by Irvin Muchnick and Tim Joyce
Sarah Burt was an outstanding student and competitive swimmer who loved teaching younger kids to swim. But on June 29, 2010, she drove her car to a busy intersection in rural Illinois, 20 minutes from Peoria. She parked, exited, and ended years of private torment by hurling herself in front of a semi-truck. Sarah was 16.
The USA Swimming establishment is imploding after decades of sexual abuse by various coaches and cover-ups by administrators. The slow denouement of the scandal began too late for Sarah Burt (who had been molested by her local club coach for most of a year when she was 12 and 13). It began with the revelation earlier this year that a Brazilian coach working in Florida hid a video camera in a bathroom heating vent to peep on a young Mexican swimmer, who also happened to be his legal ward. The coach, Alexandre A. Pussieldi, was never arrested or banned. He is “in retirement.” When the 2016 Summer Olympics start in Rio de Janeiro, he will be the face of swimming coverage on SporTV, Brazil’s ESPN-esque network.
Youth coach sexual abuse in USA Swimming is the most widespread setting of authority figure rape in America, outside the Catholic Church. It is the subject of intensifying Congressional and Justice Department investigations, and has recently drawn the attention of the FBI in particular.
As Concussion Inc. (and no one else) has reported, even as Michael Phelps goes to rehab for alcohol and gambling addictions, and disgraced USA Swimming chief Chuck Wielgus is the subject of a fawning “legacy” article in the magazine of the American Swimming Coaches Association, questions swirl in the nation’s capital around, among many other items, the circumstances of the recent retirement of U.S. Olympic Committee athlete ombudsman John Ruger.
Victims have faced all the usual hurdles in speaking out, drawing attention to their plight, and securing accountability for the perpetrators. The biggest obstacles are the power of abusers and the difficulty of overcoming victim-blaming biases.
Swimming also holds the unfortunate distinction off being arguably the most normalized scandal of all time, and that is the real secret to its having endured so long. With 400,000 kids and 12,000 club coaches putting in dozens of hours a week, 12 months a year, at before- and after-school practices and far-flung weekend meets, USA Swimming is a staple of middle-class Americana. Yet swimming is both a niche sport and a massive global industry. As a result, almost everything the average fan knows about the aquatic world is contained in feel-good packages produced by NBC every four summers about Phelps, Katie Ladecky, Ryan Lochte, and their Olympic teammates.
USA Swimming is the U.S. Olympic Committee-sanctioned national sport governing body. It is the organization behind both Phelps and the local swim team. When parents dream of swimming scholarships or Olympic glory for their children, the path begins with USA Swimming. But when coaches abuse their power, the organization’s misplaced priorities—money, a squeaky clean brand—get in the way of justice.
In 2010, USA Swimming grudgingly began publishing a list of banned coaches. The list, originally numbered 36. Today it’s up to 107, almost all of them for sexual abuse, and growing monthly. There is also a second, secret “flagged list,” consisting of legacy coaches against whom serious allegations of abuse remain unresolved; international coaches accused of abuse; and coaches who have been named in media reports but not in formal USA Swimming complaints.
Presumably, 1972 Olympic gold medalist Deena Deardurff Schmidt’s accused molester, International Swimming Hall of Famer Paul Bergen, is on the flagged list.
Paul Bergen, You’ve Got a Problem. “I Know.”
Several years after Paul Bergen fondled an 11-year-old Deardurff Schmidt repeatedly in the boiler room of a Cincinnati aquatic center—according to her unrefuted account—Deena warned one of her best friends, Melissa Halmi, to stay away from the coach. Bergen had moved on to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where Halmi matriculated and swam.
In February 1974, following a return to campus after the death of her father in a plane crash, Halmi was picked up at the airport by Bergen, who instead of driving her to her dorm, insisted that she spend the night in the downstairs den of the house where he lived with his wife and three kids.
In the middle of the night, Bergen went downstairs and, clad in a Speedo bikini, climbed into Melissa’s bed and molested her. The next day, he drove her back to campus. As soon as the car was parked, she fled to her dorm room, from which she didn’t emerge for days. She eventually dropped out of school.
Several years later, at her mother’s urging, Halmi was interviewed by the Hamilton County (Ohio) prosecutor. The office concluded that Bergen could not be prosecuted there because of jurisdiction and statute-of-limitation issues.
