“I don’t believe that Aunt Becky could do a bad thing” Olivia exclaimed. I was instantly jealous of her innocence. Unfortunately, I definitely believe that Aunt Becky and many more like her could do precisely this type of bad thing.
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.
But can an 11 year old actually decide that they want to train that hard? Where is the line?
I can hear the arguments already against setting any kind of boundary or hard and fast rule. Every kid is different, you’ll be holding some back. Suggesting any kind of stricture on how much coaches train their swimmers will be met with overwhelming opposition.
Later today I will record a podcast with Monica Strzempko and Sarah Ehekircher. If that first name sounds unfamiliar to you, then you’ll want to read this before you listen. We’ll go over some points of the story of both Monica and her daughter Anna in the pod, but the piece I linked to gives a lot more detail than we can cover in an hour.
A couple weeks ago, Missy Franklin announced her retirement in a heartfelt letter she posted to Instagram. At just 23 years of age, Franklin is ending her competitive career, probably for good.
Franklin, as she has throughout her career, offered the rest of us comfort. It’s very sad to see such a wonderful athlete stop at such a young age, but reading her letters brings the focus back to someone who was wonderfully, authentically kind while completing some amazing athletic feats.
I remain troubled, not because I think that Missy made the wrong decision, I can’t judge that and have to trust that she made the absolute best choice. I’m troubled because of the number of generational female swimming stars that have had to end their careers far too early.
Lets just look at what’s happened just since the 2004 Olympics:
Katie Hoff: Hoff was an incredibly versatile and dominant athlete when she burst onto the scene. At 16 years old she was a triple gold medalist at World Championships in 2005 and 2007 and Pan-Pacs in 2006. She set a world record in the 400 IM. She won a “disappointing” three medals at the 2008 Olympics.
Katie Hoff is still 29 (!!!!!) but she hasn’t competed internationally for the US since 2011, despite showing some promise in several comebacks. Her career was derailed by health issues, among them serious lung issues.
Dagny Knutson: In one year, Dagny Knutson went from an above average Junior National swimmer to the American record in the 400 IM. I’ve written a lot about Knutson in this space, particularly about the despicable way she was manipulated by Mark Schubert and his lawyer friend Richard Foster.
But lets focus on swimming. Knutson was a versatile talent. Some people have chalked up her career to “suits”, ignoring the fact that even in 2011, as her swimming life was falling apart at the hands of Schubert and Sean Hutchison, she swam a 1:57 split on the gold medal winning 4x200 relay. That would be the last major international competition for Knutson, who retired in 2013 at age 21.
Kate Ziegler: Katie Ledecky before there was Katie Ledecky. Just go look it up. She broke Janet Evans incredibly longstanding world record in the 1500 free with a 15:42 in 2007.
Although she did manage to qualify for the 2012 Olympics after also having her career thrown into chaos by Schubert, she never recaptured the level of swimming that she had from age 16-19, and went into semi-retirement in 2013.
Ariana Kukors: She is better known for her courage out of the pool now, but Ariana Kukors was a spectacular swimmer! She achieved phenomenal results all while living a waking nightmare through her teens and early 20s.
She retired around age 24, and it is likely we never saw her at her peak, despite the fact that she swam a 2:06 200 IM world record in 2009.
These are just four top swimmers who, just based on age alone, could still be competing at a high level today. It’s not as if we haven’t seen women be internationally top level well in to their 30s, in fact it has been a thing for a couple decades now.
Likewise, many of us would have been shocked had MIchael Phelps had to stop his career at age 23. We will be equally shocked if Michael Andrew calls it quits anytime soon. Ryan Lochte has had a crazy long career.
I don’t have many answers, but it is extremely disturbing to me as a swim coach to see such attrition of top female athletes. Any coach that’s been around the late club senior level or college level knows too that there is far too little improvement for female swimmers in the sport writ large from around age 15-16 on.
What kind of knowledge can we share to make this not just an inevitable outcome but a thing of the past, another circumstance that we look back on and imagine “why did we do it that way?”.
We need some serious self-evaluation from top to bottom of how we coach women. We have to be able to do better than this!
I thought to myself: John Trembley must have gotten to where he was by being an amazing man. I grafted so many wonderful qualities onto him based on just a short conversation. It was a few minutes of his life that didn’t cost him anything, but I thought for a while he had earned me as a lifelong fan.
Trembley doesn’t coach swimming anymore, of course. His career ended when in a hailstorm of drug addiction and illicit messaging.
Every good coach should be able to look back at their past and see moments where they were totally out of line. Where they hurt somebody they were supposed to help. It is impossible to be perfect. What is critical is that you have the ability to reflect on your failures however painful they might, that you seek to make amends, and that your failed coaching doesn’t become a part of your strategy for making swimmers faster.
So much has happened since I published the accounts of five former swimmers at Germantown Academy last week. As many have pointed out, Shoulberg and and Schubert were chummy in their day.
I had a snarky joke in the previous paragraph that has since been deleted. The reader also challenged me to solicit experiences with Shoulberg that were positive. There are in fact many people who speak glowingly of the man, including many of the top swimming coaches in the country.
I chose not to include them because these experiences are well known and well documented elsewhere. You are likely to have only heard positive things about Dick Shoulberg in your life. He has been lionized and put in multiple Halls of Fame.
These perspectives are often included when discussing abuse allegations against a prominent figure. Their main purpose, from my perspective, is to discredit accusers. I’m not interested in that. When somebody gets accused of robbing a house we don’t need to hear from all the other people who interacted with the alleged robber who claim he was a nice guy who never robbed them.
So, if you want to read about how much everyone thinks Dick Shoulberg is amazing, swimming go to swimmingcoach.org and search some ASCA talks for his name. You will never get to the end of the praise.
