One the nation's top swimming coaches is leaving the Southern California program where he trained several top young women on the U.S. team, amid speculation he was forced out because of an intimate relationship with one of his pupils, The Associated Press has learned.
Sean Hutchison denied he was involved with one of his swimmers, saying "there is no truth to that," insisting his departure was a long-planned move to form his own pro team near his current job at the Fullteron Aquatics Sports Team (FAST).
"I have heard those rumors also," Hutchison told the AP on Wednesday. "Unfortunately in this sport, that happens. Rumors go around like that with a lot of coaches. Sometimes, you're just at the mercy of the rumor mill."
It was more jarring news for the beleaguered American swim program, which this year has endured a sexual abuse scandal involving coaches and underage swimmers, the firing of national team coach Mark Schubert and the death of open-water star Fran Crippen during a meet in the Middle East.
It's not known exactly when Hutchison will leave the Fullerton program, where he coached an elite team that included Katie Hoff, Ariana Kukors and the now-retired Margaret Hoelzer.
FAST is one of three training centers established by USA Swimming since 2007 to work exclusively with professional and postgraduate athletes.
Bill Jewell, who runs the FAST program, had initially said Hutchison's last day was Friday but then said he was merely hoping the transition would be completed by the end of the year.
"Sean really wants to take his dog and pony show to another location," Jewell said Wednesday. "I don't want him to drag his feet. I want this to be handled quickly and efficiently."
Jewell insisted Hutchison wasn't fired, though he did acknowledge "rumors surfaced that made me feel really uncomfortable."
"I brought these issues to Sean's attention, and Sean denied these things," Jewell said. "I, in turn, was relieved with his denial. But still, I'm a guy running this club and I've got rumors flying around out there. I've got parents saying, 'Is my child safe in your place?' I have to address these kind of issues."
The American Swimming Coaches Association code of ethics says a member should never use the influence of his or her position to encourage an intimate relationship with an athlete or engage in sexual relations with one of his or her swimmers who is college age.
"I'm 69 years old," Jewell said. "I've got a clean record. I don't wish to have it tarnished by anyone at this point."
USA Swimming did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Hutchison used unorthodox methods to train swimmers. For example, he stressed technical excellence over practice times and held fewer workouts than most of his colleagues.
His philosophy has clearly worked. Hutchinson recently accompanied the U.S. team to the world short-course championships in Dubai, where he worked with five of the 18 female swimmers -- more than any other coach. In addition to Hoff and Kukors, he also coached Dagny Knutson, Kara Lynn Joyce and Mary Mohler.
Hoff, whose career took a downward turn after a disappointing performance at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, headed west to work with Hutchison after failing to even quality for the 2009 long-course world championships.
Hoff's career appears to be back on track after she won the 400-meter freestyle and took silver in the 200 free at Dubai.
"I'm adjusted to it now," she said at the world championships. "The first year was definitely a transitional year, getting to know Sean, getting to know the coaches and getting to know what's best for me. This year I feel like we've really clicked and learned. It's working really well."
Hoff had previously worked with Bob Bowman, who is Michael Phelps' longtime coach.
"They're best friends but they're polar opposites," she said. "Sean is a little bit more laid back than Bob."
Hutchison, who rose to prominence while coaching at King Aquatics in Seattle, said it has been tough to deal with presumptions about his behavior away from the pool.
"I would rather not comment, and the reason I would rather not comment is because I don't want to add more validity to this discussion," he said. "But as a person, no, it's not very easy."