In 1988, while living in Florida, Halmi came across the news that Bergen had signed a four-year, $125,000-a-year contract to become director of the now-defunct Mission Bay Aquatic Training Center in Boca Raton. The deal was voided after Halmi called the Mission Bay developer with information about Bergen’s sordid past.
Halmi recalls a final phone conversation with Bergen.
“You just never could accept the fact that I was in love with you,” she remembers him saying. She replied: “You’ve got a problem.” To which Bergen said, “I know.”
One of Bergen’s sons, Linck, is now head coach of the Nike-sponsored Tualatin Hills Swim Club in Oregon. From 1999 until last year, Tualatin Hills’ annual marquee meet was named the Paul Bergen Junior Internationals.
“Denying Knowledge of Rick Curl! It’s a Flat-Out Lie.”
The oddest thing about the Rick Curl case—the one that would trigger the Congressional investigation—is that it appears to have involved only one victim. Most coaches who molest swimmers are serial offenders with myriad victims. But the bespectacled owner of one of the aquatic industry’s most successful operations, the multi-site Curl-Burke Club in the Washington, D.C. area, did commit serial statutory rape on swimmer Kelley Davies, beginning when she was a young teen.
In her victim impact statement to the court, Davies—by now Kelley Currin— recounted how at the 1984 Olympic Swimming Trials in Indianapolis, Curl showed up drunk at her hotel room at midnight. He got in bed with her, got up, urinated on the wall, then got in her bed again, and fondled her for an hour until she told him she needed to get some sleep before her race the next day.
Curl’s abuse of Davies was one of the sport’s worst-kept dirty secrets —especially after Davies had a mental breakdown and was hospitalized with an eating disorder while swimming on scholarship at the University of Texas. Her mother and father explored criminal charges against Curl, but prosecutors weren’t optimistic. The Davies did inform the University of Maryland, where Curl had become swim coach; the university quietly dismissed him and connected the family to a civil attorney who negotiated a $150,000 settlement with Curl. Since it was subject to a “confidentiality agreement,” the settlement was essentially hush money. In 2004, Curl moved with his family to Australia to coach for four years with the famed Carlile Swim School. Along the way, he was inducted into the ASCA Hall of Fame.
Olympic gold medalist David Berkoff first began speaking out about swimming’s abuse problem in the early 1990s. In 2010 he wrote in an email to a parent activist, “Denying knowledge of Rick Curl, Mitch Ivey and others banging their swimmers! It’s a flat out lie.” Berkoff added, “I was told Rick Curl was molesting Kelly Davies for years starting when she was 12 by some of the Texas guys.”
Currently USA Swimming’s technical vice president, Berkoff has gone from accuser to institutional apologist. He now says he was only recirculating “rumors.”
In 2012, Currin (née Davies) was infuriated when she spotted Curl on the coaching deck of the CenturyLink Center in Omaha during TV coverage of the Olympic Trials. A California attorney, B. Robert Allard, was working with a group of lawyers across the country to coordinate abuse victims’ claims. With Allard representing her, Currin came forward publicly.
In succession, Curl was “provisionally” banned by USA Swimming, permanently banned on the eve of an “emergency hearing,” and, finally, criminally indicted in Maryland. He pleaded guilty and is serving the second year of a seven-year state prison sentence.
On the Montgomery County courthouse steps on May 23, 2013, shortly after making her victim-impact statement at Curl’s sentencing hearing, Kelley Currin advocated for Congressional intervention to probe USA Swimming’s quarter-century-long cover-up. The Washington Post echoed the call, and the next month, Congressman George Miller, a Democrat representing California’s 12th District, heeded it, first asking for a Government Accountability Office audit of sports program abuse reporting requirements, then meeting with swimming and Olympic officials.
(As the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Democrat Miller, who is retiring after his current term, cannot unilaterally hold public hearings. Ultimately, Congressional action on the issue of abuse in swimming, like that of sex assaults in the military, will likely be driven by the 20 women of both parties in the Democrat-controlled Senate.)
In a May 2010 deposition in a civil lawsuit against USA Swimming, executive director Wielgus claimed he “never even knew” Rick Curl coached at the University of Maryland. Wielgus also said “I have never received any information” regarding “inappropriate sexual contact with one of his swimmers.” Wielgus said he didn’t know why Curl had moved to Australia. Nor had Wielgus ever heard, until “three or four weeks ago,” of the $150,000 confidentiality agreement between Curl and the Davies family.
