Safe Sport: Working to Eradicate Sexual Abuse from Swim Sphere

swimming pool
Photo Courtesy: Sandstein

By Annie Grevers, Swimming World Staff Writer

April is Sexual Assault Awareness month, but for USA Swimming’s Safe Sport, every day of the year is an opportunity to raise awareness and eradicate the problem of sexual abuse from our sport.

Susan Woessner was the founding member of Safe Sport, which came into being in September 2010. Safe Sport’s mission is to raise awareness, empower victims and those who suspect abuse, and eventually rid the sport of the profoundly-wounding problem of sexual abuse.

Woessner has overseen Safe Sport’s evolution for the past five years, and is loving the direction it is headed. She sees finding her role as “serendipitous” because in school she had a curiosity in the association of sexuality and power, and in sport, she had an extremely positive swimming experience through college at Indiana University.

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Susan Woessner   Photo Courtesy: USA Swimming

“In a way, it’s really hard working with such a big issue within my personal passion of swimming,” Woessner said. “There are tough stories, but they represent a small population. Together we are working to remove those people who have made swimming a scarring experience.”

There are 114 individuals on USA Swimming’s banned for life list. In 2010, there were only 36 names on the list. Sexual contact was not on the NGB’s Code of Conduct until 1999, showing USA Swimming had not seen cause to address the problem which was brought to light in a big way by ESPN, 20/20 and Outside Magazine by 2010.

“Those were dark times for our sport,” Woessner said of five years ago, when journalism showed the disconcerting breadth of the abuse issue in swimming. Safe Sport is working hard to make up for shortcomings in the past and make itself accessible as an online resource and a trusted place for victims or outside witnesses to turn to.

“In the last couple of years, I’ve seen our membership be empowered and really help drive our cause at the local level,” Woessner said.

Safe Sport consists of three full-time members, Director Susan Woessner, Liz Hoendervoogt, and Maggie Vail. A volunteer committee of nine offers additional support.

Establishing Boundaries

Learning from the existing structures working at clubs has been integral to Safe Sport’s success. Those clubs which have a thorough understanding of roles are the programs fostering a safe, positive environment for kids, Woessner said.

There must be a firm understanding of the boundaries set between a swimmer and a coach. A coach is not meant to be a friend to hang out with or a romantic partner, Woessner expanded.

“Coaches are often seen as the most influential person in kids lives, outside of their parents,” Woessner said. “Most coaches get into the sport because of their own incredibly positive experience in the sport. They want to pass along that experience.”

USA Swimming held it’s second Safe Sport Conference in Colorado Springs in early February. Over 160 participants from 46 LSCs were present and affected by the keynote address and the lessons communicated to take back to their clubs.

Dani Bostick was the event’s keynote speaker and her personal story of abuse as an age group swimmer in Maryland struck a chord with the participants.

“The most phenomenal part of Dani’s message was her reflection on the most influential people in her life,” Woessner said. “Those people were very important to her, but she did not know much at all about their personal lives.”

The take-home point was that clear boundaries are a necessity. Swimmers need not know their coach deeply to be impacted by their leadership. The swimmer-coach boundary must be upheld and the use of authority to abuse is never acceptable.

“The most moving part of the conference was hearing stories of survivors of abuse,” Joe Zemaitis, head coach of Phoenix’s Swim Neptune said. “It is clear that USA Swimming now takes the problem very seriously and is providing clubs and coaches with the practical information needed to make swimming a safer sport for all.”

Athlete Protection Training

In 2011, Safe Sport’s Athlete Protection Training became a mandatory part of USA Swimming’s accreditation process for its 35,000 non-athlete members. The training provides a series of videos followed by questions. The most jarring are the videos featuring accused predators sharing their stories.

“Most people react to the videos in shock, because they tell stories so much the opposite of why they got into coaching,” Woessner said.

The videos are meant to bring awareness to coaches and officials and empower them to fervently work to notice those behaviors which are absolutely unacceptable in any community.

The training also helps validate the thoughts of those who have had lingering suspicions about inappropriate behavior within their swimming environment.

“It gives them permission to come forward when they otherwise might not have,” Woessner said.

There are several reasons victims suppress their stories of abuse. Woessner said many feel fear that they will not be believed or shame that they were complicit in the abuse.

Safe sport has worked to “increase transparency” and keep their website stocked with as much helpful information as possible.

“Victims do a lot of research,” Woessner said. “They want to know who they would be reporting to and why they should talk to someone. We make it clear that abuse is a loss of power for the victim. There is no proper time for them to disclose, but when they’re ready we are here for them.”

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