Children and teenagers began streaming into a gleaming aquatics facility in Laurel on Thursday, yanking on swim caps and pressing on goggles to kick off a massive, professionally run meet designed to introduce them to the world of big-time competitive swimming.
This year, though, the meet is doing much more. The Potomac Valley Swimming Long Course Age Group Championships, which runs through Sunday, is also offering kids and their parents an up-close glimpse at the sport’s real-world problems, and the efforts underway to address them.
For the first time, cameras and cellphones have been banned behind the starting blocks, as well as in the locker rooms of the Fairland Aquatic Center. The tightened restrictions, which were posted at the venue and made known through announcements and other communications, represent a small piece of what has been a large-scale effort, locally and nationally, to tighten and improve sexual misconduct policies in the wake of recent public challenges to USA Swimming’s handling of the problem in the past.
The effort is considered both overdue and welcome, according to some parents who say they have followed disturbing national headlines in recent months.
“I definitely sense something needs to be dealt with,” said Nancy Murphy of Manassas, whose 12-, 15- and 17-year-old daughters are involved in competitive swimming, with her youngest competing Thursday. “I think it’s been something that’s been hushed up for a long time and, unfortunately, some young swimmers have had to suffer because of it.
“Parents are talking about” the issue, she added. “When initially it came out, it was the talk.”
It has been a hot-button topic since March, when the most inflammatory of several lawsuits naming USA Swimming as a defendant was filed. That suit — which arose after a San Jose coach was sentenced to 40 years in prison after pleading no contest to 20 sexual molestation counts — and others have alleged that the sport’s U.S. governing body had failed to take appropriate measures to prevent the abuse of its swimmers. One of the suits has touched a local club; Occoquan Swimming suspended coach Robert Mirande indefinitely after one of his former swimmers in Kansas City, Mo., filed suit in mid-April and alleged that he engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior toward her.
The case is pending.
The board of PVS, the governing body for competitive swimming in the Washington area, is aware of no other unresolved complaints in the region, said John Ertter, the group’s executive director. In addition, Ertter said, no local athletes, parents or others have come forward with specific concerns or allegations of impropriety; a number of parents, however, have e-mailed to say they are willing to provide assistance in fighting the problem.
“This is a highly educated population here,” Ertter said. “It’s expected that we deal with these things. Parents aren’t very patient. They want to see action fast.”
Murphy said her daughters’ club, Machine Aquatics, responded proactively soon after the ABC show “20/20″ aired a special on the matter in April, posting on its Web site its standards and policies for sexual harassment and misconduct. Another parent, Roscoe Holley of Fort Washington, said coaches at DC Wave, where his 12-year-old daughter trains, have long seemed conscious of conducting themselves professionally, rarely even placing a hand on a child’s shoulder.
Which is good, Holley said, because he has been watching.
“That’s always going to be a concern when you are talking about children,” Holley said. “It’s quite unnerving, especially in swimming, and with away meets out of town.
“We’ve got a lot of parents who are like a mother bear. You want to find out every dynamic about how you can keep your child safe. You put yourself between any source you feel can threaten your child.”
Under heavy criticism from some in the swimming community and lawyers representing plaintiffs in the various lawsuits, USA Swimming in recent months announced a seven-point action plan to improve its policies; published the names of the 47 individuals who have been banned from the sport for life; and signed a cooperative agreement with the District-based Child Welfare League of America. On Tuesday, the organization’s board will consider enacting recommendations developed in meetings with the CWLA, USA Swimming spokeswoman Jamie Fabos said.
The PVS board acted independently when it decided to ban cellphones and cameras behind the starting blocks.
“I think we’re in a really good place,” Murphy said. “It took something like this to shake everybody up to be more aware.”
The fact that many of the region’s coaches have been with the same clubs in the same jobs for years has provided some local parents with peace of mind, they say.
The Rockville-Montgomery Swim Club and Curl-Burke Swim Club are two of the largest and most highly acclaimed in the country, and both have largely the same staffs as when the clubs formed decades ago.
“I’ve never, ever heard of sexual misconduct problems among RMSC coaches,” said Shelley Stahl of Silver Spring, whose son Max, 12, competed Thursday.
Said another parent from Bethesda who did not wish for her name to be published: “We’re with Curl-Burke and they are very professional. . . . It hasn’t even hit my radar screen because I have such confidence in our coaches.”
As young teens dived into the electronically timed 50-meter lanes behind him during Thursday’s morning heats, Ertter, PVS board of directors chairman Greg York and senior division chairman J. Riley Eaton said further measures were being considered. Governing officials from all of the region’s nearly three dozen clubs will be urged to attend a sexual misconduct seminar Sept. 25-26 at a location to be determined, they said.
A legal expert “will put the fear of God into them,” Ertter said. Our position will be, “if you don’t have appropriate policies in place and follow them, you will jeopardize the club’s reputation and, perhaps, very existence.”