One of the world’s most dominant water skiers was the subject of a scathing report this year from the government-backed organization charged with investigating sexual abuse claims in Olympic sports. U.S. Center for SafeSport investigators found he had sex with an underage girl, physically and emotionally abused a girlfriend and had inappropriate communications with at least one other young girl.
An investigator found the athlete “engaged in regular messaging with a minor female athlete, in the nighttime, of matters not involving sport, and likely in a grooming fashion with the intent to engage in subsequent sexual contact,” and the report included screenshots of text messages to another minor saying “I love you” and a photo of his bed with the caption “sex bed.”
The result: Nate Smith, a world record holder and one of the sport’s biggest stars, received a three-month suspension earlier this spring and has returned to competition, a punishment that has prompted angry backlash from some corners of the tight-knit world of water skiing and shows the limits of SafeSport’s reach.
A SafeSport spokesman said the organization cannot comment on specific cases. But the confidential investigative report, which was reviewed by The Washington Post, makes clear that some of Smith’s alleged offenses occurred before the organization instituted its code of conduct and its Minor Athlete Abuse Prevention Policies last year, which effectively prevented the organization from punishing Smith for the sexual misconduct allegations that predated SafeSport’s policies.
Howard Jacobs, a California attorney who represented Smith in the matter, said Smith would not address any specific allegations in the report, but Smith issued a statement Monday denying any sexual misconduct but acknowledged playing some role in a 2013 altercation that left an ex-girlfriend with a black eye.
“I take full responsibility for my poor choices made 7 years ago involving my adult girlfriend at the time,” he said. “There are many explanations for what happened, but no justification for my bad judgment.”
“. . . As to the remainder of the allegations of conduct violating the law, they are just not true. They are, to be very clear, not true.”
The SafeSport report details allegations that date from 2012. The organization’s hands were effectively tied, an investigator wrote in the report, and SafeSport couldn’t enforce rules that weren’t on the books at the time. SafeSport could hold Smith accountable only for laws he broke or USA Water Ski policies he violated.
“Indeed, his conduct would clearly constitute sexual misconduct under the Code today,” the investigator wrote at one point in the report, “however the Code did not apply in 2013.”
Challenges for SafeSport
SafeSport was created in 2017 as a nonprofit, independent body charged with investigating child and sexual abuse among Olympic-related sports in the United States. USA Water Ski & Wake Sports is a national governing body, and though water skiing is not contested in the Olympics, it falls under the auspices of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and also SafeSport. The executive director of USA Water Ski said the organization cannot comment on specific investigations.
“We are aware of this particular investigation and have been actively working with the Center to gather more information,” Nate Boudreaux said in an email. “The safety of our members is our number one priority.”
The case highlights some of the inherent challenges SafeSport faces in policing child and sexual abuse. With a shortage of resources and a heavy caseload — the organization receives 239 new reports a month and has nearly 1,300 open cases — it investigates many allegations that predate its code of conduct and doles out punishments based on widely varying rules that different sports’ national governing bodies had in place before SafeSport was establishedand the criminal laws in place at the time.
John Manly, an attorney representing hundreds of former gymnasts who were abused former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, says that sliding scale fails to put the safety of athletes first.
“That’s not the way it should be,” Manly said. “They’re taking criminal law and saying, ‘Well, we can’t change the way it was.’ Yes, you can. Look, if it was okay to have sex with a kid 20 years ago pursuant to the rules, you’re not going to prosecute or suspend that person because of an old rule? That’s insane.”
Since its inception, SafeSport has had to grapple with how to handle cases involving allegations that predate its code of conduct. In several instances, the independent body has delivered stiff penalties. For example, last year the organization issued a lifetime ban to George Morris, a decorated equestrian trainer, over events involving a minor that were alleged to have occurred nearly 50 years ago. Morris has called the charges “unsubstantiated” and is appealing the decision.
Also last year, the swimming coach Sean Hutchison was barred from the sport for a sexual relationship he was alleged to have had with a teenaged pupil. Hutchison denied the allegations. And in August, famed figure skating coach Richard Callaghan was given a permanent ban over years-old allegations of sexual misconduct involving minors. Callaghan consistently has denied any wrongdoing.
Smith, 28, is allowed to compete at any event, as well as work as an event official or coach other athletes. In July, five days before Smith’s suspension ended, Team Germany Racing, a private water ski team, introduced Smith in an Instagram post as its new “Team Mentor” for young athletes. That post was edited last week and now says only that Smith is a team member, but André Schürle, the team director, said in an interview he has no qualms with Smith working with young athletes.
“This story is a rumor story, a fake story,” Schürle said. “For six or seven years, he’s the best in the world. You cannot beat him. Because he is the best in the world — and now the social media stuff would like to kill him. They cannot beat him on the lake, so they do this.”
