Olympic swimmer Ariana Kukors Smith filed a lawsuit Monday against USA Swimming, alleging top officials governing the sport knew her longtime coach was sexually abusing her and failed to investigate or stop him.
Kukors Smith, a member of the 2012 U.S. Olympic team, went public with her relationship with her former coach, Sean Hutchison, earlier this year and appeared at a news conference Monday in Seattle to announce the lawsuit. She said Hutchison “stole many things from me, including my swimming career, my college experience, friendships, my virginity, and ultimately my Olympic dream.”
“Those in power need to remember that a report or a rumor is not just that,” she said. “Behind that report is a child who desperately needs help. That child is depending on USA Swimming to do the right thing and report and properly investigate claims.”
The complaint, filed Monday in Orange County (Calif.) Superior Court, outlines the relationship between the swimmer and her former coach, alleging that USA Swimming ignored an “open secret” around the pool deck and then failed to properly investigate after The Washington Post first reported on the concerns about an inappropriate relationship in 2010 involving Hutchison and an unnamed swimmer.
USA Swimming issued a statement after Kukors Smith came forward in February saying her “recent public statement marked the first time USA Swimming learned of the allegations that Sean Hutchison sexually abused Ariana when she was a minor.”
The organization said during the 2010 independent investigation, “both Ariana and Hutchison, as well as Ariana’s sister, Emily, unequivocally denied the existence of a romantic or sexual relationship.”
“Our hearts go out to Ariana and the difficulty she has gone through to reach this point of disclosure,” USA Swimming said at the time. “We fully support her in her case for answers and justice and applaud her courage in sharing her story in an effort to empower victims and protect athletes.
Hutchison also issued a statement in February saying “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,” he said.
Hutchison’s lawyer, Brad Meryhew, had no comment when asked about Monday’s court filing.
Sexual abuse has cast a dark cloud over Olympic sports in the United States, upending USA Gymnastics and prompting the resignation of Scott Blackmun, the former U.S. Olympic Committee CEO. While the public reckoning continues in court rooms and on Capitol Hill, the USOC announced Monday the hiring of Wendy Guthrie as its senior director of athlete safety.
In her lawsuit, Kukors Smith accuses veteran Olympic swimming coach Mark Schubert with covering up Hutchison’s alleged offenses and alleges that as far back as 2005, high-ranking USA Swimming officials, including Chuck Wielgus, Pat Hogan and Murray Stephens, were “well aware that Hutchison was involved in an inappropriate relationship with plaintiff.”
Hogan resigned from USA Swimming in February. Wielgus, the organization’s longtime CEO, died from lung cancer last August. Stephens, the childhood coach of Michael Phelps, is no longer an executive with USA Swimming but still operates a swim club out of Baltimore.
After The Post wrote about concerns surrounding Hutchison in 2010, USA Swimming launched its own investigation. Hutchison had resigned his post with a California-based club when the USA Swimming investigation cleared him of any wrongdoing.
“To say that the so-called investigation to follow was a sham would do it too much justice,” Bob Allard, Kukors Smith’s attorney and an outspoken critic of Olympic sports organizations, said at Monday’s news conference.
The investigation was headed by Susan Woessner, who was USA Swimming’s Safe Sport director, and included “absolute bare minimum work,” Allard said, “and handed over the prearranged results to Mr. Wielgus who then boldly announced to the media that the matter had been ‘fully’ investigated and that there was ‘no evidence’ of anything untoward about the way that this coach interacted with this swimmer.
“USA Swimming’s leaders knew that these were all lies,” Allard continued, “but they did not care because their golden brand and thus their money generation power had been preserved. And Ariana was viewed as collateral damage.”
Woessner should have been disqualified from overseeing the investigation, the lawsuit claims, because of her previous relationship with Hutchison. Woessner resigned in February from USA Swimming, acknowledging that she’d shared a kiss with Hutchison in 2007, which wasn’t disclosed at the time of the 2010 investigation.
“Ms. Woessner’s prior close physical and sexual relationship with Hutchison rendered her biased and completely unable to conduct any semblance of an objective inquiry,” the lawsuit states.
While USA Swimming’s investigation found no wrongdoing, the lawsuit says the organization should have been aware of alleged improprieties. Kukors Smith began swimming for Hutchison when she was 13, and by time she was 15 Hutchison began sending inappropriate text messages. Kukors Smith says she was 16 when Hutchison first asked her to text naked photographs, and the two began a physical relationship that she said included “everything but intercourse,” before she was 18.
“Eventually, their inappropriate sexual relationship became an ‘open secret’ known to virtually all who were then present,” the lawsuit alleges. “Despite being plaintiff’s coaches, Schubert and his fellow USA Swimming coaches did not report suspected child abuse to the legal authorities as required by law.”
Kukors Smith, now 28, has said she was inspired by the many victims who came forward last year to confront Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics team physician. She first shared her story Feb. 7, one day after federal authorities searched her former coach’s home for evidence he took sexually explicit photographs of her when she was underage.
“To say these last few months have been hard wouldn’t even begin to tell the story. I have felt every emotion at every level during this time, from crippling depression and anxiety, to sadness, anger, and even moments of freedom and joy,” she said at Monday’s news conference. “I have said since January that I am determined to honor each step as I work towards becoming my very best self. Today’s filing represents the next step in the healing process I began back in January and is about accountability and, ultimately, prevention.”