USA Swimming Boss May Face Vote Of No Confidence Over Gap In Anti-Abuse Testimony

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Tim Hinchey USA Swimming CEO - Photo Courtesy: ABC News Video Testimony
Tim Hinchey, the CEO of USA Swimming, could face a vote of no confidence from the the federation’s ruling Board if he cannot explain an apparent gap in his knowledge of the organisation’s anti-abuse training. As we report that news, we take a look back at the historic backdrop of abuse cases and the American federation’s 1991 Committee on Abuses and minutes that show how SafeSport recommendations were made 19 years before they were implemented.

In selected testimony provided in an abuse court case last month, Tim Hinchey, CEO of USA Swimming, admits that in the three years since he took over the helm of the organisation he did not receive training in matters of grooming and the Code of Conduct designed to protect athletes from abuse.

Swimming World, in exchanges with several senior sources, understands that leading figures in the sport are suggesting that the testimony Hinchey provided in a pre-trial deposition in a case involving a young rape victim should lead to a vote of no confidence in the CEO from the USA Swimming Board if the boss cannot explain the answers he gave.
Among materials Hinchey suggested he had never read nor even had knowledge of were anti-abuse training papers that coaches and others are obliged to read and act on in a sport rocked by a high number of abuse victims and scandals. Yet the head of the organisation had not read that same material, according to the testimony he gave.

The legal case in question is that of a 12-year-old girl who was raped and sexually molested by the head swimming coach at a swim club in Stockton, California. Her abuser is now in prison. The details of the case are harrowing, for the abuse and predation but also because of the timing of events and the questions since raised about whether the abuse might have been prevented or curtailed had USA Swimming acted in time.

USA Swimming points to the SafeSport program as evidence that it is taking the issue seriously, some years into a time when the organisation has come under fire for its handling of sex abuse allegations involving many coaches and dating back decades. The list of coaches banned for life on grounds of sexual abuse runs to triple figures.

Hinchey took over the helm of USA Swimming at a time when SafeSport was being established in the wake of a tumultuous time under the leadership of Chuck Wielgus, who withdrew his nomination for the International Swimming Hall of Fame after responding to a Women’s Sports Foundation protest and a review of the matter by ISHOF. Chuck Wielgus passed away aged 67 in 2017 after a long battle with cancer.

Questions over Knowledge Of Code of Conduct & Grooming

In the pre-trial deposition in the Stockton rape case, Hinchey admitted that he was not trained in spotting the warning signs that indicate when a sexual predator is “grooming” a victim, an issue at the heart of the case of the 12-year-old in Stockton.

A video posted last month by Law&Crime in a Brian Ross Investigates report shows the moment when, under questioning by attorney Robert Allard, who is bringing the civil suit in the case of the 12-year-old rape victim and has long been at war with USA Swimming, Hinchey was asked: “At any point in time, did you receive any type of training on USA Swimming’s code of conduct?”

  • “I did not,” Hinchey responds.
  • “As you sit here today, have you ever reviewed in its entirely, USA Swimming’s code of conduct?” Allard continued.
  • “I have not” Hinchey responded.

Selecting parts of testimony given by witnesses does not give the whole picture of a full deposition.

Even so, the Law&Crime video highlights what lawyers opposing USA Swimming and senior figures close to the helm of USA Swimming are concerned about, concerns echoed in the New York Times last month when Allard said that if Hinchey continued to be “indifferent and putting his hands to his ears and eyes, then he will continue to leave children vulnerable to predators.”

A spokeswoman for USA Swimming, Isabelle McLemore, declined to comment directly on the case to the New York Times nor would USA Swimming answer directly to the questions put by Swimming World. To the New York Times last month, she cited the litigation, while adding: “We cannot stress enough that athletes’ health and safety is USA Swimming’s No. 1 priority. It has been, it continues to be and we work to improve it every single day. The athletes are the core of everything we do, and we take that very seriously.”

Swimming World put the issues raised by Law&Crime to Hinchey’s office but the federation said it would not respond to questions based on reports pushing “an agenda”. Allard and others have made no secret of their hostility and drive to press legal cases against USA Swimming and many media reports have reflected that battle.

USA Swimming is keen to explain its SafeSport program and point to work of “the team of people who wake up each and every single day striving to provide a safe and positive environment for our athletes”.

