Last week delivered the “bombshell” that the FBI is investigating USA Swimming, particularly around the captive insurance scheme they operated (the USSIC) but also in regards to their handling/intimidation around sexual abuse complaints.
In the case of (former) Indiana Associate Head Coach Mike Westphal, I found out his fate after one of my coaching friends jokingly texted me that he would “squash” me. Confused, I ended up getting him on the phone.
But I digress, this blog post is not about all that. I was speaking with someone (vague stories are all the rage now) who was curious about why a certain international team was essentially getting their PR done for them by a certain Swimswam “reporter”. I’ll explain all the scare quotes later, I promise.
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.
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.