On Tuesday, May 1st, USA Swimming Tim Hinchey and Sarah Ehekircher met at the food court at IKEA in Centennial, Colorado. The topic of the day was sexual abuse, and Ehekircher was there to share her story both with the man she says assaulted her when she was 17 years old, and her experience in trying to get that man banned from coaching. Also present for the summit was USA Swimming’s new Safe Sport Director Liz Hahn, and two other USA Swimmiing coaches Mike Stromberg and Dirk Marshall, at Ehekircher’s request.
A brief retelling of the story (more here, here, and here). When Sarah Ehekircher was a teenager in the 1980s, she was kicked out of her home by her father and stepmother, and wound up living with her then-coach Scott MacFarland. The two would eventually begin a sexual relationship. More than 20 years later, in 2010, Ehekircher would file a complaint with USA Swimming’s newly-formed SafeSport department. After a lengthy National Board of Review hearing, the two’s stories differed in one key point: MacFarland says the relationship started when Ehekircher was 18 in Colorado, while Ehekircher says it started when she was 17 in California. The key difference is that 17 in California would have been a violation of state law, which would be a bannable offense regardless of what the Code of Conduct said at the time, while 18 in Colorado would not. USA Swimming decided against banning MacFarland at the time, and he would return to coaching. Most recently at the Magnolia Aquatic Club in suburban Houston, he would continue coaching until earlier this year, when his club says he “retired from coaching.” Ehekircher has reported him to another new body, the US Center for Safe Sport, which is currently investigating the matter.
As for the meeting, which is purportedly Hinchey’s first with a victim of sexual abuse since taking over as CEO last June, both of the primary actors had a generally favorable review of the encounter.
“We appreciate that Sarah [Ehekircher] was willing and took the time to reach out to us for a meeting,” Hinchey said. “Our goal was to listen and to also have an open and honest discussion. We welcome these types of opportunities, to help us to continually review our processes and identify ways in which to improve. Sarah provided very candid commentary and thoughtful ideas.”
Ehekircher’s initial reflection was more positive than her prior reviews of former CEO Chuck Wielgus, who she said was dismissive of and condescending toward her concerns. She remained skeptical, but said that Hinchey and Hahn seemed interested.
“I was surprised about how shocked they both seemed by the things I shared with them,” Ehekircher said. “I felt like they seemed interested in my ideas; if they will ever get implemented-we will see. I never felt attacked, and I was able to lead the conversation.”
Ehekircher said that she entered the meeting with 2 pages worth of things she wanted to discuss with Hinchey, but that the meeting was limited to just over an hour, and so they were only able to hit 3 big topics. Both Ehekircher and Hinchey said that they are planning on meeting again to continue the conversation (both live in Denver).
A significant topic that Ehekircher brought up was the inclusion of more abuse victims both on committees and working groups relating to sexual abuse within USA Swimming; and the inclusion of abuse victims at coaches’ clinics, given its increasing significance as a crucial part of the profession. The thoughts are self-fulfilling in that not only do they make a lot of sense to this writer’s mind, but that in all of the numerous conversations that I’ve had on this topic over the years, Ehekircher, an abuse victim, was the first person that’s suggested has suggested this idea to me. The idea itself demonstrates the value of including abuse victims in the room when trying to attack abuse.
“I think that having to face these abuse survivors; it’s in their face, and they can’t ignore it,” Ehekircher said. “I think it’s time for the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality (toe end). This is what the reality is, we need to come together and make sure this does not continue. Having listened to survivors, this should be part of coaching education, and a requirement to get your coaching credentials.
“There are thousands of us out there, just in swimming.”
The working groups being referred to are ones announced by Hinchey last month designed to review the Safe Sport program since its inception in 2010. That letter read, in part:
“In early March, the USA Swimming Board of Directors created a Safe Sport Working Group comprised of Board members and USA Swimming employees. The six women and five men working group, which includes Olympians, coaches, and officials, was tasked with coordinating the review and enhancement of the organization’s Safe Sport program, established in 2010.
The Working Group presented its initial progress update and ideas at a special Board of Directors meeting this past weekend. The Board had an in-depth discussion of the Working Group’s report, which included the status of our current programs and services, policies, organizational culture and communications to identify areas in need of further development.”
Ehekircher did say she came away from the meeting with one major frustration: she was still not given access to the transcript and the file from the National Board of Review hearing. She says that she’s been asking for the file since 2010, and while the denial by Hinchey mirrored that of his predecessors and past SafeSport administrators, the reason did not.
Ehekircher says that Hinchey told her that the file and transcript couldn’t be released because the case was now in the hands of the U.S. Center for SafeSport, and that because there was now a new investigation ongoing (which includes that file and transcript), that he couldn’t release the information.
Ehekircher, reflecting after the meeting, says she holds steadfast in her belief that the National Board of Review “was not a legal process” and was “severely flawed.”
“It would take me 12 hours to explain how flawed it was. That’s a nice way of saying what happened there.”
A person familiar with USA Swimming’s policies tells SwimSwam that while they couldn’t explain the previous denials of Ehekircher’s request, that during Hinchey’s tenure as CEO policies have been consistent both for Ehekircher and others in not sharing files and transcripts during open investigations either by the US Center for Safe Sport, or by criminal authorities.
While USA Swimming’s internal Safe Sport department is no longer the primary investigative or judicial authority for sexual abuse in the sport, the organization still has a duty in both investigating other Code of Conduct violations, and in abuse prevention and education.
The meeting itself was an initial step on a commitment by Hinchey in that previous-referenced where he described a newly-formed Safe Sport working group would seek out ‘feedback and engagement from survivors of abuse.’ Ehekircher’s push to really shape that feedback and engagement will be crucial to the ultimate fulfillment of that commitment.