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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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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."