The U.S. Winter Olympics delegation has faced intense scrutiny and pressure from fans back home. Near misses, serious injuries, and unfortunate mistakes have plagued Team USA. But the challenges aren’t coming from the snow and ice alone. Shaun White, the now three-time snowboarding gold medalist, has been under fire for his comments regarding a sexual harassment lawsuit from 2016. It is just another instance in a string of controversies that have rocked the U.S. Olympic Committee.
In January, Larry Nassar was sentenced to prison, facing anywhere between 40 and 175 of years behind bars. The former USA Gymnastics doctor has been found guilty of multiple instances of sexual abuse and sexual harassment over the course of two decades. His victims included Olympic gymnasts, some of whom he’d preyed upon when they were adolescents. Additionally, he was sentenced 60 more years in prison for possession of child pornography.
Prominent gymnast McKayla Maroney, one of Nassar’s victims, was paid by USAG $1.25 million in exchange for her silence. When she broke that silence in October 2017, she was threatened with a $100,000 fine that prompted even greater social media attention.
The immediacy of the Larry Nassar scandal and the spectacle of the Winter Games has overshadowed, at least temporarily, another sexual harassment and abuse scandal. USA Swimming, the governing body for all competitive swimming in the country, now finds itself in a position similar to USA Gymnastics. Decades of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and more have plagued competitive swimming. USAS now finds itself under congressional scrutiny as the abuse, and the efforts to cover it up, come to light.
Investigations reveal that USAS leadership has repeatedly failed to confront sexual harassment and sexual abuse within its ranks.
On the surface, USA Swimming appears deeply committed to the health and safety of its swimmers. The organization maintains a list of “flagged” individuals that are permanently banned from competitive swimming in any capacity. This week, three more names were added to the list.
But during the extensive investigation published in the Orange County Register, it is made clear that USA Swimming had much to hide to preserve its image. The organization has a record of triumph, particularly in recent Olympic competition, centered around star swimmers like Michael Phelps. This has resulted in a massive influx of new Olympian hopefuls and endorsement dollars.
Between 2006 and 2016, USA Swimming spent $7.45 million on legal fees and settlements. Many of these settlements, like McKayla Maroney’s December 2016 settlement, were intended to keep victims silent about their abuse.
The threat of scandal to any brand is potentially catastrophic. From a cynically pragmatic perspective, $7.45 million is small price to pay when product endorsements and generous donations exceeding $100 million are at risk.
While USA Swimming took steps to protect its image, efforts to protect swimmers historically never came close. In 2005, USAS president Ron Van Pool spoke to the problem in his annual State of Swimming address. He described the organization as “frightfully behind the curve” in tackling sexual harassment and abuse.
But Chuck Wielgus, then the executive director of USAS at the time, did not appear moved by Van Pool’s appeal. In 2010, when lawsuits were filed against coaches within the organization, he remained reluctant to act. In statements from some abuse victims, they described him as dismissive of their situations. Coaches that stood accused were quietly transferred away to new positions, to shield them from potential legal repercussions.
USAS leadership knew who was accused of crimes and took steps to protect, disregarding victim claims.
For over 20 years, Wielgus oversaw USA Swimming. Under his leadership, the nation’s swim teams transformed into a force to be reckoned with. He would die in 2017 to colon cancer, leaving behind one of the most accomplished sports organizations in the United States.
Also left behind is an organization where authorities at nearly every level have sought to protect its reputation, even against its own athletes. In the 20 years of his leadership, over 252 swim coaches have been arrested, charged by prosecutors, or disciplined within USAS for sexual harassment, assault, and other misconduct. Allegedly over 590 victims have been affected by their actions.
USA Swimming paid lobbying firms to oppose California legislation that would have made it easier for victims of sexual abuse to sue their abusers, and the organizations they represent. Other members of the organization, much like Chuck Wielgus, have proven unwilling to investigate claims against colleagues.
Ironically, Susan Woessner, USAS current director of Safe Sport, the initiative intended to investigate sexual harassment and assault claims, is among those accused of inaction. In one instance, she refused to investigate a coach because the individual in question was no longer coaching young swimmers.
U.S. sports continues to fail at dealing with a problem that has existed for decades.
In 2014, Chuck Wielgus would ultimately apologize for his own role at failing the swimmers from the 2010 lawsuits. In his final years at USAS, he would institute stricter background checks and harsher penalties for sexual misconduct. Between 2010 and 2017, the organization reportedly banned 92 people permanently from competitive swimming.
Most of these bans were due to sexual misconduct.
Like the Larry Nassar scandal, the USA Swimming victims range in age. Some were in their late teens; other victims were abused during pre-school swim classes. The abuse for many of the victims continued over a period of years. But unlike Larry Nassar, who is the lightning rod for the gymnastics controversy, there does not appear to be one central figure in the USA Swimming controversy. Hundreds of individuals have sexually abused hundreds of women and children.
With the Summer Olympics looming in the distance, the Larry Nassar scandal and USAS failures to confront sexual misconduct in their ranks cast a long shadow. Already, some critics are calling for the entirety of USAS leadership to be replaced, to mirror the mass resignations occurring within USA Gymnastics.
However, it could be years before decisive action, even with congressional interest in the matter. And any swimmers seeking to level claims against USAS face a historically uphill battle. While some individuals in the organization took Ron Van Pool’s warnings to heart, sexual harassment and abuse has long been one of the darker sides to competitive swimming in the United States. USA Swimming has shown resistance to change from within, and a willingness to spend millions to silence victims with settlements.