2012 Olympian Ariana Kukors (now Ariana Kukors Smith by marriage) says the civil suit she filed against former coach Sean Hutchison and USA Swimming, among others, is about “holding people accountable” for the sexual abuse she says Hutchison inflicted on her.
Kukors came forward with the abuse allegations in February, and earlier this month announced a lawsuit against Hutchison, USA Swimming, former national team director Mark Schubert and three other organizations connected to the club and LSC (a regional governing body for swimming) where she says the abuse started. Kukors says Hutchison began grooming her when she was 13 and he was her 31-year-old coach at KING Aquatic Club in Washington. She says Hutchison began engaging with her sexually by age 16. Hutchison says the two weren’t in a relationship until Kukors was an adult.
- Olympian Ariana Kukors Accuses Former Coach Sean Hutchison of Sexual Abuse
- Ariana Kukors Opens Up With Details About Hutchison Abuse Allegations
- Sean Hutchison Denies Kukors’ Abuse Allegations In Statement
- USA Swimming Investigated Hutchison/Kukors In 2010, Statement Confirms
- Mark Schubert Says He Reported Hutchison/Kukors Rumors To FAST Coach
- SafeSport Director Susan Woessner Resigns, Discloses 2007 Kiss With Hutchison
- Ariana Kukors Files Civil Suit vs. Hutchison, USA Swimming, Schubert
“A huge part of this accountability is holding people accountable so we can prevent this,” Kukors told SwimSwam last week. “Because there are kids being victimized, there are kids being abused right now.”
Kukors said the civil suit, filed with the Orange County Superior Court of California, was the next step in a process of realization that started last fall. Kukors married her husband last August, but said that despite her marriage and a job she loved, that she had a difficult fall.
“In September, I decided to step away from my job and said the word ‘depression’ for the first time to my husband,” Kukors said. She started seeing a therapist, which in turn caused her to take a closer look back at her relationship with Hutchison.
“In January, I realized that I needed more information,” Kukors said. “For 10 years, what Sean had masked his abuse with was a love story. He told me that he loves me, that as hard as everything was, everything would be OK because we had a great love. And that’s what I believed.”
Kukors said she started reaching out to the people who knew Hutchison to try to better see him – and her former relationship with him – from the outside.
“I learned that I needed to go forward with my story because I believed he was still victimizing young women,” Kukors said,”and I also realized it was really important for my own healing process.”
“I learned that I needed to go forward with my story because I believed he was still victimizing young women.”
We spoke to Kukors at length about the suit, her allegations and her responses to some of the questions readers have had about her story and the suit itself.
2010 Investigation, Denial – Hutchison ‘requested’ transcript of interview
“I think that’s really important to know – that Emily was on the phone because Sean had requested that of me.”
By 2010, rumors were widely circulated among swimmers and coaches that Kukors, then 21, was in a relationship with Hutchison. The two worked together at the short-lived ‘Center of Excellence’ program within FAST, a club in southern California. A high-profile Washington Post story alleged a relationship between Hutchison and one of his swimmers, and USA Swimming mounted an investigation into the rumors.
Both Kukors and Hutchison at the time denied the existence of a sexual or romantic relationship, a fact that has drawn some criticism of Kukors allegations eight years later. But Kukors told SwimSwam last week that Hutchison closely monitored her answers to the investigator’s questions.
“He wanted to know every single thing I said to this investigator,” Kukors said. “My older sister was actually on the line transcribing the conversation so that I could pass on that information to Sean to tell him exactly what was said.
“I think that’s really important to know – that Emily was on the phone because Sean had requested that of me.”
Kukors also said Hutchison isolated her from other advisors. When the Washington Post story went public, Kukors was in the airport, on her way to secretly meet up with Hutchison. She says he immediately called her, told her to turn off her phone and not to talk to anyone but him.
“He was the first person I spoke to,” Kukors said. “My abuser was the first person who said ‘don’t talk to anybody, everything’s gonna be OK, I’m handling it’.
“I’ve learned a lot these last few months about the psychology of sexual abuse victims, and very rarely will they be the ones that raise their hands and say ‘I’m being abused, I need help’, because they’re still being controlled, they’re still being manipulated.”
Grooming Process – ‘It happens in broad daylight’
Kukors says Hutchison began ‘grooming’ her when she was 13. Child grooming is often defined as building an emotional connection with a child to gain their trust for the purposes of sexual abuse. It’s a concept Kukors says is misunderstood by some. She’s previously pointed to Hutchison’s practice of having his swimmers shake his hand after every practice as a first step in his grooming of her as a potential victim, a part of her allegations that has drawn criticism from some observers incredulous that a simple handshake could be part of the basis for a sexual abuse allegation.
“What I want to make clear is that it’s not a handshake that’s bad. It’s the intent behind the handshake that’s bad,” Kukors said. “The important thing to know about grooming is that it happens in broad daylight.
