Yesterday I talked on the phone with Susan Woessner for 50 minutes. I had planned to record the conversation, not to establish a record of everything that Susan had said, but so that I didn't misquote her on anything. Unfortunately, I discovered after the call that my recording had totally failed. In an effort to not let time skew what I remember about the call, I endeavored to write this blog right away so I didn't forget.
To start off with, this wasn't a formal interview. Susan said she was more interested in starting a dialogue, and although I'm writing about it on my blog, I don't consider myself a professional interviewer. We start by talking about culture change in swimming, although we had some disagreements about what that meant. To both of us, the clear change had to be in the reporting of abuse by athletes. Susan sees a clear path to changing this- the creation of an education component for USA Swimming athletes and coaches, as well as changes to the USA Swimming code of conduct that mandate reporting, as well as provide for the protection of good faith reporters. I still believe that the culture that has to change (and doesn't appear likely to) involves much larger changes at Colorado Springs. I told Susan candidly that I think a lack of trust for her employers is a major hindrance to complaints being brought to them. Abuse claims are drastically unreported. I think having new paid leadership at USA Swimming would go a long way to restarting that trust.
Susan walked me through the process of someone making a complaint. One of the questions I had was whether, if someone brought a complaint that included criminal behavior, she was obligated to instruct them to report it to police. She was emphatic that she would do so, and that she also kept track of relative mandatory reporting policies within different states and had aided people in understanding their legal obligations to report. If the complaint constitutes a possible code of conduct violation, she forwards that complaint to an independent investigator, who conducts an investigation and then completes an investigative report. USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus and USA Swimming President Bruce Stratton each independently review the report and may request that the complaint be moved forward to a National Board of Review Hearing. If Wielgus and Stratton sign off, the National Board of Review conducts a hearing of USA Swimming v. the accused before a three person panel of two non-athlete members and one athlete member.
The biggest objection I had to this system is the same as above- if you don't trust the executive leadership at USA Swimming (Wielgus) or even the volunteer leadership (Stratton), then you won't trust this process. When she cited club development at one point during the conversation, I swallowed hard and asked her if Pat Hogan's relationship and subsequent marriage with one of his swimmers would be legal under the 2011 code of conduct. Susan declined to comment on Hogan.
Susan did point out to me that I have made little to no effort to be involved politically in USA Swimming. I am like somebody who protests about the US government but doesn't vote in elections. It's an issue I may be looking into, as I am a USA Swimming member coach.
I asked Susan fairly pointedly what kind of measures she was using to see if her office was successful. She said that she is receiving a high volume of calls, but couldn't say how many. She counted the amount of member (30,000) that had been through the new education programs, the 300 people who attended a "safe sport" presentation in Jacksonville and the one additional staff member that will make her a part of an athlete protection team as of December 1st. I was fairly critical at this point- particularly since I believe USA swimming could be producing estimates for how often abuse occurs and then measuring their success at detecting it. I suspect that USA swimming does not want to do this for the bad public relations it would engender. Susan disagrees, of course, and contends that we are only a year into the program and more measures could be forthcoming.
Another issue that we tackled was the general communications disconnect. Susan informed me that I should be getting weekly emails as a USA Swimming coach- I hear absolutely nothing from Colorado Springs. I encouraged Susan too to make the additions to the USA Swimming banned list more public- she informed me that this idea is being considered.
Overall it was a polite discussion and conversation not over by a longshot. I think one of the things that bias Susan and I are the very different experiences we had growing up in USA Swimming. Susan feels very positive about the time she spent as an athlete and employee there. She retired in 2004 having accomplished much and competed at very high levels. I suspect that at the level she competed at she saw a much different side of USA Swimming. By comparison, my own swimming career was fairly marginal- not even sectional level in high school. Over my 8 years in USA Swimming, I had over 10 different coaches. There were a couple good ones- but most were fairly lousy people. I can remember one coach confessing to me that he enjoyed making 13 year old girls cry, I love swimming but don't look fondly upon the majority of my time as a USA Swimming athlete.
Susan was most excited by the fact that she had been able to return to USA Swimming in this kind of role- a role that she knew she wanted to pursue professionally but didn't exist at USA Swimming. She feels strongly that USA Swimming is ahead of other olympic sports in their development. To this, I asked her if it was frustrating to read me complain about USA Swimming in my blog. She expressed frustration only that she didn't have a platform to respond directly.
I know some will read this blog and think I went "easy" on Susan, while still others will be angry that I continue to mistrust USA Swimming's leadership. Either way, know this: today two people who don't agree on everything managed to have a polite conversation about a pretty emotional issue.