Three lawsuits filed against USA Swimming allege it enabled sexual predator-coaches to abuse young girls
Six victims identify former coaches Everett Uchiyama, Mitch Ivey and Andy King as their sexual abusers; King is a convicted child molester who is serving 40 years for his crimes.
The three lawsuits that were filed in early June 2020 are the latest volley against USA Swimming, which has come under fire for decades for condoning a culture that allowed young girls to be repeatedly abused by their coaches.
USA Swimming is the National Governing Body for the sport; it oversees more than 2,800 swim teams and is responsible for selecting and training teams for international competitions, including the Olympics.
Pacific Swimming and Southern California Swimming, which are local swimming committees that are supervised by USA Swimming, and numerous individual swim clubs are also named in the lawsuits.
The suits were filed by Cerri, Boskovich & Allard on behalf of six women who were sexually abused more than 30 years ago.
The women, who are now in their 40s and 50s, were all Olympic hopefuls who were abused when they were teens and pre-teens.
Three of the six victims spoke about their abuse at a June 2020 news conference, in hopes of seeing meaningful change.
“USA Swimming enabled my coach, Mitch Ivey, to abuse me because they knew he’d impregnated an underage swimmer years before he became my coach. They should have banned him then but they protected him instead and allowed him to continue coaching,” victim Suzette Moran said.
Suzette was 14 when Ivey started grooming her for his own sexual gratification. The grooming escalated and Suzette became pregnant when she was 17.
“I became pregnant a few months before the 1984 Olympic trials were set to begin,” Suzette said. “Coach Ivey told me to have an abortion, which killed my dreams of competing in the Los Angeles Olympic Games.”
Suzette started swimming for USA Swimming clubs at the age of 10. From that time on, she was exposed to a world where swim coaches viewed young swimmers as their next conquest.
“I frequently saw underage swimmers sitting on coaches’ laps,” she said. “It gave me the creeps. And when I was 12, I met another coach who Olympic gold medalist Deena Deardorff said had repeatedly sexually abused her.”
Ms. Deardorff said her abuse started in 1968 and continued through the 1972 Munich Olympics.
USA Swimming’s then-executive director Chuck Wielgus acknowledged the problem in September 2009, when he said he’d been notified that coaches were sexually abusing swimmers “almost every week.”
Remember the name Chuck Wielgus because it comes up repeatedly in the three lawsuits. He passed away in 2017.
Attorney Robert Allard has been advocating for women who were sexually abused by USA Swimming coaches for 13 years and said, “We know that hundreds of USA Swimming coaches sexually abused countless young swimmers, a majority of whom have suffered in silence while USA Swimming reaped the financial rewards of Olympic gold medal-winning athletes. It’s high time we give these survivors their voices back.”
Debra Denithorne Grodensky
Debra Denithorne Grodensky found her voice in order to advocate for mandated sexual abuse education and training for USA Swimming coaches, officials, volunteers, athletes and parents.
“If there had been a mandated educational program when I was a swimmer, my coach’s red flag behavior would have been recognized by me or the hundreds of people who knew about my sexual abuse,” Debra said.
Her coach was the notorious serial pedophile Andy King, who was sentenced in 2010 to 40 years in prison after pleading no contest to 20 counts of felony child molestation.
The allegations against King date back to the 1970s.
Debra was abused by King for five years beginning in 1980, when she was just 11 years old.
“Andy King’s process of grooming me for his sexual gratification began shortly after he approached my parents and explained that I could be an elite swimmer, perhaps an Olympian,” Debra said. “He also groomed my family, friends and teammates.”
“I believe my life trajectory would have been drastically different if USA Swimming did not have a culture that enabled coaches to sexually abuse their athletes,” Debra said. “It was that culture that permitted Andy King to abuse me for years without consequence.”
Debra also called out former USA Swimming executive director Wielgus for failing to protect young swimmers.
“Wielgus directed current USA Swimming members Clint Benton, Steve Morselli and Millie Nygren to keep Andy King’s abuse a secret,” Debra said. “They are still USA Swimming employees and they have never been held accountable.”
She hopes the current executive director, Tim Hinchey, will “get rid of all USA Swimming members who enabled Andy King to sexually abuse me and more than a dozen other swimmers.”
King’s abuse of Debra began to circulate throughout USA Swimming circles to the point where, in 1985, San Ramon Valley Aquatics refused to renew his contract.
But he stayed in Northern California and continued to coach and abuse young swimmers at Chabot Aquatics.
One of those swimmers, who is identified as plaintiff Katie Kelly in the King lawsuit, overheard a conversation between Pacific Swimming representatives “wherein one of them openly acknowledged King was a pedophile and/or child molester and was sleeping with his swimmers,” the lawsuit says.
