Monday, December 19, 2011

100 Minutes with Chuck Part 2: My Bias

The following is the second part in a series of blogs about my meeting on Saturday, December 17th with USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus. Click here for part 1.

I spent nearly all of Saturday processing. I was lucky that Kate was with me. Not only did she ask all the questions I would have kicked myself for not asking afterwards, but she was somebody else I could talk to about what had happened. She also probed me to think more about my own motivations than I had before. That afternoon I told her a secret.

It's not a secret to many of my teammates or my parents, but it is to this audience just as it was to Kate. In my life, I have been abused by my coach. Not sexually, not to the horrifying, debilitating degree that many swimmers have. But I know I was abused. When I told someone who had the power to stop it, to take a stand for me, that person chose to protect my abuser, even suggested that I deserved it. That was the experience that kept me up at night before the meeting.

I'm going to go into more detail only because I believe that it might help someone else. The abuse carried over several years. The coach knew my insecurities and attacked them precisely. The primary, but not the only, target was my weight. It was something that I'd never felt particularly self-conscious about. The more he targeted me, the worse I felt, and the more I comforted myself with food. Emboldened, one of my teammates joined in the "fun". Rather than protect me from that teammate, my coach actually forced me to swim with him every day. When I protested, he told me he was having me swim with that particular teammate so that he wouldn't pick on anyone else.

I remember the anger, sadness and frustration. I remember feeling totally powerless to do anything about it. I had to medicate myself to sleep, otherwise I would lay in my bed restless with anger. I was angry at my coach but also angry at myself for not confronting him. I thought about quitting but I was too stubborn to do it. I loved swimming and I wasn't going to let a coach ruin it for me.

After two years and with the help of family, friends and mental health professionals, I got momentum in the right direction. I lost some weight and felt better about myself. My coach's taunts turned to back slaps. Everything was fine on a superficial level, but I hadn't forgotten what it was like before. At one practice, I saw my coach go after some of my teammates. My anger was back again. I wanted to protect them, I didn't want them to be a victim like me. I wrote an e-mail I came to regret. In it I told my teammates the truth: that coach was abusive and that they didn't need to take it. They could hold their heads high.

I should have known that the e-mail would propel me into a confrontation I had long avoided. One of  my teammates forwarded the e-mail to my coach. The next day I found myself in his superiors office. The two of them confronted me. Did I know how serious my allegation was? I did. They threatened to remove me from the team if I didn't recant. I stood my ground. I detailed everything as calmly as I could to my coach and his superior. When I was done, his superior asked me "But wouldn't you admit that losing some weight helped you swim faster?".

My cat out of the bag, reactions from my teammates were mixed. Some of them felt like I was putting them in the way of a fight that was just between me and my coach. Still others came to me and told me stories far more chilling than mine. They had been abused too. I felt like I hadn't done enough. so I climbed one rung higher in administration and told my story again. At this level, I at least wasn't told I deserved it, but the inaction was the same.

I didn't have peace for a long time after that again. I struggled with the same cycle of anger and frustration. I was incredibly lucky that in the next year I would meet my wife, somebody who has lifted me up in too many ways to count. After two years still feeling angry, I read in a book about the power of forgiveness. I wrote my coach to tell him that even though he had never apologized to me, I forgave him. I apologized for my own anger and immaturity in dealing with the situation.

Kate believes (as do I, to a certain extent) that our meeting would have gone differently had I been up front with Chuck and Susan about this event in my past. I have no idea whether either of them were ever abused by a coach- they may very well have been. I recognize that every individual handles it differently. I also recognize that some people will read this blog and scoff at it. They will call it a sob story and think I am playing a victim. There will be those who, like that superior, think I deserved it. I am at peace with that fact although I admit it did give me trepidation before writing this.

So I have to admit, when I see the Chuck respond to Katie Kelly's e-mail with "No formal complaint is being filed, so there is no formal action for us to take" I go back. When I see Deena Deardurff Schmidt hold a press conference and, when asked about it, Chuck says "Well...I wish she would file a complaint", I go back. I go back to that room where I sat with my abuser and someone who could do something about it but chose not to.

It's easy to give in to anger, but I've learned over the years it doesn't help. I'm incredibly lucky that I had so many people to help me do better than be angry. The best I can come up with at the moment is to continue saying as best I can to Chuck and others a simple truth: what you did was wrong.

In my next blog, I'm going to attempt to explain, but not excuse, why these things happen.


  1. Thank you for sharing this with us, Chris. It's a miracle that you didn't abandon the sport, but stayed in it and became a coach yourself. You're uniquely positioned to see the issue from all sides and make swimming a better sport, and as the parent of two young swimmers, I have to thank you. Keep up the good work.

  2. Interesting post, thanks for sharing. I bet if you were a college woman rather than a college man who had a coach picking on their weight your complaints would have been taken more seriously. The old-school mentality of guys "sucking-it-up" is still around, though seems to be fading.

    I know of a few college men's coaches that consciously choose weaker members of the team to pick on. They want the faster, ALPHA types to spread their wings and strut their egos a bit, and to hone their killer instinct (if you will) on the lesser contributors. By setting the tone, they can hope that the sacrificial lambs are the focus of the abuse rather than a more beta type that is a contributor. I've talked to these coaches, and they run very successful programs, but that would never be my style. From what I've read Michael Jordan used to run his teams that way, and there were some NBA players he completely broke along the way.

