Thursday, April 22, 2010

Associated Press Article - Does Margaret Hoelzer explain, or explain away the sex abuse issues within the 'USA Swimming' ranks?

[UPDATE] - It is my belief that at least one victim of the Andrew King molestation case be on the committee or consortium of athletes to help formulate USA Swimming child protection policy moving forward.

Margaret Hoelzer spoke to Associated Press offering points of view regarding the sex abuse crisis that USA Swimming is facing. She is also offering her services to help USA Swimming develop strategies to prevent it and I commend her for that; it takes a lot of courage and a lot of one's time to put your name on a policy. However, I would prefer a victim of coach abuse like Deena Deardurff who met the predator, suffered by them, and has probably reviewed it 100's of times what she could have done differently. An opportunity like this could bring some excellent ideas to the table and probably bring closure as well.

The first two sentences of the article suggests to me that Hoelzer is essentially basing her opinions on what she believes or what she was told rather than statistical data provided by an independent party and what she believes is that sex abuse within USA Swimming is no greater than any other kids activity.

I disagree; and even if I am wrong it still has to be treated as if a cancerous tumor has been detected.

No one knows the extent of sexual abuse cases within the USA Swimming ranks, which includes a superstar swimmer like a Margaret Hoelzer for many victims don't come forward. Just look at the rape statistics, domestic abuse cases or cases of incest.

To get an accurate assessment one has to ask how many of these cases were reported versus how many that were not and nobody is going to know that number.

Hence, the safest policy is to treat these cases like they a "cockroach" on the floor in or a rat in the attic. i.e. If you see or hear one, there are always dozens more. Doing damage control that seems to put the dampen the severity "put into context" is bad PR move and pisses people off.

USA Swimming has to own that they have been "asleep at the wheel" and quit diminishing this problem with phrases and statistics. They need to act FAST!

From Associated Press:

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.


I have had three coaches send me stuff I can't print. One of which is on hold which is regarding a DA and the FBI in the King Case who had one heck of an idea!

One coach told me stories of two victims of Coach and Olympian, ***** ****, in California and how astonished he was that the families; (plural), would not file against him even when one of the kids became pregnant, they would just leave swimming all together and never returned. He referenced one famous coach who never got caught.

This is a problem, but abuse takes many forms: one coach written about in Swimming World this week did something which I find to be so macabre and offensive, I can't believe parents are not complaining. If I was a kid and was made to do this, I would never swim a 500 SCY again.

From Swimming World:
"... On Saturday, one week after the accident; [She passed away -- Tony], was Natalie's 17th birthday. Natalie's favorite race was the 500, so Coleman decided the team would do a set in honor of Natalie's birthday. The set was 17 x 500s, 17 for her age, and 500 being her favorite race. According to Coleman, her goal for the past few years has been to break the five-minute mark in that race, a goal that would remain unmet. So, Coleman challenged her teammates to do it for her. On the 17th 500, Coleman pulled his swimmers out of the water and told all of them to try to break 5 minutes for Natalie. After a long, exhausting set, one of her teammates was able to complete the challenge. Fifteen-year-old Jack Iotte finished the last 500 in a 4:58 and had met Natalie's goal for her. ..."


Maybe this commemoration wasn't a forced set but in my opinion it is not healthy. Kids who are 15-years-old are suppose to be going to graduations, concerts and dances, not funerals or doing 17x500s as a way to grieve. I suspect a sports psychologist may agree; any out there?

These topics, such as punishment sets, or grief sets have to be addressed too.


Bill said...

Tony--I think that Ms. Hoelzer's comments make very good points. I had written a longer comment but I'm really not an expert. I do think that the problem is not limited to swimming--that doesn't excuse swimming. The swimming community does have potential issues because the athletes are often in an age range that can be vulnerable and the participants spend a lot of time together. You should look at some of the case studies involving college professors and students, for example. That is not unique to swimming--its a pretty common relationship and dynamic for other sports as well.

That doesn't excuse swimming from reviewing its policies and having preventive measures in place to deal with this unacceptable situation--and identifying coaches who should not be coaching is a necessary first step.

One last point--I am not offended by the grief ritual that you described for the swim team. I don't know the team, the coach or the swimmers---but it seems like a pretty good attempt to try to help the group deal with a very tragic event--and to find a solution that didn't have all the swimmers coming to the pool--seeing their dead friend and turning around to go home. I don't know if I would have handled it the same way but I think I understand what she was trying to do.

Tony Austin said...

Bill, it is my belief that the USA Swimming is making the same mistakes that the Catholic Church made.

The travails within the Catholic Church became public in 1985 when Father Gilbert Gauthe plead guilty to 11 cases of sexually abusing children in Lafayette, La. Subsequently, scandals contined on through the ensuing decade and by 2004, Catholic Bishops sponsored a study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York who found that 10,667 sexual abuse against 4,392 clergy occurred between 1950 and 2002.

In that very same year, 2004, the Catholic League reported: “… that child sexual abuse is more likely to be committed by family members and teachers, and is slightly more likely to be committed by Protestant clergy. … ” [REF: The Commercial Appeal news site]

This is a similar defense USA Swimming has made stating that sexual abuse within the USA Swimming ranks is no more greater than the societal norm.

This type of PR defense did not fly with the Catholic Church nor will it work with USA Swimming. The Organization has to take proactive role in defining a gold-standard, child-protection, policy or face having the courts , possibly the US Olympic Committee, or even the US Congress doing it for them.

The case of the "grief sets," isn't that spooky?

