Sexual Abuse in Women's Sports, Part II: Gold Medalist Deena Deardurff Schmidt

In part two of a five-part interview series about sexual abuse in women's sports, Rob Trucks speaks with Olympic Gold Medalist Deena Deardurff Schmidt.

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Jun 12 2014, 4:15pm

Chuck Wielgus has served as the Executive Director of USA Swimming since 1997. In that time, Michael Phelps set Olympic records, Dara Torres gave hope to those approaching middle-age, and Ryan Lochte did some things. According to public records, in 2012 Wielgus received a salary of $908,432 for his continued shepherding of the national governing body for competitive swimming in the United States.

Also in 2012, 64-year-old Andy King, who coached numerous USA Swimming member clubs over his 30-year career, was in year two of a 40-year sentence after sexually abusing over a dozen girls, one of whom became pregnant as a result. And yet this serial abuser passed a USA Swimming-ordered background check as recently as 2009. Unfortunately King is just one of many serially abusive coaches who managed to slip through the so-called oversight of USA Swimming.

In a press release dated January 28, 2014, Chuck Wielgus was announced as part of 2014 International Swimming Hall of Fame induction class (his name has since been redacted).That ceremony will take place on June 14th, but a petition protesting Wielgus's induction, written by three-time Olympic gold medalist and Women's Sports Foundation's senior director of advocacy Nancy Hogshead-Makar, and signed by 19 swimmers who were victims of sexual abuse and harassment by coaches still active during Wielgus's tenure, was released on May 29th. On June 2nd Wielgus's name was withdrawn from ISHOF consideration.

In a five-part series conducted for VICE Sports, Rob Trucks interviewed Hogshead-Makar and four of the petition's signers about their successful protest, their remarkable range of experiences, the issue of sexual abuse in sports, and how much further we have to go in order to someday put an end to these cases.

[After these interviews were conducted, the US Olympic Committee announced the creation of an independent agency, to be in place by 2015, that will police sexual abuse in sports. It's a start.—Ed.]

Rob Trucks: You won an Olympic gold medal before you could legally drive. When do you start swimming?

Deena Deardurff Schmidt: I grew up in Cincinnati, and in Cincinnati there were summer leagues that were just low-key recreation. So I started doing that when I was maybe 5 and then I joined a US team, which at the time was AAU Swimming, when I was 10.

Is there a strong swimming program in Cincinnati in the late sixties, or are you more like a diamond in the rough?

There became a very good team, the Cincinnati Marlins. Charlie Keating, who was [involved in] the first savings and loans debacle, he, prior to the savings and loans thing, lived in Cincinnati and he started, was one of the founding people behind the Cincinnati Marlins. And he ended up building a pool. So in the Midwest it's a very, very well known program. I was at the beginning of it.

A great many people in this world struggle their entire lives trying to determine their purpose, what they're meant to do with the lives. You have an Olympic Gold Medal around your neck at 15. Do you more or less know when you first hit the water that this is where you're supposed to be?

That's definitely it. You do. It comes from within. You don't know in swimming where your path is going to lead you, but there are certainly clues along the way as you progress in your times and you're on a national level.

I really came onto the national scene when I was 13, and I won the 100 Butterfly in US Nationals. And even though women swimmers were a lot younger then, that was pretty much unheard of at that time. And I've said certainly said it enough and you've read it enough: Paul Bergen was my coach. He was the coach of the Marlins and through the Olympics.

You obviously were very successful, but we don't always enjoy the things we're good at. Did you enjoy swimming too?

Oh, yeah. I loved it. We had a boat. We grew up on the Ohio River. We waterskied. I loved swimming. I really did. That was my own little world.

You later coach, so you've been around swimming pretty much your entire life. But how long are you a competitive, in the water and training twice a day swimmer?

I got into the twice a day when I was 12, and I swam through Munich, through the Olympics, and then through the next Olympic Trials. And I was 19, and definitely struggling and did not make the '76 Olympic team. So that was pretty much my duration of swimming.

The abuse by your coach begins around 1968. You would've been 11.

Yes.

And it continues until ….

