The issue of coaches crossing the line with young female swimmers is a hot topic this spring as several high-profile lawsuits have entered the public arena.
But will it tarnish swimming’s image for the American public?
“People are drawn to swimming and water by instinct. One negative event won’t destroy the institution,” said Thomas Lachocki, Ph.D. The CEO of the National Swimming Pool Foundation in Colorado Springs, Colo., added, “There are two sides to every story.”
Indeed, there are many sides to this story, and it involves more than one incident.
In January 2010, Andrew King, a Northern California swim coach affiliated with USA Swimming, was sentenced to 40 years in prison for child molestation charges dating back to 1978.
In March, a civil lawsuit was filed against him as well as USA Swimming and Pacific Swimming (a USAS club) on behalf of a 15-year-old girl who was allegedly abused by King. The complaint claimed at least 32 coaches at swim clubs around the United States have sexually abused swimmers since 1993.
Adding fuel to the fire, ABC’s “20/20” aired a scathing report on April 9, with USA Swimming as its prime target. ABC asserted that at least 36 coaches have been banned for life by USA Swimming over the past 10 years because of sexual misconduct with teenagers they coached.
As the national governing body for the sport, USAS has had 36,402 member coaches over the past decade, said communications director Jamie Fabos Olsen. In a typical year, there are 11,000 to 12,000.
“The issue of sexual abuse is a tragic [one] that is very difficult to talk about, but it is … a reality for any organization where you have adults and children interacting. We know — statistically and anecdotally — that we are not in a bubble on this,” Olsen said.
“Rather than focus on ‘image’ concerns, we are committed to using this challenging time to raise awareness and take meaningful action that will benefit our membership — and also ultimately may be of benefit to other youth organizations,” she added.
To that end, USAS recently unveiled its “7-Point Plan for a Safe and Positive Sport Environment.” The steps include guidelines for acceptable coach behavior, a better system for reporting sexual abuse to USAS and police, and a review of USAS’ code of conduct.
Swim coach Paul Stafford said this scandal “puts all of us under the microscope.”
The head coach of the Terrapins Swim Team, a USAS member club in Concord, Calif., has more than 25 years’ experience coaching at all levels of competitive swimming. “I think it’s happening everywhere, not just in swimming. But even if it’s a small percentage of coaches, it’s still a huge issue,” Stafford said. “As painful as it is, it will make us all better. I hope other youth organizations will look at, and address, this issue.”
Another who doesn’t think the sport will be tarnished for the average American is industry veteran Vance Gillette. “It will have zero effect,” said the president of Gillette Consulting in Novato, Calif. “Even people in the YMCA or camps where you send your kids — some of them are questionable — but will parents stop sending their kids? No.”