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Empowering Swimmers and Ending Abuse

Dec 31, 2013  - Nikki Dryden

In the wake of a series of sex and abuse stories, what really matters to swimmers and to our swimming community? Sure swimming fast and winning medals is fun and exciting. It makes us feel good about ourselves...for a moment. But the real long term benefits of swimming, sustained good feelings, come only from a career that is filled with goals that are striven for in failure and success, positive relationships we make along the way, and appreciating the journey of swimming, not just a fleeting moment atop the podium.

Yet most of our sports' rules don't focus on how swimming shapes our lives. Instead they focus on some idea of fairness, of protecting ourselves from “cheaters” in the pool, whether they are those who dope (and those who help them do it) or those who cut corners on strokes and turns. But we consistently fail to effectively protect ourselves from harm, whether through overuse injury, mental exhaustion, or worse, physical abuse from a coach or peer. We don't do enough proactively to create an atmosphere, a reality, that allows us to grow and thrive as swimmers and as people.

Katherine Starr, a two time British Olympian and 14-time All-American at the University of Texas, knows this story all too well. Starr's career as a swimmer started out as every parent and swimmer dreams, she won every race she swam, often in record time. Her desire to win was supported by her parents and by 14 she was world-ranked. However, just a few months later the nightmare began when she was raped by her swim coach. While her career continued to excel, making two Olympics, so did the sexual abuse. In her words, “I was often portrayed on the pool deck as the 'troubled kid' when I fought back from the abuse. All the while, my coach, the head Olympic coach for my country, gained power and prestige. There was no protection from the adults around me and nowhere for me to turn to for help. When I spoke up, I was told that I needed to do 'what the coach said.' I felt so hopeless and alone.”

Today, Starr is the founder and President of Safe4Athletes, an organization dedicated to providing athletes with a voice. Starr travels the US to assist the athletic community with implementation and adoption of the Safe4Athletes program, which offers model guidelines, policies and procedures for local swim clubs to adopt. The programs are designed to prevent sexual abuse, bullying and harassment, and provide a safe and positive environment for the athlete. Starr's overarching goal is to provide a safe space for athletes and help parents make an informed decision about whom they have entrusted their child-athlete with.“The programs give athletes a voice, it teaches them how to have the difficult conversation, and teaches teammates to speak up too,” says Starr.

In the US, 98 coaches banned...and counting

As of December 23, 2013 there were 98 swim coaches who had received a lifetime ban or been found ineligible for membership with USA Swimming. Not all are for sexual or physical abuse and their code violations are listed for all to see on USA Swimming's website. But the violations are not always consistent with the worst of it because the misconduct (or crimes) occurred so long ago. Rick Curl, arguably the most famous coach on the list, is banned not for child sexual abuse (for which he is serving 7 years in jail) but for violating USA swimming's “rules or regulations,” or as one “who has acted in a manner which brings disrepute upon the Corporation or upon the sport of swimming.”

In December, Mitch Ivey became the latest high profile coach to be handed down a life-time ban after an investigation that has been ongoing for several years. The ban stems from several relationships Ivey had under age swimmers including then 16 year old Suzette Moran. Her attorney, Robert Allard, who also represents several other families involved in these types of cases, said, “There is no room in society for coaches who sexually abuse or molest underage athletes. Mitch Ivey was protected for nearly 30 years by a culture within USA Swimming that continues to this day.” Ivey, who recruited me out of high school and was my coach for several months my first year at the University of Florida, was fired from that position in 1993 when ESPN's Outside the Lines publicly reported his deeds. Twenty-years later and his exit from the sport is finally official.

Despite these recent attention grabbing headlines, compare the number of coaches banned: 98 to the number of US swimmers banned in the last decade for anti-doping violations. While doping is often dubbed the biggest problem in elite sport, just 9 US swimmers have received any type of anti-doping ban since 2003. Perhaps it is time we dedicate more energy on something we can actually combat.

Independent governance is needed

Sports organizations, international and national, have proven wholly incapable of governing themselves on a wide variety of abuses in the past. Just like anti-doping had to separate itself from the International Olympic Committee and create an independent agency (WADA), there are also calls on the global level for the creation of independent sport governance oversight. If we want to tackle abuse in sport we must set up independent bodies (or individuals) to oversee this problem.

“To date, the sports community has not been successful in confronting this issue,” says Starr. “Coaches associations and national and other sport governance organizations have a built-in conflict of interest in protecting the reputations of their sports or members.”

