Sexual Abuse Allegations: US Swimming’s Preventative Measures

By David

I see that US Swimming is currently struggling to handle a series of sexual abuse allegations. Recently two of their coaches have been locked up for thirty years or so for molesting young swimmers and filming swimmers in the girl’s shower room. In the six years I was a member of US Swimming I thought their level of concern and management in this area was about right. They conducted full international background screening checks every two years, their Code of Conduct Rules were clear and while I was in the US close to forty coaches were expelled from the organization for sexual misconduct.

The system wasn’t perfect. I’d been in Florida for four years when a local coach, and President of the Florida Gold Coast region, was locked away for having sex with an underage female swimmer and distributing nude photographs over the internet of young boys taken in the team’s changing rooms. I’d only been in Florida a few months when one of my swimmers pointed out this fellow and said he was sleeping with one of his young swimmers. I heard that said several more times before he was caught. Each time I put the remarks down to malicious poolside gossip. I even told one of my older swimmers he really shouldn’t be spreading that sort of noxious stuff. Being a newcomer I never dreamed of reporting their comments. I also thought that if it’s a topic of open conversation in my team, Florida Gold Coast’s management must have heard the same rumors. They weren’t doing anything; neither would I. We were wrong.

However it’s not an easy thing for the US authorities to get right. I’m certainly not qualified to tell them how to address such a complex and difficult issue. What I do want to discuss are two narrow aspects of this malaise that demonstrate its complexity and its difficulty.

I’ve heard US Swimming is considering making it compulsory for coaches to allow the parents of swimmers to attend all swim practices. It’s fairly unusual in New Zealand for parents not to be allowed into the pool, but in the United States many clubs enforce some version of a “No Parent” rule. For example a club team near where I lived, based at Florida Atlantic University, limited parent access to the pool during practice. The St. Andrews Swim Team, also in Florida, publishes its version of a “no parents allowed” rule in their team rule book. Here’s what it says.

“Parents/Guardians are not permitted on the pool deck during scheduled practice times. Access to the pool deck is permitted during the final ten minutes of each practice session. There are shaded picnic tables at the pavilion for your convenience. This will allow for the coaches to attend to the swimmers without interruptions and will enable us to build an effective coach/swimmer relationship.”

I agree with the US Swimming proposal. It is ludicrous for any club to exclude parents from the pool. Parents have every right to watch their children at practice. What do these clubs have to hide? When it comes to abuse of any sort it is not only important for coaches to be above reproach they should be seen to be above reproach. Parents can’t do much seeing sitting in their car in the pool parking lot. Besides I’ve always considered parents to be an integral part of the swimmer’s coaching team. They have an obvious and vital role to play in an athlete’s sporting success; feeding swimmers, caring for them when they are sick, making sure they rest, all that important “outside the pool” stuff. I actually enjoy parents being around. It makes it a lot easier to communicate how children are progressing when parents can see it for themselves. It also means that when there is something to say, it can be said immediately. So, any move to open up all US Swimming practices to parents would certainly get my vote.

If US Swimming provides the parents of America with additional access, as I think they should, then those rights should come with responsibilities. Without some controls coaches will become an endangered species. Years ago I gave up getting into a pool with learn to swim or training classes. I just wasn’t prepared to take the risk of some parent making a complaint that is almost impossible to defend. In 2005 Nancy Gibbs wrote an article for Time called “Parents Behaving Badly”. In it she tells horror stories of teachers victimized by out of control parents. For example:

“Mara Sapon-Shevin, an education professor at Syracuse University, has had students call their parents from the classroom on a cell phone to complain about a low grade and then pass the phone over to her, in the middle of class, because the parent wanted to intervene. And she has had parents say they are paying a lot of money for their child’s education and imply that anything but an A is an unacceptable return on their investment.”

US Swimming has a duty to protect their good coaches. I’ve been fortunate. I have only experienced one case of “parents behaving badly”.

I should have been cautious of Linda from the start. On her first day at the pool she told me that she had paid for a private detective agency to conduct a thorough check into my life in the Virgin Islands, the USA, New Zealand and the UK and I was approved as a suitable coach for her two daughters. As time went by I discovered she’d seldom traveled outside Florida, she hated things foreign but drove a steel grey Audi SUV, reading “People” magazine was her major intellectual stimulation and she’d caused trouble and walked out of her daughter’s first elementary school. In Barcelona her daughter swam in a 50 freestyle race and came last. Linda sitting behind me in the stands burst into tears and walked out. A week later she emailed a complaint to my employer saying I’d “forced” her daughter to swim. Fortunately the complaint was full of lies. For example she said I’d told her daughter to “splash around in the shallow end” of the Barcelona Pool. The problem is that pool is two meters deep all over; there is no shallow end. Her complaint was full of silly errors like that and was dismissed.

My point is that just as parents need access, good coaches need protection. It is important US Swimming provides added safeguards for parents and their children. They must also ensure good coaches are protected by instituting a range of sanctions that deter parents on the lunatic fringe.