COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado, January 31. DURING his tenure as the National Team Head Coach at USA Swimming, Mark Schubert made deals to stockpile talent at the Fullerton Aquatics Sports Team (FAST), and now USA Swimming is on the hook for those commitments.
News broke earlier this week when someone leaked letters regarding Kate Ziegler and Dagny Knutson sent to USA Swimming requesting that USA Swimming follow through on promises Schubert made to the two swimmers to entice them to move training bases to FAST. And, USA Swimming is not explicitly denying that these types of commitments took place, or that it has worked to honor them to the best of its ability.
“As National Team Head Coach and General Manager, Coach Schubert had some discretion and a limited budget to make special training commitments,” USA Swimming spokesperson Karen Linhart told Swimming World when asked about the situation. “USA Swimming continued to honor those commitments after Coach Schubert left. It would be inappropriate for USA Swimming to discuss particular athlete situations.”
In particular, the leaked documents include a letter from Knutson's mother Rhonda to Knutson's agent Evan Morgenstein in November of 2010 explaining the process by which Schubert talked Knutson into turning professional. Knuston's mother details an account where Schubert made an in-home visit with Knutson's family in April of 2010 to discuss “this California/FAST option.”
This type of a visit typically is part of the collegiate recruiting process, which Knutson decided to forgo when she withdrew her commitment to attend Auburn after assistant coach Paul Yetter left to pursue an opportunity with T2 Aquatics. Knutson was easily the top recruit in the nation at the time, and upon obtaining her release from Auburn, would have found a spot on nearly any other collegiate team in the country.
Schubert's promises “that USA Swimming would support her by funding her room/board, tuition and fees through 2016,” according to the letter to Morgenstein, were more than enough for the Knutsons to make the decision for Dagny to turn professional and begin to accept money and sign an agent. When considering the time frame of support offered, Schubert painted a picture that was almost identical to having a collegiate scholarship that would have included a potential fifth year of support at the NCAA level, but would also allow Knutson to earn money as a professional. She would have basically “enrolled” at FAST in the middle of 2010, and had support for five-and-a-half years if Schubert's promises held up.
Swimming World has been in touch with Knutson, and she verified the veracity of the letter from her mother posted by Tony Austin at the SCAQ Blog. She also explained that USA Swimming wound up agreeing to a deal with her whereas she was put into the Athlete Partnership Plan without the need to initially qualify for it with a world-ranked time up through the 2012 London Olympics. However, the deal stated that Knutson would have to then qualify for the Plan after 2012 to remain in the system.
The timing could not have been worse, as revelations of Knutson's eating disorder and her subsequent treatment for them really came to fruition in the past year , halting nearly all attempts at training and the ability to produce times to remain qualified. Knutson has since been dropped from the Athlete Partnership Plan, and has basically retired without officially doing so.
The letters at the SCAQ Blog also include information from Ziegler where she alleges that Schubert also promised her funding in April of 2010 if she would move to FAST. “He offered me an incentive. Mark promised that if I move in June, my room and board…through 2012 would be covered, along with educational expenses…for any school of my choosing. He said he wanted me to be totally covered.”
Ziegler did wind up relocating to California, earning her second Olympic berth by finishing second to Katie Ledecky in the 800 freestyle at Trials before missing finals at the Olympics. In 2008, she also competed in the 400 and 800 freestyle events at the Beijing Games without moving on to finals. Ziegler has since returned to her original training location at The Fish. While Knutson is taking time away from the sport right now, Ziegler is still training and competing, having swam at the Arena Grand Prix stop in Austin earlier this month.
The entire FAST super group concept first came into existence in August of 2009 when Schubert worked a deal with KING co-owner and head coach Sean Hutchison to create a pro team at the Fullerton Aquatics Sports Team, but funded it with United States Olympic Committee money. The USOC also tapped North Baltimore and SwimMAC as Post-Grad Centers in the process.
However, Schubert did not pursue the model of funneling money to a head coach in full control of a team like Bob Bowman at NBAC or Dave Marsh at SwimMAC when it came to how he handled FAST, while still in power as the top wetside executive at USA Swimming. Schubert hand-picked Hutchison, who never relinquished his connection with KING Aquatics in Seattle, to care take the position at FAST. Schubert, with help from Hutchison, then began to work to stockpile talent at FAST — up to and including using his power and influence at USA Swimming to make promises to entice this talent.
The concept worked for a while with top talent like Tyler Clary, Katie Hoff, Ariana Kukors, Dagny Knutson and Kate Ziegler flocking to California, along with well-respected coach Jon Urbanchek. Everything started to unravel following the 2010 Pan Pacific Championships, when Schubert was put on a leave of absence by USA Swimming in Sept. of 2010, just half-a-year after making all those promises. That leave of absence later turned permanent as Schubert and USA Swimming were unable to come to an agreement for him to remain with the organization.
Since then, the tale has continued to become even more confounded with swimmers leaving FAST after the 2012 London Games. Especially after Schubert leaked information about Hutchison to the Washington Post that involved a private investigator and a potential relationship with Kukors .
What is known, however, is that a lot of FAST promises by Schubert have led to some slow, painful situations for the swimmers.