A Safe Sport? A Dive Into the Culture of Abuse at USA Swimming 

Photo Credit: https://www.usaswimming.org/news/2021/12/10/new-categories-of-individuals-required-to-be-non-athlete-members

Authored by: Mary Beth Duckett

Senior Associate Editor, American Journal of Trial Advocacy

          For decades, young swimmers’ lives have been ruined by coaches’ use of sexual abuse, yet USA Swimming was reluctant to stop these horrific events from occurring.[1]  In the 80s, two-time Olympian, Mitchel Ivy; youth coach, Andrew King; and former national team director, Everett Uchiyama assaulted several minor women.[2]  The coaches engaged in disgusting behavior throughout their years of coaching the victims.  Ivy impregnated one of his swimmers at age seventeen, causing her to have an abortion before the 1984 Olympic Trials.[3]  Uchiyama started abusing one of the victims in the 90s, and this victim believes other coaches knew what was happening, but did nothing to stop it.[4]  Furthermore, King’s victim stated the abuse started when she was eleven years old, and could have easily been prevented.[5]  The women eventually filed suit, alleging that USA Swimming officials were aware of the abuse of these coaches, but failed to address the problem or take any action to protect the women.[6]  Although all three coaches have received lifetime bans from coaching, Ivy and Uchiyama never faced criminal charges.[7]  King, on the other hand, was “sentenced to 40 years in prison after pleading no contest to 20 child molestation charges.”[8]

            Swimming coaches Ivy, King, and Uchiyama are not the only ones who got away with sexual abuse for so long.  Scott McFarland, a California swim coach, also engaged in predatory behaviors, causing Sarah Ehekircher a lifetime of suffering.[9]  As a junior in high school, Ehekircher was left with no family, and started living with her coach, McFarland.[10]  McFarland first started emotionally abusing Ehekircher by weighing her before she ate, and forcing her to ride a stationary bike for two hours after her grueling swim practices.[11]  Not long after the emotional abuse began, McFarland raped Ehekircher at a swim meet.[12]  The physical abuse then started to spiral, and Ehekircher eventually had two abortions.[13]  She explained that the reason she took so long to report McFarland was because she was scared and had no one else to support her.[14]  These types of sexual abuse cases occur at the amateur level all the way up to the Olympic level.  For example, Philip Mark Walker, former head coach of Excel Aquatics out of Nashville, TN, was suspended from USA Swimming for sexually abusing two minors.[15]  Further, Ariana Kukors, a former U.S. Olympian, publicly stated “that her longtime coach Sean Hutchison sexually abused her for nearly a decade.”[16]

            These heartbreaking stories beg the questions of why USA Swimming stood idly by and did nothing, and how did the organization get away with this?  First, the organization had largely a financial focus.[17]  To emphasis, the head of USA Swimming, Chuck Wieglus, denied in a 2010 deposition “that protecting the safety of young swimmers . . . against sexual abuse was USA Swimming’s top goal.”[18]  Additionally, USA Swimming prioritized protecting its brand and sponsorships, so the organization dealt with the sexual abuse allegations through public relations firms and lobbying groups instead of facing them head on.[19]  Because the organization was only concerned about its legal liability, it did not take any action to legitimately prohibit the culture of abuse in swimming.[20]  Furthermore, the American Swimming Coaches Association, an affiliate of USA Swimming, has not helped develop new policies on sexual misconduct because it consistently opposed these reform efforts.[21]  Another reason abuse has continued within the sport is because it can often take years to obtain a lifetime ban from the sport.[22]  In one case, a Massachusetts swim coach was arrested for rape and child abuse, but was not banned from coaching until twelve years after the conviction.[23]

            Although the sport of swimming has silently endured a culture of sexual abuse over the last several decades, in 2018 the USA Gymnastics scandals prompted the federal grand jury investigation of USA Swimming.[24]  One focus of the investigation was the organization’s “insurance structure known as the ‘wasting’ provision.”[25]  The “wasting” provision occurred because although the U.S. Olympic Committee required USA Swimming to include specific abuse coverage, “[t]hat coverage did not extend to the 2,000 member clubs across the country.”[26]  Those excluded club teams were instead given an underwritten coverage for abuse claims capped at $100,000 per claim.[27]  The wasting clause was essentially a deductible.[28]  Because every dollar spent defending a claim was reduced from the coverage, some victim-claimants subject to the wasting clause would not collect any damages, and their club team would be left with no money to defend itself.[29]  Therefore, this insurance coverage restricted these club teams to only two claims per year.[30]  In turn, this system protected USA Swimming as an organization, because it was the coaches themselves that were held liable and likely forced into bankruptcy as a result.[31]  Recently, however, survivors have overcome this system and successfully sought relief by piercing USA Swimming’s financial veil to reach its general liability coverage.[32]

