Swimmer abused as a child says sexual predators a problem for more than just her sport

By Paul Newberry, AP
Thursday, April 22, 2010

Hoelzer hopes sex-abuse cases will raise awareness

Margaret Hoelzer has mixed feelings about the sexual abuse allegations that are rocking her sport.

On the one hand, the three-time Olympic medalist doesn’t believe the problem is more widespread in swimming than it is in other sports — or society in general, for that matter.

Then again, as a victim herself, she’s pleased that more and more swimmers are coming forward with their stories of abuse, knowing that anything to raise awareness of the issue will surely cut down on the number of predators taking advantage of young athletes.

“These people don’t need to be in sports around children,” Hoelzer told The Associated Press. “If everyone is working together and talking about it, that’s how you get rid of it.”

Responding to allegations of rampant sexual misconduct within its coaching ranks, USA Swimming unveiled a plan Wednesday to make it easier for athletes to report abuse while addressing some of the concerns raised by several lawsuits around the country.

The seven-point plan was detailed in an open letter from USA Swimming president Jim Wood and executive director Chuck Wielgus, who said the organization has “a responsibility to help create a safe and positive environment for children and young adults who are our members.”

Hoelzer, who won two silver medals and a bronze at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, came forward shortly after those games with her story of being sexually abused as a child by a playmate’s father. She was consulted a few weeks ago by USA Swimming as it worked on a new policy.

“Frankly, I don’t know what happened before,” she said. “But something is going to be done from here on out. That’s a good thing. Even if they’re getting a late start, a late start is better than no start at all.”

Hoelzer said she’s disappointed that some have tried to portray the problem as especially egregious within USA Swimming, which has been accused of being slow to react to the allegations and even attempting to cover them up when they involved successful coaches.

She pointed to statistics showing one in four girls and one out of seven boys will be victims of sexual abuse.

“This is a problem in any avenue where adults work with children,” Hoelzer said. “Since going public with my own abuse, many people in life have come forward and told me their stories. I can’t think of a single one who’s a swimmer.

“There’s a problem in USA Swimming, but not any more so than society as a whole.”

USA Swimming has more than 300,000 members and has experienced rapid growth over the past decade, largely due to the popularity of 14-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps.

“My regret is that any family has had to go through this terrible experience,” Wielgus said in an e-mail to the AP. “That is intolerable and should never happen. I’m angry and heartbroken. We’ve been flooded by phone calls and e-mails from our members who are ready to lock arms with us and get at this problem in an even more significant way.”

Jonathan Little, an Indianapolis attorney who filed one of at least four ongoing sexual abuse cases against USA Swimming, was skeptical of the organization’s plan.

“This was a rash, rushed reaction from USA Swimming,” Little told the AP in a telephone interview. “Since its inception, USA Swimming has been trying to police itself. They know that coaches have sex with athletes. Everyone knows it, but no one does anything about it.”

Little represents Brooke Taflinger, an All-American swimmer at Indiana University who came forward with allegations against her coach, Brian Hindson. In 2008, Hindson was sentenced to up to 35 years in federal prison for secretly videotaping young female swimmers showering.

At least three other lawsuits have been filed against USA Swimming, including a case brought up Monday in Kansas City, Mo., where a suburban coach is accused of having a sexual relationship with a teenage swimmer.

Last month, Deena Deardurff Schmidt, a 1972 Olympic champion, disclosed she was molested by her coach while training in the 1960s. 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.

Her comments came after a separate lawsuit was filed in Santa Clara County, Calif., alleging that more than 30 coaches nationwide have engaged in sexual misconduct with young females. Also, ABC’s “20/20″ reported that at least 36 coaches have been banned for life by USA Swimming over the last 10 years because of sexual misconduct.

“This is an opportunity for us to change youth sports and USA Swimming,” Little said. “You can already see that USA Swimming knows they have to change. We are starting to see that happen. But until they are willing to remove the bad apples from their midst, they’re not serious.”

USA Swimming said it will develop comprehensive guidelines for acceptable coaching behavior; enhance the system for reporting sexual abuse to the organization and law enforcement; determine if improvements need to be made in the current system of background checks; and develop stronger ties with local clubs that are responsible for hiring coaches.

The plan also calls for a review of USA Swimming’s conduct code and the process for sharing coaches’ records with member clubs and other youth organizations. Finally, the governing body said it must educate athletes, parents, coaches and club leaders on what they can do to help.

The USA Swimming board of directors will meet May 1 to define the timeline and procedures for implementing the plan, Wielgus said. It also will share the key findings in its report with other youth organizations, within and outside the Olympic movement.

“We’re not in a bubble on this,” he said. “Quite frankly, I’ve had multiple phone calls from people from other organizations, sport and otherwise, who have expressed that they too are facing this problem.”

Since 2006, USA Swimming has required background checks for all coaches every two years, but Little said the checks should be more thorough and incorporate the FBI database, not just focus on cases that reach the criminal justice system.

“They need to have real background checks,” he said.

Of course, Hoelzer can relate to those who’ve been abused. She’s especially concerned for their welfare since it happened within a sport that helped her cope after she was molested by a person who had nothing do with swimming.

“Swimming was something that helped me deal with my abuse and the emotions I was having,” she said. “That was my safe haven. I’m glad I had something to put my energy and effort and frustration into. I don’t know that these people have been able to do that. I was lucky that I had swimming.”

will not be displayed