Less than 24 hours before the start of the USA Swimming national championships at Irvine’s Woollett Aquatics Center, Jon Urbanchek lounged under a tent next to boxes of video equipment waiting to be unpacked.
Swimmers waved hello to the legendary coach, paddled through warm-up laps, then tried to escape the broiling sun. But the relaxed afternoon, set next to palm trees and towers of lights for television, belied the tumult as the sport grapples with sexual abuse.
“We’re going through a lot of [stuff] right now,” said Urbanchek, 82, who was hired last month as the national team’s technical adviser. “It came to the surface. We need to help. I think there’s got to be some drastic changes in our philosophy.
“I’ve been in the business long enough and it’s unfortunate that we still have some people who are not buying into the code of ethics. It’s not that difficult.”
Two months ago, Olympian Ariana Kukors Smith sued USA Swimming, former Seattle-area coach Sean Hutchinson and others in Orange County Superior Court. Smith, who swam at the London Olympics in 2012, alleged Hutchinson groomed and molested her when she was a minor while the sport’s domestic governing body looked the other way. The coach denied the charges.
“I never thought I would share my story, because in so many ways, just surviving was enough,” Smith wrote on her blog earlier this year.
Two days after the lawsuit, Tim Hinchey, the president and CEO of USA Swimming, testified in front of the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce. He noted the organization directed 75 complaints about inappropriate coach behavior to the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a nonprofit focused on preventing abuse in sports, since July 2017. USA Swimming has added 12 coaches to its banned list just this year.
“However, I regret we continue to receive reports of child sexual abuse in swimming,” Hinchey testified. “The organization can, should and will do more and I will lead the effort.”
The problem continues to frustrate some of the sport’s highest-profile leaders.
“In a raw sense, I get really mad. I get really angry,” said David Marsh, who oversees the UC San Diego swim team and served as head coach of the U.S. women’s team that won 16 medals at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016.
Marsh recalled addressing fellow coaches during an American Swim Coaches Assn. conference a few years ago.
“I said, ‘Guys, if you have issues, get the hell out of our sport. Please don’t work with children. Go sell vacuum cleaners,’” Marsh said.
“If I’d had situations like this come up in the old way, we jacked them up against the wall and said, ‘Are you out of your … mind? … If you’re going to be a coach, you’re here to coach. You’re not here to be their best friend or their companion or their shoulder to cry on.”
Though Urbanchek doesn’t want to see negative publicity attached to the sport he’s coached for 52 years, starting at Garden Grove High, he wants problems with sexual abuse to come to light and be addressed. All of them.
“Swimming and gymnastics got the label for it and deservedly so,” Urbanchek said. “We found out the things that were going on. I think it should come to the surface. It's been underwater for too long. … I'm glad it's still coming up because it was suppressed down. It was all underwater. Finally, one by one, it's bubbling up to the surface. And I think we're going to get to the bottom of this and make some major changes.”
Katie Meili, an Olympic and world championship medalist currently studying law at Georgetown, is saddened by the problem.
“For all the women who have come forward, I’m just blown away by their courageousness,” she said. “I wish there were an easy answer and I think if there were an easy answer, it would already have been done.”
Simone Manuel, who tied for gold in the 100-meter freestyle in Rio de Janeiro, endorsed USA Swimming’s approach to the issue, but cautioned: “I think we have a lot more work to do on it.”
Meanwhile, the races, which include some of the sport’s biggest names, go on from Wednesday through Sunday. Could Katie Ledecky break her 15th world record? Will Caeleb Dressel cement his position as the top U.S. male swimmer? They’re joined by a slew of Olympic gold medalists such as Nathan Adrian, Missy Franklin and Ryan Murphy.
But the broader question of keeping the sport safe lurks in the background.
Marsh is emotional, though also cautiously optimistic, on that topic.