Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A totally informal interview with Susan Woessner

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.


  1. Chris,

    No offense, I know you are trying, but it seems that you just wasted 50 minutes of your life. Sounds like the same BS from USA Swimming!!!

  2. "Susan did point out to me that I have made little to no effort to be involved politically in USA Swimming"

    Just like USA Swimming to put the blame and focus on others. Chris, by allowing individuals to post comments, positive or negative, you are providing a forum for people to come together and share their experiences.

    Change will only occur when the corruption is made public!

    Your blog is doing much more to help the sport of swimming than if you became "politically involved"!

  3. I find the mentality of the some of the "high profile" USA Swimming staffers, like Susan, to be akin to those who go to work in the IRS or EPA. The answer to the problem is, invariably, more regulation and more bureaucracy. There are points in your description of your conversation that make that feeling wash over me.

    Your feeling of a disconnect is, I think, spot on. I am sure Susan is a nice person. I haven't actually met anyone from USA Swimming that I disliked, but as an organization...well it needs some work relating to the membership.

    Lest I sound like a do nothing complainer, I really like the Athlete Protection Training course that came out this fall. This is the sort of thing we should be doing more of. It is an active and positive effort at educating the membership.

    I also have to say, that I resent the old "If you don't like it then get involved" argument that is thrown about. As someone who is trying to be more involved at the leadership level, I have to say that it is not that easy to become involved. Sure, you can sit in at committee meetings at convention, but it still takes an appointment from the President to actually get to participate in a meaningful way.

  4. Protection for Good Faith Reporters? Please have Susan read 306.2... "No Member shall retaliate against any individual who has made a good faith report under [USA Swimming Athlete Protection Rules]." This rule is the foundation of her job.

    Though USA Swimming Rules fall short of any objective standard, failure to protect ANYONE who reports is a conscious choice by Susan Woessner and Chuck Wielgus.

    The Rules(though inadequate) exist. Leadership, accountability, integrity, and any desire to address swimming's problems DO NOT.

  5. I have a suggestion for USA Swimming. PLEASE make the Athlete Protection Course available to the athletes and parents. It's the athletes and families who are being affected by the abuse and should be informed of what to look for.

    A lot of parents of teenagers (boys included) become less involved once their children start driving or are able to get rides with others.

    Teenage boys and female coaches should not be excluded from the equation of inappropriate behavior!

    I really do not understand the reasoning behind only educating the coaches and officials. Members of these groups are the accused predators and people who choose to look the other way so who is it helping by providing them with more information.

    The athletes and the parents are the members who need the information!!!

  6. Its high time that we all realize that real change will not occur unless this leadership group is replaced. It is that simple. Time and time again, this group has deceived all of us about what they knew and have consistently failed to put the interests of minor swimmers ahead of their own. They can say all they want until they are blue in the face, through Susan Woessner or otherwise, but it is all window dressing and a pacifier offering for the national media. What has happened at Penn State is, to put it mildly, tame compared to what has happened at USA Swimming. If membership does not rise up to replace those in power, it looks like governmental intervention will be the only way. Either way, we will not quit until something is done. I have seen the unspeakable damage that sex abuse has caused. To think that all of this could have been easily prevented on multiple occassions if Swimming had taken simple steps starting decades ago is mind numbing, disgusting and deplorable. We all must heed to this call of action. Robert Allard, Member of National Sex Abuse Victim Advocate Team, San Jose, CA

  7. This is akin to the Penn State football. They knew! They did nothing. In some cases they advanced predictors careers. How are these people still in charge and not in jail?!

    I want to share a statement i made at,

    "The fact that the very coaches who have misbehaved have ownership of the oganizations that are to oversee proper behavior a clear case of nepitism and thus they(and such organizations) must be removed from such responsibility.

    This should be the duty of an independent firm that perhaps is involved in an array of youth activities as watchdogs. The coaches had their chance (as a coach i hate to say that), they blew it, now its time for outside enforcement to be involved."

    In regard to the comment that you should be more involved.. I agree, it's extremely hard just to get the local LSC's to allow coaches to be involved, only the ass-kissers that go along are given the chance. Those of us who demand change are brushed aside. This is typically the 1st step to national involvement. I am hoping that is the story with Barrowman ...he is working his way up the ladder playing cool and then will do something I can respect when he gets to the Directors office.

    You said, "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...", My question is, do they both have to sign off? (you statement says "and")

    one last thing... great point with bring up Pat Hogan. The list of elite coaches that should not be allowed to enter upon this discussion due to conflict of interest reads like the who's who or modern day USA swimming.