It is not just conflicts of interests inherent in a system that tries to be both judge and jury. Another problem is the theoretical approach these organizations are taking to try to combat the problem. Starr notes that this is not just about child molestation, a big theme in today's society. Rather, the issue pertinent to swimmers and their parents is the unique relationship that elite swimmers, most often girls, have with their coaches. “Most sports organizations in the US are focusing on child sex abuse, which is misleading to the public,” says Starr. “This is about competitive athletes, college athletes, junior national qualifiers, not vulnerable underprivileged children. This is largely a white, middle class female problem. The result is that athletes across all sports are becoming victims of sexual exploitation as consenting or non-consenting minors or adults and coaches are caught only after numerous transgressions or continuing to coach after deals are struck to protect the organization.”

The USOC, USA Swimming and some clubs have added “codes of conduct” to their policies. However, for many organizations the policies in place are often too general and lack sufficient enforcement mechanisms. According to Starr, policies that require coaches to merely pledge to not engage in intimate relations with athletes, or even established policies that outright ban such relationships have still not stopped the occurrence of coach-athlete sexual abuse or harassment. “

Even when strong policies exist, many organizations fall short on policy implementation. For instance, in the case of USA Swimming, its policy states that the Executive Director has discretion on whether or not to investigate the claim,” explains Starr. “Generally, national sports organizations rely on local authorities to carry out investigations. By the time a situation reaches the attention of a national association, too many athletes have suffered such abuse. Very little success has occurred with regard to taking action against coaches who violate these policies.”

However, Starr's Safe4Athletes program changes this environment, “implementing consistent programs that educate athletes and parents about sexual harassment and abuse and how to deal with such situations in order to create a climate in which athletes feel safe in reporting such incidents.”

In September 2013, USA Swimming did make several much needed changes their rules. In order to comply with USOC rules (and maintain funding) USA Swimming adopted a rule which states that a romantic or sexual relationship, even if it is consensual between adults, is a violation of USA Swimming's rules if the coach is in a position of power and trust over the swimmer. Previously, the House of Delegates had voted down this change over concern for already married couples coming into violation. USA Swimming confirmed that the change will not impact pre-existing relationships. They also expanded code violations to include abuse that occurred in the past, abuse that is peer to peer (minors), and it is now a violation for anyone to assist someone on the banned list in coaching or having an ownership interest in a club.

Ensuring a climate of safety, not fear

As I talk to coaches and fellow swimmers I worry if our fear of coach-athlete abuse is hurting the often delicate balance between a coach and swimmer. Will coaches in actual fact have to coach in a way that protects themselves rather than the athlete?

Starr says that the Safe4Athletes program does just the opposite by creating a forum for the swimmer to speak up, a place to address issues and concerns that is neutral. “With a system in place, if an issue arises there is a clear and concise process to follow,” explains Starr. “You take out the fear by implementing the program. Let the little problems be solved easily and make space for the big issues.” “If I were a coach,” says Starr, “I would want Safe4Athletes in place. It's an investigation, it's two sided. Real coaches who care about their swimmers are welcoming this in place because they too are protected.”

Starr continues, “You need the coach on the other side to listen to the athlete and hear what they have to say. If you can't do something you need to have a reasonable alternative. The coach should say, 'I want you to speak up and we are going to listen.' It is about shifting the power so that the swimmer knows if she speaks up she will be heard and her concerns addressed, not perfectly, but addressed. This is what is lacking in the coaching profession.”

Fear and intimidation is out, empowerment and inspiration is in

A great swimmer, says Starr, will ask “'How I can coach myself?' Yes there are days when I need you to help me and support me, but that's where it comes together. It is a valuable relationship. If you swim for someone that says, 'I made you,' who is forcing you, then you aren't the best athlete you can be. You need to be able to inspire yourself, otherwise that person leaves your life and you need someone else to abuse you.”

“My philosophy,” says Starr, “is about the balance of power. We need to teach our athletes how to inspire themselves. Fear and intimidation is old school coaching, empowerment and inspiration is what we should be promoting. Coaches tell me, 'They [my swimmers] need me to inspire them,' I respond, 'No, you need them to need you.'”

Swimmers, raise your voice

Do you know a swimmer who is an early drinker? Who gets upset on pool deck? Who is not included on teams or doesn't show up at national camps? Starr says these are swimmers who may be in an abusive situation and it is up to us to help. “We need to stop just looking for direct information (just an athlete's voice) and also look at non verbal cues.”

Swimmers its time stand up for our sport. We are always asking to be more professional, to make more money, to get more from our sport. But until we learn to speak up and create a safe environment for all of us, we will never see true professionalism.

If everyone who reads this piece sends it to their high school and college coach and asks them to implement a Safe4Athlete policy we can give a new generation of swimmers a voice and help shift the balance of power. TIDE swimming in Virginia Beach is one of the many swim teams that has adopted the Safe4Athlete program, but more needs to be done. For more information visit Safe4Athletes or find their policies in book or e-book on Amazon.

By focusing on the athlete, giving her a voice in her journey, we may find we not only swim faster, but live better.