That dedication is “not in any doubt”, said one senior figure, but “questions remain” about some of the answers provided by Hinchey to Allard in the Stockton case last month.

When pressed on grooming in the case of the 12-year-old rape victim, the USA Swimming boss states: “I’m not familiar with how grooming takes place.”

On training materials that include details of the warnings signs on grooming that should be watched for, Hinchey appears to suggest that he had never read the documents in question.

  • Allard: “This is information which is disseminated by USA Swimming as part of its training program, is it not?”
  • Hinchey: “I have not read it before.”
  • Allard: “Have you ever assessed whether or not pedophiles are particularly attracted to the sport of swimming?”
  • Hinchey: “I have not.”

There were several other moments in which the USA Swimming CEO could not provide answers to the questions put to him, while safe-sport advocate Nancy Hogshead-Makar raises questions about culture and practice in the sport that set the environment in which athletes and coaches work in swimming and that in which parents and others place their trust:

Law&Crime quotes former Olympic 100m freestyle champion (1984) Hogshead-Makar, founder of Champion Women, as saying that there was almost no bigger story in swimming, beyond “Michael Phelps and Simone Manuel”, than the string of sexual abuse cases that have rocked the pool. She added:

“I would think as a leader of an organization, you would at least want him to know what’s appropriate, what’s not appropriate, and be able to be conversant with these terms about what’s appropriate boundaries and what is grooming behavior, things like that. Because he’s gonna get questions on how this happened. And for him not to know is stunning.”

SafeSport

That Hinchey is aware of the seriousness of having sexual-abuse cases on swimming’s books is not in question, the CEO having addressed the importance of SafeSport in his Annual State of the Sport Letter in September last year, four months after delivering this testimony to the House Energy and Commerce sub-committee analyzing the policies and procedures that U.S. Olympic sports bodies had in place to protect athletes in the age of the USA Gymnastics scandal.

Watch Tim Hinchey deliver his testimony, courtesy of ABC News, below:

USA Swimming insists that its SafeSport program, including teachers athletes and parents and clubs to watch for signs of grooming, is robust. Hinchey and USA Swimming media relations officer turned down a request to answer questions about the issue on the grounds until they had had a chance to explain the SafeSport program further to us.

Meanwhile, some victims and advocates not only point to historic abuse and a lack of action but claim that even now, SafeSport measures are not nearly robust enough. Among examples they point to are forms that allow parents to sign off guardianship of their offspring that enables a coach to travel in the company of a swimmer without any other supervisor present. This, claimed one advocate, amounted to a “charter for predators” that “puts all responsibility on the parent while washing their own hands free of any backlash should things go wrong”.

The problems extend from swimming to other aquatic disciplines under the jurisdiction of USA Swimming, among concerns raised that not enough checks and balances are in place when it comes to who escorts teenage potential recruits when they visit programs unaccompanied by their parents.

When Hinchey testified before Congress of late, he said:

“We have a number of new initiatives underway and are vetting even more. The SafeSport recognized club program will enhance athlete protection efforts at the local level. While we cannot change the past, we will learn from it and we will do better. Our commitment to preventing child sexual abuse and providing a safe and healthy environment for our athletes is constant and long-lasting.”

That was an echo of his “Prepared Testimony … Before the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations” on May 23, 2018, in which he states:

“I am deeply committed to providing a safe and healthy environment for children to grow, play and compete.”

History Coming Back To Haunt

The Allard line of questioning is pertinent beyond the case in question, stretching back long before Hinchey’s time.

Allard represented Deena Deardurff, the 1972 Olympic gold medallist for the USA, who was groomed and sexually abused by her coach from the age of 11. Deardurff told her story to many in her sport down the years.

USA Swimming held that it could not act on historic matters from a time before a change of name and status for the federation in the late 1970s, a USA Swimming Abuses Committee was aware of her case when it made SafeSport recommendations to the federation in 1991.

The coach accused has long been identified as Paul Bergen but no investigation has ever been mounted. When asked at the time to comment, Bergen told an agency reporter that it was “a misunderstanding”.

Many of the measures recommended were not put in place until after Deardurff went public with her story in 2010, around the time USA Swimming revealed it kept a list of banned coaches, additions to which were then announced publicly.  SafeSport was only just getting going, almost 20 years after the risks and dangers of abuse had been made clear to the federation.

