Some readers may have taken one look at our
provocative cover and wondered, “Why must we dwell on such an
unpleasant topic? Why do we want to draw attention to an issue that
has already given aquatics a black eye?” I can answer all of
those questions with two words: the victims.
Those are the brave young women who came forward to expose the sex
abuse scandal brewing at USA Swimming for more than three decades
— as well as any who remained silent. If this article, which
clearly lays out steps to help prevent future abuse, stops even one
more child from being victimized, it’s worth any criticism we
Of course, an article won’t stop another Andy King from
victimizing impressionable and vulnerable young athletes. Only a
wholesale change in the attitudes, behaviors and policies at all
levels of competitive aquatics can accomplish that.
On that front, aquatics apparently has a long way to go. For
instance, there’s the response John Leonard, executive
director of the American Swimming Coaches Association, gave when asked
what the industry can do to prevent future abuse. His answer?
Nothing. Instead, Leonard did the equivalent of blaming the victim.
He said unless victims or their parents come forward, his
organization and the whole of aquatics can do nothing.
At best, that response shows a gross misunderstanding of the issue;
at worst, it demonstrates a disturbing ignorance. Experts know sex
abuse leaves victims with deep distrust and fear. To expect
adolescent boys and girls to police their adult role models is
unrealistic and insensitive. In my opinion, someone with those
attitudes should not be in a positions of aquatic leadership.
Then there’s the organization at the center of this issue:
USA Swimming, whose CEO Chuck Wielgus was recently shamed in the
media for refusing to apologize to abuse victims and their
families. In October, Wielgus gave a keynote address at the
World Aquatic Health Conference and outlined steps USA Swimming is taking to
prevent future abuse. However, he still seemed unwilling to take
full responsibility for what happened at his organization.
Sex abuse, Wielgus said, is not an aquatics problem. It’s a
larger societal issue. USA Swimming has adopted new protection
policies, not because the organization had a fundamental flaw, but
because it feels it has a responsibility to address this larger
societal issue. To my mind, he was making USA Swimming the
I’ll give Wielgus the benefit of the doubt and accept that
USA Swimming can say nothing else because it’s being sued on
multiple fronts. To admit responsibility could be legal suicide.
Still, let’s be clear: The true victims of sex abuse are the
boys and girls whose trust, innocence and self-worth have been
violated. The alleged systematic abuse, and failure to address it
for decades, happened at USA Swimming. It happened in aquatics.
Therefore, it is an aquatics issue.
Until every aquatics professional accepts that responsibility and
then takes proactive steps to prevent abuse, it’s only a
matter of time until another child gets victimized.