Alex Pussieldi and Swimming’s Lords of the Rings
Nowhere among his various sketchy and ever-shifting Internet curricula vitae is there evidence that Alex Pussieldi seriously competed as a swimmer. The one thing Pussieldi does have going for him, however, is that he matches the central casting image of a swimming coach. He has dark, friendly eyes, an ingratiating smile, and an air of gravitas on matters aquatic.
Pussieldi coached for Clube Português in Recife, the major city in northeastern Brazil, from 1989 to 1995, and for Duvel Natação in São Luís, another northern city, from 1996 to 1998. In 1999 he talked his way into a job on the coaching staff of the Fort Lauderdale Swim Team, which operated out of the same city-owned complex that houses the International Swimming Hall of Fame. Jack Nelson, who owned and directed the club, had already been inducted into the Hall on the basis of a distinguished career, which consisted of barely missing out on a butterfly medal in the 1956 Olympics (he finished fourth in the event), and subsequently mentoring five swimming medalists.
Nelson had an opening because of a problem with another transnational figure, his chief assistant Cecil Russell. He’d had a successful coaching stint in his native Canada. Russell admitted in a 1996 drug investigation to helping incinerate the remains of a murder victim. The next year, after being convicted of steroid trafficking and getting banned by Swimming Canada, he went to Fort Lauderdale, where Nelson employed him. That is, until Russell managed to get himself arrested in Spain for trafficking ecstasy, for which crime he would serve a four-year prison sentence. (Incredibly, he then returned to the pool decks of Canada, where he coaches to this day—albeit without authorization and through administrative gimmicks that keep him in the spectator area during meets.)
Perhaps Nelson threw no stones at Russell because he himself lived in a glass house. In 1989, Diana Nyad, Nelson’s former swimmer at Pine Crest, a private school in Fort Lauderdale, began publicly accusing Nelson of having repeatedly molested her, starting around 1965 when she was 15. Nyad went on to become a legendary open water swimmer who, in 2013 and in her 60s, conquered the 110 miles of strait between Havana and Key West.
Ten years ago, Nyad told an uncomfortable Hall of Fame gathering that her memories of Nelson made her physically ill whenever she had to fly into Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and gazed down at the Pine Crest campus. For a 2007 cover story in South Florida’s New Times weekly, William McMillan, the retired headmaster of Pine Crest, conceded that Nyad’s allegations were credible and, indeed, had been a factor in his engineering Nelson’s ouster at the school.
Over the years, the ace in Nelson’s defense deck was the steadfast patronage of Norman Tripp, a powerful local lawyer. Tripp made a good chunk of his fortune counseling and accruing stock options in the Alamo Rent-a-Car company. His kids swam for Nelson, and the whole family swore by him. Tripp spearheaded the fundraising and municipal commitment to upgrade the Fort Lauderdale Hall of Fame complex into a world-class facility.
After being hired by Nelson and the Fort Lauderdale Swim Team, Alex Pussieldi secured another influential benefactor: Dale Neuburger, then USA Swimming’s board president. Neuburger was also an American representative on the board of Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA), as well as a partner at TSE, an Indiana-based sports marketing and consulting company. From those twin perches, Neuburger ran an envelope-pushing for-profit business that exploited his vast networking: he advised venues placing bids to host major meets and events, then helped ensure that the successful bids went to the city and country commissions that had paid him fees for designing them. No one questioned the conflict. Neuburger also specialized in brokering foreign consultancies for prominent American coaches. Through TSE Consulting, Phelps’ coach Bob Bowman has enjoyed six-figure contracts with the British and Turkish national teams.
In addition, Neuburger helped set up USA Swimming’s offshore captive reinsurance subsidiary, a complex tax- and liability-dodging firewall against abuse lawsuits. The “United States Sports Insurance Co.” is headquartered in Barbados, though officials recently announced that the operation there is in “run-off mode,” with the intention of relocating onshore.
In 2000, Neuburger was looking to expand swimming operations in the Persian Gulf, where oil-rich sheiks wanted to elevate their profile by participating in Western-friendly activities. Neuburger set up Pussieldi with Husain Al-Musailam, an airline pilot who was general secretary of the Kuwaiti Swimming Association. Pussieldi commuted between Fort Lauderdale and Kuwait City, with the second title of head coach of the Kuwaiti national team. Many Middle East swimmers found their way to Florida to train, as did athletes from throughout the Caribbean. In South Florida, the decks teemed with foreign participants and murky club affiliations.