Deena Deardurff-Schmidt’s Testimony Of Childhood Abuse & Lack Of Action:

The Committee on Abuses and historic backdrop

USA Swimming was handed what amounted to a manifesto matching many of the core principles of its 2010 SafeSport program back in 1991.

It was May 1991 when a meeting of the Committee on Abuses was hosted by USA Swimming in Colorado Springs.

Chairman of the group was David Berkoff, the world-record-setting backstroke ace seeking to highlight abuses in swimming while still a swimmer heading for the 1992 Olympic podium as a follow-up to his 1988 Olympic podium efforts.

The minutes of the 1991 meeting took on huge significance in light of the Safe Sport scandals that raged through U.S Olympic sports, the head of the United States Olympic Committee Scott Blackmun, the head of USA Swimming’s Safe Sport program Susan Woessner and head of USA Swimming club development Pat Hogan among those who stepped down from their jobs.

A heartening and optimistic note from Berkoff heads the 1991 minutes. It reads:

“The committee, in its first-ever meeting, was extremely productive and efficient in covering a variety of major problems pervasive in our sport. The outcome of the meeting brings forth a series of legislative recommendations and program ideas, which we hope will [be] embraced by United States Swimming and all its members.”

Those relating to ‘Sexual Misconduct’ were not adopted for a great many years afterwards. In contrast, a recommendation “that all USS national team athletes be subject to random/unannounced drug testing at any time during the year” was adopted almost immediately, even though the recommendation came with the rider that “USS could never afford to test everyone” but that high moral ground taken by the USA on the issue of doping would “press FINA and the IOC into accepting random/unannounced testing internationally”.

That provided clear evidence of the power and influence of the U.S. swim federation. That power and influence was not, however, applied to the mission led by Berkoff and others to clean swimming of sex pests, perverts and abusers.

Coach representatives were ahead of the USA Swimming curve. The 1991 meeting took place two years after the American Swimming Coaches Association introduced a Code of Ethics that all members and those seeking membership were obliged to sign up to forbidding sexual relationships between coaches and swimmers of any age working under their tutelage and guidance.

The minutes of the 1991 meeting highlight that the issue of abuse in swimming in the USA was as serious back then as it has become in the past decade of discussion in the public domain.

Rick Curl brings swimming to screens world-wide for all the wrong reasons

Indeed, rules and review-board provisions covering sexual misconduct have been a part of the legislature of USA Swimming for decades. It was not until 2010, however, that the existence of a list of banned members was widely known about and made public. That list includes some high-profile figures such as Rick Curl, jailed for abuse, Mitch Ivey and Everett Uchiyama, USA Swimming’s former U.S. National Team Director.

Critics and advocates for abuse victims say, however, that the banned list does not go nearly far enough, does not include some leading figures who face serious allegations of having had sex with under-age swimmers in their programs; does not include non-members who nonetheless continue to work in swimming in the America, a prime example that of George Gibney, the Irish coach who left for a life in the USA in the 1990s after being called out by several swimmers, girls and boys, who claim he raped and sexually assaulted them but who wait yet for justice to be served.

Some who stand accused of having blocked measures now accepted as essential to “Safe Sport” – are no longer alive to answer for themselves.

The 1991 minutes of the Committee on Abuses

The 1991 minutes of the Committee on Abuses suggest that there are truths to be told that would be helpful to any process of truth and reconciliation.

The minutes of the 1991 meeting went to the Board of Directors and were seen by the likes of then president of the aquatics federation Bill Maxson and Carol Zaleski, a long-time leading light at FINA as head of the powerful Technical Swimming Committee (and member 1992 to this day), President of USA Swimming for an unprecedented four terms (1986-1988, 1988-1990, 1994-1996, 1996-1998), a member of the Board of Directors all the while and one of the founders of the US Sports Insurance Company (USSIC) stemming back to a time that is now part of an FBI investigation. Maxson is a member of the Board of the USA Swimming Foundation these days.

The 1991 gathering, over three days in early May, discussed various forms of abuse, including doping and what to do about parents who berated and engaged in abusive behaviour towards their children when cajoling them to go faster in training and at meets. The issues related to sexual misconduct are the most relevant to the current crisis in the United States.

