SwimSwam welcomes reader submissions about all topics aquatic, and if it’s well-written and well-thought, we might just post it under our “Shouts from the Stands” series. We don’t necessarily endorse the content of the Shouts from the Stands posts, and the opinions remain those of their authors. If you have thoughts to share, please send [email protected]
Editor’s note: the coach in question, Christopher Huott,was arrested in 2014 and permanently banned by USA Swimming a few months later. He later pleaded guilty to felony child abuse for sex acts he committed against 7-year-old swimmer Dani Bostick in the 1980s and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
The followings ‘Shouts from the Stands’ comes from Bostick herself.
It is time to protect athletes over image
By Dani Bostick
I found swimming in the mid 1980s, after an unhappy stint as a gymnast. What started with aspirations of being the next Mary Lou Retton, ended shortly after Dominique Dawes joined my gymnastics class. My coaches had already told me I was “floppy” and berated me for not being able to perform lateral splits properly. Once Dominique Dawes became the new benchmark in my class, I knew for sure there was no hope for me in the sport. I was seven years old.
My mom swam on a master’s team at a YMCA close to our house in Silver Spring, Maryland and thought swimming would be a healthy, positive alternative to gymnastics. I remember struggling through my first few days without a swim cap, before I knew I was supposed to exhale before I turned my head to breathe. I felt like I was drowning, but I loved it.
This could have been a happy story about swimming, but my new sport was also where I met a predator. My coach leveraged my enthusiasm for the sport and my mother’s trust to infiltrate our lives and sexually abuse me for years. The abuse was so pervasive and severe that I repressed the memories into adulthood, only able to confront it decades later in 2014 at the age of 36. I reported my coach’s crimes to police, and after a recorded pretence call procured enough evidence to secure a guilty plea and ten-year prison sentence.
After my perpetrator was criminally charged, he transferred ownership of his team to his biggest supporter. I was only known as Victim A at this time, so it was a surreal experience to receive calls and messages from acquaintances telling me that the new owner had assured them that these allegations were false and that the victim was just looking for someone to blame for her midlife crisis. Later, at the sentencing, she called the perpetrator a “man of impeccable character.” Though the coach had been banned from USA Swimming after charges were filed, he continued to have contact with the team. At the sentencing, a customer spoke of the scholarship the perpetrator provide his family over the summer, post-ban, when his family had financial troubles.
Meanwhile, Potomac Valley Swimming, without consulting the detective on the case or attempting to reach out to me, blindly defended the team in a statement: “Please do not let the actions of [the coach] negatively influence your opinion towards the athletes or remaining coaches of [the swim club]. They had nothing to do with this situation, and we encourage them to continue to hold their heads high and be proud of their club and their individual accomplishments this season.”
The statement also encouraged athletes to contact their head coaches about policies and procedures on sexual abuse. The head coach was the abuser and the new owner minimized the horror of child sexual abuse at his sentencing. Nowhere in this statement was there any mention of the victim, acknowledgment of the gravity of the crime, exhortations to report other instances of abuse, or information on red flags. The goal of the letter was to protect the team’s image and continue with “business as usual” when business as usual was the problem.
I frequently called Safe Sport to complain. What can you do about this team defaming a victim in order to retain athletes? Why is PVS releasing an ill-informed statement that doesn’t attempt to hold the team accountable for its role in pervasive abuse? Are you OK with parents putting their children on a team whose owner called confessed pedophile as a “man of impeccable character” even be a USA Swimming team? The coach has had contact with his team after the ban; is there anything you can do about that?
Safe Sport adopted a stance of powerlessness, explaining that the teams were autonomous and that there was no enforcement mechanism for bans. I was disappointed, but accepted their invitation to give a twenty-minute speech at the 2015 Safe Sport Leadership Conference. Outside of my speech, there was no focus on child sexual abuse or predatory coaches. There was more time spent on the physical security of facilities, Stranger Danger, and Safe Sport “awareness.” Later, after I became more openly critical of USA Swimming, Safe Sport uninvited me from a second event, explaining to me that they were going in another direction, focusing on Safe Sport marketing and branding instead of boundaries and child sexual abuse prevention.