            Furthermore, after the USA Gymnastics scandal made national headlines in 2018, President Donald Trump signed a bill into law “that aims to protect amateur athletes from sexual abuse by regulating the governing bodies of amateur athletics, like USA Swimming.”[33]  The bill requires officials and coaches to report signs of abuse to authorities within 24-hours, but it “extends the statute of limitations to up to 10 years after a person realizes they were abused.”[34]   It also protects athletes who are minors by prohibiting them from being alone with someone who is not their parent.[35]

 It is evident that change has occurred within the past five years, as more survivors have stood up to claim that abuse is not a necessary part of swimming, a sport that teaches children and young adults discipline, time-management, and an ultimate desire to succeed.[36]  Hopefully, in time as our legal system and communities work to eliminate abuse, people will remember what the sport of swimming is truly about. 

[1] Scott Reid, Congress Investigating USA Swimming’s Handling of Sex Abuse Cases, Los Angeles Daily News (Jan. 26, 2018, 12:01 p.m.), https://www.dailynews.com/2018/01/26/congress-investigating-usa-swimmings-handling-of-sex-abuse-cases/

[2] Rick Maese & Emily Giambalvo, Six Former Athletes Accuse USA Swimming of Failing to Act on Sex Abuse Allegations, The Washington Post (Jun. 10, 2020), https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2020/06/10/six-former-athletes-accuse-usa-swimming-failing-act-sex-abuse-allegations/.

[3] Associated Press, Six Women File Lawsuits Against USA Swimming Over Alleged Sexual Abuse by Coaches, USA Today (Jun. 10, 2020, 10:18 p.m.), https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/olympics/2020/06/10/usa-swimming-women-sue-alleged-sex-abuse/5339685002/.

[4] Shanna McCarriston, Six Women Sue USA Swimming for Allegedly Failing to Act on Sexual Abuse Allegations, CBS Sports (Dec. 22, 2021, 11:51 a.m.), https://www.cbssports.com/olympics/news/six-women-sue-usa-swimming-for-allegedly-failing-to-act-on-sexual-abuse-allegations/.

[5] Id.

[6] Associated Press, supra note 3. 

[7] Maese & Giambalvo, supra note 2. 

[8] Associated Press, supra note 3.

[9] Sarah Ehekircher, My Swim Coach Raped Me When I Was 17. USA Swimming Made it Disappear, The Guardian (Aug. 25, 2020),  https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2020/aug/25/my-swim-coach-raped-me-when-i-was-17-usa-swimming-made-it-disappear.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Walker v. USA Swimming, No. 3:16-CV-0825, 2018 WL 397154, at *1-2 (M.D. Tenn. Jan. 12, 2018).

[16] Alanna Vagianos, Explosive Report Says USA Swimming Covered Up Hundreds of Sexual Abuse Cases, Huff Post (Feb. 19, 2018, 1:40 p.m.), https://www.huffpost.com/entry/usa-swimming-sexual-abuse_n_5a8ad81fe4b004fc3194c4b2.

[17] Gabe Fernandez, USA Swimming Ignored Claims of Sexual Abuse for Decades, Report Indicates, The Sporting News (Feb. 18, 2018), https://www.sportingnews.com/us/athletics/news/usa-swimming-sexual-abuse-scandal-olympics-chuck-wielgus-larry-nassar/11cipqwymcv3a1kr02i8ip6s3c.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.see also AB Staff, USA Swimming Ignored Culture of Sexual Abuse, Athletic Business (Feb. 17, 2018),  https://www.athleticbusiness.com/operations/legal/news/15153283/usa-swimming-ignored-culture-of-sexual-abuse (“Protecting that brand hasn’t come cheap. USA Swimming spent $7.45 million on legal fees between 2006 and 2016, according to the organization’s financial records, nearly 10 times the amount USA Track & Field paid in legal fees during that same period.”).

[20] Fernandez, supra note 17.

[21] Id.

[22] Id.

[23] Id.

[24] Irvin Muchnick, Troubled Waters: USA Swimming’s Struggle to Cover Up Its Sexual Abuse Crisis, Salon (Jun. 26, 2021, 8:00 a.m.), https://www.salon.com/2021/06/26/troubled-waters-usa-swimmings-struggle-to-cover-up-its-sexual-abuse-crisis/.

[25] Id.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Id.

[31] Id.

[32] Id.

[33] Vagianos, supra note 16.

[34] Id.

[35] Id.

[36] Jessica A. Gold, We Should Have Seen The USA Swimming Sexual Abuse Allegations Coming, Glamour (Feb. 27, 2018), https://www.glamour.com/story/we-should-have-seen-the-usa-swimming-allegations-coming.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s