“Beginning at 13 is when I would say Sean started grooming me: allowing me to be more comfortable with a longer handshake, allowing me to be more comfortable looking in his eyes, holding his hand, having his hands on my back, putting his hands on my leg… Predators guide their victims through this process of becoming more comfortable around them.”
Kukors said another key part of the process was isolating her from those around her.
“Sean pulled me away from my friends and my family,” she said. “He would say things to me like ‘you’re the most impressive person I’ve ever met’, ‘I see things in you that nobody else could possibly see in you’, ‘We can accomplish things together that you couldn’t possibly accomplish with anybody else’.”
In her lawsuit, Kukors says coaches who were on deck with her and Hutchison at the 2006 Pan Pacific Championships and 2007 World Championships – in particular, named defendant Mark Schubert, then USA Swimming’s national team head coach – should have seen and reported warning signals of an inappropriate relationship. Though Kukors wouldn’t speak specifically to the suit itself (directing those questions to her lawyer), she said her and Hutchison’s conduct on those trips showed signs of an unusual coach-swimmer relationship.
“[Hutchison] was very much sneaking me away, sticking his hands down my pants in elevators, molesting me, kissing me, taking me away for private coffees,” Kukors recalls. “We were very close on the pool deck, many long conversations, we would often be seen having meals together, sitting together. Just things that were not common [of coach-swimmer relationships].”
Goal of Suit – ‘I needed help and it wasn’t there for me’
“That’s what I think is so important about this lawsuit: It’s holding people in power accountable. Unless people have to say ‘yes, I hid information’ or ‘I ran a poor investigation’, I don’t think that the right measures will be taken to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
Kukors is adamant that the ultimate goal of her lawsuit is preventing her situation from happening again.
“That’s what I think is so important about this lawsuit,” she said. “It’s holding people in power accountable. Unless people have to say ‘yes, I hid information’ or ‘I ran a poor investigation’, I don’t think that the right measures will be taken to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
“Imagine if people, rather than passing along rumors – imagine if rather than ignoring reports – that they had simply asked the question ‘I wonder if that girl’s OK?’. ‘I wonder if she needs help?’ And had sat me down and had gotten me the proper counseling that I needed to uncover the answer to that question.
“I needed help, and it wasn’t there for me.”
In her suit, Kukors alleges that USA Swimming ignored or covered up reports against Hutchison, and one section of the suit even alleges that USA Swimming “deliberately manipulated the background check procedure” to protect Hutchison, along with other high-ranking USA Swimming officials, one who was accused of sexually abusing a minor and another who married one of his former swimmers, though he claims the relationship didn’t start until she was 18. Kukors wouldn’t elaborate on the specifics of that allegation, and USA Swimming didn’t address that specific allegation when we asked about it.
“The things that I’ve realized these last few months about an organization I thought was in place to protect me, is that I didn’t know it as well as I thought I did. I know it’s not the case that my safety and well-being were their #1 priority, and if they aren’t held accountable, how will they learn to do better for the next generation?”
“This lawsuit, at the core of it, is about making sure this never happens again,” Kukors said. “I can’t get my Olympic dream back. My Olympic experience was horrific. There’s no way to sugarcoat it. It was awful.”
Kukors says she plans to remain involved in pointing the sport in a new direction.
“If my involvement in this ends with the lawsuit, then I’ve failed,” she said. “I want to be a part of the solution.”
Prevention & Dialogue
“There’s this culture within organizations that says speaking up is wrong, that being the whistle-blower is negative. And that’s keeping kids in danger.”
With that in mind, Kukors shared a number of ways for parents and swimmers to spot signs of grooming within the sport.
“I think one of the biggest things is communication,” Kukors said. She says that while many parents teach their kids not to talk to strangers, it takes a more ongoing dialogue to guard against grooming. “The question is what happens when somebody that you hold in authority is doing the abuse?”
Key, Kukors says, is communication between parents of different swimmers. Sports can be cutthroat and competitive, she says, but that shouldn’t stop parents from talking directly to each other if they’re concerned about a relationship a child might have with a coach. Kukors wonders aloud what could have happened if other parents or other swimmers had alerted her parents to the fact she was leaving Hutchison’s room late at night at travel meets.
Kukors said communication isn’t only important between individuals, but also within organizations like USA Swimming.
“There’s this culture within organizations that says speaking up is wrong, that being the whistle-blower is negative,” she said. “And that’s keeping kids in danger.”
And beyond that, she adds, a broader dialogue among swimmers, coaches, parents, fans and everyone involved in the sport will help bring more into the light. Kukors said the conversation that has grown out of her decision to go public with her story – even dissenting comments and opinions – are helping people learn more about the complicated issue of the grooming and the “deep and complex psychology behind abuse victims.”
“I like that they’re creating dialogue,” she said, “because that dialogue is what’s going to cause change. Silence will not cause change.”