Prior to the [1972] Olympics. I can't really say why, whether it was age or that I finally found my voice and said No to him. What he held over me was the coaching. And in my case, in this case, I didn't know. I was so young, I didn't know if I owned my swimming or if he owned my swimming. So what he held over me was, he wouldn't coach me. And you hear so many stories about sexual abuse, you know, the fear factor and somebody's going to hurt their parents and all that. Well, my fear factor was he wouldn't coach me or he would be absolutely brutal to me in the pool. Just brutal to me. And people saw it, but people don't know how to read that. And it was a different time that you wouldn't go, "Oh there must be something really crazy going on here." Nobody had that knowledge or that insight. So I'm going to say it was several months before Olympics Trials that I finally said, "No. Leave me alone."

And how long was he your coach?

Through the Olympics, but at that point your own personal coach really had a hard time even getting on the pool deck. Times have changed. So he went and then when we came back it was probably the first time in my life that I actually took some time off. Not much, but during that time he and Charlie Keating got into a huge power struggle and he was fired. So he was gone, I'm going to say by the end of the summer of '72.

And three years later you go to the Cincinnati District Attorney.

Yes. My sister was in law school, so she talked me into it. I knew nothing, of course, so she was kind of the one who kind of pursued it. And he was no longer in Cincinnati and they said "Oh, there's nothing we can do. You don't have any evidence and he's gone."

Your sister knows, and then you approach the D.A. What gives you the motivation to go beyond that small circle with your story?

Well, there was a complete situation that happened. One of my friends . . . Bergen had gone to Wisconsin to coach, and he convinced her to go there and swim. And she was more of a water polo player. She was a great water polo player, and a good swimmer. So she went to college there, and he was coaching her. Part of the guilt that I lived with was that I didn't think I was the only one. I thought that I was the youngest, but I did not think I was the only one. And so when she went to Wisconsin, even though she was college age . . . When somebody has control over you, it doesn't matter what age you are, really. So she went. Long story short: her father dies in Cincinnati and Bergen flies home to Cincinnati with her. Doesn't get off the plane. Flies back to Wisconsin. Her dad died in a plane crash, which was horrific. And I meet with her. And I had told my next coach, but other than him she was really the first person that I told. And really told. Because I thought she was going through it too, and she was. So I think after that I realized that I was supposed to have a bigger role somehow. You know, I'm still young and I don't know what I'm supposed to being doing, but I feel like I'm supposed to be stopping this from happening to other people. It was never a lawsuit type of thought. It was a "How do you prevent this from happening?" thought.

It sounds like you felt like you had a responsibility.

Absolutely. I did. I did. One of the things that he did to me at a young age is, because I was doing so well, he put so much responsibility on me, that I was supposed to be the team captain-type person and monitoring everybody's everything. And I'm 12 and 13 years old. So I think I've had that instilled in me my entire life. I really do. And even knowing probably where it came from, I've always felt that I was supposed to do something more so that other people didn't experience that. I shouldn't have had to go through that to be a successful swimmer, nor should anyone.

You go public by holding a press conference in 2010. Your name is on the petition to keep Chuck Wielgus out of the International Swimming Hall of Fame. Is this all part of the responsibility you feel? And if it is, does that responsibility ever end?

I think that everybody is connected to something because of their personal involvement and, in my life, I've had some big tragedies. And when you have one, if you're the type of person that can carry a load, I guess, or lead, or isn't afraid, then you get drawn into that particular cause. I'm a breast cancer survivor. So giving back to that cause, that too was a big deal to me. I got through this, but a lot of people don't have that strength, don't have that support. I have to give back. However it became instilled in me, I have it. I definitely have it. So the speaking out in 2010, [lawyer] Bob Allard was directed to me by a lot of coaches who said, If you need to talk to somebody who has gone through this and has been saying this for a long time, this is who she is. And I think for me it was just a quick decision: Ok, well, this is a platform that will hopefully raise awareness in this sport. There's nothing in it for me other than, really, people saying ugly things [laughs]. It's not a rewarding position to be in. But I felt, All right, if you really want to try and make a difference, then this is the platform to do it. Same thing with the petition. I'm super-opinionated that not enough has been done to protect the athletes. I am opinionated on that. I'm not an attorney. I don't have all of the ins and outs. But as a human being I definitely have felt that there has been a lot cover-up in swimming. And I love swimming. I love the sport of it. I loved representing the United States. But I've never felt that they've done enough, one leader after another.

They would ask me if I was still in touch with him. And I would say, "Well, no. He was molesting me my whole childhood." And they would look at me and their most common answer was, "But he's such a good coach."

Do you ever resent the responsibility that you feel comes with this? I know that you're a fighter. I know that you want to help people, that you want to protect people. But as you say, the payoff is often having people say ugly things about you.