There is a lot of new information in both cases. So I’ll lay it out here as well as discussing at the end why I feel compelled to blog about this stuff despite my own position as a coach.
Shoulberg possibly on the outs at GA, finally
I’ve heard from multiple sources that there is a possibility that the blog post from last week will lead to Germantown Academy finally, officially, cutting ties with Shoulberg. If you recall, the initial complaint that is the subject of a lawsuit probably led to Shoulberg’s “retirement” a few years ago.
Germantown wanted to have their cake and eat it to. They wanted to appear as if they were meting out some consequences for Shoulberg while giving the appearance of a friendly parting to his rabid constituency. It didn’t really work, as devotees of Shoulberg were furious and victims were left without closure.
Since then, Shoulberg remains in the GA Athletic Hall of Fame. And he is still welcome back on campus as a conquering hero. Word is, there is a meeting this week that may determine whether those two important distinctions will continue, or whether Shoulberg will be out of the Hall of Fame and no longer welcome on campus.
USA Swimming receives report
I submitted my blog as a report to USA Swimming’s Safe Sport Manager Elizabeth Hahn. You can read her reply below:
“Thank you for reaching out and sending me your article.
I wanted to get back with you to let you know that I have taken your report and made a report to the U.S. Center for Safe Sport. Based on all of the information, this was the next to take.
I’d also really like to offer SwimAssist to the athletes that you mentioned in your article and any of those that did not want to be named or mentioned. SwimAssist is available as a resource to financially assist with therapy for any person who suffered abuse by a USA Swimming member during the time that they were involved in USA Swimming, . Please share this information with those that you have talked with and my contact information if you are comfortable with that. SwimAssist is available now or anytime in the future.
Thank you again, Chris!”
I plan to follow up with Hahn in regards to why the entire report was forwarded to the US Center for Safe Sport. I was under the impression that USA Swimming’s Safe Sport division still handled non-sexual abuse complaints, and most of what is included in the post I made was non-sexual. I will keep you informed as to the response I get.
On the heels of the post, the Orange County Register’s Scott Reid, the top source for Mark Schubert related news, published a report that details more clearly Schubert’s actions to put a sexual abuser in a position of power within the organization.
The article tries to put a lot of “scoops” into one post, and therefore is kind of hard to follow. I’ve read it several times, and here are the most important details:
Dara Torres has given a deposition in the lawsuit that Kukors is bringing against USA Swimming, Schubert, Hutchison and Aquatic Management Group. In that deposition she asserts that she saw Hutchison leaving Kukors hotel room late at night at the 2009 Rome World Championship. Torres told both USA Swimming and Schubert about what she saw.
Despite that knowledge, Schubert went on to install Hutchison as the head of the post graduate training center at FAST (Fullerton), and helped convince Dagny Knutson to forego her amateur status and join the group.
Torres account is disputed by that of disgraced former Safe Sport head Susan Woessner, who in emails dated around the time of her “investigation” into the incident says that Torres stated not actually seeing Hutchison leave the hotel room and instead spoke to Hutchison about it. Woessner had to resign after admitting to “kissing” Hutchison sometime prior to the “investigation”
The best working theory (what follows is all conjecture from me) for Schubert’s actions are as follows. He knew that Hutchison was a rising coach and would attract a talented group of swimmers to FAST. He knew that Hutchison was compromised due to his grooming and abuse of Kukors. He was also on the outs with USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus.
So he installed Hutchison at FAST, hoping he would last long enough to do some solid recruiting but then be taken down. Schubert hoped to replace him, and despite some confusion about where the money was coming from, there would be little Wielgus could do to interfere since the post graduate center coaches were payed by the USOC.
Oh and by the way, Schubert’s lawyer friend is finally, officially, out of options to try and reverse the blame he got for his deception of Dagny Knutson, and is facing possible disbarment.
Why am I doing this?
Readers have often asked, “why are you doing this?” and not often in a kind way. I am aware of some discussion that I am somehow conspiring to take down "big names” in order to advance my own career.
The fact is, criticizing people like Mark Schubert and Dick Shoulberg has made it exponentially harder for me to continue coaching swimming. There are literally hundreds of coaches who have banked career advancement with precisely the opposite strategy. So if I was truly a craven opportunist, I would be licking the boots of these two men and not making these posts.
I am in the awkward position of doing “journalism” in something that i am participating in. I cringe at that word, mainly because I know what I do doesn’t meet any standard of true journalism. This is a blog. I have a strong bias that I do not apologize for. I am mostly editorializing, and not reporting “news” and I rely on true journalists to report news that informs what I do.
However, I think that there is critically little discussion of some really important news within our sport. The major news “outlets” for swimming do woeful coverage of these issues. USA Swimming still treats abusive coaches as much more of a public relations problem than a priority problem for them to solve.
So I’m often uncomfortable doing this, however much some people may think I “like” it. I would glady hand over the reins to someone else who was not a coach if they were willing to do it. Unfortunately, we need many more of such people to reach a critical mass to change things. Until then, I can’t just ignore it, I’m in too deep.
As a reminder, I’m going to continue on this beat for free. If you want to continue enjoying it for free, go ahead. There are no plans to change that. However, if you can make a contribution you will make it far easier for me to continue to do this work.
Punitive measures will only get us so far in breaking the cycle. We must have mechanisms for giving coaches behaviors and actions to replace the harmful way they were coached in the past. It’s not just “the bad guys” who need this. Pretty much all of us are hanging on to some harmful coaching practice from our own athletic experience.
Eva was at the most recent Senate hearing where leaders from USA Weightlifting, U.S. Figure Skating, USA Swimming, and USA Bobsled and Skeleton. Those of us advocating for change have put a lot of hope in the hearings, but there is a growing divide between the rhetorical bluster of those attending and what actually happens.