Ariana Kukors

Another Lost Too Soon

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!

Grooming, Bravery, and Boundaries

Ariana Kukors has given us an amazing opportunity. I reflected on that yesterday as I field another phone call, criticizing me for pointing the finger everywhere but myself.

So here it goes, I failed too. I did not like Sean Hutchison, I thought there was too much smoke in 2010. But I did nothing. I was afraid. I feared that in doing so I would face a retaliation from Hutchison and others that would be career ending. 

Kukors' bravery allows us to have a conversation about how we can improve our culture. We must not allow that opportunity to pass us by. We cannot just say "Sean was bad" and move on as we have many times in the past. 

So I would repeat my call to my coaching peers. Rather than nitpicking my posts or sending me your hushed encouragements, join me in demanding change, especially in the form of transparency from USA Swimming. And don't let up.

Can I still shake hands?

One of the biggest missed opportunities I see in coaches discussing this topic is the way they misinterpret Kukors' description of the grooming process. Kukors says that it started with a handshake, and I've seen coaches lose their mind about whether they can still shake hands with athletes.

They are missing the forest for the trees. It's not about handshakes, it's about being compelled into physical contact whether you want to or not. Rather than focus on whether or not their hands get shook, coaches should speak to their athletes and be clear that they can set their own physical boundaries with the coach, and that the coach will respect that.

Coaches should also communicate what true and appropriate boundaries are, since young people can often be unclear on that. 

Likewise, many coaches bemoan the fact that part of Hutchison's grooming process involved getting to know Kukors life outside of swimming. They pride themselves on seeing the whole person, not just a swimmer in the water. Do not interpret this description as "no talking about anything but swimming".

Once again, make clear to athletes that they are free to set the boundaries of what is discussed with their swim coach, and what a clear set of appropriate boundaries are again, since young people can often be confused about what those boundaries are. 

One thing I have seen discussed is that a coach can help people if they are struggling with mental health. This is correct, but only as a supporting player. Coaches are not a one stop shop. if they believe an athlete is struggling with a mental health issue they need to get a mental health professional involved as quickly as possible. 

The point is, this is about the swimmers, not us. They have a right to show up to swimming practice and get great coaching regardless of whether they touch us or tell us anything about their lives. If they want more than that, let them make it clear to you that is what they want.

Recognize that, the younger athletes are, the harder time they will have setting boundaries with you. So you must be extra careful. 

Ariana Kukors bravely gave us a form to discuss these topics, and we should use that opportunity to talk about how things should change and get better. 

Enough With the Victim Blaming

It's not even been a week since Ariana Kukors bravely told the story of what happened to her at the hands of her swim coach, Sean Hutchison. Already there is a disturbing trend in the discussion of it. To varying degrees, Kukors has been maligned. The arguments I've heard are something like follows:

"She was a consenting adult to the sex because they had sex after she was 18 years old"

If this is how you read the story, I'm going to ask you to reconsider. I'm being polite today because several friends reached out to me yesterday and asked me to stop being so angry. That's hard for me- abusive coaches have really hurt the sport I love, but more importantly really hurt people that I care about. 

It's worth reading Kukors' story several times, even though it is hard. People are fixating on the handshake as the first step to grooming. Don't fall into this trap- shaking hands is not a in isolation. Grooming children who you hold power over for sex is. So if you ask kids to shake your hands, 

Power is the key to understanding this story. Hutchison held huge influence and power over Kukors and others. I do not believe that a 16 year old girl can consent to sexual contact with her 34 year old swim coach. 

Likewise, Kukors story reveals that Hutchison used another power imbalance to his advantage. He knew what he was doing was wrong- victims are often far less certain about what is right and wrong due to their age and position.

That he "saved" intercourse until she was 18 is a key tell. He knew what he was doing was wrong and was trying to do it in a way that would leave him less exposed to legal jeopardy. Even though he knew he was in the wrong, he effectively transferred the shame onto his victim and used that power to tighten his grip.  

So please, spare all of us the insinuation that Kukors somehow consented to any of this. 

So What Do We Do Now?

I mentioned that friends reached out to me, and even a few people that I had never spoken to. This is the part where I tell them "I hear you". They wanted less anger and more proactive steps. So here are some proactive steps.

1. Offer whatever platform or forum you have for the girls and women you know in the sport to talk about what they would like to see get better. Many of them will not want to- be empathetic to that.

I believe that prominent female voices within the sport will be speaking out on this very issue in the next few days, and there will be strength in numbers that there has not been before in this moment

2. If you are a man, get out and positively support what these women and girls are saying. Take their suggestions to heart and think about real change you can effect in whatever domain you have.

That's it. I think that step one will reveal a lot about what step two should be. It's time for big change and the moment is now. 

Hold Their Feet to The Fire

I'll be honest: I'm mad. I don't know where to start.

In the days since Ariana Kukors publicly revealed not only the brutal manipulation and abuse that Sean Hutchison inflicted on her, but the insidious grooming process he used to achieve it, the other characters in this story have been far too silent.

It's time to hold some feet to the fire. This blog is directed specifically at the media covering this story.

It is not an attack. It is a request. Hold their feet to the fire.

Who are they? Like I said, it's hard to know where to start. Here are two suggestions:

Mark Schubert

Schubert, who played a huge role in enabling Sean among many, many other things, is out in the media trying to cast himself as some sort of whistleblower that was ignored back in 2010. 

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Schubert took his knowledge of Sean and used it as leverage to his own gain. He gladly accepted $625,000 to keep his mouth shut and went his way.

Oh, and he hired the man, Bill Jewell, who oversaw Hutchison day to day at FAST, Jewell was another enabler who fashioned himself as a whistleblower. He was quoted in the original Washington Post article in 2010 saying that he had looked into the "rumors" and addressed them with Sean.

Jewell would go on to be banned for three years from coaching by USA Swimming after a real whistleblower, Dia Rianda, actually held some feet to the fire.

As Craig Lord aptly put in a facebook comment underneath Schubert's latest distortion, there is some basic journalism that anyone that talks to Schubert should engage in. Spend 5 minutes googling Mark Schubert and Sean Hutchison and catch up on some of the above. Ask some follow up questions.

Mark Schubert is not a hero in this story. He is one of the villains.

USA Swimming

USA Swimming cannot be allowed to put out statements like the one they did for Kukors without strong pushback. 

Here's the worst part of that statement:

"During the USA Swimming investigation, both Ariana and Hutchison, as well as Ariana’s sister, Emily, unequivocally denied the existence of a romantic or sexual relationship"

USA Swimming loves to be cagey with revealing details about their "investigations", but here they are changing the rules and burning Kukors to defend themselves. 

Kukors own story provides so many questions USA Swimming needs to answer. Why did their investigation consist of one brief phone call to Kukors? Why were they in such a rush to consider this "case closed" and move on?

Why did they have to pay Mark Schubert $625,000 dollars for his silence if nothing happened?

Most importantly, where do they get off throwing a sexual abuse victim under the bus? How do they justify that their organization is somehow more important than the welfare of a human being? 

So again, my request goes out. Craig Lord, Swimswam, Deadspin, Scott Reid at the OC Register and anyone else that has shown a modicum of interest in this story. Hold their feet to the fire, keep asking questions, and don't let up until we get the answers we deserve.