Controversial Former Olympic Coach Joe Bernal Dies

Joe Bernal, an accomplished but controversial coach who received a lifetime ban from USA Swimming in 2016, died on Saturday night, according to a Facebook post by his daughter, Michelle Sweeney. 

Bernal gained notoriety early in his career for transforming a lowly Fordham University men’s swim team into a dominant squad that won seven Metropolitan Collegiate Swimming Championships in a row. He also started Fordham’s first women’s swim team. 

After 12 years at Fordham, Bernal became head coach at Harvard in the late 1970s, mentoring a pair of Olympic medalists in David Berkoff and Bobby Hackett. The duo combined for five medals across three games, including two golds. Bernal served on two of those Olympic coaching staffs in 1984 and 1988. His revolutionary dolphin kick training resulted in world records and rule changes alike. Bernal coached at Harvard until 1991, earning seven Ivy League Coach of the Year honors. 

“His energy, love of coaching, and innovative ways to motivate and get us all to perform to our greatest abilities in the pool are what I remember about ‘Coach’ during our time at Harvard,” Hackett said of Bernal. “He genuinely cared for his athletes and was most proud of their success outside the pool after they hung up their suits.”

Bernal also founded Bernal’s Gator Swim Club, which became one of the top clubs in New England. 

In the fall of 2015, Bernal was inducted into the American Swimming Coaches Association (ASCA) Hall of Fame. Over the next six months, however, he sold his Waltham home as well as his Bernal’s Gator Swim Club amid USA Swimming’s investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct. 

In February of 2016, USA handed Bernal a lifetime ban for violating policies including “any sexual contact or advance or any other inappropriate sexually oriented behavior towards an athlete” by someone in a position of authority and “any nonconsensual physical sexual conduct, or pattern of unwelcome advances or other sexual harassment” in connection to USA Swimming-related activities. The policies cited in the Bernal ban announcement also included sexual misconduct “directed toward any member or other person participating in the affairs or activities of USA Swimming.’’

Bernal’s former club still operates in Waltham, Mass., under new leadership as Gator Swim Club, a bronze medal club in USA Swimming’s excellence ratings for 2022. He was removed from hall of fames at ASCA and Fordham after news surfaced of his lifetime ban for sexual misconduct. 

58
Leave a Reply

Subscribe
Notify of

58 Comments
newest
oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Masters swammer
1 month ago
Skeptical
Reply to  Masters swammer
1 month ago

I doubt it. This article reads like it was written by a crazy person who lacks even passing knowledge of the legal system. Regardless of your opinion on Bernal, the reality is that he was living a relatively normal and public life in Boca Raton at the time of his death. The allegation that he faked his death is particularly insane. You can go on social media and find pictures of him posing in photos with Ryan Lochte and Caleb Dressel. Not exactly the behavior of a wanted fugitive in hiding.

He was banned from USA swimming but he was never charged with a crime. How can you be a fugitive if never charged with a crime? Does the author… Read more »

Masters swammer
Reply to  Skeptical
1 month ago

There’s also a Boston Globe article from a long time back that suggests he might have (at least temporarily) fled the country fearing that there would be criminal charges.

https://epaper.bostonglobe.com/BostonGlobe/article_popover.aspx?guid=f4ddf537-69dc-4938-860a-ffa04f0ac0e4&source=next

Skeptical
Reply to  Masters swammer
1 month ago

That article came out years ago and it doesn’t seem as though the narrative of him fleeing to avoid criminal charges was ever based in reality. Didn’t you notice how the author of this article conveniently avoided that fact throughout? Or how the Boston Globe wanted no part of this recent “story”?

Are the people in this thread defending Bernal and casting aspersions on his accusers disgusting? Of course. But being banned from USA Swimming is a completely different threshold than being charged with a crime, and Bernal was never charged with a crime. You can’t reasonably say he “fled consequences” given that he already received the severest punishment he ever faced — a lifetime ban from USA Swimming.

Masters swammer
Reply to  Skeptical
1 month ago

Obviously he didn’t flee any real consequences since, as you said, he was never charged.

Did he flee because he feared he would be charged? Did he try to hide money overseas because he feared a lawsuit? These seem like very reasonable questions. People are afraid of lots of things that never become reality.

Skeptical
Reply to  Masters swammer
1 month ago

How is that a reasonable question at all? You can’t flee to a different country to avoid being charged, so the entire premise of the article (that he became an “international fugitive”) is absurd. There are reasonable questions to be asked about the circumstances surrounding Bernals relationship with his son and his time in South America, but it sounds more like a child with a drug problem (Craig Bernal did, in fact, die of a drug overdose) taking advantage of his elderly father than anything else.

