News & Opinion » Feature

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.



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.

From Allard's perspective, USA Swimming's lax policies should come as no surprise. After all, according to Allard, the background-check program was developed by a USA Swimming official, who married a swimmer he coached when she was 21. She was just 17 when they met.

USA Swimming's screening system certainly would not have kept out Jesse Stovall. That's because when Bear Swimming hired him in 2003, he had no criminal record. Even if he had been a serial pedophile like Andrew King, he likely still would have scored the job because USA Swimming didn't require a background check at the time.

Gary Firestone, the president of the board of directors of Bear Swimming and father of one of the swimmers, said Stovall was appointed upon the request of outgoing head coach Daryn Glasgow, a woman. That head-coach-run culture is extremely common in USA Swimming teams, Firestone noted. "The vast majority, probably 90 percent or better, they're really run by the head coach," said Firestone, who added that the board of directors acted in a strictly "advisory" role. "And so when she hired him as a coach, she simply said this person was very good," noting Stovall's history as a former swimmer at Cal and his skill in backstroke. "Finding a good coach is not an easy thing. These coaches come and go."

Trusting the word of Glasgow, Firestone said the board agreed to hire Stovall. "We're all parents; we're all busy," he added. "You can't go out there and continue the search. If the head coach says this is a good person, there's no reason to believe they aren't a good coach. Most of the teams are run this way."

But immediately after Stovall came on board, some parents noticed that his coaching methods were less than desirable. One parent, who did not want to be named because she said she wanted to protect the identity of her children, said that she often witnessed Stovall yelling at the boy swimmers. In addition, the parent, whom we'll call "Mary," said Stovall was immature, did not know how to control his emotions, and exhibited "inappropriate" behavior. For example, one of the assistant coaches who Stovall hired showed up to work one day with a T-shirt that read "I want to be your daughter's GYN." Yet when Mary complained, she said Stovall "didn't really understand why that was inappropriate."

During one out-of-town swim meet that Mary accompanied, she noticed that Stovall acted "obsessed" toward one of the team's star swimmers — the girl that police say he later sexually abused. "He was all focused about her, he could never give her enough attention," Mary recalled. "Everything was deferred to her wants." For example, when the group of about eighteen was trying to figure out what to eat, Mary said Stovall asked the alleged victim, whom we'll call "Allison," where she wanted to eat. He also asked Allison when she wanted to have curfew.

Carol Nip, a parent who is now Bear Swimming's head coach, said she was "in shock" when she found out about the allegations against Stovall. "He's all-American, good-looking Caucasian dude," said Nip, who is Asian-American. "My impression of him was he was a great coach, good standards, and I trusted him."

However, when Nip first met Stovall, he described his personality to her as "sneaky" and "tricky." "The way he coached was along those lines," she said. "He would trick the kids into doing very hard things that were for their benefit. And I thought that was using trickiness in a good way. I thought he was a darn good coach in many ways." While Nip noticed that Stovall did give preferential treatment to the alleged victim, she figured it was because she was the team's elite senior swimmer. However, she did notice him "glance at her butt," but reasoned "I think any guy glances at a girl's butt in a swimsuit. I just figured guys are guys."

A former Bear Swimming parent, Irvin Muchnick says Stovall changed the dynamics of the team for the worse. After the City of Berkeley announced it was going to raise Bear Swimming's rent from $28,000 a year to $62,000, the club moved its practices to Contra Costa College in San Pablo. The move eroded the dues-paying base of families at Bear Swimming because the team tried to attract more at-risk kids, Muchnick said. He called that "admirable," but also "another example of the incompetence" of team management. "The communication was very poor and there was never any attempt to mobilize the community," he said. As a result, Muchnick withdrew his daughter from the team in spring of 2008, during which time he says the team was falling apart and many top-level swimmers had left.

Mary said she was very vocal about her complaints about Stovall but that the team took no action against him. "The board of directors was this very vague governing body and sometimes it left you feeling really isolated and kind of stupid," she said, "and I know there's plenty other people that complained about him."

Yet board president Gary Firestone refuted that assertion. He says he never heard such complaints, and that often the real problem was behavioral issues with certain children. "A lot of times the parents might complain about the coaches not getting enough attention, when the kids aren't paying attention and going off and doing their own thing," he said. In addition, Firestone said some parents — including Muchnick — were irked that the team had relocated to Contra Costa College. "Unfortunately, Irv was one of the disgruntled parents who didn't like the idea of leaving the middle-class environment of Berkeley for Contra Costa College," Firestone said.

