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Report: USA Swimming handled sexual abuse with USA Gymnastics-esque negligence

Young American swimmers have been abused under USA Swimming’s watch for decades, according to a recent report. (Getty)

For around 20 years, as its athletes won over 100 medals at the Olympics, USA Swimming neglected and enabled the sexual abuse of over 200 kids by its coaches, according to a comprehensive investigation published Friday by the Orange County Register.

The report, which cites thousands of pages of documents and interviews with survivors, USA Swimming officials and others, details “the organization’s inability to check swimming’s culture of sexual abuse, a failure that has resulted in hundreds of new young victims.”

It tells a story “strikingly similar” to that of USA Gymnastics, which is in the process of cleaning house after former team doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for the abuse of more than 150 young women and girls.

USA Swimming – which is currently a subject of a Congressional investigation into sexual abuse in organized sports, and has been investigated by the House of Representatives in the past – is the national governing body for the sport in the United States. It manages the Olympic team, but also oversees the hundreds of regional and local amateur swimming organizations around the country. It is therefore responsible for fostering a culture and instituting rules that prevent abuse of young swimmers throughout the U.S.

According to the OC Register report, it has failed, and sometimes refused, to do that. It turned a blind eye to allegations of abuse despite multi-pronged evident. It “undermin[ed] reforms long accepted by other sports.”

Its executives, board members and coaches – including the director of Safe Sport, Susan Woessner – were aware of sexual predators within the USA Swimming ranks for years, and in many cases chose not to do anything about them. Woessner, per the report, sometimes made the decision herself not to pursue complaints. And:

“USA Swimming board members and coaches acknowledged they were aware of statutory rape cases that occurred during U.S. national team trips to major international competitions.”

USA Swimming’s executive director during this time was Chuck Wielgus, who took the post in 1997 and held it until dying of cancer last year. Under his watch, according to the OC Register report, at least 252 coaches and officials have been arrested, charged by prosecutors, or disciplined by USA Swimming for sex crimes against minors. Over the years, they allegedly preyed on at least 590 victims.

For at least the past seven years, per the report, USA Swimming has maintained a private list of “flagged” coaches and officials who had been arrested or accused of sexual abuse, rape, child pornography or other similar crimes – but who had not been disciplined in any way by USA Swimming. In 2010, per the report, there were 32 on the list; only six of 32 have since been banned.

And not only did USA Swimming officials reportedly show neglect. They also reportedly put $77,627 toward lobbying against California legislation that would have made it easier for victims to sue sexual abusers and the organizations employing or supporting them.

USA Swimming has been under fire throughout the decade for its handling of sexual abuse. That fire took the form of complaints and lawsuits. Victims have come forward as recently as last week. Investigations similar to the OC Register’s had detailed some of USA Swimming’s faults – faults that Wielgus apologized for in 2014 after previously downplaying the seriousness of allegations.

But the OC Register story exposes the extent of those faults. It details some of the individual cases, and has info from previously un-reviewed documents. It features interviewees who call Wielgus a “coward,” and who call Safe Sport “a complete farce.” The full story can be found here.

As one attorney quoted in it says: “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.’ If this type of remedial action is justified in USA Gymnastics due to the abuse committed by one pedophile, certainly it would be appropriate for USA Swimming where we have well over 100.”