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Swimming in Sex Abuse

A recent Berkeley criminal case and a new lawsuit suggest that sex abuse by swim coaches is widespread and that officials aren't doing enough to stop it.

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Jesse Stovall was a married, 35-year-old father of two who appeared to be obsessed with a 16-year-old girl. She was the star of Bear Swimming, the Berkeley-based swim team that he coached. Stovall's intentions eventually became apparent once he convinced the girl's parents to let him accompany her alone to Florida for a week-long swim meet.

Later this month, Jesse Rubens Stovall (aka John Stovall) is scheduled to go on trial in Florida on charges of having nonconsensual sex with the girl during that trip to the Sunshine State. He faces six counts of statutory rape, and will likely be looking at a long prison stint if convicted. Although he has pleaded not guilty, his defense team will have to overcome his near-confession to Berkeley police before they arrested him on Sproul Plaza.

While Stovall's fate will now be determined in a courtroom, a separate case in San Jose and a related lawsuit suggest that sexual abuse by swim coaches is a widespread problem that's been underreported for years. And that the response by the national governing body of the sport, USA Swimming, has been woefully inadequate. Interviews and public records reveal that the Colorado Springs-based swimming organization, which oversees about 2,700 competitive swim groups across the country, has failed for decades to adequately protect children from abusers, much like the Catholic Church.

In January, Andrew King, a longtime swim coach in the Bay Area, was sentenced to forty years in prison for child molestation charges dating back to 1978 — including forcing swimmers to participate in sex games and forcing one whom he impregnated to undergo an abortion. Then last month, a civil lawsuit filed on behalf of a fifteen-year-old victim of King alleges that officials at USA Swimming and Pacific Swimming, the Northern California arm of USA Swimming, knowingly looked the other way despite numerous complaints about him. And the suit claims that at least 32 other coaches have engaged in sexual misconduct with swimmers since 1993.

The lawsuit also revealed that former Olympic gold medalist Deena Deardurff Schmidt was repeatedly molested by her coach for four years starting when she was eleven years old. Though she tried to complain to USA Swimming, she was told that she would need another USA Swimming coach to vouch for her. Because she couldn't do this, her complaint wasn't investigated. Her coach, who isn't named in the lawsuit, was later elected to the swimming Hall of Fame.

Robert Allard, the San Jose-based attorney who is going after USA Swimming, believes his investigation into the issue has just scratched the surface and that the number of victims is likely in the thousands. Less than a day after holding a press conference in March, Allard said he spoke to a man who said he complained to USA Swimming about an incident of sexual misconduct and that they told him, "don't tell the media."

Allard believes the organization is more concerned about maintaining its image and receiving government funding than it is about stopping abuse. "It's not a culture which is designed to prevent abuse; it's designed to cover it up and react too late," Allard said. "They need to be proactive instead of reactive — in other words, prevent it in the first place."

USA Swimming officials have said that during a ten-year period some 36 coaches were suspended for life for sexually abusing their swimmers. Yet in an interview, Jamie Fabos Olsen, communications director for USA Swimming, was quick to point out that the number represents less than one-tenth of 1 percent of USA Swimming's coach membership. "We certainly think it's a very important issue and we want people to register any suspicions that they may witness," said Olsen. "We think that the education process to encourage people to come forward and what is inappropriate behavior is something that we want to focus on because we know that it's a difficult issue and we know people may be reluctant to talk about it."

In a statement, the organization also said it now has "several layers of protection in place," including background screenings, a code of conduct prohibiting sexual abuse, a reporting system to register complaints, and an internal hearing body to review complaints and expel members.

However, USA Swimming did not require background screening for its coaches until 2006 — years after King and others had molested young swimmers. Moreover, the new background check, according to Allard, only ascertains whether a particular coach has been convicted of or charged with crimes involving sexual misconduct or drugs in the previous two years. The screening also does not require reference checks with prior employers or prior swimmers, or a simple Internet search.

Last September, USA Swimming CEO Chuck Wielgus acknowledged in a speech that he was getting calls from the media on a "weekly basis" about the problem of coaches molesting swimmers. But instead of tightening its rules, USA Swimming merely decided to add a disclaimer to its screening procedures — effectively leaving the responsibility of checking into coaches to the individual clubs, the vast majority of which are run by volunteer parents on very small budgets.

The system for filing a complaint isn't entirely clear — it consists of one sentence in a 175-page rule book directing them to contact the executive director. In addition, according to Allard, USA Swimming's procedures for screening out sexual predators are far less rigorous than those instituted by national governing bodies of other sports, including USA Gymnastics. USA Swimming's policy, for example, states that it's the coach's responsibility to renew their background screening every two years, and that only one coach per club needs to be checked.

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