I don't think I resent it. It's hurtful. And after 2010 and having to read just ridiculous things that people said who have no information, I had to talk myself into believing that people are just ignorant and they talk about things they don't know anything about. So do I resent it? No. Because I guess I feel that I am strong enough to do it. And a lot of people are not. So I have to just stand with that. I've certainly been tested in my life more than a lot of people have. It's not a pity party for me, but I've had no choice than to stand up and deal with it. So I guess I can't really look at it like I resent it. I have to look at it like, I can do this.

The Hall of Fame citation for Chuck Wielgus reads, "Wielgus has professionalized the administration and brought revolutionary changes to the organization by creating corporate partnership opportunities and media platforms for the athletes who have helped make swimming a tier one International Olympic Sport. He has also defined what it means to be a Champion in Life, while courageously facing the physical and emotional challenges of living with cancer since 2006." You're a cancer survivor. He's a cancer survivor. Does cancer have any place in the discussion about whether or not he needs to be in the Hall of Fame?

Absolutely not. It's completely irrelevant. It's a life story for a lot of people, but it has nothing to do with him being the Hall of Fame. He has not protected or represented the best interest of victims.

You went to the Cincinnati District Attorney in 1975. In the late 80s you approached Ray Essick, Chuck Wielgus's predecessor at USA Swimming. And over the years you've told your story to various other swim coaches. It doesn't sound like you received anywhere near the kind of response you expected or wanted.

Nowhere.

But now your story is out there. People appear to be listening. The petition was successful. Are you speaking with a louder, more strident voice than you did earlier, or is the public more attuned to this conversation than it used to be? Why are people responding now when they didn't for years, and actually decades?

My story, to people in my world, it's old. It's an old story. Nothing new. I didn't just have a revelation. Because I was in coaching, I was around all these people. Even Bergen. That's a whole other conversation. I have seen him over the years. We were both in the same field. But I think I've gotten stronger as I've gotten older. And I've been out of coaching. At that time, being a female coach, you were in less than probably 5 percent. I don't know, but there were not women head coaches. Now there are. There wasn't then. So I think I've gotten stronger. I'm out of the field, so it doesn't matter to me what people say. You know, I don't have to face these people all the time. I don't have to have people say to me, which they did . . . The most common answer that I got when I would tell any coach, a prestigious coach, they would ask me if I was still in touch with him. And I would say, "Well, no. He was molesting me my whole childhood." And they would look at me and their most common answer was, "But he's such a good coach." It was fascinating and depressing. I obviously just felt like you're just hitting your head against the wall, that no one cares. And it wasn't about me. My story was way old. It was about that I watched and I knew there was a culture of that in our sport. And when I met with Bob Allard I said that to him. And I said to him, "You have no idea how big this is." It was freeing to me, I guess. To feel like, All right, now there's going to be an impact. They're going to have to deal with this.

What he held over me was the coaching. And in my case, in this case, I didn't know. I was so young, I didn't know if I owned my swimming or if he owned my swimming. 

We've made some progress. The culture around swimming has changed. But what other changes would you make in order protect young swimmers?

I think you have to humanize it. Nobody from US Swimming has ever contacted me, or any of the other petitioners for that matter, other than to be deposed. I wasn't in a lawsuit. Now they've deposed me just to harass me. So everything that you read, to me it's almost like reading law. You can't do this. You can't do that. Sign here that you're not going to be a child abuser if you're in coaching. That code of ethics was a comedy. When they wrote that code of ethics a million years ago, they had no women on that committee. I don't know how you even get away with that when your primary victims are women. But I feel that they have to humanize it. I feel that they really should be working with victims and embracing them, and saying, "Ok, what can you do to help us?" We're not against them. We're for the sport. We love the sport of swimming. We want the best things. So I don't know why they're not embracing us and saying, "What can you do? Can you go talk to teams? Can you go talk to parents?" The policy has changed, but I still think that there's a human interaction factor that's missing.

I'm glad for any progress they make. I am glad for that. And I think that a lot of people have worked really hard to create change. But to me, you get people out of power that have been doing the wrong thing. Now maybe he's done the right thing in a lot of different areas, but in this subject it seems, no you don't get a "do-over" [In Wielgus's original response to the WSF petition he wrote: "For me personally, the abuse by coaches in the sport has weighed heavily on me more than any other topic. We all wish we had a do-over at periods in life and that was one for me."]. Are you kidding me? How old are we? No. You get one shot to do the right thing.

