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Hundreds of Sexual Abuse Claims Filed Within USA Swimming Since 1997

Former USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus, who died last year, came under fire for his handling of sex abuse cases. (Charlie Neibergall / AP)

An investigation by The Orange County Register found that hundreds of athletes with USA Swimming, the governing body for competitive swimming in the United States, have reported being sexually abused by coaches or other officials within the organization since 1997. The report alleges that many in positions of leadership with the organization were aware of abuse accusations but did nothing to implement changes to protect swimmers.

The Register’s report is based on thousands of documents obtained by the Southern California News Group, which oversees nearly a dozen newspapers in the region.

Much of the report focuses on former USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus, who died in 2017. Former Olympic swimmer Katherine Starr described Wielgus as the “gatekeeper” who “had absolute control of the issue of coach-swimmer sexual abuse.”

Starr added, “Chuck could have been a hero and been instrumental to change the dynamic that has haunted so many. 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.”

The Register writes:

For example, three U.S. Olympic team head coaches, and a USA Swimming vice president were told in the 1980s that a world-renowned coach had sexually abused a female swimmer beginning when she was 12. Wielgus was informed of allegations against the coach at least three times in recent years. But not only did USA Swimming not pursue a case against the coach, it allowed him to continue to have access to USA Swimming facilities, U.S. Olympic and national team events, and the Olympic Training Center. USA Swimming even awarded the club owned and operated by him more than $40,000 in grants. The coach was only banned after pleading guilty to sexual assault, more than a quarter-century after the abuse was first brought to the attention of the Olympic coaches.

The report also states that after Wielgus took control of USA Swimming in 1997, at least 252 swim coaches and officials were arrested, charged or disciplined for sexual abuse or misconduct against minors. Those individuals have at least 590 alleged victims.

Before he died, Wielgus apologized for not intervening to effect change in how USA Swimming handled reports of abuse. In a now-unavailable 2014 blog post on the organization’s website, he wrote that 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.

In 2010, when USA Swimming was under fire after two high-profile coaches were sent to prison for sexual misconduct, Wielgus said in a television interview that he had done nothing wrong in the handling of the dozens of abuse cases during his tenure and told The New York Times: “99.9 percent of our coaches are dedicated, wholesome, intelligent, caring individuals who are committed to working with kids in a positive, constructive way.” He changed his tune when 15 alleged victims signed a petition protesting his induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 2014. He declined the nomination and apologized to victims for the first time.

However, the Register reported that at least since 2010, USA Swimming has kept a private list of coaches and officials formally accused of sexual abuse but who have not yet faced disciplinary action within the organization. The list included 32 individuals as of 2010, but only six were ultimately banned by USA Swimming.

Congress is reportedly investigating how USA Swimming handles sexual abuse allegations. The House Committee on Energy and Commerce wrote to the organization: “The abhorrent abuses associated with USA Gymnastics, as well as allegations in 2014, when 19 swimmers said they were sexually abused by their coaches, may raise concerns about whether your organization has sufficient mechanisms to protect your athletes from abuse and mistreatment. Accordingly, the Committee is seeking information from USA Swimming because of the role it plays in overseeing swimming and protecting all of its athletes.”

Emily Wells
​Emily Wells is an Ear to the Ground blogger at Truthdig. As a journalist, she began as a crime reporter at the Pulitzer-winning daily newspaper, The Press-Enterprise...
Emily Wells

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