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Friday, April 30, 2010
Ex-VP says swimming must avoid abuse

Associated Press

As USA Swimming prepared to discuss a new plan to deal with a rash of sexual abuse cases, a former vice president said Friday the governing body has dragged its feet for years and still isn't doing enough to prevent coaches from having improper contact with athletes.

Mike Saltzstein, a vice president at USA Swimming from 2000-06 and a member of the organization for three decades, sent a letter this week recommending what he said are six decisive steps to deal with a culture that makes it easier for abuses to occur.

Among his proposals, which he said should go into effect immediately: mandate that two adults -- either two coaches, or a coach and a parent -- be on hand for any interaction with a youth swimmer.

Saltzstein said the seven-point plan that USA Swimming unveiled last week doesn't really address the problem. The board of directors will discuss the proposal at a regularly scheduled board meeting in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Saturday.

"I came up with what I think are six pretty easy, pretty quick action steps that show some real action," Saltzstein told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from San Diego. "The seven they sent out, well, there's just no action to be found in there."

He also called on the International Swimming Hall of Fame to expel any inductee who had inappropriate contact with an athlete.

Last month, Deena Deardurff Schmidt, a 1972 Olympic champion, disclosed she was molested by her coach while training in the 1960s. Despite telling officials at USA Swimming years later, she said, the coach -- whom she wouldn't name -- went on to train more young swimmers and was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

At least four lawsuits have been filed against USA Swimming alleging improper contact between coaches and young athletes. ABC's "20/20" reported that at least 36 coaches have been banned for life by the governing body over the last decade because of sexual misconduct.

Chuck Wielgus, executive director of USA Swimming, said he didn't want to address Saltzstein's complaints and recommendations until after the board meeting.

The plan revealed last week by Wielgus would set up comprehensive guidelines for acceptable coaching behavior; enhance the system for reporting sexual abuse to the organization and law enforcement; determine if improvements need to be made in the current system of background checks; and develop stronger ties with local clubs that are responsible for hiring coaches.

The plan also calls for a review of USA Swimming's conduct code and the process for sharing coaches' records with member clubs and other youth organizations. Finally, the governing body said it must educate athletes, parents, coaches and club leaders on what they can do to help.

"We have received a great deal of constructive input from our membership, including strong support and suggestions to continue to improve our organization, as well as substantial input from outside experts," Wielgus said in a statement to the AP. "We will take what is constructive in Mr. Saltzstein's letter and review it, just as we have all other input we've received, both from the swimming community and from independent child welfare experts."

Saltzstein, who served on the deck at the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a technical official, said he initially sent his recommendations to Pat Lunsford, vice president of program operations, on April 16. Six days later, he said, Lunsford told him that he wouldn't be re-nominated to a list of officials submitted to work at international meets.

Reached on his cell phone Friday evening, Lunsford said he had only received the letter from Saltzstein the previous day. He said the list of proposed officials was completed three weeks earlier and was based on a list of criteria that included age, gender, geographic balance and number of meets worked.

"This (letter) had no bearing on that whatsoever," Lunsford told the AP. "Mike met some of the criteria, as a whole lot of officials do. But he had only worked one meet since 2006."

Saltzstein is still eligible to work pool meets through the end of the year, according to Lunsford, and he's on the list of open-water officials through 2012.

USA Swimming has some 300,000 members and has experienced rapid growth over the past decade, largely due to the popularity of 14-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps. But Saltzstein claims the governing body is more concerned with marketing the sport than protecting athletes.

"What concerns me is we seem to have forgotten our youth members," he said. "Instead of really focusing on child protection or even following through on the basics, we seem to be worried about the image and how the sport works."

Saltzstein's proposed guidelines would require the reporting of suspicious behavior as a condition of membership; punish USA Swimming staff members who fail to report or attempt to delay an investigation, including possible termination; and forbid any coach from performing massages or rubdowns on an athlete unless certified to do so, and never in a one-on-one setting.

Finally, he asks the organization to implement a "real" protection program that focuses on youth swimmers but requires discipline for any reports of sexual harassment, unacceptable touching or threat of retaliation.

"This is something that simply has to be addressed," Saltzstein said. "It's an uncomfortable subject. It isn't about performance, it isn't about smiles and gold medals. It's basically about how we treat our members."

He said the genesis of the problem can be traced to a philosophy that believes coaches can get the best performance out of their athletes when parents are not too closely involved.

"We said to mom and dad, 'You're not needed on the pool deck," Saltzstein said. "So parents started writing checks and asking no questions. What parent wouldn't want their kid to develop to the best of his ability?"

He said he first raised the issue of sexual abuse in 1999 and helped set up the current system of background checks that went into effect in 2006. That year, he ran for president of USA Swimming but was defeated by Jim Wood.

Saltzstein is no longer involved with the national leadership but insisted that he harbors no grudge against the organization.

"Swimming is a great sport," he said. "I gain nothing from tearing it down. I want this thing fixed. I don't want it to continue to be a problem."