The stuff about him fleeing criminal charges and being an international fugitive is nonsensical and the author is clearly guilty of willfully omitting easily-available information information about how Bernal spent the last years… Read more »

NE Swammer
Reply to  Skeptical
1 month ago

That article seems to have a lot of truth to it, but it was not written well as it does move around quite a bit. And the headline is sensational and ended up not being true. But Joe (or Hugo) sold his team and house, and quickly left the state because he thought he was going to be criminally charged per the Globe. One can flee and leave the state or country if one thinks that one was going to be arrested and then act like a fugitive like he did. He was never charged as mentioned.

Joe sued his son Craig because he gave him his money to hold to hide it from potential lawsuits. I am surprised… Read more »

Masters Swammer
Reply to  Skeptical
30 days ago

People absolutely flee the United States to avoid criminal punishment. They can go any country that won’t extradite them back to the US for the specific criminal charge.

See for example:
— Roman Polanski (fled to France to avoid punishment for statutory rape)
— Edward Snowden (fled to Russia to avoid punishment for espionage)

I have no basis for claiming that this is what Bernal tried to do (flee out of fear he would be prosecuted), but it is absolutely a reasonable question.

Former BGSC swimmer
Reply to  Masters swammer
25 days ago

Everything in the salon article is true. How do i know this? Because I was the recipient of the phone call from him days after his apparent death.

The Allegations
1 month ago

I’m just going to put this out there for everyone demanding to know allegations against the man. Aside from the case that was purely handed under USA Swimmings jurisdiction and is therefore sealed, another swimmer ended up coming forward and filing a federal lawsuit that has been public for quite some time now. Frankly I’m shocked that no one has picked up on it yet. Keep in mind that the two swimmers who have come forward are decades apart in age and swam under coach Bernal in different states, a reflection of repeat predatory behavior over a long period of time.

big gator
Reply to  The Allegations
1 month ago

With the federal lawsuit, what happens now that Joe has passed away? Any details from the lawsuit since it is public? Surprised too that this has not been reported.

The Allegations
Reply to  big gator
25 days ago

It can continue to move forward and damages can be claimed from his estate.

Happy Slappy
1 month ago

Does anyone know what the allegations were? I met Joe at a few world clinics and he was as gracious as could be. Small sample size, so I was just wondering if anyone really knew, not speculation. Was it from Fordham/Harvard/ BGSC?

Snarky
Reply to  Happy Slappy
1 month ago

BGSC in the 2010’s

Masters swammer
Reply to  Snarky
1 month ago

Any idea why there were never criminal charges?

The Allegations
Reply to  Masters swammer
1 month ago

Statute of limitations in MA where the abuse had occurred had passed. However another swimmer that swam under him in NY (and is decades older) has filed a federal lawsuit in NY (the state has much broader reporting timeline requirements when it comes to child sexual abuse).

In The Know
Reply to  Masters swammer
1 month ago

No, snarky is not correct, it was not from 2010s it was BGSC from much earlier. No charges pressed because the girl was of legal age (albeit young but still legal) and was in college at the time. She swam for him as an age grouper however.

swimapologist
Reply to  In The Know
1 month ago

I mean, it’s entirely plausible that there was more than one victim, isn’t it?

The Allegations
Reply to  swimapologist
1 month ago

It is more than one victim. Both commentators are correct.

In The Know
Reply to  swimapologist
1 month ago

Yes, but the one that got him the ban is the one I’m referring to. Others came out later.

Andrea Toledo
1 month ago

Respeto la libertad de opinión y expresión, pero está nota se me hace dolorosa para quienes conocimos al Coach, las presunciones aquí puestas por el periodista dejan un sin sabor de desinformación queriendo ganar protagonismo con el dolor ajeno, que pena ver como la prensa amarillista recalca tan desagradable situación, cuando el realmente fue conocido por su profesionalismo y por ser excelente entrenador, lo consideramos parte de nuestra familia, fue una persona integra, con clase, y excelente ser humano, así lo recordaremos quienes realmente tuvimos el gusto de tenerlo en nuestra vida, que impotencia tan grande encontrar este tipo de noticias tan nefasta, el periodismo debería ir más allá.

Admin
Reply to  Andrea Toledo
1 month ago

For those who don’t speak Spanish, Andrea is saying that SwimSwam is a tabloid because we included the part where he was banned for abusing children.

“He was a parson of integrity, with class, and an excellent human being…” and “Such an unpleasant situation, when he was really known for his professionalism and for being an excellent coach.”

swimapologist
Reply to  Braden Keith
1 month ago

Yeah. And they all want us to believe that leaving the “B” in “BGSC” has nothing to do with the fact that they all still worship him, in spite of being an abuser.

