The SwimVortex Safe Sport Series
John Leonard, the director of the American Swimming Coaches Association, has described allegations that he sexually harassed a former employee who was hired and fired within a few months in 2004 as “categorically untrue”.
Sarah Ehekircher, now 49, was dismissed within a few months of being hired back in 2004. Leonard suggests that she is a disgruntled employee and that, as far as he is concerned, she was not up to the job and was dismissed on that basis alone. In 2015, Ehekircher‘s evidence in her complaint of abuse against a former coach, was ruled by a USA Swimming board to have fallen shy of the burden of proof required.
In a blog in which former swimmer Sarah Ehekircher, now 49, alleges that coach Scott MacFarland, then 34, started a sexual relationship with her in the year before her 18th birthday – a physical relationship that continued “on and off” until she was 24, she alleges – author Irvin Muchnik writes that she also “told us of bizarre behavior, including sexual harassment, by American Swimming Coaches Association (ASCA) executive director John Leonard”.
Leonard describes Muchnik as “a public relations blogger for a lawyer whom I characterize as constantly having to search for new business”. SwimVortex asked Muchnik “Have you ever received money from a lawyer to present the arguments of a legal case they are handling?”. He replied: “Thanks, will publish statement in full”.
- NB: Munchik, in citing this report today talks of Leonard “orchestrat(ing) a campaign” to “smear Ehekircher and Concussion Inc”. The truth: this author asked him to respond to the allegations; he sent a statement; I put further questions; he answered them. There is a difference in versions of events and what it all meant and means. Orchestration suggests agreement of parties involved. There was no such thing when it comes to how this website interacted with Leonard or others contacted to be quoted for this article. This site reports what both sides of the argument have had to say. When we have an opinion, we will make that clear, as ever.
Further details of the latest case, in which Ehekircher, represented by Indianapolis lawyer Jonathan Little, claims that Leonard “blew off her concerns” relating to her allegation of “grooming and abuse” by McFarland, were at Muchnik’s Concussion Inc blog today.
There have also been references in blogs and comments to who knew what and when in the case of Irish coach George Gibney, long pursued by his home country for allegations that he abused under-aged swimmers in Ireland before he fled to a life of coaching in the United States.
ASCA is among organisations, with USA Swimming, alleged to have “known” about Gibney but done nothing to stop him coaching in the U.S., where law enforcement has not mounted a case against the Irishman. ASCA, however, blocked Gibney from landing employment in Colorado.
The most serious charge in the mix of Muchnik’s report, where ASCA is concerned, is that its director sexually harassed Ehekircher. The story starts on the day of her interview.
As confirmed by others employed at ASCA, Leonard used to have a habit of taking all successful job interviewees out to dinner as a welcome gesture. Ehekircher was treated to the same courtesy when she was given a job at SwimAmerica, ASCA’s learn-to-swim program. She would be dismissed within months. Writes Leonard in a statement to SwimVortex:
“I dismissed her within months of her initial employment. She was a very poor hire on my part.”
Lawyer Jon Little responded to questions on the statement from John Leonard by telling SwimVortex:
“Sarah was manipulated into a sexual relationship with her coach while she was still a teenager. Sarah’s first sexual experiences were bourne of manipulations not love or desire, I think we can all agree that would be traumatic for a young person. I did not know Sarah in the 1980’s or 1990’s so I can not comment on her mental state back then. However I have represented Sarah for almost 10 years, I think of her as a friend and I have absolutely no concerns about her mental health or “stability” now or since I first met her in 2009 or 2010. I believe Sarah is telling the truth and her case is a perfect illustration of why we need to expand the statute of limitations for survivors of childhood trauma.
On any relationship between lawyers and Muchnik, Little noted: “I have absolutely no financial relationship with Irv or any other member of the media; however I am very impressed with Irv’s reporting over the years and admire his determination to shed light on the horrific culture in United States Swimming that tolerates and accepts as normal coaches having sex with their athletes, including athletes who are not adults.”
Little said that Leonard’s “lack of compassion for children who are raped by swim coaches is appalling and has been consistent in his heartless views for as long as I have been litigating against United States Swimming”.
Leonard made clear in an interview with SwimVortex that he rejects all such accusations and that he has on numerous occasions noted that ‘child rapists should be prosecuted and jailed’. ASCA was the first sports organisation in the United States to impose a ban on sexual relationships between coaches and the adult swimmers they coach. Sex with minors, ASCA notes, is illegal and should be reported to law enforcement.
