The transitive property of coaching morality works something like this:
If a coach=high performing athletes, and high performing athletes= you are “doing it right”, then coaches with high performing athletes are by definition “doing it right”
This is how we have crafted a system that puts coaches on a pedestal for the performance of those they coach. The better the “results”, the more whatever means they have used to achieve them are justified.
There are perhaps few coaches that embody this property more than former Germantown “legend” Dick Shoulberg.
Some of the crimes against swimming that Shoulberg’s “success” have been used to justify are merely banal. Stupid workouts with ridiculously long repeats (12,000 IMs and the like) persist despite their folly, and few have done more to popularize them then Shoulberg.
Perhaps one day it will be more important to address overlong silly practices. This is not the day.
Shoulberg’s greater legacy is that for decades he fostered a culture where athletes were physically and psychologically abusive to one another. Beyond that, he did irreparable harm of his own to many of the young people he was responsible for. For those that are shocked by this statement, I regret to inform you that this is not “new” news. As usual, the story was covered by Irv Muchnick years ago.
But the story will get renewed attention in the coming weeks. A few brave folks in the Germantown family broke ranks and called out the behavior of the campus’ resident god coach.
A civil suit followed, and Shoulberg and his former assistants have been deposed. According to a recent filing, in which Germantown only seeks to dismiss defamation and false light accusations, it appears they will not defend themselves against those that cover abuse.
The complaint filed in the lawsuit is difficult to read. It details how a freshmen swimmer was subjected to physical assault by one of his teammates on a daily basis. That assault eventually progressed to his aggressor urinating on him.
The behavior was reported to Shoulberg, who in turn retaliated against the victim, suggesting that he not only looked the other way when this sort of hazing took place in his program, but that he actually encouraged it.
Whatever comes from the law suit may offer some measure of recognition of the harm that Shoulberg committed, and that Germantown allowed.
After reading the publicly available documents on the law suit, I decided to reach out through my network to find out what other swimmers experienced under the leadership of Dick Shoulberg.
I first met Sara Coenen in the fall of 2007. I was in my first season coaching college swimming at the University o Pennsylvania. Sara was a sophomore coming off a solid freshmen year. At Germantown Academy she had been part of a National Independent School record in the 4x100 Freestyle relay.
She struggled to keep up with training owing to two injured shoulders, but her attitude was always positive. She was funny and caring.
Despite her injury, She would go on to win an individual Ivy Championship in both the 100 and 200 backstroke that year. Afterwards, a series of other injuries and illnesses largely derailed the rest of her swimming career.
When I knew her then, Coenen had little to say about her time swimming at GA beyond recounting some of the unbelievable practices that swimmers had to complete.
Coene said that the experience of swimming at GA left her damaged to the point that eventually she had to seek trauma therapy. “I think Shoulberg’s goal was to take you to your lowest possible point, to where you felt completely worthless. Then he would ‘build you back up’ with sparing compliments. His goal was for you to think that he was the sole reason you had become a ‘good person’.”
She described being routinely screamed at, often without any kind of rhyme or reason. The comments were personal and unrelated to any correction of a specific behavior or action. One time her comment about the warm weather led to a stream of expletives from Shoulberg.
Shoulberg also subjected the girls to caliper body fat measurements in their swim suits on the deck in front of teammates, and ridiculed them if he deemed them too fat.
But the cruelty from Shoulberg went beyond words. Coenen said that Shoulberg once punched her in the head while she worked on the Vasa trainer prior to training.
Diana* (name changed to protect identity)
When I finished reading what Diana had sent me, I cried. It was a heart wrenchingly detailed account of what it is like for a young swimmer to grow up in an abusive culture, where basic boundaries and ethics are violated at every turn. I am considering publishing her story as its own post, because the paraphrasing I am about to do can never do it justice.
Diana swam at GA through all of High School. She had previously trained with another club. She was immediately shocked at the training program, including five hour practices on Saturday morning.
She remembers not talking for the first two years of being on the team, as the older kids and the culture terrified her. Even more terrifying was Shoulberg, who was prone to unpredictable screaming fits, often directed at her and other young swimmers..
Her most vivid memories of the team are of the sexually inappropriate behavior she experienced on a daily basis. In her first year on the team she was told that she was “probably good in the sack” by the seniors after Shoulberg would make her demonstrate swimming technique for the team.
She remembers a senior girl who used to take her dirty tampons out and put them on an assistant coaches windshield, and that she would also rub them on all of our swimsuits hanging on our lockers, this same girl would go under water and flash her breasts to everyone while they were swimming. The boys would expose their testicles in the normal course of practice. All of this took place without any interference from the coaches..
At one practice, she got her period for the second time ever. She remembers having to get out of the pool about every 30 minutes because she was bleeding heavily unexpectedly. Finally after about the 3rd time she got out of the pool, she got screamed at and she made bloody footprints all the way to the locker room. The assistant coach who was yelling at her stopped once he realized what had happened.