The recommendations of 1991 highlight the drop in the words of Chuck Wielgus, the CEO of USA Swimming between 1998 and 2017, when he apologised to victims of abuse in 2014:

“Going back in time, I wish I knew long before 2010 what I know today. I wish my eyes had been more open to the individual stories of the horrors of sexual abuse. I wish I had known more so perhaps I could have done more. I cannot undo the past. I’m sorry, so very sorry.”

Wielgus was CEO at a time when any of those present and informed in 1991, could and according to at least two of them who spoke to this author,  did tell him that bad things had and were still happening.

In light of the lack of action and the denials that much was known about abuse cases even as late as 2014, the recommendations of 1991, painful as they are to read, are more than worth listing. They include:

  • The creation of a Conduct Review Board (CRB), the membership of which would involve a two-year rotation to avoid long-termism but was to be chosen by the president of USS (Unites States Swimming, later USA Swimming) and approved by the Board of Directors
  • That the federation’s Legislation Committee create a rule allowing any member convicted of sexual misconduct to “instantly lose their USS card” and be subject to the CRB.
  • That further consideration be given to how long anyone convicted of sexual misconduct would have to be wait before they could approach the CRB in pursuit of reinstatement.
  • That all members alleged to have been involved in any incident of “non-adjudicated sexual misconduct be subject to review by the CRB”
  • That all ‘positive’ findings of abuse be made public
  • That provision be made for complaints to be heard by the CRB in “an anonymous, private, and confidential way’
  • That false accusations also be legislated against
  • That an education program for coaches, parents and athletes be developed, backed by a $300,000 budget and to include “a videotape, workbook, and handbook for each parent … “.
  • That a $25,000 budget be allocated to a program in which LSCs would send a “local expert in the field o abuse in sport (psychologist or counselor [sic]) for training by USS at the ORTC. A workbook and handbook would be devised. (A sub-note remarked that such a plan might be ineffective in reaching the people bit was aimed at because those “who put pressure on their children assume they know everything about swimming anyway” and may simply ignore the advice.
  • Coach education programs that included insight into “rubdowns, physical abuse by coaches, and coaching style”. The issue of Sexual Misconduct was handed over to “ASCA, NCAA, ICAR” for further consideration.
  • ASCA and USS to publish bibliography or list of resources on abuse issues and to make that available to the membership
  • A swimmers survey to be conducted to “gain perspective of how pervasive some issues were in the sport; couple with the creation of an athletes newsletter top spread awareness.

The Committee on Abuses noted on its education plan:

“The philosophy behind this idea is that the only way to help the retention of younger athletes is to create a healthy environment for them. By educating parents, preventing abuses and ignorance within the sport, more athletes will continue with swimming rather than switch to another sport. We feel this is by far the moist productive and effective way of reaching parents; let’s give them something tangible and meaningful for their commitment and money.”

Berkoff had resigned from the committee and Board as athlete representative within two years, frustrated at the lack of progress to have recommendations turned to action.

The CRB was never founded, while it would be six years before a Board of Review and its provisions were rule-book-bound. Berkoff’s decision to move on at the age of 24, deprived USA sports governance of a key mind and an athlete keen to have his federation get to grips with the issues of abuse.

Berkoff’s decision to leave USA Swimming was reinforced by an incident that made a mockery of that 1991 note on the value of an education program that would “create a healthy environment” for swimmers and their parents.

Berkoff had approached Ray Essick – the then and the first Executive Director of the federation from 1980, when USS was renamed USA Swimming – to ask for help to fund an academic study he was conducting to evaluate the amount of carcinogenic chloro-organic chemicals swimmers were being exposed to in practices. The issues was particularly relevant to those who spend far more time in treated water than the general population.

According to sources present at the time, Essick responded by asking Berkoff, in so many words, ‘if it turns out that swimmers are being exposed to carcinogens do you think people might pull their kids from competitive swimming?’

Berkoff thought it might, said the source, to which Essick responded to the effect of ‘why the hell would we want to study something that might drop our membership’. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back, as far as Berkoff was concerned.

A rule stating that “no sex between coaches and their swimmers, of whatever age” was added to the ASCA Code of Ethics in 1989, while sex with minors was a crime “that should be reported to law enforcement and be dealt with by a court”. The Committee on Abuses recommended that those measures be adopted by USA Swimming.

