According to a massive report by The Orange County Register, hundreds of USA swimmers were sexually abused by their coaches, or else by other USA Swimming officials, since 1997. The report alleges that many of the organization's leadership were aware of abuse accusations, but that they did nothing to implement meaningful change within the sport's culture. Bustle has reached out to USA Swimming for comment.
USA Swimming, for reference, is the governing body for competitive swimming in the United States. It oversees any swim team representing the United States, including the U.S. Olympic Swimming team. The Register report is based on thousands of documents obtained by the Southern California News Group, which oversees nearly a dozen papers in the region.
"At this time, I am convinced that the only way to effectively eradicate childhood sexual abuse in swimming is to, as we are seeing now with USA Gymnastics, completely 'clean house,'" California attorney B. Robert Allard told the Register. Allard has represented some of the former swimmers who were reported that they were sexually abused by officials within the national swimming organization.
Much of the report focuses on former USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus, who died of colon cancer in April of 2017. In the report, former Olympic swimmer Katherine Starr described Wielgus as the "gatekeeper" who "had absolute control of the issue of coach-swimmer sexual abuse."
"As a result, Chuck could have been a hero and been instrumental to change the dynamic that has haunted so many," Starr told the paper. "But instead he [was] a coward and single-handedly allowed sexually abusive coaching to thrive for decades in the sport, leaving a wreckage of pain that has caused great harm to many swimmers that has lasted a lifetime.”
Stories of sexual abuse within USA Swimming are not new — Ariana Kukors spoke out about her alleged abuse at the hands of her coach just last week. But the Register's report offers one of the clearest images of the scope of the issue. Reporters for the California news group found that during Wielgus' tenure as executive director, more than 250 coaches and officials were arrested, charged, or disciplined for sexual abuse or misconduct against minors. Those who faced repercussions allegedly abused 590 victims, some as young as pre-schoolers.
Before he died, Wielgus apologized for not intervening to affect change. In a now-unavailable 2014 blog post on USA Swimming's website, he said he wished he had been more informed of the ongoing sexual abuse allegations so that he could have been more proactive. "I'm sorry," he wrote, according to Associated Press coverage at the time.
Four years earlier, in 2010, Wielgus had maintained that he had nothing to be sorry for with regard to either protecting alleged victims or failing to implement changes within USA Swimming. He changed his tune when 15 alleged victims signed a petition protesting his induction to the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 2014. He resigned from the nomination and a week later authored the apologetic blog post.
However, the Register reported that beginning in at least 2010, USA Swimming has kept private list of coaches and officials formally accused of committing sex crimes, but who have not yet faced disciplinary action within the swimming organization. The report says that there were 32 individuals on the list as of 2010, but that only six were ultimately banned by USA Swimming.
The breadth of the sexual abuse scandal is eerily reminiscent of the scandal that has all but enveloped USA Gymnastics (USAG) in the last year. In January, USAG team doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for sexually abusing over 150 current and former gymnasts. Many of his victims, over 150 of whom delivered victim impact statements in court, cited what they considered to be a culture of abuse within the organization. They contended that leadership enabled Nassar's ability to abuse them and that any complaints against the doctor often fell on deaf ears. The entire USAG board of directors resigned following Nassar's trials.
Like with USAG, Congress is reportedly investigating how USA Swimming handles sexual misconduct allegations. The organization will be expected to provide answers regarding when they first learned of sexual abuse allegations, and the methods they have in place to respond to such reports.