuted testimony of her molestation at the hands of her youth coach, Paul Bergen. We also know that Bergen took an interlude away from swimming, during which he trained horses.
Now Concussion Inc. tells some of the rest of the story, with the assistance of Deena’s swimming contemporary and lifelong friend from Cincinnati, Melissa Halmi, who now lives in Florida. In a phone conversation today, backed by extensive email documentation, Halmi (whom we will refer to as Melissa in the rest of this article) explained that she, too, was a Bergen abuse victim when she swam for him at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1973-74. Later Melissa was interviewed about Bergen by famed Hamilton County (Ohio) prosecutor Simon Leis, and later still, her testimony forced Bergen out of a lucrative coaching contract and sent him into horse-training exile.
Deena and Melissa swam together under Bergen with the Cincinnati Marlins club in the early seventies. There, according to Melissa, Bergen was widely thought to have engaged in sexual misconduct not only with Deena, but also with another swimmer who was the first national champion out of that city. The rumors escalated to the point where the team’s major benefactor, Charles Keating (the financier who would become infamous for his role in the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s), forced Bergen to leave Cincinnati. He became the swim coach in Milwaukee.
In her late high school years, Melissa had focused more on water polo than on swimming; she and Deena would play together on an Amateur Athletic Union national championship team. But when Melissa graduated from Cincinnati’s Ursuline Academy in 1973, Bergen recruited her for his collegiate program.
Melissa recalls driving to Wisconsin with Bergen, his wife, and their three kids. (One of them, Linck Bergen, is now head coach of the Tualatin Hills Swim Club in Oregon. The club’s annual junior international meet, named for Paul Bergen since its inception in 1999, this year just concluded its 15th annual edition as the “Thunderbolt Junior International” — a rebranding obviously precipitated by the escalation of public allegations of Bergen’s sex crimes against underage athletes, and by USA Swimming’s defense against mounting federal investigations.)
“That’s when the brainwashing began,” Melissa told us. “It’s such a hard thing to understand if you haven’t lived through it. Bergen put me on a pedestal, gave me constant attention, and demanded total control of my life. He wanted to see me every day, and not just at practice. He would have me go to his office between classes and sit on his lap. There he touched me, nuzzled my neck, dropped objects into my shirt that he had to ‘retrieve.’”
She called Bergen’s creepiness “cult-like. He was a Jim Jones figure.”
In February 1974, Melissa’s father died in a plane crash. Returning to Cincinnati for the funeral, she had long conversations with Deena, who helped her understand how Bergen was manipulating and abusing her. “Something clicked,” Melissa said. “I realized I was done with him.”
Melissa told Bergen as much after he picked her up at the airport upon her return to Wisconsin. He didn’t take her back to her dorm — instead, he put her up overnight in a downstairs den at his house with a foldout couch. In the middle of the night, and with the rest of the family upstairs, Bergen, wearing only a Speedo bikini, showed up in front of Melissa, crawled into bed with her, and fondled her. (They never had intercourse or oral sex.)
The next day they drove together to the university pool, late for practice. On the drive, Melissa said, Bergen held her hand. “If things were different, I would have married you,” he told her.
As soon as the car was parked, Melissa fled directly to her dorm room, from which she was afraid to emerge for days. Two months later, she withdrew from school and returned home.
Some years later, at her mother’s urging, Melissa was interviewed by Hamilton County prosecutor Leis. He concluded that Bergen could not be prosecuted in Ohio because of jurisdiction and statute-of-limitation issues.
In 1988, Melissa was in Florida when she came across the news that Bergen had signed a four-year, $125,000-a-year contract to succeed Mark Schubert as head coach of the prestigious Mission Bay Aquatic Training Center in Boca Raton. The deal was voided after Melissa called Mission Bay developer James Brady with information about Bergen’s sordid past. Bergen backed out with a cover story that he could not take the job because he had to care for his sick mother.
(And, of course, the introduction of Schubert’s name into this story is rich with historical irony. Schubert left Mission Bay for the University of Texas, where he would join a long line of coaches and top swimming officials who knew of his Texas swimmer Kelley Davies’ abuse by Rick Curl, her Maryland club coach. Thirty years later, Curl is in prison. Schubert, who became Olympic national team coach and then was fired from that job, has been sued for retaliation and unlawful termination by Dia Rianda, his whistleblower ex-aide at Golden West Aquatics in California.)
In the kicker to the Melissa Halmi story, Paul Bergen called her at the conclusion of the Mission Bay hiring fiasco.
She recalled that Bergen said, “You just never could accept the fact that I was in love with you.”
Overcoming her anger and revulsion, Melissa said simply, “You’ve got a problem.”
“I know,” Bergen replied. He said he was getting out of swimming and turning to the horse business.