The traffic was so high in Olympic hopefuls from Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, Columbia, and elsewhere that a cottage industry emerged for low-paid assistant swim coaches. A few found that they could pocket a little dough on the side by boarding foreign recruits in their own homes. But only Pussieldi seemed to turn this business into both an art form and a substantial stream of revenue and control.
After selling well-heeled Latin American parents on the wisdom of sending their sons—it appears to have been exclusively boys—abroad for training and study, Pussieldi processed the paperwork himself. In a number of cases, he became legal guardian to young swimming prospects. Looking back, swimmers and coaches from that period remember feeling unsettled whenever they visited one of Pussieldi’s several properties, where they found Latino boys bunking three or four to a room. But, at the time, no one thought it was that big a deal.
Everybody in the Pool
On February 13, 2004, Jack Nelson and one of his other assistants, Duffy Dillon, were out of town. The Fort Lauderdale Swim Team’s 5 a.m. senior group practice was supervised by Pussieldi.
When 20-year-old Mexican swimmer Roberto Cabrera Paredes learned that Pussieldi was in charge, he refused to get in the pool. Cabrera Paredes believed he had an agreement with Nelson that he would follow the directions of Nelson and other assistants, but would never have to interact with Pussieldi. Cabrera Paredes’ reasons for keeping his distance from the coach were telling.
As Cabrera Paredes sat in the bleachers in his swim gear, watching half a dozen teammates go through drills, Pussieldi screamed at him, according to the swimmer’s later account to a USA Swimming investigator. “You better start fucking doing my practice,” Pussieldi yelled. “You had better get into the pool, I don’t care what you think, you fucking no one.”
Soon, Pussieldi was confronting Cabrera Paredes and attempting to shove him from the bleachers toward the pool. The swimmer had a towel around his neck. Pussieldi grabbed both ends of it and pulled, choking him. According to the investigator, Cabrera Paredes said that Pussieldi “also hit him with his fist on [his] side” and “continued to verbally abuse the young man.” While Cabrera Paredes lay on the floor, Pussieldi said, “Get the hell out of my pool, you don’t belong here.”
The investigator’s report went on to say that Pussieldi followed Cabrera Paredes into the locker room, “banged on the locker with his fists,” and challenged him “to go ahead and call the police because they would not believe him anyway.”
An emergency room doctor at Holy Cross Hospital told Fort Lauderdale police that an examination revealed “multiple recent contusions.”
In the midst of the ensuing crisis, Fort Lauderdale Parks & Recreation Department official Stu Marvin composed an internal memo that would become a template for cover-ups by local officials, the government, and USA Swimming. Parks & Rec leased the city aquatic center to Nelson’s club. (Marvin is now the swimming coach at Bloomsburg State University in Pennsylvania; he did not respond to multiple email and phone messages.)
Parks & Rec directed the team to accept Pussieldi’s resignation. In addition, the team gave formal written notice to both Cabrera Paredes and John Grzeszczak, an assistant coach who supported him, that their own actions were disruptive and “not in the best interests of FLST.”
A key member of the cover-up team was Sharon Robb, long-time swimming writer for Fort Lauderdale’s Sun Sentinel. In reporting on the incident, Robb did not mention the background and extent of the story. She also exchanged emails with Pussieldi, counseling him on how to limit the public relations damage and seamlessly move on from what she called his “week off.” (Robb, who did not respond to multiple requests for comment, recently retired from the newspaper. In 2000 she had been inducted into the media wing of the International Swimming Hall of Fame; last year she added enshrinement in the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame and the Broward County Sports Hall of Fame.)
“[I]t would be a good idea to go down to the police station, the records department and buy a copy of the police incident report…,” Robb advised. “The case number is 04-108791, unless you have a fax number, I can fax to you… It’s good to have a copy just for your files in case this gets out of hand… keep in touch and call me when you are reinstated so I can write another story saying you are back coaching.” (The ellipses are in the original.)
In March, police sergeant Richard Herbert told inquiring city commissioners, the city manager, and the Parks & Rec director: “The ‘victim,’ who is an adult now … was unable to offer any corroboration of his allegations. [Detective Jeff Jennings] tells me the suspect coach is no longer at the pool and is a coach overseas now. The case is going to be closed out as Unfounded.”
