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Report — From the November 2017 issue

Pushing the Limit

What the U.S. Olympic Committee can — and can’t — do about sexual abuse

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In the early Eighties, Andy King, the coach of the Seawolves, a swim club in Danville, California, instructed Debra Denithorne, aged twelve, to do doubles — to practice in the morning and the afternoon. King told Denithorne’s parents that he saw in her the potential to receive a college scholarship, and even to compete in the Olympics. Tall swimmers have an advantage in the water, and by the time Denithorne turned thirteen, she was five foot eight. She dropped soccer and a religious group to spend more time at the pool.

That commitment, and King’s relentless training, made her an exceptional swimmer. When she was in eighth grade, college recruitment letters began to fill her mailbox. Yet as Denithorne grew dependent on King — he’d offer her rides home, travel with her to meets — he cultivated her for a predatory relationship, which led to intercourse when she was fifteen.

Denithorne’s parents suspected nothing. King had forged a connection with them too, “grooming” them, in psychiatric terms, to preempt questions about whether he could be trusted. After dropping Denithorne off, he’d linger at the door; often, he stayed for dinner. Denithorne’s father was a U.S. Marine turned businessman; her mother was a teacher. Occasionally, she remembers, her parents wondered about the intensity of the coach’s interest, but for the most part they were pleased by his attention to their daughter’s athletic career.

Illustrations by Shonagh Rae

Parents of other swimmers, however, observed King’s behavior with skepticism. Denithorne sometimes overheard moms gossiping poolside that King showed her favoritism because they were sleeping together. But none of the conjecturing parents approached her with concerns about an affair or inquired about her well-being. Denithorne lacked the vocabulary to identify the nature of the relationship she was in — she was not King’s girlfriend, but she did not view herself as a victim. As time went on, though, she started to feel that he was putting too much pressure on her. “He asked me to marry him,” she told me. She wasn’t sure how to extract herself, so she believed it would be best to quit the team.

One night in 1986, members of the swim club’s board arrived at the Denithornes’ house to discuss their suspicions about King’s inappropriate involvement with Debra. Her parents dismissed the possibility and never spoke to her about the confrontation. Nevertheless, the board decided not to renew King’s contract. They didn’t report him to law enforcement, however, or to U.S.A. Swimming, the national governing body for the sport. King went on to coach another team nearby, and as a senior in high school, Denithorne joined him there. She made him promise not to ask her to sleep with him again.

In college, at Arizona State University, Denithorne stopped swimming and began seeing a sports psychologist. At the age of twenty-one, still unable to suppress her memories of King, she went home to confront him in person. He told her that she hadn’t looked fourteen when he started pursuing her. Denithorne knew that it was a ridiculous defense, but she blamed herself, unable to acknowledge that she had been repeatedly raped. “It carried such horrible stigma,” she said. It was only in the mid-2000s — after she’d finished college, married, gone through years of counseling, and had a baby — that she began to consider filing charges. As the new mother of a daughter, she was sickened by the possibility that King might have raped other girls too.

By that time, stories about King had reached the top levels of U.S.A. Swimming. In 2003, Katie Kelly, who had been coached by King in the East Bay when she was in her early teens, sent the organization a letter in which she described him as “terribly abusive.” She was “shaking,” she wrote, as she composed an account of her time training with him. “Over ten years later, I feel I need to say what I wish I said then,” she went on. “I can’t change what happened but maybe something can be done to stop this from continuing.” Her letter was meant to be informational; she assumed that she would not be allowed to file a formal complaint, because so much time had passed.

Kelly’s letter was passed up to Chuck Wielgus, the head of U.S.A. Swimming. No leader of an Olympic organization has served as long a tenure as Wielgus, who, over twenty years, oversaw teams that won a cumulative 156 medals, about a third of America’s total from recent summer games. “This matter should be kept confidential by both you and us,” Wielgus wrote in an email to members of his staff. Because Kelly had not filed a formal complaint, there would be no inquiry; U.S.A. Swimming would open a file on King, and if more reports ever surfaced, they could decide to act at that point. Wielgus did not mention that, a year before, a woman had informed him that her daughter had been sexually abused by King. He had told her that something could be done “if there is evidence of wrong doing and if there is someone willing to file a formal complaint.” He said no such thing to Kelly.

