leadership

Coaching Carousel Notes

Coaching Carousel Notes

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:

Danish Swim Scandal Explainer for Americans

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”

Then later:

“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.

College Recruiting and Humility

College Recruiting and Humility

One of the most fascinating conversations I had with Dirk Marshall this past weekend was about college recruiting and humility. Humility is an admirable trait, although modesty is often mistaken for it. But does it have any place in the world of college recruiting, where you are explicitly trying to convince young people to choose your school over all other options?

Tim Hinchey Faces Congress: Podcast Preview

Tim Hinchey Faces Congress: Podcast Preview

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.

Alternate Realities of Swimming

Alternate Realities of Swimming

While I await more a more forceful response from a USA Swimming board member (I spoke with one who wished to remain anonymous on Friday that promised me something more by today. They said, I quote "No response is worse than a bad response") let's discuss why there is such a wide gap between the state of swim coaching I write about and the one that ASCA President Don Heidary blustered earlier this week.

Michael Brooks Has Questions to Answer

Since last week, there has been a rush to focus on the problem of Sean Hutchison. This is understandable, Hutchison stands accused of monstrous behavior and was a prominent figure in our sport for the past decade.

However, before we move on, it is actually very important to understand what exactly happened, and the culture that supported Hutchison. It is far more important that we do not replicate the environment that allowed Hutchison to flourish than to just punish Hutchison and move on.

The current head coach of King Aquatics, Michael Brooks, has some important questions to answer in the wake of Hutchison "stepping down" as CEO of King. So far, the only quote circulating from looks is as follows:

"Ariana Kukors is part of the King Aquatic family and we only want the best for her,” Mr. Brooks said. “Our staff is meeting to review this devastating news. Sean Hutchison has stepped down as an executive with King and has had no direct interaction with our swimmers for a very long time.”

This statement still leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Here are a few we should demand from Brooks:

1. When did he learn of a sexual relationship between Hutchison and Kukors, and what was his reaction?

2. What does "for a very long time" mean in relation to Hutchison's presence on deck. Specifically, when was the last time Hutchison interacted with swimmers at King?

3. Even though Hutchison has stepped down from his position, is he still the owner of King Aquatics? When families at King pay their dues this month, is that money going to Hutchison?

4. Who made the decision that Hutchison was no longer CEO? 

If these questions seem to the reader to be aggressive in assigning blame to Brooks, let me present a counter scenario. If Brooks and others truly were in the dark about Hutchison, they should be furious with USA Swimming right now. They clearly sat on information about Hutchison, and as a result of that lack of clarity, have put Brooks' career and others in jeopardy.

So to MIchael Brooks, I ask for answers to the above questions, and one more. Depending on the answer to the above, will you join the fight for transparency at USA Swimming. Membership of USA Swimming, swimmers and parents at your club, deserve answers about what happened in 2010 at FAST, and who knew what about Hutchison at that time.

If you want to catch up on somebody who was way ahead of their time, Irv Muchnick was reporting on much of what we now know as long as six years ago. Few listened, and far more should now.

Coaches: Lets Demand Action

Yesterday, I spelled out a couple steps that anyone, anywhere in swimming could do to help change swimming as we know it.

Today I want to focus on the biggest reading audience of this blog, coaches. As a coach myself, I've been working hard to figure out what we can do to improve our sport break the cycle.

The first step for coaches is to admit that our culture, as it stands today, is not a good culture for athletes. A part of any solution going forward has to begin by acknowledging that we should look to athletes for leadership about how they would like coaches to be a part of their sport. Athletes must come first.

With that said, here are the start of some of the actions coaches can put pressure on USA Swimming to take.

1) Release individuals immediately from any confidentiality agreements, period. USA Swimming needs transparency and sunlight. This should include, but not be limited to, FAST, Sean Hutchison, Mark Schubert, and Everett Uchiyama. We cannot move forward with effective solutions, and the maze of confidentiality agreements is a huge barrier to true transparency within our governing body.

We need to demand this even if the response is that doing so will completely bankrupt USA Swimming. No organization is more important than the well-being of athletes in our sport.

2) USA Swimming must release the tens of thousands of pages of coach complaint files that they have. They are sitting on information that deserves a public airing and could potentially save many future athletes from abuse.

These suggestions are just a beginning of what coaches can use their power to demand. Make your demand public, or reach out directly to the people that are accountable to you within USA Swimming. Send your demand as a letter directly to USA Swimming Executive Director Tim Hinchey, or USA Swimming President Jim Sheehan. 

In the coming days, I will be asking coaches to use their platforms to amplify this message and more to the power structure of USA Swimming.

 

 

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. 

Silence is Complicity

Yesterday was a whirlwind. I spoke to more people than I can properly remember, all about the topic of the day. This day there will be more, I'm sure.

Here's a message for all those conversations, and the ones I'm not having. The time is now. Speak your truth.

There are people who know more about Sean Hutchison, FAST, "SafeSport", Mark Schubert and all the other tentacles of this story. Some of them, like Dia Rianda or Dagny Knutson, have been ignored. It's time to start listening. 

There are other people who know more who haven't spoken. Right now they are waiting on the sidelines. I hear their stories third or fourth hand. I have empathy for the fact that some of them have also been hurt in this situation. They do not want to be defined by what they know and said.

I think soon they will be defined by what they knew and didn't say. Their silence makes them complicit in this story repeating itself. 

Everyone is scared right now, myself included. When I told my wife I would begin writing about this full force again, her first inclination was to beg me not to. Part of me agreed. I knew that keeping my mouth shut, however, just wasn't an option.

Eight years ago, I questioned why big name coaches like Bob Bowman contribute nothing to this discussion. The same question is worth asking today. These are people with powerful platforms, that they have used to advocate for far more trivial issues. What does their silence say?

There is a huge category of silent partners right now who can still play their part. We need more than silence from them too. If you're reading this and you think "I don't have any special knowledge, I'm not a big name, I don't even know what to say". Say something. Use my words if you want. You have a platform. The time for silence is over.