USA Swimming also shakes up board

Updated: May 28, 2010, 5:52 PM ET
Associated Press

The executive director of USA Swimming said Friday that he did not give a positive job recommendation to a former national team director who was banned for life for sexual misconduct.

In a wide-ranging telephone interview with The Associated Press, Chuck Wielgus also said he believes the organization will emerge stronger from a series of embarrassing revelations stemming from improper relationships between coaches and young athletes.

In addition, Wielgus revealed a shake-up of the board that governs the USA Swimming Foundation -- the group's main fundraising and philanthropic arm -- but insisted it has "absolutely nothing" to do with the sexual abuse scandal.

Wielgus said his staff is looking into claims that someone at USA Swimming recommended former national team director Everett Uchiyama for a job at a club not far from the governing body's headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Uchiyama became director of aquatics at the Country Club of Colorado in January 2007, a year after he received a lifetime ban from USA Swimming that quickly followed claims he began an illicit relationship with a female swimmer when she was 14.

On Wednesday, after the organization published a list that included him and 45 others banned for life, Uchiyama hastily stepped down from the job.

"We are not aware that there was any formal recommendation given by anyone in authority at USA Swimming," Wielgus said. "What we don't know is if somebody on our staff may have given a personal recommendation. That could've happened. We're trying to run that down. But there was no formal recommendation from myself or anyone in an appropriate position of authority of USA Swimming."

Wielgus said he's spoken with the general manager at the Country Club of Colorado, which issued a statement Wednesday saying it received a "positive reference" from USA Swimming and was not aware of the allegations against Uchiyama, who was never charged with a crime.

"I wanted to know if they could share the information about who produced the recommendation," Wielgus said. "They're looking into it."

The club has declined a request for additional comment.

In April, Wielgus proposed a seven-point plan to deal with the sexual abuse issue, and the board voted on four measures at this month's meeting -- including the release of all who are banned for life or have permanently given up their membership for wrongdoing. At least 36 of the 46 people on the list were involved in sexually related offenses.

The swimming chief said he expects the bulk of the proposals to be presented at USA Swimming's board meeting in September, after a thorough study that involves experts inside and outside the sport.

"This is an issue which has gotten our attention much more than it did five years ago, or 10 years ago, or 15 years ago. Going forward, it's going to have our attention on an everyday basis," Wielgus said.

USA Swimming has experienced rapid growth over the past decade and now has some 300,000 members, largely due to the popularity of record-breaking Olympian Michael Phelps. Wielgus said he doesn't think the sexual abuse cases will stymie the sport's development.

"The organization will only be stronger and better for it," he said. "This is an incredibly tragic situation, but the organization and the sport and, most of all, the kids who participate in it, they're going to benefit from everything we're going through now."

Wielgus repeated his belief that swimming is the victim of a problem that affects all areas of society, and remains adamant that his organization never condoned an environment that called for looking the other way when a coach had an improper relationship with an underage swimmer. He pointed out that USA Swimming was one of the first U.S. Olympic sports with a code of conduct (1999) and background checks for prospective coaches (2006).

"There are far too many people today who make a lazy analysis about something that happened some time ago, or didn't happen some time ago," he said. "Do you think the guys at BP who were in that meeting and talked about having the right amount of control over the mouth of that pipe, do you think they have a different opinion that they had five weeks ago? That's human nature."

Wielgus said too many critics have characterized the organization as "irresponsible, and we have not been irresponsible. I think that stinks. I really do."

"In a way, I hate to say this, but there may be some fated reason why USA Swimming was put in this position, because we have the commitment and wherewithal not to shy away from an issue, to embrace an opportunity to make things better," he added.

Regarding the USA Swimming Foundation board, which includes business leaders from firms like Hewlett Packard, Deloitte & Touche LLP and the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, Wielgus said a reorganization began six to nine months ago that resulted in all 13 members submitting their resignations, effective June 30.

Some may reapply to what is likely to be a smaller board, while others could serve on an advisory council that will mainly focus on fundraising efforts.

The foundation has an endowment of over $14 million, but Wielgus said the "trigger point" for the changes was a significant deficit in the operating budget of $1.5 million. The new board will include more members from inside the sport.

Wielgus bristled at any suggestion his staff was trying to gain more control over the foundation. He also stressed that it wasn't related to the wave of negative media coverage, which may have caused businesses to shy away or attempt to gain more control over dealing with sexual abuse.

"I'm going to jump to conclusions and guess that you're trying to connect the dots between this and the sexual abuse claims," he told the AP. "One has absolutely nothing to do with the other."


Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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