Sexual Abuse In Women's Sports, Part V: Ex-Swimmer Jancy Thompson

In the concluding interview of our series on sexual abuse in women's swimming, Jancy Thompson talks about the depression drove her to quit the sport she loved.

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Jun 19 2014, 4:35pm

Thompson receives instruction prior to a meet. All photos via Jancy Thompson

Jancy Thompson started swimming competitively at the age of 7 and stopped during her second season at Arizona State. Her lawsuit against her former swim coach Norm Havercroft and USA Swimming is ongoing.

This is part five of VICE Sports' interview series about sexual abuse in sports.

Previously: Part I Part II Part III Part IV

When did you stop swimming competitively?

I stopped swimming when I was in my second year at Arizona State. So I didn't complete my college career there. I stopped swimming completely because I was going through a tough time. I was depressed. You know, I knew that something was wrong. I couldn't figure out exactly what it was, but I kind of just went downhill. And the only thing that I could figure out how to get out of was just to quit swimming. Get my swim coach out of the picture, get swimming out of the picture, get the whole shebang gone. So I just quit. And I never went back.

What is that like? You must have spent hours and hours in the pool. How painful is it to give up swimming? And did giving up swimming solve the problem of being depressed?

No, because it wasn't swimming that was depressing me. It was my swim coach and what was happening to me at the time. So the only way that I could get my swim coach at the time, Norm Havercroft, out of my life and to stop hurting me was just to quit swimming. So it was very painful. It's like a death. Because that person, Jancy Thompson the swimmer, pretty much died the day that I quit and was no longer Jancy Thompson the swimmer. And that's a really intense feeling, but that's the only way I can explain it is that it's like a death. Because I am not that person anymore. That person died. And there's just so many different emotions and feelings and feelings of loss and hatred and pain and stuff like that behind it that is just gone.

When did you start swimming competitively?

I started swimming on a local swim team here in Gilroy when I was 7.

So that's a dozen years, or almost two-thirds of your life, when you walk away at Arizona State.

Right.

How old are you when the abuse begins?

It's hard to explain because the actual abuse started when I started swimming with Norm, because he was very, very, verbally abusive. Very controlling. Very manipulative. He just took control over everything. It's the grooming process. And unfortunately they don't consider the grooming process part of the abuse, which they should. But they don't. So in my eyes, it really started the second I started swimming for that man, because of the way he ran his swim team, how he interacted with us. He just took total control over everything. And like I said, was super, super abusive and very scary. And when you're young, to be called names and have shit thrown at you is very, very abusive.

You started swimming competitively when you at the age of 7. When does he become your coach?

He became my coach when I was like 11 or 12.

And when does the abuse end?

He still had very, very much control over what I did when I was in Arizona State. In fact, it was more. It became more frightening and more of an adult relationship in his eyes at that point. And it was more of like a grooming me type deal to be, you know, his wife and whatnot. So it did roll over into my college years.

[Quitting swimming] was very painful. It's like a death.

You go public with this in August, 2010. And that's about four months after the 20/20 investigation into USA Swimming, and almost ten years after you quit swimming. What causes you to come forward in August of 2010?

Well, I was very much disassociated . . . I had a ton of repressed memories that I wasn't fully appreciative of. In fact, I really didn't appreciate it at all that all the problems, all the bad relationships in my life, everything that I was struggling with was related to the abuse from my swim coach. And I had no idea why that was. I was just roaming aimlessly, depressed, not knowing who I was, where I was going, or even what the heck to do. And I was married at the time and I was having my second child, and my ex-husband had shown a lot of the same manipulative, abusive verbally traits as Norm. And so I began to almost parallel the two. And I started having flashbacks and I would have nightmares and have panic attacks, but I wasn't sure why.

And so when I saw that this young girl in San Jose came forward with Andy King . . . You know, I saw her lawyer and I called him and I just wanted to offer support, because I knew that I had a very painful experience in my swimming career. I knew that inappropriate things had happened. I wasn't sure exactly, specifically what it was and why it was affecting me, but I wanted to offer my support to this young girl. And so it just kind of began from there. And in talking to [lawyer] Bob Allard I started going to counseling, and I started slowly putting the pieces back together. Well, what I wanted to do was be the face of swimmers, young and old, to be able to come forward and give them the strength enough to be able to come forward and know that's its ok, that there are people out there wanting to help. Look at me. I'm standing here in front of you telling you my story saying that I was abused for X, Y years. We swam together. If this happened to you, too, let's fix it together. And I was ok with that. I was ok with people recognizing my name and saying, "Oh my gosh. Wow." Because I wanted people to come forward and feel comfortable with that. So that's kind of how it all started.

It sounds like you owe a debt to the 14-year-old victim of Andy King who came forward.

