According to recently released documents and interviews with former Olympians, sexual abuse survivors, USA Swimming officials, safe sport advocates, and some of USA Swimming’s leading financial benefactors, USA Swimming missed numerous opportunities to overhaul a perverse American swimming culture where top officials and coaches accepted and even enabled leaders within the sport sexually abusing underage athletes.
Congressional committees have been investigating sexual abuse in Olympic sports. However, these investigations have primarily focused on the issue within gymnastics. However, allegations of coaches sexually abusing young USA swimmers are just now starting to break the surface.
Former Olympic swimmer Ariana Kukors Smith came forward earlier this year with sexual assault allegations against her long-time USA Swimming national team coach, Sean Hutchison. According to Kukors Smith, Hutchison began “grooming” her for a sexual relationship when she was 13 after he became her coach. By the time, she was 15 or 16, USA officials, including former executive director Chuck Wielgus, knew about the inappropriate relations
“I never thought I would share my story because, in so many ways, just surviving was enough,” Kukors Smith said. “I was able to leave a horrible monster…I’ve realized that stories like my own are too important to go unwritten.”
Currently, there are more than 150 coaches on USA Swimming’s permanently banned list. Almost all the coaches on the list are men found guilty of violating the organization’s code of conduct, including provisions to prevent “inappropriate sexually orientated behavior or action.”
However, Chris DeSantis, a New Jersey swim coach, says the actual number is probably much higher than the public list would suggest.
“I would estimate the actual number of coaches who have done something that they should be banned for is north of 1,000,” he said.
USA Swimming Sexual Abuse Lawsuit
In late May, Kukors Smith filed a formal lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court against Hutchison for sexually assaulting her while she was a minor. She also named USA Swimming and the U.S. Olympic Committee in her lawsuit, alleging that top officials knew her longtime coach was sexually abusing her and did nothing to stop him. Kukors Smith maintains that USA Swimming ignored the “open secret” around the pool deck and failed to properly investigate even after The Washington Post reported about an inappropriate 2010 relationship between Hutchison and an unnamed swimmer.
Kukors Smith alleges that veteran Olympic swimming coach Mark Schubert covered up Hutchison’s illegal sexual conduct. She also maintains that, as far back as 2005, top USA Swimming officials, including Wielgus, Pat Hogan, and Murray Stephens, were “well aware that Hutchison was involved in an inappropriate relationship with [Kukors Smith].
Hogan resigned from USA Swimming in February. Wielgus died of colon cancer in April 2017. Stephens, Michael Phelps’ childhood coach, is no longer an executive at USA Swimming but still operates a swim club in Baltimore, MD.
USA Swimming’s “Sham” of An Internal Investigation
As concerns surrounding Hutchison’s conduct continued to escalate, the professional swimming organization launched its own investigation.
“To say that the so-called investigation to follow was a sham would do it too much justice,” Kukors Smith’s attorney said.
The investigation was headed by one of Hutchison’s former flames, Susan Woessner. Woessner was USA Swimming’s Safe Sport director. According to Kukors Smith’s attorney, she conducted “absolute bare minimum work and handed over prearranged results to Mr. Wielgus who then boldly announced to the media that the matter had been ‘fully’ investigated and that there was ‘no evidence’ of anything untoward.’"
“USA Swimming’s leaders knew that these were all lies,” he continued. “But they did not care because their golden brand and thus their money generation power had been preserved. And Ariana was viewed as collateral damage.”
Due to her previous relationship with Hutchison, Woessner should never have been considered to oversee the investigation. Woessner resigned in February from the swimming organization after acknowledging a romantic relationship with Hutchison prior to the 2010 investigation that she had failed to disclose at the time.
“Ms. Woessner’s prior close physical and sexual relationship with Hutchison rendered her biased and completely unable to conduct any semblance of an objective inquiry,” the lawsuit states.
While USA Swimming’s investigation found no wrongdoing, Kukors Smith claims the organization should have known about the improprieties. She began swimming for Hutchison when she was 13. By the time she was 15, Hutchison began sending inappropriate text messages. Kukors Smith alleges she was 16 when Hutchison first asked her to text naked photographs. Then, the two began a physical relationship that included “everything but intercourse” until she was 18.
SCNG USA Swimming Sexual Misconduct Investigation
As USA Swimming’s complacency continued to raise more questions than the organization was willing to answer, Southern California News Group launched its own investigation and uncovered thousands of pages of documents that make the organization’s failure to effectively address sexual abuse glaringly clear.
The two decades after the athletic organization hired Wielgus were resplendent in record-shattering Olympic success in stark contrast with the oganization’s inability to check swimming’s rampant sexually abusive culture, turning hundreds of young girls into sexual abuse statistics.
The documents covered nearly a quarter-century and paint a picture of how top USA Swimming officials and coaches enabled the sport’s culture of sexual abuse and misconduct by undermining reforms that other sports have long accepted and refusing to investigate allegations of abuse even when multiple sources came forward with evidence.
“Those in power need to remember that a report or a rumor is not just that,” Kukors Smith said in a statement. “Behind that report is a child who desperately needs help. That child is depending on USA Swimming to do the right thing and report and properly investigate claims.”
SCNG’s Investigation of USA Swimming Primary Claims
- Top USA Swimming executives, officials and coaches knew of numerous sexual predators in coaching positions for decades and did nothing.
- Since 1997, at least 590 alleged victims of sexual abuse have been identified in the USA Swimming world. At least, 252 coaches and officials have been arrested, charged or disciplined by USA Swimming for sexual assault or sexual misconduct against athletes under the age of 18. In four of the past six years, “at least 20 swim coaches have been arrested, charged or convicted for sex crimes ranging from rape, sexually assaulting a 3-year-old and 8-year-old, statutory rape, child pornography to secretly videotaping underage swimmers in locker-rooms.”
- At least 30 USA swim coaches or officials have been “flagged” by USA Swimming after sexual abuse or child pornography allegations or arrests. Most of the coaches and officials on the flagged list continued working in the swim world. Some officials were not banned from the sport even after being convicted of felonies.
- USA Swimming routinely settles sexual abuse cases before they hit the public radar. Between 2006 and 2016, USA Swimming spent $7.45 million on legal fees. It’s not clear how much of that money was spent to settle sexual abuse cases, but the report notes that USA Swimming “arranged settlement agreements in at least three states with victims of alleged sexual abuse by swim coaches before the cases were even filed with a court.”
- USA Swimming shelled out over $75,000 to lobbying firms to stop California legislation that would have made it easier for sexual abuse survivors to sue their attackers and their affiliated organizations.
USA Swimming Ignored Warnings
Confidential documents and court records show that Kukors Smith’s molestation is far from an isolated case. Wielgus and other top officials routinely ignored dire warnings about the scope of sexual abuse in swimming.
“I would hate to see our organization ever in the predicament of the current Roman Catholic Church — protecting child molesters!” wrote Richard Shoulberg in an August 2003 email to members of a USA Swimming task force on sexual misconduct. Shoulberg is a Hall of Fame coach of Olympic medalists and world record holders.
However, the organization turned a blind eye to these assertions for decades, leaving young, impressionable girls with big, Olympic dreams to predatory wolves like sheep to the slaughter. Hopefully, now that women are starting to take action against USA Swimming and the sexual predators that it harbors, the public outcry will be enough for the organization to begin instituting some real change.