Exclusive Interview With USA Swimming’s Athlete Protection Officer Susan Woessner

PHOENIX, Arizona, October 1. LAST month, most of the swimming community in the U.S. was focused on the specific wording of Athlete Protection policies and procedures put in place at the House of Delegates meeting in Dallas, Texas in response to the sexual abuse scandals that have hit the mainstream media in the last year.

One move made by USA Swimming, however, wound up being largely overlooked. The national governing body promoted National Team Athlete and Coach Coordinator Susan Woessner into her first high profile position: Athlete Protection Officer.

Woessner, who has been a lifelong member of the sport who first swam competitively at the South Community Family YMCA in Kettering, Ohio, has been tabbed to be the primary internal auditor for all Athlete Protection policies, guidelines and reporting. As the internal point person for Athlete Protection, Woessner will be the primary internal advocate for alleged victims throughout the entire reporting and investigation process.

For those who might not know Woessner, here's a quick synopsis of her career thus far.

Woessner, who went on to compete for Indiana University from 1998-2002 and was named the 2002 Big Ten Swimmer of the Year and the Outstanding Woman in Indiana Athletics that same year, has plenty of background in the sport. She also competed for the Stars and Stripes at the 2001 World University Games. Two years after graduating from IU, Woessner was hired as the Times Coordinator of USA Swimming in 2004.

In 2007, Woessner moved to Austin, Texas to pursue a Master's of Social Work at the University of Texas while still remaining connected with USA Swimming in a part time capacity. During her time in Austin, she worked with the Girls Empowerment Network of Austin and the Southwest Key Programs – both youth-oriented organizations built to help middle school and high school kids.

Upon graduating from UT in 2009, she returned to USA Swimming full time as the National Team Athlete and Coach Coordinator working in athlete services, life skills and professional development and funding. She also has volunteered as the court-appointed special advocate for the Pike Peaks Region in Colorado Springs since returning to the area. Her role as Athlete Protection Officer officially began on Sept. 13.

Swimming World caught up with Woessner just two weeks into her time as the person who will likely shape Athlete Protection policy for USA Swimming going forward by how she implements policies and guidelines going forward.

How do you plan on monitoring societal trends as it relates to protecting athletes?
Sexual abuse is something our nation only really started talking about 10-15 years ago. With the increasing awareness, the child protection industry keeps getting better at identifying trends, warning signs, statistics, etc. With both my education and our outside consultants in the child welfare industry, I will use this insight to look for ways to continually improve and develop our athlete protection programming.

How do you plan to monitor industry best practices?
Throughout USA swimming's work this past year, we've been very clear about wanting to be a leader among NGBs and offer our key learnings and programming to other youth-serving organizations. I also have the opportunity to interact with my colleagues at these organizations to continue to study their programming. Also, I'm calling on my contacts in the social services field and building a local network of professionals with whom I can consult on this topic specifically.

What systems for communication to the athletes, coaches, LSCs, etc. do you plan on implementing?
The swiftest and most efficient communication vehicle we have is usaswimming.org, which gets around a half-million visitors monthly. After Convention, we built a dedicated Athlete Protection area, which can be found at www.usaswimming.org/protect. That will be the clearinghouse for all of our policies, education and other information. Additionally, we have an online reporting form available there. We have also committed to mailing information with a website referral to each of our 2,800 clubs.

What system do you see being implemented for members, coaches, etc. for contacting you with complaints and questions?
My phone number and email are on the front page of our new Athlete Protection section of the website. There is also an online reporting form there that can be filed anonymously if desired.

How will you oversee and manage the administrative and legal process for complaints?
I think the key here is communication. We have a system – a track – that the complaint process follows. My job is to monitor the progress of every complaint through every step of that process, and keep the involved parties up to date on its status.

Do you see yourself as an advocate for those who have substantial complaints, and if so, how does that not conflict with a coach or member who is party to the complaint and claims to be innocent?
It is my job to be an advocate on behalf of the alleged victim. That does not mean that the accused individual would be denied their due process, it simply means that I am there to help athletes first and foremost. We have to trust in our system (and the legal system) to filter out any false accusations.

In what format do you see education programs being implemented? What role, if any, will ASCA take in this education role?
With a membership of almost 300,000 – and an audience of around 450,000 including parents – we think online is the best delivery mechanism for learning. We are currently working with an outside organization to provide research-based, online curriculum and to develop effective, age-appropriate programming for the wider membership. We are also pursuing opportunities to train the leaders of our sport in other ways, including in-person sessions.

With this being your first mainstream public role with the organization as well as first high profile social work position, what would you say to critics that would question putting an unproven person into such a high profile role?
I'm here for the athletes. As a swimmer for 20 years, I know the atmosphere of swimming, I know its nuances. I know how positive the coach-athlete relationship can be when it's healthy and appropriate. Combine that with my master's degree in social work and field experience working with teen girls, and it gives me a pretty unique perspective. This puts me in a great position to serve the athletes, and that's honestly all I'm concerned with.

You definitely had a lot of conflicting connections to the 20/20 piece that first began exposing sexual abuse issues to the public. You've been an employee of USA Swimming for the bulk of the decade, been a swimmer much longer than that, and yet you were a former Indiana University teammate of Brooke Taflinger, who came out against USA Swimming in the piece as a victim of abuse. What was your personal reaction to the expose? Also, did it influence your desire to step into this position when it was created?
That news magazine attempted to vilify a sport that has been such a positive influence on my life, and I found that really disappointing. When my position was created, it offered me the opportunity to combine my athletic background with my academic credentials and passion for advocating for young people. That is what motivated me to step into this position.

Do you think the policies and guidelines passed this year at the House of Delegates will be enough, or do you see more stringent policies being implemented at a later date?
I think the policies and guidelines are going to go a long way in raising awareness of what is and what is not appropriate behavior. A policy or rule, or even a law isn't going to stop someone who wishes to harm a child, but what it can do, is empower other responsible adults and athletes to recognize boundary violations, and stop inappropriate behavior before it leads to abuse.

What do you believe is the single most dangerous issue within Athlete Protection, and what can be done to solve the problem within the sport?
I think the biggest hurdle surrounding this issue is getting people to talk about it. It needs to be a part of our consciousness, not just in Swimming, but all over our nation. Sadly, the issue of sexual abuse brings up feelings of shame and embarrassment, and we need to make it clear that it's okay to talk about, that being aware of it and discussing it is empowering, and that reporting abuse is not only encouraged, it's an important responsibility.

Anything else you'd like to talk about?
I think it's worth commending our membership. At our Convention in September, we presented them with a great deal of complex legislation surrounding athlete protection that was formulated over months and months of intense study and work. They really came together and provided strong support. With nearly 2,800 independent clubs, it's incredibly important that our membership embraces this issue, and the swimming community continues to be interested in putting athlete safety first, and taking action to make our organization stronger. It just speaks to what quality people we have in our membership, and their commitment to this sport.

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