Olympic gold medal swimmer says sexual abuse problem in competitive youth swimming

Friday, March 19, 2010

Olympic swimmer speaks out on sex abuse lawsuit

SAN JOSE, Calif. — The governing body of U.S. competitive swimming hasn’t done enough to address widespread sexual abuse against young girls at swim clubs across the country, an Olympic gold medalist said Friday.

Deena Deardurff Schmidt, a 1972 Olympic champion swimmer, said as she trained in the 1960s, she was repeatedly molested over a four year period by her coach. Despite telling officials at USA Swimming years later, she said, the coach — whom she wouldn’t name — went on to train more young swimmers and was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

“I believe, in part, that this has been overlooked because it is a widespread problem, and coaches have been more concerned with the success rate of the swimmers than the well-being of these young people,” she said.

The Associated Press generally does not identify victims of alleged sexual abuse. However, Schmidt, who appeared at a news conference Friday, has chosen to speak publicly about her experience.

She told of her experience a day after a lawsuit was filed in Santa Clara County alleging that a woefully inadequate background check policy has fostered sexual molestation in youth swimming. Schmidt is not a plaintiff in the case but her story is included in it.

The complaint further alleges that more than 30 coaches nationwide have engaged in sexual misconduct with young females, and says there is a culture in competitive swimming of condoning inappropriate relationships between coaches and swimmers.

“And yet despite the chronic and pervasive problem, we believe that not nearly enough has been done,” said Robert Allard, the attorney who filed the lawsuit.

USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus told the AP on Friday that he takes “great exception” to Allard’s claim.

“This is a topic that USA Swimming takes very, very seriously,” Wielgus said.

Wielgus said officials immediately investigate any claims of misconduct, and if there is validity to a claim, they work to expel the coach. He noted that while USA Swimming offers guidance, screening and support to local clubs, the clubs ultimately make hiring decisions.

“We would absolutely take into consideration any suggestions that would make our child protection, policy and procedures better. We are absolutely seeking to have a gold standard program,” he said.

The complaint was originally filed last year on behalf of a teenage girl who said she was molested by her coach, Andrew King.

King, who coached at San Jose Aquatics and other clubs, was sentenced in January to 40 years in prison after pleading no contest to 20 molestation charges.

The amended suit was filed after lawyers said they spent months unearthing “damaging and disturbing information about how the swim world operates” through Internet research and interviews.

Allard said the suit seeks changes to hiring practices to include requirements for reference checks and public searches. It also seeks unspecified damages against King, San Jose Aquatics, Pacific Swimming (the West Coast branch of USA Swimming) and USA Swimming.

A message left with the lawyer who represented King in the molestation trial was not immediately returned.

An after-hours message left at San Jose Aquatics on Friday was not immediately returned. An e-mail to Pacific Swimming also wasn’t immediately returned.

Schmidt said a code of ethics also has proved to “have no substance and no ramifications if violated.”

In the late 1980s, Schmidt reported to USA swimming that she had been abused. She was told she could not lodge a formal complaint because she was not an active athlete. She would have to find another coach to vouch for her, which she couldn’t find, the lawsuit said.

She was then contacted in 2005 by a top executive at USA Swimming who told her the former coach was being considered for the Hall of Fame. Schmidt again reported the alleged molestation, but says nothing was investigated, according to the suit.

Schmidt said the alleged abuse started when she was 11, and she kept silent about it while it was going on because she feared that speaking up would compromise her career. She told her parents when she was 17, and has talked about it privately with other coaches and friends since then.

“It has haunted me throughout my swimming and coaching career that others are very likely being abused,” she said. “My reason for speaking out now, and always has been, is to put an end to the sexual abuse of young girls.”

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