Next time anyone wants to whine about SafeSport overreach, remember that this is why it has to overreach: it has to serve as a counterbalance to the fact that an astonishingly-huge portion of our society is okay with people who abuse children. They won’t say it out loud, they’ll rationalize and justify it, but at the end of the sentence, the message is the same: “he was a great coach, so I want to pretend like the other things didn’t happen.”

Jimmy Martínez
Reply to  Braden Keith
1 month ago

Buenos días cuando uno mira que ese tipo de noticias cuando un medio de comunicación recuerda a una persona no por su trayectoria laboral profesional cómo lo fue el coach Bernal sino solamente lo recuerda por una posible causa de violación sexual o un delito sexual sin haberse comprobado y que lamentablemente destruyó su vida laboral su carrera profesional y su persona es increíble que no se le haga más bien un reconocimiento por su trayectoria Cómo deportista Cómo coach Yo viví una parte pequeña con él y en el poco tiempo que lo conocí supe que fue una persona íntegra en todo el sentido de la palabra profesional y un excelente ser humano de manera atenta espero que este… Read more »

DLSwim
Reply to  Jimmy Martínez
1 month ago

Está bien que tu hayas tenido una buena experiencia con Bernal. Pero el hecho de que haya habido abuso sexual de su parte, y que además haya sido suspendido por la federación nacional, es un hecho que sin duda es de importancia y que se debe reportar como noticia. Este artículo no es un obituario escrito por su familia, si no que es un reporte noticioso, y como tal, se debe reportar tanto lo bueno y como lo malo.

Deep Trouble
Reply to  Andrea Toledo
1 month ago

Puta!

Former BGSC Swimmer
1 month ago

It’s truly disheartening to see so many “sexual abuse aside, he was a great coach” posts. A person who abuses children trusted in his care does not deserve praise and aside recognition for his “good” qualities / accomplishments.

For context, I swam for Joe Bernal for 8+ years in the mid-90’s-2000’s. There is no doubt in my mind, given my own experience, that he is guilty – probably many times over.

Masters Swammer
Reply to  Former BGSC Swimmer
1 month ago

I swam for BGSC in the early-90s when I was a pre-teen (ages 10-13), and then my family moved out of state. Joe Bernal was the head coach, but never the direct coach of my group.

I have so many questions about what went down. I never personally experienced or was aware of any conduct that would have violated the Safe Sport guidelines (which surely didn’t exist yet at the time), but something about Joe set off enough alarm bells in my mind (even as a pre-teen) that I avoided being alone with him. Things like giving an awkwardly long hug, or a kiss on the forehead after a good race. I was saddened, but not terribly surprised, a few… Read more »

Last edited 1 month ago by Masters Swammer
Swim3057
Reply to  Masters Swammer
1 month ago

His contract at Harvard ran out and wasn’t renewed mainly over discrepancies over the Gators use of the Harvard facilities and the financial terms for their use of those facilities.

Masters Swammer
Reply to  Swim3057
1 month ago

Around the time he left Harvard (I was 11), I distinctly remember my Dad talking about a very lengthy, and apparently paranoid-sounding, speech that he gave to the parents group about the “forces of evil working against us” with regard to pool time. The specific words have stuck with me for all these years.

DMacNCheez
1 month ago

Lol this comment section is peak NE swimming drama

Swim3057
1 month ago

Some editorial corrections:
Bernal founded the Gators while at Fordham and brought the club name with him when he took over at Harvard in 1978.
Bobby Hackett actually made the 1976 Olympic team (2nd in 1500j as a high school junior at Fordham prep while swimming for Bernal prior to joining Bernal at Harvard in the fall of 1977.
Bernal’s legacy will be tarnished obviously by his actions but he was innovative and took Harvard to the next level winning their first Eastern Championships in several decades and sustaining that before leaving Harvard. His actions cannot be excused, but may he Rest In Peace.

Jay Ryan
Reply to  Swim3057
1 month ago

Hackett still holds the 15-16 NAG in the 1500 with that 1976 Olympic swim 15:03.91 with a 3:58.6 sprint in the last 400 (vs Goodell’s 3:56.9) despite the fact that Hackett’s flat out 400 Free in the OT final was 3:55. One of the most amazing races I have ever seen, second only to the 2008 400 Free Relay in Beijing.

Jamie Starr
1 month ago

Only met the man once, but he and my mom were close when she was younger.

About Riley Overend

Riley is an associate editor interested in the stories taking place outside of the pool just as much as the drama between the lane lines. A 2019 graduate of Boston College, he arrived at SwimSwam in April of 2022 after three years as a sports reporter and sports editor at newspapers …

Read More »