Yet the police department’s own investigation showed that Cabrera Paredes was already on the outs with his coach as a result of prior events before he turned 18. Cabrera Paredes had discovered that Pussieldi was at best a peeping Tom; at worst, both a peeping Tom and practicing pedophile. Specifically, Cabrera Paredes claimed he saw Pussieldi drilling a hole in the wall of a bathroom used only by swimmer tenants at one of his properties. Cabrera Paredes said he located a hidden video camera. Still later, Roberto and some of his roomates discovered a stash of videos of Pussieldi having sex with boys (none of them swimmers, evidently, but clearly underage).
The swimmer told investigators he brought all this information to a coach, almost certainly Jack Nelson; the heavy redactions in the documents that have been released so far make it impossible to say with certainty. The coach responded that he was “aware of [Pussieldi’s] personal problem,” for which he “was receiving professional help from a psychiatrist.” The “problem,” evidently, was not intimidation, abuse, and invasion of privacy, but rather homosexuality.
Cabrera Paredes also said he had told the parents of the girlfriend of his roommate about the hidden bathroom camera and they had confronted Pussieldi, who “admitted everything to them.” Around the same time, an anonymous tipster emphasized to detectives that Nelson had been made aware of the Pussieldi misconduct allegations. Barbara Dillon, the wife of assistant coach Duffy Dillon, had earlier reported to Fort Lauderdale police knowledge of Pussieldi’s peeping Tom practices, via swimmer Kaley Lucas, then girlfriend of Brazilian swimmer Leonardo Hobi Martins. Pussieldi confessed to Kaley’s father, Ken Lucas, that his “crush” on Martins had driven him to desperate acts, and tearfully pleaded for them to drop the matter.
(Neither Kaley Lucas, now a Hollywood beach lifeguard, nor her father would speak with us. Like Paul Bergen and a good many other prominent swimming figures in the middle of these stories, Nelson is elderly and unresponsive to requests for comment.)
Pussieldi did not leave Broward County or coaching in Broward County. He merely evolved into the unspoken problem of local entities other than the Fort Lauderdale Swim Team. He continued to coach in the area for nine more years—at the Archdiocese of Miami’s St. Thomas Aquinas High School, at Pine Crest, at summer camps, and ultimately for his own, internationally celebrated Davie Nadadores.
The New Times story on Diana Nyad and Jack Nelson noted that “a packet of materials, anonymously delivered to Fort Lauderdale commissioners” in January 2007, included the Cabrera Paredes allegations; the Barbara Dillon corroboration; testimony of Leo Martins that Pussieldi had inappropriately touched him; and the fact that the probe dead-ended.
On February 26 of this year, Fort Lauderdale lawyer Bob Nichols, who is friendly with Nyad, emailed us that he “probably had a copy of the packet that made its way to the commission,” and promised to pull together some of the material and send it to us. (In response to a public records request, the city manager maintained that there were no such documents in the archives.) Nichols, however, never came through. But later on February 26 he wrote, “It [swimming sexual abuse cover-up in South Florida] appears to be a very wide-spread problem that has existed for many decades. I also led the investigation against Jack Nelson, who sexually abused numerous well-known swimmers both in high school and thereafter…. As far as Pussieldi, I assume you already know about the naked picture of him with the team and the ties with international drug trafficking and the murders. Molesting swimmers was just one of many problems he had.”
“Should I Garrote Him?” “No, Just Report Him.”
In November 2012, 15 months before we came upon the documentation of the Pussieldi cover-up, Jean-Pierre Côté and his wife Carolyn were on deck at the municipal aquatic complex in Plantation, a Fort Lauderdale suburb, where their sons were swimming in a weekend meet. Côté was a former Canadian national team swimmer who just missed qualifying for the 1988 Olympics. His wife was a nurse. They had moved to Florida and Jean-Pierre was a volunteer assistant coach.
At the Plantation meet, Jean-Pierre (himself a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, not in swimming) and Carolyn observed Pussieldi, coach of the Davie Nadadores, blatantly caressing the inner thigh of one of his swimmers in plain sight. The swimmer, wearing a bikini brief, appeared to be 12 or 13 years old, and had braces on his teeth.
“Should I garrote him?” Jean-Pierre recalled saying to Carolyn.
“No, just report him,” Carolyn replied.
The Côtés filed complaints on Sunday with the Plantation police, and on Monday with USA Swimming. Nothing came of them. Working from the meet database, Jean-Pierre gave police a list of all the registered male Nadadores swimmers of that age range. A detective conducted a cursory phone interview with one, didn’t get a message returned from a second, spoke to Pussieldi, who denied everything, and called it a day. USA Swimming likewise did zilch.