While at Chabot, King allegedly sexually assaulted at least 10 young female swimmers and impregnated one of the girls, the lawsuit says.
Reports of King’s sexual misconduct finally forced him to leave the San Francisco Bay Area. He moved to Oak Harbor, Washington, where he reportedly abused two young women.
He was back in the Bay Area by 2000, working as the head coach at San Jose Aquatics.
In 2003, swimmer Katie Kelly filed a written complaint about King to Pacific Swimming that was forwarded to USA Swimming.
“Her complaint was ignored,” Mr. Allard said. “We know of at least one underage swimmer who was abused between 2009-2010 because they didn’t act on Ms. Kelly’s complaint.”
That swimmer, however, notified her pastor, who called the San Jose Police Department. They arrested King on April 2, 2009.
For King, it was the beginning of the end.
But the trauma still hasn’t ended for his victims.
“I’ve suffered from years of anxiety and depression as a result of King’s abuse,” Debra said.
Swimmer Tracy Palmero said it took her 15 years to realize she was a sexual abuse victim. “Once I learned that I was a victim it rocked my world – it shook and almost destroyed the foundation of who I thought I was as a human being,” she said.
Tracy was abused by Coach Everett Uchiyama, who coached her in the early 1990s at SOCAL Aquatics in Tustin, California.
“Uchiyama began the grooming process when I was approximately 14 years old and began sexually abusing me when I was 16,” Tracy said. “It was no secret that he was abusing me – I believe the other coaches knew about it and did nothing.”
They certainly knew about it by 1999: that’s when reports circulated throughout SOCAL Aquatics about Uchiyama having a sexual relationship with yet another young swimmer. Uchiyama abruptly resigned and moved to Colorado Springs, where he worked as the National Team Coordinator at USA Swimming’s headquarters.
Tracy remained silent about her abuse until 2006.
“After living silently with this abuse for nearly a decade, I went to Chuck Wielgus and explained what happened,” she said. “Instead of assuring me that Uchiyama would never coach children again, Wielgus had him sign a secret agreement admitting to the abuse and forcing him to resign.”
That agreement banned Uchiyama from coaching for USA Swimming affiliates.
“When USA Swimming announced Uchiyama’s resignation, they didn’t say anything about the sexual abuse allegations,” Mr. Allard said. “They didn’t warn anyone in the swimming community that he was a sexual predator, nor did they notify law enforcement. They just swept it under the rug.”
In fact, USA Swimming helped Uchiyama get another coaching job that once again put him in contact with young female swimmers.
“Less than a year after he was banned from USA Swimming, their No. 2 person, Pat Hogan, provided Uchiyama a glowing recommendation to help him secure a job at the Country Club of Colorado. It was as if they were dismissing everything that I went through. This is how USA Swimming takes care of its predator-coaches.”
USA Swimming did not make Uchiyama’s ban public until late 2010 when it feared the media would blast the organization for covering up Uchiyama’s behavior, the lawsuit says.
“These cases demonstrate how USA Swimming covered up its sexual abuse problem for decades,” Mr. Allard said. “They formed a committee in 1991 to address the issue and that committee made a series of recommendations that would have protected athletes but they were ignored. As a result, countless young women and girls have suffered and are continuing to suffer because of USA Swimming’s negligence.”
He went on to say, “We are asking USA Swimming to proactively reach out to each and every person known to be sexually abused by USA Swimming coaches. Don’t wait for the laws to change as they now have in California. Please, do the right thing and stop hiding behind all of your medals and money. These are human beings, beautiful women who were subjected to atrocious acts while placed under your care and have been severely damaged as a result. Each and every one of these women have been betrayed in many ways by many people, far beyond their abusers. Indeed, these predator- coaches were allowed to openly groom their intended victims due to a culture of indifference and a cowardly willingness to tow the company line.”
Tracy is also calling for a “new culture of health, safety and athlete protection to be at the forefront of every decision that USA Swimming and its local affiliates make.”
She explained that she’s filing the lawsuit because “I want to see lasting change within USA Swimming and its affiliated organizations. I also want an investigation into who enabled Uchiyama to sexually abuse me and I want every one of those individuals banned from the sport of swimming.”
Attorney Allard agreed saying, “This organization cannot truly move forward unless it expels from its membership – permanently – those responsible for the perpetuation of this culture and replaces them immediately with good and decent people who will not hesitate to say that the protection of child members, especially from child molesters, is unquestionably the most important function of USA Swimming.”
The USA Swimming web site lists nearly 200 individuals, as of March 31, 2021, who are banned from the sport, most for sexual misconduct. https://www.usaswimming.org/safe-sport/individuals-suspended-or-ineligible