Oh definitely. Her courage gave me the fire to call and offer my support and ear, or shoulder to cry on, because obviously I was a lot older than her and I wanted to be there for her. So yeah, definitely. She definitely gave me the strength to start this.

You talked about how walking away from swimming after 12 years was like a death, that Jancy Thompson the swimmer died. The decision to go public also brings about a major change in your life. Was going public more effective in helping you get through some of the problems you were going through?

Yes. Because quitting swimming, that didn't solve the problem. I didn't realize that there was a problem, because when I looked at myself it was almost like a ghost at the corner of the room watching yourself go through life. And quitting swimming didn't take that away. I was still very lost, very unsure, very confused, very sad, and I just had this feeling of something was wrong. But quitting swimming didn't seem to help. In fact, it made it worse. Because now I was left with this shell of a person, pretty much, who didn't really have any emotions, didn't have any feelings, would totally shut down. I was like a shell, a walking, breathing shell of a person. And so quitting didn't help, at all, because I wasn't able to recognize the problem.

So now that I've started putting the pieces together slowly . . . It's like a huge puzzle on the table that's like a million different pieces, and there's only parts of it that are put together. And so collectively, as I started going through counseling and listening to what Bob was saying and thinking back and starting to pull those memories back out, I started putting those pieces back together very slowly to make one whole picture. And that obviously didn't happen until, you know, it started in 2010.

Where's the lawsuit now?

My lawsuit is still open. It's in appeals right now. We're just waiting for a hearing date.

When you came public you said, "I am here today in hopes that USA Swimming will retain new leadership and clean up its program, get rid of abusive swim coaches and create a safe environment for young swimmers." In your eyes, has USA Swimming made any progress toward those goals?

I don't believe so. I have not seen enough progress to make a significant change. My coach that abused me is still not on the banned coaches list. He was coaching swimming, up until 2009, down in the LA area. And even to this day he's still not on the banned coaches list. And why is that? He has molested two girls that USA Swimming knows of, and probably more prior to us. Why isn't he on the list?

Chuck Wielgus and all the upper guys, all those people need to go in order for a significant enough change to happen. Because those are the people who knew about everybody up to this point and just shoved it under the rug, and just said, "Oh yeah, we know about this guy, but there's not much we can do." How in the hell - excuse my French - are you guys, after all of these years of being where you're at, all of a sudden going to change the way you think, your views, how you interact with sexual abuse victims, change your policies?

Your former swim coach was investigated by a San Jose grand jury in 1996, but no charges were filed. Then there was a settlement with a younger swimmer in 2001.

The 2001 girl was settled outside of court, and then myself. And USA Swimming obviously knew about it because they settled with her and their insurance company representative was there. So people knew. People complained. Parents complained. Parents wrote letters. And what they have was "Yeah, we have a file on Norm Havercroft, but there's nothing we really can do."

Thompson in 1995; Thompson with Havercroft, year unkown; Thompson in 1997

Have you received anything like an apology from anyone from USA Swimming?

I don't know if you know these numbers: they have spent $3.8 million, up to about a year ago, in fighting me. $3.8 million just to fight me. No apology. No nothing. No acknowledgment. No "Wow, you know, let's just try and help this girl out. Acknowledge that we fucked up." Nothing. But instead, you're going to spend $3.8 million dollars fighting me. Pop a lien against me, because now I have to pay for your lawyer's costs, and then continue to fight me and continue to put me through hell by digging up every inch of everything I could possibly even have done. Fortunately I was a good kid, and a good teenager and young adult. But I have been re-victimized so many times by USA Swimming it is ridiculous. And still to this day, even though I am so much stronger than I was in 2010, it makes so upset to think that these people who are supposed to be protecting our children and are who are supposed to be looking after these swimmers are fighting me to the point where they're just beating me down.

People knew. People complained. Parents complained. Parents wrote letters. 

It is the scorched earth method. We're just going to burn the shit out of everything in front of this girl, anything in her path. Anything. Just to keep her speaking more. From acknowledging the fact that they fucked up and let a swim coach continue to coach her, molest her, screw up her childhood and teenage years. But now, we're going to screw her more and blame it on her, have her pay for our lawyer's costs, make her go through hell. And yet no apology. No nothing. Nothing. It's unbelievable.

It is amazing. And they've gone through three or four different law firms during this time to fight me, to fight my lawyers and I. And they just hired a new law firm to defend them in this whole appeals process as well. And if they would've just said, "You know what? I am so sorry. We messed up. What can we do to help you? What can we do to make this better? What are some of your suggestions on helping us keep future children safe? Help us help you and future children." No. They're just going to try and squash me like a little bug.

I can't begin to imagine the amount of time you've spent on this, or the depth of your anger and frustration. Have you been able to come up with any reason why they would act this way?

