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Six former athletes accuse USA Swimming of failing to act on sex abuse allegations

The lawsuits allege USA Swimming was aware of abuse committed by coaches and took no action. (Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
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Six women have filed lawsuits against USA Swimming, saying they were sexually abused by coaches in the 1980s and the organization failed to protect them or take action against the men they say groomed and assaulted them as minors.

The women laid out a series of complaints in three separate civil lawsuits filed in California this month, also charging three high-profile coaches and local swim clubs with negligence and sexual assault of a minor. In each case, the women say USA Swimming was aware or should have been aware of the coaches’ actions yet allowed the men to continue coaching young girls.

“My sexual abuse was 100 percent preventable,” Debra Grodensky said Wednesday in a virtual news conference. “I believe my life trajectory would have been drastically different if USA Swimming did not have a culture that enabled coaches to sexually abuse their athletes.”

Many of the allegations had been made public, and all three coaches cited in the lawsuits — Mitchell Ivey, a two-time Olympian; Andrew King, a prominent youth coach; and Everett Uchiyama, a former national team director — have received lifetime bans from coaching and are no longer permitted to work with swimmers of any age. King is serving a prison sentence for multiple child molestation charges. Neither Ivey nor Uchiyama faced criminal charges.

“We are aware of the information publicly released today in California,” a USA Swimming spokeswoman said in a statement Wednesday. “We fully support survivors of sexual abuse along their healing journey. USA Swimming’s Safe Sport program continues to work with prominent health and education experts to provide meaningful member resources and SwimAssist funding to those in need. The organization and its current leadership remain committed to providing a safe environment and a positive culture for all its members.”

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The lawsuits were filed under a new California law that created a three-year window for sexual abuse victims to confront their abusers in court regarding claims that have expired under the statute of limitations.

Suzette Moran, 53, recounted years of alleged abuse by Ivey, who won medals for the U.S. team at the 1968 and 1972 Summer Olympics. Moran alleges in the complaint that Ivey began grooming her when she was 14 and sexually assaulting her at 16.

“From the age of 10, when I first started swimming for a USA Swimming club, I was exposed to a world where swim coaches were looking at their underage swimmers as their next conquest,” Moran said.

The abuse was initially reported on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” in 1993, and Ivey lost his job at the University of Florida. Despite the publicity surrounding the allegations at the time, Ivey was still allowed to coach and wasn’t banned by USA Swimming until 2013. Ivey, who has not commented publicly on the allegations, could not be reached to comment Wednesday.

The lawsuits were filed by Robert Allard, a prominent California attorney who has represented several athletes and victims of sexual abuse and has been an outspoken critic of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and other Olympic organizations’ handling of abuse prevention. The complaints allege not just a series of sexual abuse but broader, cultural problems that plagued the sport, saying USA Swimming was aware of many of the problems young swimmers faced in clubs across the country.

“While some progress has been made to eradicate sex abuse in swimming, much more needs to be done,” Allard said. “ … There remains a deep-seated culture of indifference that has to be remedied before we can be assured that our children are safe from predators when we entrust them to USA Swimming.”

One complaint states that King began sexually assaulting Grodensky when she was 12 years old. He began having intercourse with her when she was 15.

According to the suit, another swimmer sent a written complaint to USA Swimming about King’s behavior. The lawsuit alleges that the organization did nothing in response and King continued coaching. King was arrested in April 2009 for sexually assaulting an underage swimmer. He pleaded no contest to 20 child molestation charges in 2010 and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

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In the third lawsuit, Tracy Palmero alleges Uchiyama began grooming her at age 14 and sexually abusing her at 16 while coaching for the SOCAL Aquatics swim club in California. USA Swimming hired Uchiyama and in 2004 promoted him to serve as its national team director. Palmero notified the organization in 2006 of the abuse she faced, and three days later Uchiyama resigned.

“It took me approximately 15 years to realize that I was a victim of sexual abuse,” Palmero, 46, said. “I’m filing this lawsuit because I want to see a lasting change within USA Swimming and organizations affiliated with it.”

Uchiyama was banned from coaching but the punishment was not made public, there was no investigation and the allegations were not reported to law enforcement. The lawsuit alleges that, less than a year later, a USA Swimming official recommended Uchiyama for a position at the Country Club of Colorado, where he became director of aquatics. Palmero said hearing that news made her feel as though USA Swimming was “dismissing everything that happened to me.”