There’s been a flurry of activity in the last week, and I thought about writing about one hiring or another, but couldn’t come up with a whole post’s worth of worthwhile things to say about each hiring. So here’s a little snapshot of a couple of the movement with some predictions alongside:
Yesterday I posted to my facebook page a link to a Danish news article. Danish Radio (DR), which does public news in all formats, did an investigative deep dive into the issue of public weighings by top Danish swimming officials. They also produced a mini-documentary that aired on Danish TV in primetime last night.
For the many non-danes who read this blog, there was a lot of curiosity about the story. Because of that interest, I’m going to do my best to answer some of those questions.
How were you (Chris DeSantis) involved?
In November of 2017, I blogged about former Danish national team coach Mark Regan. A top Danish athlete had retired from competitive swimming, citing an eating disorder. While that swimmer did not swim for Regan, it was Regan who introduced the practice of publicly weighing and shaming swimmers in the National training group over their weight, a practice that this report reveals went on through 2012.
One of the journalists who had spoken to that swimmer contacted me. His name was Anders Rud, and we spoke on the phone for over an hour in March of 2018. He wanted to investigate this further and find out how widespread the practice had been. I indicated to him that I believed the practice had continued beyond Regan and perhaps even to Junior level swimmers.
Anders Rud went on to be one of the journalists who worked on this story.
Who was involved
The journalist team at DR spoke to 23 former and current athletes in all who corroborated stories of public weighing and shaming. Some of the biggest names in Danish swimming, including Jeanette Ottesen, were among those to call out the practice.
Regan’s successor as National Team coach, Paulus Wildeboer, continued the practice. Beyond that, it trickled down to the Junior level, where Sidse Kehlet, once a top Danish age group swimmer, said that then Junior National Team coach Michael Hinge called her “fat Sidse” on a team training camp when she was 14 years old.
Another notable source for the story was former European Championship finalist Kathrine Jørgensen. Jørgensen said that repeated weighings and humiliation led to anxiety, depression and ultimately a suicide attempt that led her to be held in a psychiatric hospital for her own protection.
Regan has all but disappeared from the face of the earth. Wildeboer died in 2014. Michael Hinge, the former Junior National team coach, continues to be employed as the head swim coach of a Danish club.
Why is this a scandal?
Several people remarked that this is considerably less than what would be considered a scandal in the United States. After all, when I reported on similar behavior from Dick Shoulberg, there was almost universal public deafening silence over the matter.
There are two things I think it is important to say in regards to this, both of which I believe are compliments to Denmark and Danish culture. First, Danish people in general have a very high expectation of ethical behavior for their institutions. The standards are high, so while far worse behavior goes unchecked at an institutional level here in the US, in Denmark this is a big deal.
Second, your average Danish person feels empowered to call out behavior that they see as wrong. In fact in this case, there were several people beyond the athletes themselves who stood up for what’s right. The first was the club coach at the pool where the National Team practiced in 2004, Jens Frederiksen. He observed the weighings and comments of the coach and voiced his concern to Danish swimming about it.
I recall also in my time there a team official who was taking pictures of female athletes and posting them to facebook without athletes permission. When athletes complained, he was fired and has not to my knowledge worked in sports since then. Such is the general level of expectation and empowerment of even young people to directly call out behavior they do not like.
In 2005, the head dietician for Team Danmark (think Danish USOC) called Mark Regan and his immediate superior, Lars Sørenson into a meeting. She told them to stop the public weighings, stating that they risked athletes starving themselves. She advised them to make the weighings voluntary and take place in a private location away from their teammates.
Her advice was not followed, and the public weighings and shaming continued.
Lars Sørenson is currently the director of Denmark’s largest swim club.
The Head Cheese
But the person who perhaps comes off the worst from this whole scandal is Pia Holmen Christensen, the current and then Director of Danish Swimming. Christensen, I’ve heard, does not like me very much. Here was a previous piece of writing that wasn’t up her alley. Perhaps she should call Tim Hinchey so they can compare notes?
When asked about why she had failed to provide proper oversight in this matter, Christen could only provide the following response (translated):
“I feel very sorry, when I hear these stories, I have to say”
“First I want to say, this is not something that I had knowledge of. I’m not trying to wash my hands of it, but it is just to say, that if we had knowledge of this, or if I received knowledge of this, then I certainly would have stopped it”
One wonders how she can credulously state that she didn’t know what was going on. It only leaves two scenarios- either she is lying or she provided terrible oversight of her employees. Oops, there goes my chances of getting a job within Danish swimming, at least for the time being.
