By most measures, Oakland swim coach Ben Sheppard was well-liked and well-respected. As the head coach of the Oakland Undercurrent swim team and the executive director of the Oakland Community Pools Project, he was held up as a hero for bringing the predominantly white sport of swimming to low-income youth of color. A 2005 article in the San Francisco Chronicle called him "the White Shadow of inner-city swimming" as well as a "dead-ringer for actor Matt Damon." His former swimmers described him as a "role model," "nice guy," "great person," and an "inspiration." But now, those same swimmers say there was a more sinister side of their coach they didn't know about, one that was interested in them sexually.
In at least four instances, the 35-year-old coach allegedly sent messages of an inappropriate nature to girls who were his former or current swimmers. One young woman, who wished to remain anonymous, said Sheppard sent her several Facebook messages on her eighteenth birthday in February. In transcripts of that conversation obtained by this newspaper, which began at 9:34 p.m., Sheppard initiated conversation with the young woman by wishing her happy birthday.
After some back and forth, Sheppard grew coy, and wrote "just let me say it and ignore me if you want ... simply put, as crazy as it sounds I had such a crush on you ... and then some."
"It was really weird," the young woman recalled by phone. "At first I didn't think it was him. I thought it was somebody hacking his page. He was like, 'Oh please don't tell anyone.' I didn't say anything in the beginning because I thought I was the only one. I don't want to mess up the team or make a big deal of it. I thought it was such a cool program."
The young woman told Sheppard, "I don't think this is right" and then blocked him from contacting her. She hasn't had contact with him since.
After the incident, the young woman said she recalled an experience she had with Sheppard when she was around ten years old. As she remembered it, she said Sheppard told her to get out of the pool. "I thought I did something wrong and he said something about marriage. And then he told me we were going to get married or something. I thought it was weird. I thought it was my imagination."
Up until February, the young woman viewed her overall experience with the swim team and Sheppard as positive. "It just really sucks," she said. "It was such a great program but he had to ruin it by doing all that."
In another instance, Sheppard allegedly tried to recruit a former swimmer of his, who was sixteen at the time, to teach swim lessons. "He was offering me a job," said the young woman, who is now eighteen and a college student. "He was hitting me up on Facebook. I thought that was weird."
According to the young woman, Sheppard initiated a conversation with her similar to the one he had with the other young woman. He asked if he could tell her something. "I thought it was going to be inspirational," she recalled in a phone interview. But then, according to the young woman, Sheppard wrote, "I think you're crazy beautiful."
"I was really afraid when it happened so I logged off," she recalled. "It was midnight. I was crying and called my friend. She went online ... and told him, 'She's really freaked out and you should be more careful to say things like that.' After that I just blocked him off of Facebook."
The young woman said the incident was "totally out of the blue" and "shocked" her. She said she only told her one friend.
These interactions apparently were not uncommon for Sheppard. Two other young girls had the same things happen to them, although both declined to comment further on the incidences. One of the cases, which happened recently and whose mother found out and alerted the team management and USA Swimming, the national governing body of the sport, led to the discovery of the other young women's experiences.
As for Sheppard, he denied the allegations. In an e-mail, he wrote, "They aren't true" and "I'm not even sure entirely what your [sic] referring to."
It's unclear if Sheppard broke any laws, and a criminal investigation is pending. Police refused to comment on the case. "Sexting" with a minor is illegal in California. It's defined as a sexually provocative image sent or received, as well as a text message, e-mail, letter, or phone call that is intended to arouse or seduce the minor. The offense could be charged as a felony or misdemeanor and result in a sentence of up to three years in prison. A felony conviction would require sex offender registration.
Regardless of whether Sheppard's behavior was criminal, at the very least the swimmers and their parents view it as ethically and morally reprehensible.