In his interview with the SafeSport investigator, Smith denied many of the allegations or said he had no memory of them taking place. Smith acknowledged he had sex with a 17-year-old athlete when he was 23. Florida law prohibits a person 24 or older from having sex with a person 16 or 17, so the investigator ruled Smith did nothing illegal in that instance. SafeSport’s code would bar such a relationship from occurring today and though USA Water Ski did have an applicable rule in place at the time of the incident in 2013, Smith was not technically a member of its national team until later that year.
The investigator was repeatedly told Smith has a history of pursuing relationships with young girls. The report says one parent told an investigator that Smith sent inappropriate late-night text messages to teenaged athletes, such as “I’m thinking of you at bedtime.”
'Everyone stays quiet'
Water skiing is an insular sport and many people interviewed by The Post requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issues, the ages of the people involved and concerns about retribution from sponsors or event organizers for speaking out against one of the sport’s biggest names.
“Everyone kind of knows, but everyone’s so scared to come out and say something,” one competitor said. “Everyone stays quiet because they’re worried about losing sponsors or hurting their standing.”
One fellow competitor put her name to a statement that was first posted on BallOfSpray.com, a popular online forum for the water ski community. Lauren Morgan, who also provided her statement to The Post, wrote that her “heart sank” when she learned that at the conclusion of SafeSport’s investigation that Smith faced only a short suspension and a two-year probation.
“What we have at our hands now in the sport of water skiing is a safety issue,” she wrote. “We have factual knowledge surrounding a few events of sexual misconduct within our sport. . . . The failure to recognize, hold accountable, and the failure to place accountability anywhere whether it be on an individual or a water ski company who supports these acts is incredibly disheartening.
“I am ashamed of being associated with an entity that values buoy count and distance over true character,” she continued. “I am sad that the sport I love will do just about anything to highlight the world records, medals, and victories but is silent when times aren’t in favor. I am sad that we are at a place where protecting our youth is less important than the next win or the next trophy.”
Smith’s own sponsors largely have stood behind him during the course of the investigation. His biggest corporate backer, the boat manufacturer Nautique, however, reversed course recently and told The Post earlier this month that it no longer has a relationship with Smith.
While parents and athletes interviewed by The Post said concerns about Smith have been expressed quietly at competitions for several years, SafeSport was first made aware of the allegations when it received a complaint from a parent in August 2018, charging Smith with “a long pattern of inappropriate relationships with young girls, ages 14-17, and of sexual, emotional and physical abuse,” according to the investigative report.
A formal investigation was launched in October, assigned to a retired special agent from the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service . Four months later, on March 1, SafeSport issued an “interim restriction” that barred Smith from working with minors without another adult present and then temporarily suspended Smith from competition on April 30.
In May, at the conclusion of a seven-month probe that included interviews with 22 witnesses, SafeSport issued its three-month suspension for physical misconduct. The SafeSport investigator wrote in his report that “by a preponderance of the evidence,” that Smith “did engage in the alleged behavior,” which included sending late-night messages to an underage athlete; that he received a massage from a 17-year-old athlete; that he was alone with underage athletes in his RV; that he was controlling and threatening to an ex-girlfriend. That ex-girlfriend alleged Smith pushed her from a car, made threats and once smothered her with a pillow. She told the investigator that after she confronted him over text messages with underage athletes that she had discovered in his phone, they engaged in a physical altercation that left her with a black eye.
The report also includes screen shots of digital messages between Smith and underage girls. In one, for example, he’d mentioned a “threesome” to a 14-year-old girl, followed by “hahahahah jk.”
According to the report, Smith told the investigator he wasn’t sure how his ex-girlfriend suffered a black eye but said the two had a “scuffle.” He told the investigator he was hesitant to have a sexual relationship with the 17-year-old and said “it was a mistake I made,” according to the report. He said he texted “I love you” to the teenager as “a friendly gesture of acknowledgment of our friendships,” and the “sex bed” photo was intended for his girlfriend at the time, not the underage athlete who received it.
Back in competition
Smith did not object to the SafeSport suspension “because the short sanction that was imposed would have been fully served before the allegations could have been heard and decided by an independent arbitrator,” Jacobs said in an email. “Had the sanction been any longer, he would have contested those allegations and requested a hearing before a neutral arbitrator.”
Smith issued his statement after several days of posts on social media and Internet forums about the matter in the water ski community. He said “certain individuals began a personal attack . . . to justify their own misbehavior,” and he’d hoped “maintaining a low profile and not publicly responding to these negative statements . . . would stop their campaign.”
“I truly apologize for the negative impact that this entire affair has had on our sport. I have now stated the facts, and it is time to move on without further response to the onslaught of misstatements I am sure will follow,” he said.
Smith has resumed his competition schedule. He won a California Pro Am title earlier this month, and at the recent Malibu Open he finished in second place, posting the highest score in the event’s first three rounds.
“This getting brought up and his ‘punishment’ just shows him that he can get away with anything,” one person who met with the investigator told The Post in an interview. “It’s like some twilight zone. People see it, it’s been in front of everyone’s eyes for years. Now it’s been proven and SafeSport has this stuff on record. How can everyone turn away and allow it to keep happening?”