J.P. and Carolyn then noticed that they and their sons were being followed daily, by a person they deduced to be a private investigator hired by Pussieldi. The Côtés filed a new complaint with USA Swimming—alleging violation of a rule barring retaliation against anyone making a good-faith report of abuse. Nothing came of that, either.
When we reported the extent of the old charges against Pussieldi, USA Swimming Safe Sport director Susan Woessner made a new show of concern. She dispatched a USA Swimming investigator for a fresh round of calls to Florida. On February 19, 2014, Woessner emailed masters coach and former Cabrera Paredes confidante John Grzeszczak (now running his own program): “I understand your frustration and I can only offer frustration myself when I review the file and wonder why more was not done then. I can tell you that we are committed to trying to right that wrong now.”
But once again, nothing came of it. USA Swimming ignored complaints by the Côtés that they had faced retaliation for making a good-faith report of abuse.
In June 2014, New Times published published a cover story based on our reporting around the 2004 Pussieldi-Cabrera incident. We also have pending Florida Public Records Act litigation against the City of Fort Lauderdale for removal of many of the redactions in documents released to us.
Farewell to “The Great Alex Pussieldi”
In July 2013, Pussieldi announced his “retirement” from coaching the Davie Nadadores. He didn’t mention that Florida Gold Coast Swimming, the regional affiliate of USA Swimming, was on the verge of suspending him and club co-owner Tomas Victoria indefinitely, and fining them $17,750 for 355 technical rules violations. Increasingly alarmed by reports of unsupervised and out-of-control behavior by the foreign teenagers sponsored by Pussieldi and living in dorms at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, campus risk-management bureaucrats pulled the plug on hosting the Nadadores. (University officials did not respond to emails or faxes.)
Just a year earlier, Miami Herald sports columnist Linda Robertson had written about Pussieldi’s club as a vision of multiculturalism. She credited him with recruiting swimmers from all over, and then accommodating their needs, like holding practices for Muslim swimmers at 3 a.m. during Ramadan so they could eat beforehand. Pussieldi, the Herald added, “dined with sheiks and prime ministers on his travels around the world reassuring parents and swimming federation leaders that the Davie Nadadores is the ideal team.”
When he retired, the news site SwimSwam.com called him “the great Alex Pussieldi.” Swimming World magazine, the sport’s unofficial organ of record, named Pussieldi its Brazilian correspondent as he traded in his stopwatch and clipboard for a microphone and a TV studio. Today SwimSwam allows that the Nadadores “sort of came apart.” Swimming World no longer appears to use Pussieldi’s reports with Brazilian datelines. But as the legendary coach, who is active in social media, blogged in Portuguese in July: “Terminou a Copa, faltam 753 dias para os Jogos Olímpicos do Rio 2016,” Translation: Soccer’s World Cup has ended. Just 753 days until the Rio Summer Games.
Wielgus: Hall of Fame or Hall of Justice?
Nancy Hogshead-Makar won three gold medals at the 1984 Olympics and has gone on to become one of the country’s most prominent voices in support of Title IX, the 1972 federal legislation that widened opportunities for girls and women in sports. She practices law and teaches at the Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville. She served a term as board president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, which was founded by tennis great Billie Jean King, before settling in as the foundation’s senior director of advocacy.
One of the coaches on Hogshead-Makar’s Olympic team was Mitch Ivey, a serial sexual predator who later would be fired by the University of Florida, and had so many victims that the list included two unrelated women with the same last name. With exquisite timing, Ivey would be banned by USA Swimming 29 years later, as the heat from Congressman Miller intensified.
The Pussieldi controversy, entangled with Chuck Wielgus’ International Hall of Fame induction, gave the Women’s Sports Foundation an opportunity to enlist Diana Nyad, swimming’s most famous abuse victim. When the Hall announced in February that USA Swimming CEO Wielgus would be inducted—the board vote apparently was engineered while former Olympic star Donna de Varona, its chair, was away at the Winter Olympics—Hogshead-Makar and Nyad sprang into action. The former composed and the latter became lead signatory of a public petition to rescind Wielgus’ nomination, which was sent to the Hall’s executive director, Bruce Wigo. Wielgus, the petition argued, pulls down $908,432 a year in return for ”failure to protect swimmers from coaches with well-known, long histories of sexual abuse.”