She recalls that the assistant coaches were faithful lieutenants of Shoulberg’s program. One assistant coach berated her for her inability to stay under water, forcing her to do swim underwaters until she blacked out in the pool
She said that Shoulberg’s frequently asked swimmers ” if they had cancer.” The implication was that if they didn’t, they should shut up and suck up his horrible practices. Diana actually got cancer as an adult, and thought about calling to say “I have cancer now, so do I get an award or something?”
Another area in which Shoulberg exerted control was the girls’ bodies, through forced fat measurements. Diana recalls teammates vomiting in the bathroom before being weighed, she admits to doing the same a few times. Other girls would admit to not eating for an entire day before fat measuring, or would wrap themselves in plastic wrap before going to sleep at night so they would lose more weight.
Diana says she had always been “curvy”. She said that Shoulberg came up one time and slapped her hips and then just walked away. He also pulled her aside and tell her that he “didn’t need a satellite to tell him [she] gained weight”. He also would have meetings and announce the highest body fat, and then everyone would get a lecture about how they were fat.
For the measurement, swimmers had to roll their swim suit down to below their hip, otherwise wearing a t shirt sans bra, soaking wet. She remembers the measurements beginning in the 7th grade and continuing through her high school graduation.
Diana remembers trying to play another sport at the school, and her coach from that sport made her go back to swim practice. Shoulberg had called the coach and said no to her participating in anything but swimming.
Diana told me that to this day she still grapples with the experience she had swimming at Germantown. She was at first reticent to share her story altogether, fearing retribution and having to relive the experience all over again. However, she also thought it was important to tell her story in the hopes that the truth would help others with similar experiences
She said she had a lot more to share but wasn’t willing to do so at this time.
William Gillin had swum for Dick Shoulberg two decades before the complainant in the lawsuit. Yet, he described nearly identical physical abuse at the hands of teammates during his time swimming at Germantown. He was physically attacked, urinated on and even sexually assaulted by older teammates.
Many of the swimmers I spoke to did not tell their parents what happened to them while they were swimming. Their reasons were a mixture of fear of retaliation as well as a confusion about what was wrong and right. Many assumed that otherwise abhorrent behavior was somehow part of the Germantown formula that produced fast swimmers.
But Gillin did tell his parents, who, along with him, took their complaints to the very top of Germantown’s administration and documented them. They were given assurances that new rules and procedures had been put in place and that the institution was doing everything possible to ensure no one else would be subject to that kind of abuse again.
They were naturally mortified to find out later that the same vicious hazing not only still taking place, but still actively condoned by Dick Shoulberg.
I spoke to other teammates who wished to remain anonymous, fearing the retribution they might face in speaking publicly about Shoulberg. In other cases, they cited having to seek medical treatment for trauma that they believe was directly related to their time swimming at Germantown Academy.
One, who in her adult life now works in the medical field, looks back at her time at Germantown with disgust:
“He put us all at risk for injury physically. The training we did was not healthy, the isolation stunted our development psychologically which has had negative impact on long term functioning in relationships and society. I know two people at the same time that I was there who have been diagnosed with PTSD. From high school swimming!!”
Consequences for Shoulberg have been meager at best. He was allowed to “retire” from Germantown, but continues to coach swimming. He is still welcomed back on campus for events like a conquering hero. USA Swimming, with full knowledge dating back five years of the inciting incident behind the lawsuit, has resisted any attempt to sanction Shoulberg or adequately investigate.
As usual, they want the victims to do the work for them- and they or “Safe Sport” will likely ban Shoulberg only if there is enough media attention on the resolution of the legal case.
I write this with the full knowledge that calling out Shoulberg is likely to bring a torrent of hate perhaps greater than I’ve ever experienced writing about the culture of abuse in sport. I found out just how loony the worshippers of Shoulberg were when I wrote what I thought was a fairly innocuous post for Swimswam about some pool records being broken.
If that was how they reacted to some positive news about Germantown in the post-Shoulberg era, one can only imagine their reaction to the audacity of criticizing him.
Every single person I spoke to said that Shoulberg referred to himself as “God”, and not in a joking manner. He believed that all of his actions, however beyond the pale of how an adult responsible for children should behave, were justified. Because he said so.
Judging coaches by “results” misses the mark so completely because it is by nature a criteria that only looks at successes. There are no times you can look up in USA Swimming’s database that will tell you the harm that Shoulberg has done. There are no gold medals awarded for institutionalizing the abuse of athletes under your care.
But if we are to move beyond platitudes about wanting a “Safe” sport and increased reporting, we have to reckon with the culture that made sport so unsafe for so many. We cannot legislate our way out of the problem. There is no educational training video that will curb coaches who feel they can act with impunity because of how fast some of their athletes can paddle.
We must undo and rebuild our whole ethical code. The transitive property of coaching morality is completely false. The worship of coaches must end- because the harm it allows is infinitely greater than any benefit.