Sheppard is the executive director of the Oakland Community Pools Project, which operates and funds the Oakland Undercurrent swimming programs, including a swimming school and several teams. He founded the organization in 1997 while he was an undergrad at UC Berkeley. In 2009, USA Swimming selected Sheppard to be one of its two diversity consultants, which was then a newly created position. According to a press release, Sheppard's job was to "work with existing clubs to expand their diversity efforts while also seeking out and guiding potential new diverse clubs."
Oakland Community Pools Project President Sally West said the organization is currently conducting an investigation into the matter and Sheppard will not be coaching "until the investigation is completed."
Meanwhile, Sheppard has been fired from USA Swimming, although the reasons for his firing have not been disclosed.
An e-mailed statement from USA Swimming stated, "Ben Sheppard is no longer an employee at USA Swimming and it is our understanding that his swim club suspended him. Because this is a personnel issue, USA Swimming has no further comment on it. While we cannot discuss the details of any specific case, as a general matter it is USA Swimming's policy to investigate all formal complaints and to cooperate with law enforcement agencies. In addition, USA Swimming has a comprehensive athlete protection program and is committed to its full execution and enforcement."
Yet it's questionable just how effective USA Swimming's protection program is. These new allegations come a little more than a year after the Express broke the news about a Berkeley swim coach, Jesse Stovall, who had sex with one of his teenage swimmers while at a swim meet in Florida (see "Swimming in Sex Abuse," 4/7/10). Stovall, who was the head coach of Bear Swimming, pleaded no contest to the charges and was sentenced to four years probation and was required to register as a sex offender. In other local case last year, Andrew King, a longtime swim coach, 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.
The cases brought to light not only how pervasive the problem of sexual abuse is in swimming, but also how USA Swimming and Pacific Swimming, the Northern California arm of USA Swimming, failed to adequately protect swimmers. A civil lawsuit filed on behalf of King's victims, which is about to go to trial, alleges that officials at USA Swimming and Pacific Swimming were long aware of the allegations against King but knowingly looked the other way.
To Robert Allard, a San Jose-based attorney who is part of the legal team that represents the families of four USA Swimming sex abuse victims, USA Swimming continues to neglect its obligation to protecting young swimmers.
Allard said he has learned of two recent cases that are particularly disturbing. In Colorado, a father alerted the board of directors of his children's swim team after discovering pornographic images on a newly hired coach's public MySpace page. In response, the board kicked the father's children off the swim team. The father then complained to USA Swimming, whose CEO, Chuck Wielgus, said his organization had no control over the actions of the local club and that the parents had to file a "formal complaint." Otherwise, he wrote in an e-mail, "there is nothing more ... that we here at the national office can do for you."
However, the actions of the swim team clearly went against USA Swimming's own athlete protection policy, which states that "No member shall retaliate against any individual who has made a good faith report."
A similar retaliation occurred in Idaho, according to Allard. In that case, the team president's son, who was a minor, allegedly masturbated in front of several team members. One of the boys' mothers alerted the team, and her children were subsequently kicked off the team. The team then sued the mother for defamation, although she was never served the lawsuit.
All of this points to more bad behavior on the part of USA Swimming, Allard said. "Based on stories that have been brought to my attention, it is clear to me that it is business as usual for the leadership group at USA Swimming," he said. "Little if anything has changed. Rules are effective only if they are enforced. This core leadership group continues to turn a blind eye to sex abuse in the USA Swimming environment. The new 'rules,' in my opinion, are mere window dressings. I am convinced that real change will not occur until we have people in power who place the welfare of minor swimmers as the highest priority."
While Sheppard has been fired from USA Swimming, his fate as a future swim coach is not certain. USA Swimming's refusal to state the reasoning for his firing leaves questions as to whether these actions will prevent Sheppard from acting inappropriately with other young swimmers down the road. He is currently not on the organization's banned list of coaches.
While Sheppard's profile was taken down from USA Swimming's website, he still remains listed as a coach on Pacific Swimming's website and the Oakland Community Pools Project site.
Update: A previous version of this story misstated the status of USA Swimming's banned list. It is available publicly and Ben Sheppard is not on the list.