The only reason I could possibly even think of was that it's just too big, and they don't want to now take responsibility, because then they're going to have to eat it. And similar to the Catholic Church, if you start apologizing to one person, then you're going to have to apologize to more, and you're going to have to take more responsibility and then have to possibly take a bigger hit, rather than just trying to sweep this stuff under the rug. You know, maybe we'll sweep this under the rug and it won't be such a big deal. We'll just keep moving forward. Just pretend like it didn't happen. And that's the only reason that I can think, you know, is that it's just way too big and people don't want to take responsibility for mistakes. And yes, we're all human, but once you get on a roll, or once you start shoving stuff under the rug, and lying, and this and that, that it's just easier to deny everything.

You mentioned the Catholic Church, but it seems like a big difference between what's gone on in swimming and what went on in the Catholic Church is that the vast majority of victims in swimming, all 19 petition signers, for example, are women. If there had been male victims, or instances other than male swim coaches abusing younger female swimmers, do you feel like there would have been more attention paid? Do we have a gender issue as well as a sexual abuse issue?

I think so. Because it's more inappropriate in eyes of society for a little boy to be abused than it is for a girl. Because if you think about, it males molesting little boys, I mean, when you say that most people go, "Oh my God, that's horrible!" When you hear "Oh, a swimmer had a relationship," they downplay it. "Oh, a swimmer and her coach had a relationship." They word it differently, unless it's a baby or an infant with a male adult. And so I definitely think that there is a gender issue as well. And you have a ton more female swimmers with male coaches than you do male swimmers with female coaches.

Chuck Wielgus's name has been withdrawn from Hall of Fame consideration. How did you feel when you found out the petition, the protest was successful?

It really didn't faze me. I really didn't care too much. I think it's great that there was a little bit of change finally happening, but the USA Swimming organization as a whole--and it's not just Chuck Wielgus; it's people underneath him as well--they are the ones who have been knocking me down left and right. And every which way I've turned to try and make this successful and to continue on the path of trying to make change, we get knocked down by people underneath Chuck Wielgus. I have never seen Chuck Wielgus in person. I have never heard of his name in any of the mediations that we've gone to. I have seen other board members from USA Swimming. Chuck Wielgus is only one person.

We're all human, but once you get on a roll, or once you start shoving stuff under the rug, and lying, and this and that, that it's just easier to deny everything.

If you did have the opportunity to change USA Swimming, to make the culture of club swimming safer for young people, where would you begin?

We did a whole press conference and what we were asking for when we first started this whole thing was that USA Swimming have a more intense, thorough background check when it comes to adults, volunteers, assistant swim coaches, head swim coaches. Anybody who is part of USA Swimming needs to go through a more extensive background check. Because having your fingerprint taken doesn't mean anything because, yes, maybe you weren't charged criminally, but that doesn't mean there still wasn't some sort of complaint against you.

Because Andy King passed a USA Swimming-ordered background check in 2009.

Right. Or if you have something expunged off your record or something like that. Those things need to have been known. Just because you sign a piece of paper doesn't equal a background check. So we were calling for a more extensive background check. My swim coach, Norm Havercroft, his prior victim to me went all the way to the grand jury with this man. And at the very end, they slapped a confidential seal on his file and it just disappeared. And nobody could ever get into that file. So when you look in his background, there was no trail of him going to the grand jury for child abuse, or child molestation. And if we had an open view of people's backgrounds and not have those confidential seals, then we are going to be able to know more about the person's background and, hey, this guy's already had a complaint and it went all the way to the grand jury. And yes, they didn't indict him and, no, he wasn't put in jail, but do you want your child in the hands of this man when he's already been taken this far for child abuse? No. Hell no. And yes, we can't see that because you weren't convicted, but I'll be damned if I'm going to let my kid swim for you.

We were also asking for USA Swimming to obviously clean house, get rid of all the coaches who had any sort of complaint on them, to pretty much start new, a fresh ballot, first chapter, whatever you want to call it, and to replace the individuals who have been in control of USA Swimming up until this point. That way we have new rules, new regulations, new people, new blood, new ideas.

There was also SB 131 [California Senate Bill 131, a/k/a The Child Victims Act] that we tried as well, not too long ago, last year. That was shot down because USA Swimming and the Catholic Church hired lobbyists to shoot down the bill that we were trying to pass for background checks and statute of limitation issues, and things of that nature. And it was known. USA Swimming and the Catholic Church together hired a big lobbyist firm to kill that law. And they did it.

To go to the lengths to do that is just unbelievable. And you can't tell me that it's just Chuck Wielgus that's making that decision. No, it's not. It's people under him as well. So am I satisfied that Chuck Wielgus is not being inducted into the Hall of Fame? No. Not at all. More needs to happen.

Read more: Part I Part II Part III Part IV

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Jancy Thompson now works as the Training and Membership Coordinator for the non-profit Central Coast Gang Investigators in California.

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.