  8. Hydro is right on!

    An example would be Bettie Williams of Southern California Swimming. Her LIES got a young ladies swim membership terminated. There are at least three documents that prove Bettie is a liar. Yet, Bettie remains on the Board of Review, Bettie remains on the Pacific Committee as an officials rep., and now Bettie appears on the ballot for the Board of Directors for Southern California Swimming.

    Yes, give the liar more power!!!

    Most complaints do not go directly to USA Swimming. Most complaints are handled at the LSC level and cannot be sent to Colorado until the LSC has a hearing and, in some cases, a rehearing. After the rehearing, the complaint can go to the National Board of Review.

    Also, there are many code of conduct violations that are suppose to be handled at the LSC level and do not go to the National Board of Review unless an appeal is requested.

    It seems that many of the people in charge have never read the rules and regulations, the by-laws, or the Amateur Sports Act.

  9. Sorry for taking some time to respond, I was coaching at our invite this weekend.

    As I walked the deck- a fair number of coaches came up and wanted to talk to me about the post. The response was the same from all of them- they think I was too easy on USA Swimming. They feel the disconnect that I feel. One parent of a swimmer sent me an emotional e-mail pleading with me to continue to push USA Swimming on this issue.

    As for the Bruce Stratton/Chuck Wielgus approval above, Susan didn't specify other than to say that they have never disagreed, something I found strange and frankly made me feel more cynical. I will be following up this week in a full post.

  10. here is a link to a great article...

  11. I very recently brought to Susan's attention a USA Swim coach who also coaches high school girls, who was 'following' 55 people in his twitter account, that fell into the following categories:

    Playboy centerfold
    Hooters Waitress
    Hooters restaurants throughout the US

    While these alone are fairly benign, it is the following two categories that are alarming:

    porn stars
    models using their twitter accounts as fronts for porn sites

    Susans response to me was that there was no code of conduct violation (and thus no action needed from USA Swimming), but why don't YOU (meaning me) alert his employer.

    So after the head of athlete protection is notified that one of USA Swimming's coaches has a serious 'infatuation' with women and sex, her official response is for me to handle it.

    1. Anonymous did you handle it? Did you report it to that coaches USA team? His high school, or even the school district superintendent or the school board? If not why not?
      While I find everything you reported about this coaches twitter habits creepy I fail to see where Susans response is in anyway wrong. Having a subscription to Playboy even if only to read the articles is not a violation of USA swimmng rules.
      Did you witness this coach do something that is a USA swimming code of conduct violation, a violation of a local school districts code of conduct, or violation of any state or federal laws regarding conduct with children, females or members of any sex? If you did then reporting who this coach follows on twitter instead of his criminal act is an incredibly large failure on your part. (reference Joe P at PSU)
      Again this is alarming as you have stated but ultimately not illegal in any way. If you live in a state where any of these thigs are illegal then I appologize for my ignorance and encourage you to file a police report immediately.
      While I agree with Chris and many of his views on USA swimming, I do not want USA swimming especially with the current leadership keeping a list of coaches who have committed no violations or crimes, but just because they are different or creepy(reference the Gestapo). I would preffer that they actually put their best foot forward enforce the rules we have and actually go after the coaches who we have unrefutable proof of violating code of conduct and even child protection laws. Adding to and improving these rules each year would be a continued step in the right direction.
      I do find it just as creepy that you spend so much time following a persons twitter patterns. Do you have a personal beef with this coach or a real example of this coaches inappropriate behavior with swimmers that lead you to follow him so closely? If so file a police report, once this is done then send copies of this to Susan, USA swimming, Robert Allard, Chris D, the LSC, the school, the school district and any other group charged with child protection and oversight in the area. At 10 cents a copy you can ensure that if this coach is a predator that people will know about it and not be able to sweep it under the rug.
      Concerning Susan, I have known her for almost a decade but not seen her or spoken to her since Trials in 2008. I do not envy her position at USA swimming but am glad to see someone like Susan there. She is an extremely hard worker and someone who is passionate about swimming and helping people. I am sure she has and will make mistakes in her attempts to do the right thing for everyone, especially the swimmers, not just provide CYA for USA swimming execs. But make no mistake about it Susan is one of the good guys/gals at USA swimming, and there are not many.
      I do not have a twitter account nor would I know how to use it. I do not have a face book page. I am a former USA swimming coach. I have coached with the smallest grass roots teams in USA swimming to some of the largest and even most famous/successful. Swimmers I have coached have won LSC, state, sectional, & jr national championships. They have been top 8 at Long course nationals, top 3 at short course nationals and Trials Semi finalist. I do not claim to be a great coach but do claim to have had the opportunity to coach some incredibly gifted and dedicated athletes. I am ashamedly a life member of ASCA but can atleast say I did not pay for it. It was part of a former employers benefits package to full time coaches. I am outside of coaching but still very much involved and around swimming as an aquatics professional. I hope my background will allow you to read my reply as someone who does have a valid perspective to this very important topic.