Firestone also defended Stovall's coaching ability. "You could say a lot about Jesse and a lot of bad things about Jesse, understandably, but one thing he was was a good coach," he said. Firestone, who was also a swimming official, said Stovall was a "typical" good coach who worked with the swimmers to improve their technique. "He seemed to get along with the kids; he got them swimming hard," Firestone said. "The swimming times became much better when he took over. Their times always improved."

Nothing about Stovall's behavior seemed unusual to Firestone until it surfaced that Stovall had mismanaged team funds. Around May of 2009, according to Firestone, the team received a letter from Contra Costa College saying that it hadn't received pool rent for a year and a half and that Bear Swimming owed it $28,000. The board and some parents confronted Stovall, who was in charge of team finances, during a "big blowout" meeting. However, Stovall offered no explanation and sent a letter of resignation the next day. But he kept his position as head coach of a nearby Berkeley team, Strawberry Canyon Aquatic Masters.

Upon investigating the matter further, Firestone said they determined that the problem was that Stovall mismanaged the finances. But there was no indication that he embezzled the funds, and hence no grounds upon which the team could press charges. Firestone later determined that Contra Costa College had never sent a bill asking for pool rent, so Firestone believes Stovall simply believed they were getting a "free pass" and never looked into the matter. However, Stovall did make sure to pay his own salary — which was around $55,000 by the end of his tenure. While Stovall did collect some cash from the team's masters program, Firestone said he had no idea how much. He estimated the amount was "miniscule" — around $500 to $1,000.

But Stovall's offenses turned out to be much worse than mismanaging funds.

A month or so after leaving Bear Swimming, Stovall was arrested on UC Berkeley's Sproul Plaza while heading to practice at Strawberry Canyon. Two of his swimmers witnessed the arrest and rumors quickly spread throughout the local swimming community. Muchnick, who's an investigative reporter, obtained the police report and learned about the allegations of statutory rape in Florida and told other parents.

A few weeks after returning to California, Allison told a friend what Stovall had done. The friend then told her therapist, who reported it to police. Allison's parents found out when they read a diary entry in which she wrote about the alleged rape. They then removed Allison from the swim team and went to police, too.

After Stovall's arrest, he refused to talk directly about having sex with Allison, according to police. However, he spoke about it abstractly and appeared to come close to confessing. The police report described Stovall's recorded interview this way:

"When asked by Det. Dunn, 'Before you guys had sex was she in a position to give consent? Either through what she said or did?' Stovall answered: there was no point in Florida where she was intoxicated enough to not give consent.

Detective Dunn stated, 'So you got together twice. The second time was she able to give consent?' Stovall answered: The whole time there she was never laying on the ground drunk. She was able to give consent.

Detective Dunn asked, 'Did you use a condom?' Stovall stated: Don't want to answer the question, it's a personal issue.

Detective Dunn asked, 'Could she be pregnant?' Stovall answered: How do I know if she's been with other guys.

Detective Dunn asked, 'Does you wife know anything about this?' Stovall answered, 'It's personal.'

Detective Dunn asked, 'Did you tell her about Florida?' He answered, 'Ya.'

Detective Dunn asked, 'What happened?' Stovall replied: She didn't like it. Detective Dunn asked, 'Did you wear a condom with [the victim]' Stovall answered: I always wear a condom except with my wife.

Detective Dunn spoke with Stovall about the appropriateness of a 35 year old having sex with a 16 year old. Stovall replied he had no 'intentions' and stated he 'cared about [the victim]' and did not want to hurt her. Stovall stated he did not know how [the victim] felt about the incident as he has not spoken to her about it."

Later, during phone calls between Stovall and Allison's father that were recorded by police, Stovall denied that he had sex with Allison but said he "exercised extremely poor judgment taking a teenager to Florida. It's been a real nightmare. There's no [way] I can defend myself or anything. I'm sorry. I don't know what to say." When Allison's father asked whether Stovall used protection or if he needed to take his daughter to the doctor, he stated, "No. She's completely healthy. She's fine."