Other Safe Sport resources reflect their misplaced priorities. The Safe Sport Idea of the Month for October 2017 was athlete engagement. The idea? “Ask athletes to draw pictures based on questions such as “What is their favorite part about swimming” or “What makes swimming fun for you?” Even the purpose of the Safe Sport Fellows program has been self-promotion, developing projects “to bring the Safe Sport message to local swim clubs and increase awareness of the Safe Sport movement.” Simply put, Safe Sport has been nothing more than a public relations arm of USA Swimming, a classic case of videri quam esse (to seem rather than to be).
My story is far too common because of a simple truth: Sexual abuse does not happen in a vacuum. For too long, USA Swimming has been an ideal hunting ground for sexual predators, and Safe Sport done nothing to change that sad fact.
It is time for systemic changes within USA Swimming so that in the future if a predator abuses an athlete, it will be in spite of excellent safeguards not because of a perpetrator-friendly culture.
Ban predatory coaches and report them to authorities. This should go without saying, but there have been numerous reported instances of USA Swimming protecting perpetrators and ignoring reports of abuse at the expense of athlete safety.
Sanction teams whose leaders and culture enable predators and minimize child sexual abuse. If predators cannot be members of USA Swimming, neither should their enablers. Over 2800 clubs are members of USA Swimming. Since parents can find teams through the USA Swimming website, and teams are allowed to market themselves with the USA Swimming brand, there must be some level of accountability so that parents are not inadvertently placing their children in the hands of someone who fails to report abuse or thinks a pedophile can be a “man of impeccable character.”
Give more power to athletes. In 2014, Steve Penny, who was at that time CEO of USA Gymnastics, said in court records, “You have to take (witch hunts) very seriously, because the coach is as much a member as the athlete.” Part of the problem has been that the athlete has not been as much a member as the coach. Member experience for athletes has included abuse, while member experience for coaches has included coddling, protection from uncomfortable conversations, and even coverups of their abuse. Athletes and those representing their interests must have more of a voice in USA Swimming.
Transform the mission of Safe Sport from marketing and branding to athlete protection. Safe Sport should exist for protecting athletes from abuse, but instead has functioned as a marketing arm of USA Swimming. Currently, there is more content about marketing and branding in Safe Sport resources than prevention of child abuse. The 2015 Safe Sport survey revealed that respondents most often identified “awareness ,” “education,” and “bullying” as words associated with Safe Sport. The survey report included comments representative of respondent feedback, including this one, “(Safe Sport) is a program to educate clubs and manage USA Swimming’s exposure to legal and publicity damages.” There should be no higher priority than identifying abusive coaches and remedying the culture that allows them to thrive.
Stop promoting Safe Sport and name the actual problem. Child sexual abuse is already highly stigmatized. If the division tasked with preventing sexual abuse will not name it, who will? USA Swimming response to news of Larry Nassar’s crimes only mentioned abuse three times (all in the same paragraph.) To contrast, Safe Sport was mentioned 18 times. Promoting Safe Sport and raising “awareness” of Safe Sport does not help stop sexual abuse. Naming and describing the problem accurately, sanctioning abusers, and creating a culture conducive to disclosure does.
Make boundaries a key part of athlete protection policies and related training. The 2017 Athlete Protection Policies are inadequate and superficial. Poor boundaries normalize perpetrators’ grooming behavior. Even a well-intentioned coach can enable a pedophile by having poor boundaries with athletes.
Hire ethical, experienced staff to run Safe Sport. In February, Safe Sport Director Susan Woessner resigned after it came to light that she failed to disclose an intimate relationship with a coach who was under investigation. Safe Sport needs staff who have experience running ethical, unbiased investigations and interacting with victims compassionately. When USA Swimming treats victims as a legal liability and a threat to image, it is invalidating and retraumatizing. When victims are brave enough to come forward, their trauma should not be exacerbated by people who purport to advocate for their safety and protection.
Finally, amplify the voice of victims. USA Swimming’s legacy does not just include gold medals and profitability. USA Swimming’s legacy also includes sexual abuse of children. Changes in personnel and policy are little more than a PR ploy if they are made out of context.
What is the context? I am the context. The still-silent swimmers who joined teams with Olympic dreams only to become their coaches’ sexual playthings are the context. Too many children have harbored this same toxic secret in order to protect their coach, their team, and, yes, even USA Swimming. It is time for USA Swimming to protect children.