    It is abusive to the sacrificial lambs. I'm not sure if this was going on at your college, but your story reminded me of this.

  3. People underestimate the pain caused by emotional abuse.
    Had you been punched - something probably would have been done.
    If you were able to choose your punishment, I bet you would have chosen the punch.

  4. Chris I am so proud of you (once again) for speaking for the victim. Over the years, when I have questioned some of the framework/administration of our sport, I think of you as a teenager and as the adult you have become and remember why I love coaching.

  5. Chris is leaving out a story that I will tell. I swam with him in high school. My sophomore year we got a new coach. He was terrible. Among other things, he forced the swimmers on the team to do flips off the diving board with towels over our faces. He made us swim through a gauntlet were we punched each other. When this "drill" opened up a gash over his teammates eye, Chris had enough. I still remember what happened next like it was yesterday.

    Before the next practice, Chris walked up to our coach and said he needed to go, that the things he was making us do were wrong and that we weren't going to practice anymore until he left. I sat there with my face pressed up against the glass (we were in a tunnel looking up at them on the pool deck). They stood on the deck for what seemed like an eternity. Our coach threw every insult in the book at him, "p" and "f" and everything in between. What I'll never forget is the way Chris, who I guess was all of 17 at the time, just stood there, staring at coach in the face and refusing to back down. We all met with the athletic director the next day and I never saw that coach again.

    Chris, no matter what I will never forget you and what you did for me and your teammates that day. I never told thank you. THANK YOU

  6. When I said "formal complaint," I meant lawsuit. I was trying to clue Pacific Swimming in on Andy King's abuse, without bringing in lawyers, because that would be more than I could handle. Society reacts in cruel ways to victims of abuse, especially when speaking up years later. So, I thought I was doing them a favor. Like, Pssst. This guy does bad stuff. You might want to look into this. That nothing happened after that meant, to me, that Andy King must have changed his ways, which was my hope. I really thought that there was no way someone could read what I described and not be mortified. They just HAD to be monitoring the situation, as they told me they would, so no news was good news. Foolish me! The whole thing got "lost," stuck to the back of another manila folder. In what world is making swimmers kiss for thirty seconds to get out of practice "normal," please tell me that, Chuck Wielgus.

    That's more than I intended to say. I really just wanted to tell you THANK YOU.

  7. Katie,

    I don't know you, but I'm sorry for what happened to you. It seems that the people who can make change look the other way if it does not involve their families. If this happened to one of Chuck's daughters, I'm sure something would have been done.

  8. Why are the commenters on this site so much more intelligent with the folks at USA-S? Chris - above anonymous nailed it. Next time talk to Chuck, and ask him to put himself in the shoes of a swim parent, and if something happened to one of his daughters. Ask him if he'd be satisfied with the responses that he's been giving, and with the lack of action that some have accused the organization of. How has he not thought about it from that perspective yet?

  9. Abuse comes in many forms, not all of them sexually oriented. In my case an officer of the organization decided she didn't like me and spread lies nationwide.

    The grievance process is nothing but a joke, there is no due process, and is way too politicized (and I say that even though my grievance was found in my favor, and she lost her appeal to the board of review).

    The emotional toll of finding that lies about your integrity and honesty are being spread nationwide is huge, and it is not something that is easy to recover from. Relationships fostered over decades of volunteer work have been severed because those people have to choose between those in power (i.e., their future in the organization) and me (with my reputation destroyed by the lies).

  10. Chris are you monitoring/ reading about the arrest in Fla at gator swim club? If so, there are mostly reasonable remarks about the news and posters asked if the club felt they had done a real thorough job vetting the guy... Right away, denials and defensiveness instead of saying "good question--

  11. on another blog site .... sorrrry :) look for jcoach in comments- few other remarks about "club bashing" which no one did , really....

  12. Abuse comes in many forms, not all of them sexually oriented. In some cases it comes from mentally unbalanced paranoid individuals who seem to have nothing better to do than find conspiracies where none exist.

    Real abuse should not be tolerated, period.  Be it sexual, religious, physical, whatever. It should be reported to the proper authorities and dealt with.

    Contrived abuse, playground taunts, splashes of truth's and paranoid conspiracies often obfuscate the cases of real abuse.  They consume scarce resources that could be better utilized fixing real problems, instead of having to response to those who have nothing better to do than rail against the machine.

  13. Anon...if you feel people are spending time worrying about conspiracies that don't exist, perhaps you are one of the people shoving things under carpets in order to protect the status quo and your political power. Sad, but there seems to be a lot of that going around swimming lately.

  14. Please elaborate non believer anon-- where is there a belief of conspiracy where none exists? Where is there a sexual abuse case/set of accusations that seems to have no basis in fact? Id love to know.. as an educator, everytime Ive seen a made up accusation-- and it happens-- the truth is almost always uncovered.....

  15. Thank you for posting about this. My kids are young (just 4 and 6), but we are likely going to get them involved in swimming or some other sport. Reading about horrific accounts like yours reminds me of how important it is to utilize tools like those discussed in the book "Protecting the Gift."

    So after reading this blog post, before I sign up either of my kids for a swim team when they are a tad older, I will be meeting with the coach and will be asking them some very point blank questions on this topic.