In less than a week, the petition garnered 1,883 co-signers. It ranks with the most publicity USA Swimming has ever gotten in an Olympic off-year—and it was exacerbated by Wielgus’ decision to fire back through surrogates. A group of USA Swimming board presidents (including Pussieldi patron Dale Neuburger) provided a character reference. An accompanying brief called the petition “intentionally misleading.” For example, 2003 complaints about Andy King—a coach whom a California prosecutor would label “a monster,” and who today is in state prison for the rest of his life for sexually abusing swimmers as young as 12—“did not automatically point to King being a pedophile.” The truth: The petitioners had published a memo in Wielgus’ name ordering King’s club in California to keep a complaint confidential, and he subsequently passed USA Swimming’s new system of background checks. He was then cleared to coach again following moves from California to Washington State and back to California.
On June 2, Wielgus surrendered. The Hall of Fame announced that it was withdrawing his induction. And four days later, he issued a statement headlined, “I’m Sorry.” He called these “powerful words some people have wanted to hear from me for a long time.” For four years, he conceded, ever since a disastrous 20/20 interview, he had “remained, if not defiant, at least defensive.”
The documentation of USA Swimming’s knowledge of Pussieldi’s peeping Tom videotapes does more than just invalidate Wielgus’ Hall of Fame credentials; it also adds to a mountain of evidence that Wielgus has committed perjury. A lawsuit by Indiana swimmer Brooke Taflinger accuses coach Brian Hindson of producing secret locker room videos of disrobing female swimmers. Hindson is now in federal prison. In interrogatories and a deposition, Wielgus denied that there were parallel historical incidents; he said allegations of the sort were not even “on the radar screen” for the organization prior to 2008. Yet in 1998, he is documented as having directed a nationwide alert to aquatic facilities for a Pennsylvania coach, John Trites, who made the FBI’s Most Wanted List and the television program America’s Most Wanted after going on the lam from precisely the same charges.
The Non-Apology Relays
In the spring of 2010, ABC’s 20/20 and ESPN’s Outside the Lines put together internationally televised investigative packages on USA Swimming’s knowledge of abuse by coaches. On the former, Wielgus was asked if he had apologized to any victims. “You feel I need to apologize to them?” Wielgus said, before adding: “I think we have done—I don’t—look, this is a tragic situation. And I think it’s unfair for you to ask me, whether me individually or me as the representative of an organization, to apologize for something when all we are trying to do is do everything we possibly can to create a safe and healthy environment for kids who are participating in our particular activity.”
On Outside the Lines, Wielgus was confronted over the fact that USA Swimming told Deena Deardurff Schmidt she couldn’t file a complaint because she was no longer an active member. Wielgus acknowledged that he should have reached out to her after her public press conference regarding her abuse by the coach known to be Paul Bergen. But to this day, Wielgus still has not done so.
In the face of brutal reviews, Wielgus issued the first of what would become a series of cascading non-apologies. These would be packaged with verbiage about USA Swimming’s new initiatives in the area of preventing and prosecuting abusive coaches. The organization created a Safe Sport department, whose cornerstone is the list of banned coaches.
With Safe Sport, swimmers or their parents still had to put allegations in writing, after which the complaints were turned over to investigators. These were usually private investigators contracted for USA Swimming and touted as “independent investigators.” They worked in concert with one or more lawyers for the giant and politically connected Bryan Cave law firm, which represents USA Swimming.
The investigators did their work on no set schedule. If the case was well publicized, USA Swimming would announce an “emergency hearing”; if not too many people noticed, the investigators moved the case to the bottom of an ever-thicker stack of pending complaints. With all deliberate speed, they contacted accusers, accused, and witnesses via telephone and email only—there was no travel or face-to-face interviewing. The findings then went to the National Board of Review, appointed by USA Swimming, which, if the matter was not already resolved, conducted a hearing via phone conference. At the hearing, the accuser was expected to testify and be cross-examined. The criminal standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” was transposed to administrative review. Though these methods ill-served both victims and the membership at large, they were convenient for the bloated and highly paid staff, and for the plausible deniability of multimillion-dollar sponsors and broadcast partners.
The review board chair until last year was Jill Johnson Chasson, a Phoenix lawyer who was a 1984 Olympic swimming champion. She admirably recused herself from last year’s case of Greg Winslow, the fired University of Utah coach who raped 15-year-old swimmer Whitney Lopus at the Arizona club owned by Mike Chasson, Jill’s husband. But no one was discussing the root cultural problem. Jill married Mike Chasson after he was her assistant coach at Stanford. Earlier, as a teenager at the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, she had dated John Cadigan, aide de camp to both founder Murray Stephens and current head coach Bowman, now famous as Phelps’ mentor.
