Swimming governing body faulted following abuse allegations

Another national sports governing body is facing scrutiny over how it dealt with sexual misconduct allegations after a U.S. champion swimmer said a team coach sexually abused her when she was 16 (Matt Slocum/AP)

SEATTLE — Another national sports governing body is facing scrutiny over how it dealt with sexual misconduct allegations after a U.S. champion swimmer said a team coach sexually abused her when she was 16.

Ariana Kukors, now 28, also told authorities that former assistant swim coach Sean Hutchison took thousands of sexually explicit photographs of her when she was a minor, according to a search warrant document by a federal agent.

Kukors told officers that he kissed and touched her when she was 16 and engaged in sexual activity with her when she was 17 at the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships in Victoria, British Columbia, the document said.

Hutchison, 46, denies abusing Kukors and has not been charged with a crime. U.S. authorities and police executed a search warrant at his Seattle apartment this week, seizing electronic devices.

It’s another scandal for the U.S. governing body of swimming and for the sports world, which was rocked by a litany of sexual misconduct by former USA Gymnastics sports doctor Larry Nassar. USA Swimming revealed in 2010 that sex abuse allegations were mostly to blame for lifetime bans of 46 members and then said it set up training and enhanced screening for all coaches, officials and volunteers.

That same year, Hutchison faced an investigation over his ties to Kukors, but it was closed with no misconduct found. USA Swimming said Thursday that it learned of the underage abuse allegations this week.

Kukors, the 2009 world champion in the 200-meter individual medley who placed fifth in that event in the 2012 Olympics, on Wednesday publicly accused Hutchison of "grooming" her for sexual abuse when she was 13 and he was her coach at a Seattle-area swim club.

"I never thought I would share my story because I was able to leave a horrible monster and build a life I could have never imagined for myself," she said in a statement Wednesday. "But in time, I’ve realized that stories like my own are too important to go unwritten."

Hutchison, who was an assistant coach on the 2008 U.S. Olympic team, said the two were in a relationship after the 2012 Olympics and that she lived in his Seattle home for more than a year.

"At no time did I ever abuse Ariana Kukors or do anything with her that was not consensual," he said in a statement. "I absolutely deny having any sexual or romantic relationship with her before she was old enough to legally make those decisions for herself. Prior to that time, I did nothing to ‘groom’ her."

The investigation comes amid scrutiny over the supervision of people who work with young athletes. Nassar was recently sentenced to decades in prison in a case that led to a reckoning for the gymnastics governing body, with top executives resigning and the entire board of directors planning to step down as requested by the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Kukors’ attorney in California, Robert Allard, compared his client’s case to the one against Nassar.

"Much like the USOC knew about Larry Nassar years before his arrest and did nothing, USA Swimming had notice in 2010 that Sean Hutchison was involved in an inappropriate coach-athlete relationship with Ariana and took no actions to protect her or other swimmers," he said in a statement.

Mike Saltzstein, former vice-president of USA Swimming who previously complained about the organization’s handling of sexual abuse cases, questioned the thoroughness of the organization’s 2010 investigation.

"In retrospect, it was absolutely flawed," he said, adding that a more thorough investigation may have uncovered other problems, including allegations of underage abuse, he said.

"Now with the benefit of hindsight and time, one would have to question whether there was any integrity to the first time they did this investigation," he said, adding that "I sincerely hope that if they’re investigating at 21, did they ask what happened before 18?"

Saltzstein said he believes relationships between swimmers and their coaches are inappropriate and represent an imbalance of power. He said USA Swimming should ensure that allegations are reported to law enforcement.

USA Swimming said Thursday that Kukors’ statement was the first time it learned of the allegations and that "our hearts go out to Ariana and the difficulty she has gone through to reach this point of disclosure." It said it was notified in January of a case against Hutchison filed with the U.S. Center for SafeSport.

The organization said it hired a private investigator in 2010 after learning of a rumoured relationship between Kukors, who was then 21, and Hutchison, who was 39. It said both parties denied a romantic or sexual relationship and the investigation was closed without any violation.

Hutchison left coaching afterward but remained a member of USA Swimming as the owner of member club King Aquatic near Seattle, the organization said.

Hutchison’s bio has been removed from the website. Michael Brooks, the club’s head coach, said Thursday that Hutchison has stepped down as an executive with the club and has had no direct interaction with the club’s swimmers for a very long time. He said the club supports past and current King Aquatic swimmers.

Olympic medallist Margaret Hoelzer, Kukors’ former teammate, said she never heard of Hutchison sexually abusing anyone but rumours were rampant that he and Kukors, then 21, were in a relationship.

"Naively, I should have probably realized it could have started earlier and could have been abuse. I wish I had," she said, adding that dating is common among coaches and their athletes in the sport, especially in Europe.

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