By Phillip Whitten
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla., May 7. A group of more than two dozen swimmers, divers and coaches enshrined in the International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF) in Fort Lauderdale has issued a call for the resignation of Dr. Sam Freas, the Hall’s president for the past 15 years, and threatened to remove their medals and memorabilia from the institution if Freas is not gone or reassigned within 60 days. Freas recently received a three-year contract extension.
The group includes some of the most storied Olympic athletes in American history including Mark Spitz, John Naber, Donna De Varona, Mary T. Meagher and Greg Louganis.
However, when questioned in individual interviews, at least three of the athletes on the list backed away from calling for Freas’ ouster.
The discordant note came amid the pomp and pageantry of the Hall of Fame’s annual induction ceremony and its fortieth anniversary celebration.
By all accounts, the drive to oust Freas was initiated by Fort Lauderdale swim coach Jack Nelson, the 1976 US Olympic women’s coach; former Fort Lauderdale diving coach Ron O’Brien, an eight-time US Olympic diving coach; and his son, current diving coach Tim O’Brien. They cite financial instability, lack of management and leadership skills, disorganization and a deteriorating condition of the museum as the major reasons for their action. However, individual athletes in the group voiced other concerns as well as different priorities.
Freas responded, saying the accusations are unfounded and charging that the leaders of the group “may be motivated by personal financial and political considerations.”
In fact, the Hall of Fame has been embroiled in controversy over its plans to leave Fort Lauderdale and move to Daytona Beach. Such a move, Freas intimated, might lead to privatization of the aquatic complex – a move Freas says he opposes – and could impact both the revenues the City of Fort Lauderdale receives and the salaries Nelson and O’Brien are paid.
Freas went on to say that the group had chosen a most inappropriate time to lay their charges:
“They could have done this last month or next month or just about any other time,” he noted. “Why did they choose this moment, when we should be focused on honoring the eight individuals being inducted into the Hall this year?”
This afternoon, in a secret ballot, the ISHOF International Congress gave Freas a vote of confidence by a 33-1 vote, with four abstentions.
The Hall’s Board of Directors responded by calling each of the individuals listed as supporting Freas’ dismissal. “We are talking to each of the honorees who signed the petition to determine what their concerns are,” said John Ebert, who has been appointed spokesman for the Board of Directors. “If we feel that Sam may have done something wrong, we will look into it and take appropriate action.”
The Hall of Fame’s Board of Directors meets tomorrow (Saturday) at 9:30 a.m. (Eastern Daylight Time) in open session, after which it will conduct a closed-door meeting.
SwimInfo has learned that during the open part of the meeting, coaches Nelson and Tim O’Brien plan to appear and ask to speak to present their case. When told of these plans, both Dale Neuburger, Chairman of the Board of Directors, and Freas, said they welcomed Nelson and O’Brien. “This is a positive step toward opening a dialog,” Freas said.
SwimInfo will report on further developments as they occur.