Results over all
There is a direct line from this scandal to what I often write about in American swimming, or sport in general. Its pretty clear that the inappropriate behavior of coaches was overlooked because the “results” were good. Denmark has been more successful over this time period in terms of medals won.
Sports organizations are due for an overhaul worldwide. They are mostly organized around competitive results as a mission statement, and so this kind of disgusting behavior gets excused based on medal counts. Until that changes, we will find out that athletes have been mistreated time and time again.
I often hear the criticism that such an overhaul would naturally lead to a decline in results. Which is why this post, like many others, will be tagged “Dark Ages”. Because that’s where that argument belongs. Russian nobleman of the 19th century also feared what ending serfdom would do crop yields.
The idea that athletes perform at their best under severe mistreatment is a myth that needs to die swiftly.
A couple of stories from my youth swimming career that don’t necessarily have a “point”. Take from them what you will.
Swimming, on the whole, is a fairly predictable sport, one of the many reasons it has failed to grab the attention share of some other sports. We do not get upsets in swimming the way that Michigan State upset Duke last night in the NCAA basketball tournament. Imagine if Duke won those games 100% of the time?
When I work with teams and swimmers, I often find them struggling to break a habit that they know is bad, or conversely, establish a new and process for doing things. Speaking with a team this past winter on the topic of change, I asked everyone in the room to come up with one thing they wanted move on.
Well, it may finally happen. After decades under the leadership/moral pit of despair that is John Leonard, the American Swim Coaches Association is looking for new leadership. Leonard, we’re told, will step down in 2020.
Sarah Ehekircher comes back to update on her own saga for justice against her former coach, before we pivot to a discussion of what happened last month in Fishers, Indiana and the fallout from a group of administrators abdicating their responsibility.
We finish by getting a little fired up as we usually do about broader topics concerning creating a safe environment for kids in sport.
Attending these meets is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Because of NCAA rules about countable coaches, in both cases I am not allowed to do any “swim coaching” in the traditional sense. I am contracted to help the teams coaches and athletes to improve skills of the mind, and that’s what I look for.
It is not easy to move up even one spot in a competitive league. Moving up a few spots takes a huge effort. Consider that in the first year (2012) of Braden Holloway’s tenure at NC State, the men had an awesome year that was the first step to their now ACC dominance. Their finish in that year was 5th. They were 8th the previous year.
My entree into the world of “elite” swimming was the 2008 Olympic Trials. It was the first national level swim meet of any kind that I had been to. I was accredited media along with Garrett McCaffrey, my friend and then the man behind floswimming.
The meet was eight days of blowing my mind, interspersed by Garrett and I talk swimming, life and the future. One argument we had early on was about the process for the best athletes at the meet. Garrett frequently noticed how much the top swimmers, like Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte, would comment that they were dutifully following the instructions of their coaches.
He wasn’t wrong, it is what they were saying. But in my ears it felt deeply wrong. There had to be a better way than “coach says, swimmer does”. And yet I have seen this manifest itself across many more conversations with coaches and swimmers. The swimmer that does exactly what you ask of them is bound to be pleasing to a coach. I have definitely fallen prey more than once to the ego boost that such a swimmer gave me.
Given some time for deeper reflection, I think that most coaches actually don’t want to have this kind of relationship. Because a swimmer who follows instructions to the T is missing the autonomy and motivation that really leads to them assuming their true potential.
This past weekend, I had almost too much fun working with Washington State University just a few days away from their conference championship. One thing we talked about was self-evaluation, and very specifically having expectations for yourself that are firmly divorced from results or the expectations others place on you.
Being able to look at a list at the end of the day and say “I did these things” is very powerful. Some of them may even (gasp) involve not following the precise instructions of your coach. Where I see athletes often feel trapped is that they disagree with the expectations set for them, but don’t form a clear idea of what they think would be better, go after it and actually prove their case.
Instead they often complain about the coaches, chafe against the expectations stay in their corner. This only makes coaches want to tighten their grip a little more.
You also need your own expectations because when you’re trying something really hard, you need to force some perspective. On your way to achieving something ambitious you will fail a lot and quite naturally lose sight of progress, or the base of good things that you’ve already accomplished.
Naturally self-critical people can get pretty far by being extremely tough on themselves, but at some point they need to acknowledge their own strengths and small accomplishments, or their self-criticism will make everything they attempt into a soulless grind.
I’m looking forward to seeing the team compete this weekend at PAC-12s, and may be filing another blog from the meet any insights I get from my new “don’t watch the swimming” perspective.
Over the weekend, I got an exciting invitation. I’ve long been operating around the people who make up the Committee to Restore Integrity to the USOC, and I’m broadly supportive of the reforms they are pushing for.