In the years that followed, a former teammate of Denithorne’s, now a detective, contacted her about King; they joined other victims in reporting him to the police. In 2010, he was convicted of molesting several girls, including a fourteen-year-old he had impregnated. The same year, Wielgus’s email about Kelly was leaked, and the revelations set off an uproar. U.S.A. Swimming responded by releasing a list of banned coaches, with King’s name on it. Wielgus also hired an athlete protection officer, who was tasked with overseeing education and guidelines on confronting sexual abuse. Officials at the United States Olympic Committee commissioned a study to assess the scale of the problem across sports.

U.S.A. Swimming’s banned list now has nearly 150 names, including Everett Uchiyama, the former director of the national team. But sexual assault tends to be heavily underreported, which means that the actual number of predatory coaches is probably higher. Under Title IX, schools that receive federal funding must investigate allegations of sexual assault, but a local swim club is not subject to the same requirements. Absent a national entity like a ministry of sport, which other countries use to oversee the training of young people, American athletic organizations have never had much guidance in how to identify and remove abusive coaches.

Under the U.S.O.C.’s purview, there are forty-eight national governing bodies (N.G.B.’s), overseeing thousands of club teams and gyms. The patterns that emerge within this network resemble those of other private institutions — the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, boarding schools — that place children and adults in close proximity. For years, standard procedure tended to shroud sexual assault, not crusade against it. “They don’t deal with the root of the problem,” Dani Bostick, a swimmer who was abused by her coach before she turned twelve, told me. “Their approach has been to ignore it, as if that’s how it will go away.” Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a former swimmer who won an Olympic gold medal and is now the head of Champion Women, an organization that advocates for female participation in sports, said, “The U.S.O.C. doesn’t make change until there is a media blowup.”

When the news about King broke, in 2010, Wielgus appeared on TV to comment on how his office was handling the situation. On ABC’s 20/20, he seemed befuddled by the suggestion that he ought to have reached out to victims. “You feel I need to apologize to them?” he asked. In 2014, Wielgus was considered for induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, and Hogshead-Makar successfully led a petition to keep him out. The signatories included numerous athletes who had been assaulted by their coaches; they accused Wielgus of a “lack of remorse or compassion towards victims and survivors.”

Wielgus withdrew his candidacy, and, in a post on the U.S.A. Swimming website, finally adopted a contrite stance. “I wish my eyes had been more open to the individual stories of the horrors of sexual abuse,” he wrote. “I wish I had known more so perhaps I could have done more.” (Wielgus died in April.)

By then, the controversy had escalated enough to demand action. The same month that Wielgus took himself out of contention for the hall of fame, and as King was beginning a forty-year prison sentence, the U.S.O.C. board approved plans for the establishment of the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a centralized authority that would take sexual assault prevention and investigation out of the hands of the national governing bodies. In March, after several delays, SafeSport opened its doors.

When I spoke with Scott Blackmun, the head of the U.S.O.C., I asked what had ultimately brought about the change, after so many years. “Evolution,” he said. “In 2010, when the swimming scandals hit, people became aware of the extent of some of the abuse that was happening.” He went on, “Honestly, it was not on my radar.”

By the fall, SafeSport was investigating fifty-two cases from thirty-one sports. Blackmun told me that he believed the office would “have a huge positive impact on the lives of our young athletes.” Yet it remains to be seen whether SafeSport can really transform how victims are treated or end the protection of revered coaches.

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reported this story as a 2016–17 visiting journalist fellow at the Russell Sage Foundation. Her most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “American Hustle,” which appeared in the April 2015 issue, was included in the 2016 edition of The Best American Sports Writing.

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