NEW YORK — Ariana Kukors was 15 when she first realized her 33-year-old swim coach was interested in more than helping her swim faster, she said, when innocuous text messages about school and weekend plans shifted suddenly with a strange question: He wanted to know if she was wearing underwear.
She was 16 the first time he asked her to text a naked photo, she said, a request she claims she routinely fulfilled. Later that year, in hotel rooms at travel meets and after private workouts before school, her coach started making physical advances that, before Kukors turned 18, included sex acts she summarized as “everything but intercourse.”
In her first interview since publicly accusing former U.S. Olympic swim coach Sean Hutchison last week of years of sexual abuse, Kukors — a former world champion and member of Team USA during the 2012 Summer Games in London — gave her account Sunday evening of a relationship she described as manipulative and controlling, which has left her fighting depression and anxiety, struggling to repair relationships with friends and family she withdrew from as rumors circulated about the well-regarded swim coach from the Seattle area and one of his star pupils.
“My insides are shattered,” said Kukors, 28, who broke down in tears several times. “As an innocent, young individual who saw this man as a mentor, as a father figure, it was very confusing. . . . It’s been a complicated journey to really understand what happened, and how somebody that you trust, that’s gained your family’s entire trust, can do something so horrific.”
Hutchison, now 46, has denied Kukors’s allegations and asserted the two had a consensual romantic relationship for more than a year after the 2012 Summer Games, when he was 41 and she was 23.
“At no time did I ever abuse Ariana Kukors or do anything with her that was not consensual. . . . I deeply regret that she would make these wild allegations all these years later,” Hutchison said last week in a statement issued through his attorney.
Last week, officers with the Department of Homeland Security searched Hutchison’s Seattle home and took several electronic devices in search of evidence of Kukors’s claims her coach collected hundreds, and possibly thousands, of photographs of her naked when she was underage. Hutchison has not been charged with a crime.
Kukors spoke Sunday in the New York residence of her attorney, Bob Allard, an outspoken critic of Olympic sports organizations’ handling of sex abuse committed by coaches and officials. Allard has accused USA Swimming, the Olympic national governing body for the sport, of failing to act aggressively on suspicions of an improper relationship between Hutchison and Kukors, allegations USA Swimming officials have rejected.
Kukors declined to speak in detail about any blame she believes Olympic sports officials deserve for her alleged abuse. Her accusations come at a particularly fraught time for the United States’ Olympic sports organizations, many of which are the subject of Congressional inquiries following the sentencing of Larry Nassar, the former Olympic gymnastics team physician and convicted child molester accused by more than 250 girls and women of abuse.
“If this was about money or a lawsuit, I wouldn’t be here,” Kukors said. “This is for spreading the message of grooming and the process that predators go through to gain victims’ trust . . . that is my focus right now.”
A native of Auburn, Wash., a Seattle suburb, Kukors first met Hutchison in 2002, she said, when she was a promising 13-year-old swimmer competing for King Aquatic club in nearby Federal Way. Hutchison, then 31, was a charismatic new coach from Maryland who had coached Baltimore-area swimmers including Tommy Hannan, a gold medalist in the 2000 Summer Games in Australia.
Hutchison quickly acquired the respect of parents and swimmers by declaring his intention to build King Aquatic into a program that produced Olympians, and by implementing an unorthodox training regimen focused more on form and technique than on the hours upon hours of repetitive laps other coaches require.
Kukors established herself as one of King’s potential Olympians, posting times in the 200- and 400-meter individual medley that ranked among the best in the world. At 15, Kukors won her first national championship, in the 400 individual medley, and at 16, she repeated in the 400 and added the 200 title.
That same year, Kukors alleges, Hutchison began requesting photos of her nude and making sexual advances when the two were alone. He arranged for private morning workouts, she claims, and would watch her shower in the locker room afterward. Travel meets provided opportunities for one-on-one “strategy sessions” in hotel rooms that turned sexual, she said.
Hutchison told her he loved her, she said. One morning, before practice, he presented her with a ring — made from a piece of paper, on which he’d written, “My beautiful Ari” — and told her he planned to marry her one day.
“It’s so strange looking back on it now and really understanding what was happening there, but in that moment, I believed that he and I were going to be together forever, and my life and my swimming career were all wrapped up in his hands,” Kukors said.
One of the most prized swimming recruits in the country, Kukors went to the University of Washington not because she wanted to — she said she preferred Southern California — but because Hutchison demanded she stay closer to him, she said. When Hutchison took a job at a USA Swimming training center for potential Olympians in Fullerton, Calif., Kukors dropped out of Washington to move with him, training full-time while attending nearby Chapman University.
In 2010, the rumors about Hutchison and Kukors reached officials in charge of this training center — called FAST, short for Fullerton Aquatic Sports Team — and also drew the attention of top USA Swimming officials in their Colorado Springs headquarters. Kukors was 21, but a relationship between a coach and a swimmer is barred by USA Swimming’s code of conduct as an abuse of power, tantamount to a teacher dating a student.
Officials at FAST hired a private investigator who followed both Hutchison and Kukors, according to records produced later in an unrelated lawsuit. The investigator observed both their cars parked outside Hutchison’s apartment complex just after 6 one morning, and then saw both Hutchison and Kukors leave the complex about an hour later, which he interpreted as evidence they’d spent the night together, he wrote in his report.
In December 2010, Hutchison resigned and publicly denied he’d had a sexual relationship with one of his swimmers.
“Rumors go around like that with a lot of coaches,” Hutchison told the Associated Press. “Sometimes, you’re just at the mercy of the rumor mill.”
The next month, USA Swimming officials in Colorado Springs commissioned their own investigation, via telephone. Kukors denied any relationship with Hutchison, she said, and USA Swimming publicly exonerated Hutchison.
Allard, Kukors’s attorney, accused USA Swimming — which, at that time, was in the midst of a sex abuse scandal of its own — of failing to investigate suspicions about Kukors and Hutchison aggressively, so as to avoid the negative publicity associated with having to ban another prominent coach from the organization for taking advantage of a swimmer.
“I think their investigation was tailor-made to obtain a certain result, and once they obtained it, they sent out an email [to USA Swimming members] labeling the rumors malicious lies,” Allard said.
Last week, USA Swimming released a statement defending its actions.
“In 2010, USA Swimming became aware of a rumored relationship between Hutchison and then 21-year-old Ariana. . . . During the USA Swimming investigation, both Ariana and Hutchison, as well as Ariana’s sister, Emily, unequivocally denied the existence of a romantic or sexual relationship,” the organization wrote.
“Ariana Kukors’s recent public statement marked the first time USA Swimming learned of the allegations that Sean Hutchison sexually abused Ariana when she was a minor. Our hearts go out to Ariana and the difficulty she has gone through to reach this point of disclosure.”
Kukors broke off her relationship with Hutchison in 2013, she said. She decided to contact law enforcement with her allegations about Hutchison recently, she said, and drew inspiration from watching last month’s lengthy sentencing hearing for Nassar, and the sight of 156 girls and women confronting the former Michigan State and USA Gymnastics physician with their accounts of his abuse.
“I thought he loved me, and that I’d broken his heart when I left. . . . It took me a while to get to the point where I could acknowledge that I was a victim, and that wasn’t love, there was no consent,” Kukors said. “It was abuse.”