  12. All right, I get it! Everyone is mad at USA Swimming. Short of changing the leadership for another (which is not possible by the way with the current structure we have) I have not heard what else could be done to "secure" our children's safety on deck. What happened at Penn State is a moral tragedy! The coaching staff who have joined the Penn State football team entered the institution with no existent moral compass. They expected the institution to do the right thing for them (like they have no moral obligations beyond that). THAT NEVER HAPPENS! An institution will ALWAYS look after their own single minded benefit - be that Penn State, a fortune 500 company or a swim club. I don't think we can change this so what needs to be done is primarily at grass roots level. When I (a person with a moral compass) see anything on deck that is not right I speak up, I tell the person in charge and everyone else. It all starts with me not USA Swimming. The only obligation USA Swimming has is to create an environment where I will be listened and create a mechanism for me to follow through. If I see something that is definitely wrong going on on deck I am not making a call to USA Swimming ... I am calling the POLICE!

    1. Anonymous from Nov 27th 6:18pm you are correct. It starts with US and not USA swimming. Call the police not USA swimming. If we do what is right then we will not enable corruption like what we have seen at USA swimming’s governing body, be able to cover up criminal acts and hurt innocent victims they are supposed to be protecting.

  13. I know of a situation where a convicted pedophile owned an outdoor pool for 5 years. during that time, a USA registered swim team used that pool for team practice as well as for their Swim America lessons. The pedophile was seen at the pool on many occasions. To make matters more interesting, the pedophiles sister is the board president of the swim team that rented the pool from the pedophile. Her husband, the pedophiles brother-in-law, is an assistant DA and prosecutes people like this all the time, yet he has no problem with the pedophiles ownership and use of this facility.
    USA Swimming was notified of this and because there was no code of conduct violation and the pedophile was not a member of USA Swimming, Susan said there was nothing they could do.

    The pedophile was convicted of second degree sexual assault of a minor (the pedophile was a 39 yr old male, his victim was a 14 yr old boy). the pedophile also had a prior misdemeanor conviction for indecent exposure as well as a prior arrest with deferred sentence for lewd behavior/exposed genitals. seems he was exposing himself to 12 yr old girls...

    No disclosure was ever made to the swim team members or Swim America students and families that a convicted child molester owned and used the facility.

    1. Anonymous from Nov 27 8:54 pm if what you have posted is true call up your local news stations investigative reporter. If the rules we must live by have loop holes like what you are describing then a quick headliner to a journalist looking to make his career can atleast follow up and possibly confirm your story and make the public and swim team members aware of their situation. If this happened in the past try it anyway. The pedophile may be renting or working at another pool. Short of being dead it is almost certain that this pedophile has and will continue his behavior.

  14. What Anonymous said in this comment on November 18. Make the athlete protection course available to athletes and parents. And possibly let the members know that coaches and officials are taking the course and that they're doing something about this issue.

    I wrote an email to this effect to Susan about a month ago, offering to help if there is a way that I can, and have yet to receive an answer.

    The irony is that my email stated that the best way to solve this problem is to communicate and then they don't answer my email! I guess they don't agree with me.

  15. Chris continue to fight the good fight. Do not give up! See my reply to Nov 23rd concerning Susan. She is one of the good guys and someone who I believe will do the right thing. I think you both have the same goal and can assist each other in reaching it.Keep asking the hard questions and being fair with Susan. I think you will continue to find positive results.
    Your blog is a good step towards helping clean out USA swimming but Susan is correct we (coaches & parnets) must become more involved. Susans response may be typical but not incorrect.
    Coaches run for LSC posts at every opportunity. Start the climb through the USA swimming political ranks that must be started. Be vocal at your LSC meetings and if and when you are eleted to represent at convention be vocal there. Short of an uncommon weather occurance swallowing all of USA swimmings high profile leaders, we have little other choice than starting at the ground level and filling the ranks until we can unseat these people.

  16. I consider it up to me to protect my child first and foremost and that started when she was a little girl, educating her about how to protect herself. She WAS approached by a local high school swimming official in the Augusta Ga area ( not USA swimming) inappropriately on the internet at age 17. She immediately showed it to me - though not illegal ( "you are very attractive if you dont mine me saying so") We BOTH knew it was a creep alert moment and before I could decide what action to take, he WAS arrested in a similar sting as the Woodward guy down in Fla. Almost an identical story - except he is now serving 10 years in federal prison ..... I am thankful it never moved beyond that weird private facebook message but he most certainly was "grooming" her according to the local child molestation/internet stalking task force cop who interviewed her... he had approached over 15 local girls and said worse than he did to mine...