If USAS is going to certify clubs, they have to educate clubs as to how they expect a club to perform. "Grief sets", "punishment" sets, "hazing sets" have to regulated as well.

When I walk into a Starbucks, I know how hot and how tasty a tall hot chocolate is going to be since they are all standardized. I am not saying workouts should be standardized but how workouts are given and how swimmers are treated should be. :-)

Chris DeSantis said...

17x500 may be child abuse. At best, its just really really stupid.

Tony Austin said...

17x500s is NOT child abuse but the context around the set was psychologically bizarre and should never have been part of the workout in my opinion.

Mark Savage said...

Good thing for her teammates the girl’s event wasn’t the 1650.

Had I been the coach, I would have done just the opposite. I would have let the swimmers grieve in their own way, and made the workouts optional for a couple of days.

Tony Austin said...

I like the suggestion but what do the professionals say about this? I have no idea, and I suppose neither does USA Swimming.

Bill Ireland said...

Tony--I do not like US Swimming's approach to this issue. But the comparison to the Catholic church is not fair to USS(this is based on news reports--I don't have any inside knowledge of either institution). The Church's problems arise from its actual control over its priests and its ability to take action and its repeated decisions not to do so--and instead to put the abusers into positions where they repeated their actions.

Their PR response was probably factually correct--but missed the point that people who sexually abuse children can never be trusted around children again(there are gray areas--the 18 year old girlfriend who has sex with her 17 year old boyfriend and then becomes a registered sex offender isn't what anyone is talking about).

US Swimming's problems is not (generally) that it had knowledge of abuser coaches--its that it didn't collect the information or have reporting mechanisms and did not educate parents and swimmers and coaches of what is not acceptable. If one coach abuses a swimmer at Team 1, then that swimmer quits and the coach moves to Team 2 without any whistleblowing or knowledge, that's different from a Church who knows about the abuse and transfers the priest to another parish. That arises from the traditional structure of USS--individual teams and minimal certification of coaches and a preference for many coaches of having parents minimally involved. Single parent families and girls without fathers are probably particularly vulnerable(I think, I dont know).

USS needs to make changes--but its not the Catholic church and making that comparison doesn't bring clarity or better insight--it is just a shortcut used in place of analysis.

Final point--the Catholic church is led by professionals who are trained and taught to prepare them for their responsibilities. USS is led by volunteers who start trying to help on the board of their local team and get advancement. Only recently has it started to hire professional management. I think that USS needs to have training for coachs and board members and local leadership so that they are all aware of warning signs, vulnerability, etc. A lot needs to be done.

On the swim set--I still disagree. When I was an age grouper I did sets of that magnitude and longer--that's a red herring to focus on the style of the set. The issue is how does the coach help the team deal with grief. I think this approach could work with the right group of swimmers. Swimming a set that meant something to the deceased or recognizes the deceased is a way to remember what she liked and what was special to her--that's remembering something positive about her and her enthusiasms--its also what that group shared with her and wants to remember.

I don't think you can or should standardize coaching sets--its not starbucks. One of the strengths of our decentralized system is coach K gets to try something different. If he gets good results, he goes to a seminar, and other coaches borrow from him and their swimmers improve. Top down thwarts innovation and reduces the rate of improvement.

I do agree that USS should have resources available to its coaches for new problems--if a swimmer dies a coach should have someone to talk to about how to help his or her swimmers since they may not have any prior experience in how to deal with it.

Tony Austin said...

You make very good points and my rhetoric may be a bit too hot. I will reflect on that.

USA-S does not have control of the field as you mentioned, but neither does the Catholic church according to NPR.

The crux is how did USA-S respond ethically and legally? The lawsuits will figure that out.

As for the grief sets... It's not the distance that bothers me but rather the psychological preface or pretense. As for standardizing workouts: I should have explained better. I think kids should be protected from "garbage yardage" and for some kids, most likely sprinters, maybe 5,000 yards is their mark. Standards should be in place as to how to keep swimming positive and sans grief, punishment, or hard labor.


Anonymous said...

Andy King was my swim coach. I was humiliated and sexually harassed by him. I complained about him to Pacific Swimming, to help them stop this guy instead of suing them, which I should have. They thanked me by losing my complaint and pretending it never existed.

I'm uncomfortable with Margaret Hoelzer acting as a spokesperson for victims of coach sexual abuse. I'm uncomfortable when people try to downplay it as merely a part of society.

Parents and officials gave Andy King permission to do what he was doing by pretending it wasn't happening, when they knew full well that it was. It sent a message to the victims that they had no recourse.

Go ahead and tell me it happens everywhere, but when I talked about what Andy King did to me with some of my now adult swimming peers on my masters swim team, they said, "Oh, if you think THAT'S bad..." before launching into another horrid tale of abuse.

Why is this okay? Are we supposed to just put up and shut up?

It's been tolerated for too many years. I don't care if this makes swimming look bad, and I love swimming. I have known and continue to train with wonderful coaches.

The minute you say, "Let's not forget all the good coaches," you're taking the focus away from the root of the problem. Let's focus on the bad coaches. Let's get them out of the sport, so all we have left are the good coaches.

Tony Austin said...


That was powerful. I don't know how to acknowledge your note but to say that though I believe that Margaret Holezer is well intentioned, I too think that she is not fully informed.


Tony Austin said...

I am going to to do a update this post recommending that at least one victim of the King molestation case be on the committee or consortium of athletes to help formulate USA Swimming child protection policy moving forward

Tony Austin said...

Anon, can i post your opinion as a post? If I do so, I would have to attach your real name to it, which really a violation of privacy, but for me to do so I would need a name so i would not be accused of making it up.