After word got out that Stovall was arrested, Strawberry Canyon Aquatic Masters did not renew his contract, which was about to expire, according to team president, Susan Garfin. Bear Swimming's Gary Firestone says that he told parents to tell their kids about the allegations but "to make it very clear — we didn't know all the facts and we have no idea — there's no verdict." Yet by that point, Firestone says "almost nobody on the team knew Jesse" except some of the older kids because Bear Swimming had so many new swimmers due to the team's relocation, the natural turnover rate, and some parents who had "personality" conflicts with Stovall.

Muchnick, however, insists that Bear Swimming officials did not tell students about what had happened. "The party line at Bear Swimming is there's nothing wrong, there's some misunderstanding," he said. "So they haven't really told." Muchnick said that he recently spoke to a father of a kid who's still on the team and that he wasn't aware of the allegations. "He said, 'We deserve to be told about this,'" Muchnick said.

"So I believe at this point that a letter needs to go out explaining to people what happened and what's being done about it and soliciting information," Muchnick added. "The counter argument to that is you can create a frenzy around people magnifying innocent things in the past. But to take the 180-degree opposite tack — the people who've spent thousands of dollars in dues and have entrusted their sons and daughters to these people for hundreds of hours to not even be informed, I think, is outrageous."

USA Swimming spokeswoman Olsen said that the national board of review banned Jesse Stovall for life on October 15, 2009. But the ban only applies to USA Swimming's membership clubs, and so it's not reassuring to Muchnick. "It sounds like the Catholic Church, their database of priests," he said. "I mean, what's to keep this guy, no matter what happens in the criminal trial, from surfacing somewhere else. ... Have we sent a letter out to people, the past and present families, who have a right to know about this? Are we sure that this is the only incident of this sort? I don't think we're serving our daughters and sons by just creating all kinds of taboos around this. It happened, let's deal with it, let's report it, and let's put things in place to keep it from happening again."

One Bay Area swimming coach who kept molesting his swimmers again and again was Andrew King. And USA Swimming's background screening policy would not have thrown up red flags about him, either. The reason is that the policy only screens out coaches who have been charged or convicted of sexual abuse, and so even though there were numerous complaints about King and evidence that USA Swimming knew he was a predator, he was free to keep spending time with kids.

For example, when King was coaching at Chabot College in Hayward in the 1990s, according to the suit Allard filed last month, one swimmer overheard coaches for Pacific Swimming, a division of USA Swimming, calling King a "pedophile," a "child molester," and that "he was sleeping with his swimmers." And yet King was allowed to keep coaching and was subsequently hired at other clubs.

In addition, one female swimmer told Pacific Swimming and USA Swimming that King was forcing her and others to "engage in sexual acts in front of other team members, under the penalty of a more rigorous swim practice session if any of the team members refused to participate." Yet after King denied the charges, the matter was dropped.

Police reports and a public hearing about King's behavior also did not prevent him from landing a job at San Jose Aquatics in 2000, where he ultimately sexually molested and abused Allard's client. In fact, USA Swimming approved him for employment, saying, "[Mr. King's] background screening has been thoroughly reviewed and meets the qualification standards set by US Swimming."

Part of the problem, Allard said, is that USA Swimming does not have a formal way to file complaints. "Saliently lacking from their procedures is any grievance procedure at all," he said. "You have to ... hope someone returns your phone call," he said. "It's unbelievable. It's a system designed to deter and not encourage the reporting of abuse."

In light of the recent lawsuit, Olsen said USA Swimming is considering amending its program to improve education to athletes and coaches about inappropriate behavior, as well as "educating clubs on hiring practices and the kinds of screening they should do on a club-level — not just relying on the criminal background check." Another possibility is allowing complaints to be made anonymously. Olsen suggested that clubs check references such as former swimmers and co-workers, and check driving records.

Firestone said that Bear Swimming now runs criminal background checks on all its potential coaches and that the team is more parent-run than coach-run these days. Still, he acknowledged that even if Bear Swimming had checked into Stovall at the time they hired him using the current procedures, he still would have gotten the job because his record was "clean" prior to taking Allison alone to Florida.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story misidentified a USA Swimming official who developed the organization's background-check policy.

Comments (4)

Showing 1-4 of 4

Add a comment

Add a comment

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments will be removed.