You said that, other than insisting that you participate in a deposition as a form of harassment, no one from USA Swimming has reached out to you.

Absolutely not. They hate me. And that's an interesting thing, too, to go from being a prominent swimmer . . . I loved swimming. I represented the United States. You know, I worked hard. It wasn't a fluke. I worked hard for a long time to become a great athlete and to try and always be better. But just . . . I don't even know how to explain it. To just be completely dismissed. That doesn't feel good.

There's a video in which Chuck Wielgus is interviewed, and he says that he didn't act on your 2010 charges because, even though you held a press conference with Bob Allard, you didn't file an official complaint with USA Swimming and you didn't provide them with the coach's name. But the interviewer presses him and suggests that maybe a phone call from Wielgus to you might have been in order, that he could've asked you for the name at that time, and finally Wielgus agrees. But he never called you.

No. Never did. And in this day and age it would take two minutes or less to type my name in a computer. You know where I'm from. That's easy to find out. And to find out who the coach was. There is no question. I had one coach from that time period. It didn't take anybody brilliant to figure that out, so anytime Chuck says that it's insulting to his own intelligence. Like really? You really couldn't type a name into the computer [laughs]?

He's the executive director of USA Swimming, and yet he can't find out the name of a Hall of Fame swimming coach who worked in Cincinnati, coaching a future Olympic gold medalist, from the late 60s to the early 70s.

Right. That's insulting. And he should be embarrassed to say that. He should have called me and said, "You know what, Deena? You were a great swimmer. The US was proud to have to you on its team. I'm sorry this happened to you. Do you have any ideas on how we can . . .?" But he doesn't want to take any accountability and that's what I think it boils down to. It boils down to lawsuits. But I'm not in one, so nobody can say that's what this is about for me.

The petition to keep Chuck Wielgus out of the Swimming Hall of Fame was successful, but the coach who abused you is in the Hall of Fame. How tough is that for you? Is that a door that's closed and so you just go about your other business?

That was a door that I tried to pursue a long time ago when he went in, and I got nowhere. Again, I didn't have a support group. I didn't have Bob Allard. It was me. And it's funny that you say that because just before you called I got an email from a girl that swam on the same team that I did. Exactly my age, birthday the same day as mine, and she wrote and said, "I've been reading about Wielgus. You know PB is in the Hall of Fame, obviously. Is now a good time to pursue getting him out? He shouldn't be in there." So other people think that as well. But do I have the energy to make that case? No, I don't. I don't believe he should be in there. I believe people should be disgusted. I believe that he should be taken out. But because I didn't have a legal case, I think it'd be very difficult. [Convicted former swim coach] Andy King? All right, he's in jail. That's a different thing. Mine is so old I guess I've just surrendered myself. And just so you know, when you talk about fights and you talk about having a voice as life has thrown challenges in my direction, here's my recent one - it's hard for me to say and I've not yet said it to a reporter - my youngest son had a catastrophic car accident when he was 25. He's now 28. He was hospitalized for two years, and he is 100% disabled. He cannot walk, talk, or eat. And I brought him home from the hospital a year ago. So life has not gotten easier.

Had a coaching career, got cancer, lost my job. Somewhat recovered from all that, then have this tragedy happen. Again, I really don't tell that story, but when people asked why I'm retired, because my son's story is so tragic, it's hard to say it. Anyway, that's where I am. That's what I'm doing.

It's hard to think of the word "retired" without a tennis court or golf course and some white shoes being involved, and it doesn't sound like any of that applies.

Exactly. Shuffleboard [laughs].

Read more: Part I Part III Part IV Part V

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Deena Deardurff Schmidt won a gold medal and helped set a world record as part of the United States Women's 4x100 Medley Relay team at the 1972 Munich Olympics. She was 15 years old. 1972 is also the year that she says her coach, future International Swimming Hall of Fame inductee Paul Bergen, stopped his sexual abuse of her. Later, Deardurff Schmidt served as the head swimming and diving coach at San Diego State University for thirteen seasons, and sheis now retired and living in California. She is one of the 19 victims of sexual abuse and/or harassment to sign the ultimately successful petition to keep USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus out of the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

Rob Trucks interviews people. And not just former athletes. His latest book is on Fleetwood Mac's Tusk album, and some of his many conversations with 49-year-old Americans may be found at McSweeney's. Follow him on Twitter, if you must: @eyeglassesofky