Stephens is yet another Hall of Famer who has gone underground following abuse allegations. But he still collects more than half-a-million dollars a year in rental fees from the club at his Meadowbrook Aquatic Center.
USA Swimming Works To “Improve Perceptions”
Stamping out this systemic pattern of abuse called for an outsider, a true cop with a zest for housecleaning. In Susan Woessner, USA Swimming offers a bureaucrat with a smiley face. Even worse, two years after Woessner came on board, USA Swimming hired her sister Geri as “business development manager,” without disclosing the relationship or addressing questions of possible conflict.
Nonetheless, Safe Sport garnered USA Swimming scads of favorable publicity. With allegations of abusive coaches spreading to other sports bodies, notably U.S. Speedskating, Scott Blackmun, CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee—who, like others, has himself gone through the revolving door of the Bryan Cave firm—went so far as to hold up USA Swimming’s Safe Sport as the industry gold standard.
Last summer, after Congressman Miller launched his investigation, USA Swimming dedicated $200,000 of members’ dues toward a public relations and lobbying campaign. Part of the funds went toward “media training” for Wielgus and Woessner as the organization sought to “improve perceptions.” The bulk of the money went toward an “independent review” of Safe Sport by Victor Vieth, director emeritus of the Gundersen Health System’s Child Protection Training Center. In January of this year, Vieth issued his report, which said swimming was doing a good job. The document disclosed that the center had been paid “around $25,000.” A footnote conceded that the real tab was somewhat higher.
Wielgus’ internal memo announcing the lobbying campaign did not specifically address USA Swimming’s efforts, via the powerful Nielsen Merkshamer lobbying firm in California, to join the Catholic Conference as the only institutions known to be actively working to thwart state legislation SB 131, a bill that would have softened statute of limitations requirements for civil lawsuits by victims of sexual abuse. The measure passed the legislature but was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown, an ex-seminarian.
This June, the U.S. Olympic Committee ponied up $5.2 million to underwrite a new “independent agency” that would “investigate and resolve allegations of sexual abuse in Olympic sports.” The USOC said it would seek up to an additional $15 million in private donations for the new agency, which would be modeled after USADA, the United States Anti-Doping Agency.
Travis Tygart, USADA’s director, who famously took down cyclist Lance Armstrong, had been a lawyer at the Bryan Cave firm, where in the early 2000s he helped investigate many of the swimming abuse cases that were stonewalled into oblivion. Most notably, in a pattern similar to Pussieldi’s case, a Jacksonville coach named Simon “Danny” Chocron fled first to Spain and then to his native Venezuela (with which the U.S. does not have an extradition treaty) after signing a confession to 14 felony counts of lewd and lascivious sexual battery against both boy and girl swimmers in his charge. The abuse occurred at the Bolles Sharks club, which operates out of the Bolles School—Tygart’s college prep school alma mater. And it was Tygart who headed swimming’s “prosecution” of Chocron, who is still coaching in Venezuela.
Tygart has not responded to requests for comment.
The USA Swimming scandals have burgeoned from an episodic TV news embarrassment to a federal case. But whether Congress will follow through with hearings and then conduct a thorough reexamination of the Amateur Sports Act of 1978—legislation promulgated in an era before there was nearly the knowledge and consciousness of sexual abuse issue that we have today—remains an open question. Wielgus and other Olympic officials seem to be banking on the clock running out on Congressman Miller. In the flip turn toward 2015, female senators might take their cues from the Women’s Sports Foundation, which receives sizable financial support from Olympic broadcast partner NBC, and is reportedly negotiating with USA Swimming and the USOC for a paid role in the emerging “independent” investigative agency. Money talks, and financial interests could ultimately head off a serious government investigation and ensuing oversight reforms.
The constituency with the fulcrum of latent power in this scenario is America’s community of sports parents. So long as moms and dads care only about whether their kids are swimming faster—and remain oblivious to the misconduct of a sick minority of coaches, or simply limit their concern to the hope that their own daughters and sons won’t become victims—then the athletic culture that nourishes abuse of power, including the sexual kind, cannot be stopped.
Irvin Muchnick’s third book, Concussion Inc.: The End of Football As We Know It, will be published shortly. Tim Joyce is an award-winning tennis writer and a contributor to Forbes’ RealClearSports.com.