As USA Swimming Grapples With Sexual Abuse, Athletes Cite Lack Of Female Coaches

Jul 4, 2018
Originally published on July 4, 2018 8:49 am

Congressional committees have been looking into the issue of sexual abuse in Olympic sports, with a particular focus on gymnastics. Now stories of alleged abuse are emerging in swimming. Last month, former Olympic athlete Ariana Kukors Smith sued her former coach, Sean Hutchinson, for allegedly abusing her. She also sued USA Swimming and the U.S. Olympic Committee because she says they failed to protect her.

Today, there are more than 150 coaches on USA Swimming's permanently banned list. Almost all are men, most of whom the organization has deemed to have violated its code of conduct, including a section that prohibits "any inappropriate sexually oriented behavior or action."

Chris DeSantis, a swim coach in New Jersey, 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."

Hutchison, the coach, denies Kukors Smith's allegation. "I absolutely deny having any sexual or romantic relationship with her before she was old enough to legally make those decisions for herself. Prior to that time, I did nothing to 'groom' her," Hutchison said in a statement, according to the The Seattle Times. "I deeply regret that she would make these wild allegations all these years later."

USA Swimming did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Earlier this year, USA Swimming CEO Tim Hinchey sent a letter to its members reading, in part "Let me be clear: USA Swimming does not tolerate sexual abuse or misconduct, and I assure you that this organization is facing this extremely serious issue with one very clear goal – protecting children and athletes."

"We will not shy away from acknowledging or supporting survivors of abuse, and we will strive to ensure that there is never a lapse of a support system again," the letter continues.

There are also coaches who have been publicly accused of assault who are not on the banned list. Sarah Ehekircher accused her swim coach Scott McFarland of misconduct more than two decades ago.

McFarland said that two had a consensual relationship when Ehekircher was 18 and they were both living in Colorado. But she said he first sexually assaulted her on a trip to California when she was 17. After a hearing conducted in 2010, USA Swimming did not discipline him.

She wonders if having more female leadership at the club would have changed things. "Specifically for me," she says, "I think I would have had someone to go to."

There are very few female swim coaches at the elite level. It wasn't until 2012 that a woman — Teri McKeever, who coached at the University of California for more than 25 years — was appointed to serve as coach of the U.S. Olympic women's team. In a speech McKeever gave four years ago, she spoke about how long it took for women to break that barrier. "Swimming started at the Olympics for women in 1912," she said. "I had the great honor in 2012 to be the head coach as we went into in London. So 100 years."

That milestone didn't augur permanent change, though: four years later, McKeever was left off of the coaching roster. It was once again, all white men.

Susan Teeter, who recently retired as the head coach of the swim team at Princeton University, was disappointed by the snub. "I personally was pretty upset," she says. "I just don't understand how you can leave off someone who got rave reviews in 2012 as the head coach. It was mind boggling."

In past statements, the organization has pointed out that there are roughly the same number of female and male coaches in the sport. Women, however, are much more likely to coach younger age group swimmers.

Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a gold medalist in swimming in 1984 who now leads the advocacy organization Champion Women, says the lack of female coaches at the elite level has implications beyond depriving young girls of potential role models. "I think the consequences of having an overwhelming male coaching staff and leadership is a lot of sexual abuse," she says.

She says one of her former coaches, Mitch Ivey, abused a fellow teammate in the 1980s. In 1993, he separately denied allegations of sexual misconduct against him, according to The New York Times. He was banned by USA Swimming for violating its Code of Conduct decades later, in 2013.

"What made swimming so dangerous in my era and from what I understand today," says Hogshead-Makar, "is that there's this implicit understanding that coaches can find their romantic or sexual partner from within the athletes that they coach."

Those relationships have been prohibited since 2013. But as Hogshead-Makar points out, that only happened once the U.S. Olympic Committee pressured USA Swimming to adopt the rule.

Susan Teeter, the former coach at Princeton, says she is devoting her retirement to bringing more women into the coaching ranks.

"I don't have a solution, I just know it's a problem," she says. "And I'm willing to go out looking for the answers and trying to change it."

To that end, she says, she formed a task force to study the issue. Her hope is to ensure that the women who are on the pool deck aren't just swimmers or their moms, but the people actually in charge.

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NOEL KING, HOST:

Over the past few months, congressional committees have investigated the abuse of Olympic athletes. They've mostly focused on gymnastics, but now new stories are emerging in swimming. That has led to a push to bring more women into the ranks of elite swimming coaches. Reporter Alexandra Starr has the story.

ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: In 2012, 15-year-old Katie Ledecky stunned spectators at the Olympics when she won gold in the 800-meter freestyle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: Ledecky - it's one of the finest swims you'll ever see - 15 years of age, the youngest ever.

STARR: Ledecky's win was notable for another reason. For the first time ever, a woman, Teri McKeever, served as coach of the female team. In a speech she gave four years ago, she talked about how long it took for a woman to break that barrier.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TERI MCKEEVER: Swimming started at the Olympics for women in 1912. And I had the great honor in 2012 to be the head coach as we went into London, so a hundred years.

STARR: While women did impressively well in the 2012 Olympics, McKeever was not asked to return in 2016. The staff was, once again, all white men.

SUSAN TEETER: I was personally pretty upset.

STARR: Susan Teeter is one of the few women to oversee a swim program at the collegiate level. She just retired as head coach at Princeton.

TEETER: I just don't understand how you can leave off someone who got rave reviews from 2012 as a head coach. It was mind-boggling.

STARR: USA Swimming did not respond to requests for comment. Nancy Hogshead-Makar was a gold medalist in swimming in 1984. Today, she leads the advocacy organization Champion Women.

NANCY HOGSHEAD-MAKAR: I think the consequences of having an overwhelmingly male coaching staff and leadership is a lot of sexual abuse.

STARR: She says one of her former coaches abused a fellow teammate. And earlier this year, a 2008 Olympic coach, Sean Hutchinson, was sued for assault by one of his former swimmers.

HOGSHEAD-MAKAR: What made swimming so dangerous in my era and from what I understand today is that there's this implicit understanding that coaches can find their romantic or sexual partner from within the athletes that they coach.

STARR: Those relationships have been prohibited since 2013, but as Hogshead-Makar points out, that only happened once the U.S. Olympic Committee pressured USA Swimming to adopt the rule. Today, there are more than 150 coaches on USA Swimming's banned list - almost all are men. Most violated the organization's code of conduct including any inappropriate sexually-oriented behavior. Chris DeSantis, a swim coach in New Jersey, says the actual number is probably much higher than the public list would suggest.

CHRIS DESANTIS: I would estimate the actual number of coaches who have done something that they should be banned for is north of a thousand.

STARR: There are certainly coaches who have been publicly accused of assault who are not on the banned list. Sarah Ehekircher says she was molested by her swim coach more than two decades ago. USA Swimming chose not to discipline him after a hearing. She wonders if having more female leadership at the club where she trained might have helped protect her.

SARAH EHEKIRCHER: Specifically for me, you know, I think I would have felt like I had someone to go to.

STARR: Susan Teeter, the former coach at Princeton, says she is devoting her retirement to bringing more women into the coaching ranks.

TEETER: I don't have a solution. I just know it's a problem. And I'm willing to go out looking for the answers and try to change it.

STARR: She's formed a task force in the hopes of making sure the women who are at the pool deck aren't just swimmers or their moms but the people actually in charge. For NPR News, I'm Alexandra Starr. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.