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Will Wielgus Apology Lead to Culture Change On Deck?

Jun 11, 2014  - Nikki Dryden

After withdrawing from the induction ceremony for the International Swimming Hall of Fame this month, last week Chuck Wielgus, USA Swimming's leader since 1997, finally said he was sorry to the swimmers who have been victims of sexual abuse in USA Swimming.

“I'm sorry,” he wrote on his blog on usaswimming.org on June 6.

“These are powerful words some people have wanted to hear from me for a long time. I have been criticized in blogs, and most recently in the petition opposing International Swimming Hall of Fame induction, for not apologizing for not having done more to prevent sexual abuse by coaches.”

“I brought this on myself in April 2010 when I said I had nothing to apologize for on a national television interview. Subsequently, I remained, if not defiant, at least defensive. While USA Swimming developed its groundbreaking Safe Sport Program, I championed the work of our national governing body. I talked about all the good that USA Swimming was doing in the fight to eradicate sexual abuse. But, I never apologized.”

He continued, “As time progressed, I became afraid that my sincerity would be questioned and anything I said or wrote would be judged as just an attempt to put public relations ahead of true remorse. So I remained silent.”

After Wielgus's apology, Katherine Starr, a two time British Olympian and 14-time All-American at the University of Texas who was sexually abused by her age-group coach in the UK, spoke to SwimNews about her hope that his apology would lead to a true culture shift on deck. “Chuck Wielgus's public apology of 'I'm sorry; is a start in the right direction,” said Starr. “However, the bigger question is will this be the start of a culture change on the pool deck that has been allowed to thrive under his regime? Only time will tell how significant that 'I'm sorry 'really is.”

Today, Starr is the founder and President of Safe4Athletes, an organization dedicated to providing athletes with a safe space and to help parents make an informed decision about whom they have entrusted their child-athlete with. Through the Safe4Athletes program, a set of model guidelines, policies and procedures for local swim clubs to adopt, Starr's goal is to prevent sexual abuse, bullying and harassment, and provide a safe and positive environment for swimmers.

Wielgus further admitted that he was responsible for the public onslaught, including a change.org petition set up by victims of swim coach sexual abuse and others in the swimming community, demanding that the International Swimming Hall of Fame rescind the induction of Wielgus. The petition was signed by almost 2000 people (and notes that he earned a salary of $908,432.00 in 2012).

The petition alleges that Wielgus failed to protect swimmers from “well-known” sexual abusers including Andy King.

“Wielgus isn’t inspiring a protest merely because he was at the helm,” says the petition. “Instead, the protest is about Wielgus’ failure to protect swimmers from coaches with well-known, long histories of sexual abuse. Not until Wielgus was pressured by the United States Congress, by heart-breaking media stories on the unrelenting parade of victims, by lawsuits, and by new United States Olympic Committee (USOC) rules, did USA Swimming start to protect victims. It does not take leadership to move an organization under that type of scrutiny; it requires leadership to avoid it.”

While critics believe USA Swimming has not done enough to either change the culture of sexual abuse or penalize those who have been found to have committed it, Wielgus plead his case, “I remained immersed in the work and our commitment to eliminate sexual abuse from the sport. We hired professionals with experience who shared their expertise. It was a tremendous education for me. For the first time, I began getting regular updates on specific cases and I started to grasp the depth of pain that others had suffered.

“It was enlightening, to say the least, and I, at times, became horrified by the abuse that survivors had endured. I listened to outside authorities, I met privately with victims, and I began having difficult conversations with my own two teenage daughters about appropriate relationships.”

One major critique of USA Swimming's approach is that they have generalized the problem of sexual abuse to deflect from the specific issues inherent in the coach-swimmer relationship. Wielgus continued to use this tactic in his written apology: “Before 2010, I knew so little about the issues of sexual abuse in our society. Today, I have a first-hand understanding for just how widespread and devastating the problem is. The statistics (by the age of 18, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually abused) were previously just numbers. As I listened to personal stories the statistics began to hit home to me. These weren’t just facts, there were real people. Sadly, I now understand how under-reported sexual abuse is and I think of those who continue to suffer.”

Failing to address the real issues of swimming specific abuse, it is unclear whether Wielgus is truly apologetic about swimming's problems or merely sympathetic to the issue generally in society. As Starr noted in a previous interview with SwimNews last year, this is not just about child molestation, major 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,” said 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.”

Wielgus concluded his apology, “And so today, four long years later, I can truthfully say how sorry I am to the victims of sexual abuse. Going back in time, I wish I knew long before 2010 what I know today. I wish my eyes had been more open to the individual stories of the horrors of sexual abuse. I wish I had known more so perhaps I could have done more. I cannot undo the past. I’m sorry, so very sorry...Saying, 'I’m sorry' is important, and so is our never-ending vow to keep athletes safe.”

For more information on an independent approach to keeping swimmers safe visit Safe4Athletes at safe4athletes.org.