In effect, they were: in 2012.

After resistance to moves for USA Swimming adopt a “no relationships between coaches and swimmers” proposal in 2010, the policy passed into the rulebook in 2012 after the United States Olympic Committee said it was adopting the provision. National teamster and Olympic podium placer Margaret Holzer was a leading light in having the rule passed at USA Swimming.

One former athlete recalled that in 1991 Berkoff had said on several occasions that “USAS is going to get sued for the abuse by certain coaches and it’s going to be ugly” but when he did so he was “scoffed at”.

Depositions provided under oath include 2010-2014 statements from USA Swimming board members and ASCA stating that Berkoff was either mistaken or even lying in his own deposition when he recalled forming a ‘sub-committee on abuses in 1991 or 1992’.

Berkoff was neither mistaken nor was he lying, as the 1991 minutes prove.

Asked how the document resurfaced and how he felt about it, Berkoff told this author in 2018:

“The document was ‘discovered’ after someone at Rich Young’s office found the minutes in USAS’s records – three weeks after I had been deposed the third time in lawsuits filed by abuse victims.”

Lawyer Robert Allard was behind one of those depositions and, says Berkoff, “he has accused me of crazy stuff”.

On the Board members and coaches who said he was mistake, recalled something that did not happen and those who said he was lying, Berkoff noted:

“I had my memory and sanity questioned and no one backed me up. However, I testified as best I could without having the minutes in front of me of my recollections regarding this meeting and the timing of it. Allard was frustrated by my lack of commitment on these issues but I wasn’t going to swear under oath about something from 20 years ago without seeing the document I knew existed somewhere.

“USAS’s attorney [who was relieved from her duties soon after the events described] sent me the document and apologised profusely. She agreed that everything that I had testified to was nearly 100% accurate.”

The timing of the discovery of the minutes left some shaking their heads in frustration.

Berkoff, right, told this author in 2018 that he simply felt “vindicated”, having known all along that the meeting took place, that serious recommendations were made, even though he was unable, after the passing of much time, to swear to the precise contents of a document that was thought to have been lost in time.

Berkoff was recruited back to the Board by those who knew USA Swimming must change its ways on abuse in 2010.

He told SwimVortex in 2018 that some good steps have now been made but that much more needs to be done:

“SafeSport can certainly improve but to simply dismiss what was done between 2010 and 2014 as paltry or ineffective is simply not the case. If USAS wants to clean house and hold people accountable, there are a few long-timers still involved who, in my opinion, need to go as a result of doing nothing.”

Berkoff was among those who insisted on requiring mandatory reporting of abuse, the removal of civil and criminal statutes of limitation, and other measures. Some big moves were made, some key provisions resisted and some things are now at the heart of investigation as the U.S. Olympic sports system comes under scrutiny like never before.

Among key criticisms levelled against USA Swimming in some quarters is that it has, in the words of one observer, placed priority on the “protection of its brand” ahead of the safety and welfare of athletes.

USA Swimming’s ‘outside council’ has long been Rich Young, a lawyer nominated by USA Swimming for commission duty at FINA, the international regulator. After Wielgus’ resignation in 2017, Young joined the CEO Search Task Force to find his replacement. The committee was chaired by Ron Van Pool, who joined the USA Swimming Board of Directors in 1998 and served as president of the organisation from 2002-2006.

Nancy Hogshead-Makar and team just before the start of a press conference held in Washington today by Senator Dianne Feinstein – courtesy of NHM

Meanwhile, the Safe Sport Act, signed into law last year after a campaign led by Hogshead-Makar, of Champion Women, has changed the game on protecting children and older athletes in U.S. sport.

It might have happened more than 25 years ago had the recommendations of the Committee on Abuses been adopted as official policy, say supporters of SafeSport such as Hogshead-Makar and Berkoff.

Swimming World has offered to send further questions to USA Swimming as a start of a process that seeks to better understand the federation’s past and present stand on abuse and measures adopted to protect athletes.

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Ned Daly

    One only has to look at the lineup of old white guys sitting behind the blocks as officials at a major meet to fully grasp some of the problems facing US Swimming. Time for major changes at the top.