Three days before the June 27 start in Omaha, Nebraska of the Olympic Trials, USA Swimming's marquee domestic event, former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky was led away in handcuffs from a courtroom 1,100 miles to the east after being found guilty by a jury of 45 counts of child sex abuse.
While the Sandusky verdict focused the spotlight on the troubling issue of child abuse and pedophilia in sports, it also served as a stark reminder that, as swimming's Olympic season began, the story of widespread sex abuse of underage female swimmers by coaches wasn't making as much as a ripple in the pool.
Two years earlier, a chilling investigation by ABC's 20/20 had exposed a pedophile problem in local and regional competitive swimming - an activity overseen by USA Swimming, the Congressionally-sanctioned national governing body for the sport's 300,000 kids and 12,000 coaches - that made the Sandusky scandal pale by comparison.
The 20/20 broadcast included an interview with a gold medal swimmer, Deena Deardurff Schmidt, recounting her years of molestation at the hands of a Hall of Fame coach.
(Schmidt did not identify the coach by name. But an internal USA Swimming document containing a list of "flagged" but never formally charged coaches - authored by David Berkoff, another former gold medalist - would become an exhibit to Berkoff's deposition in an ongoing civil suit in California by former swimmer Jancy Thompson. The Berkoff list suggests that the coach was Paul Bergen.)
One of the especially ugly moments during the 20/20 exposé was the image of Chuck Wielgus, USA Swimming's executive director since 1997, acting put upon and contemptuous when confronted on camera and asked if the victims might have a public apology coming to them. In the face of bad publicity generated by the story, Wielgus later backtracked and expressed regret in an open letter to the swimming community. Susan Woessner, who once swam at Indiana University, was subsequently brought in to oversee publication on USA Swimming's website of the names of coaches permanently banned for conduct code violations, as well as to set up a new program of education on boundaries and sex crimes.
Three more coaches charged
Swimming's post-20/20 changes are only slightly better than nothing, victims' advocates maintain. There is a backlog of buried cases requiring "truth and reconciliation," and the record of the entrenched leadership shows it ill-equipped to carry out such a program in good faith. Critics say a housecleaning is in order.
In the weeks leading up to the Trials, three swimming coaches with ties to USA Swimming were charged with criminal sex abuse, noteworthy in a sport where the historical ratio of reported-to-unreported sex abuse is high.
A week before the Sandusky verdict came the latest entry in swimming's police blotter: On June 16, Noah Rucker, a 39-year-old coach at Curl-Burke Swim Club in the Washington, D.C., area, was arrested on three counts of illegal sexual contact with a swimmer he had coached more than a decade earlier at Madison High School in Vienna, Virginia. The Curl-Burke club has produced four Olympic gold medalists in the past two decades.***
The other fresh cases involve a former swim club coach, Chris Johnson, who was arrested after allegedly soliciting sex with a 12-year-old student; and Kenneth Fuller, current high school head coach and assistant club coach in Malvern, Pennsylvania, who was arrested on multiple assault charges involving his contact with a student.
Johnson, a 35-year-old physical education student teacher at Oakland Middle School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, was caught in a police sting last month. Detective Tommy Roberts said that computer and cell phone evidence suggests additional victims in addition to the 12-year-old. He also confirmed that USA Swimming safe sport director Woessner contacted him after news reports of the arrest.
According to Tennessee sources, Johnson, an ex-college swimmer, was the head coach of two now-defunct teams in the area; one of them, the River Oak Swim Club, disbanded, with one source citing inappropriate sexual activity as the reason.
Fuller, the swim coach at Bayard Rustin High School in Chester County, Pennsylvania, was booked on multiple assault charges after reportedly posing as a student's father in notes excusing her school absences - after which he allegedly took her to a hotel for alcohol and sex. Fuller also had been an assistant coach for nine years with the USA Swimming club in Malvern.
*** Editor's Note: The day after MomsTEAM published this article, the Washington Post reported allegations that Cal-Burke founder Rick Curl had an inappropriate sexual relationship with an underage female swimmer in the 1980's.