The main story of Sarah Ehekircher, as told by Muchnik, is one of sex with her coach when she was aged 17 to 24 – and he was 34 to 41. She made a formal complaint to USA Swimming almost 30 years after the alleged “abuse” took place. A hearing dismissed her claim in 2015.
Readers and swimming communities in other parts of the world, including Europe, may well be left scratching their heads at some of the detail of the allegations, for while it is common for just about every major swimming nations (and many others outside that group) to have a singular law on the age of consent. Not in the USA: Ehekircher was 17 and therefore of age to have sex Colorado but not in California, where one had to be 18 to comply with the law. McFarlane has previously responded to the allegations by noting that he only slept with Ehekircher when they were in Colorado before she was 18.
In September, 2010, Ehekircher presented her case to a USA Swimming National Board of Review hearing. She now describes that process as a “nightmare”. The conclusion was that:
“… the Board could not find that the Petitioner met its burden of proof to the preponderance of the evidence standard required.”
Beyond that, Muchnik refers to three other people as being close enough to the couple that they could have known that a sexual relationship was taking place. Writes the author: “A coach who lived with MacFarland and Ehekircher for a period confirmed their living arrangement but added that he didn’t know what was going on in their bedroom. This coach is now on the USA Swimming board of directors.”
In another reference, the author writes: “The two (Ehekircher and McFarland) traveled together to Las Vegas in the company of another USA Swimming coach and his wife”. It is not stated whether that Ehekircher was “under-age” at the time nor whether a sexual encounter took place on that trip, though the reference follows this one at the start of the same paragraph: “Sarah said they went on to have sex on hundreds of occasions.”
Leonard, who was among those targetted in a secret public relations plan by FINA in 2015 to have his campaigning for clean sport and good governance ‘discredited’, states that what Ehekircher now alleges against him 14 years on as “categorically untrue”.
Statement from John Leonard in full:
“Recently a former employee who was dismissed within a few months of my hiring her, has stated that I dismissed her concerns that she was “groomed and abused” and that I “sexually harassed” her during a period many years ago while she was here in the [ASCA] office. She provided this statement, apparently, to a public relations blogger for a lawyer whom I characterize as constantly having to search for new business.
“He writes about it. Clearly I have no idea what she may really have said to him, since he ignores what people says and he writes what he wants to write in their name.
“As I write here, I address “what he says she said”. That is recorded fact. What she may really have said is unknown.
“This characterization is categorically untrue.
“I took her to dinner while she was here for an interview, which is a standard courtesy for any significant job interview, and one lunch on her first day in the office, which was our standard “welcome” practice at the time. Her response to that can best be described as “odd”, which led me to end that practice, sadly. (because it was a very good idea, but an excess of caution was warranted.)
“It is my non-professional opinion that this person was and perhaps continues to be unstable. I dismissed her within months of her initial employment. She was a very poor hire on my part. Not the only one over a 33 year period of hiring people in our office. On percentages, we have hired moderately well.
“I was raised by my mother and father to be a gentleman, and I have always been one, acted as one, and am one today. I am acutely aware that in any relationship between a man and a woman, the man should never impose his attentions on any woman until she has made her intentions in regards to the relationship, perfectly and absolutely clear. I have lived my entire life in that fashion. I do so today.
“I have been fortunate to have married four wonderful ladies and had additional relationships all based on mutual and “lady led” intention. Each of these wonderful ladies has enriched my life and I believe I have enriched theirs. We are ALL (each and every one) friends to this day. We all began well and when we ended, we ended well. I am indebted to each of them, and very grateful for their presence in my life. In each case, mutual support and friendship continues to this day.
“Meanwhile, we have continually employed women and men in our ASCA office. (typically a slight imbalance with more women than men.) In 33 years here, never has anyone accused me of any unwanted attention. I am a demanding office leader, and have high expectations and standards in terms of both quality of work and consistency of effort. I (we) emphasize that in every employment interview. Sometimes we are believed and occasionally we are not.
“Not every employee “works out”. We try to part on good terms. Sometimes that is the case and sometimes it is impossible.
“We have many very long term employees, especially for the unstable job market in South Florida. It is telling and complimentary, I believe that over the years, 6 employees have voluntarily left our employ looking for more money or benefits and then RETURNED to the ASCA for less, but for a work environment they appreciated more. Five of those are women. We are grateful for their faith and confidence us. (I say “us” because any successful office is a team, not one person).
“We do not have 100% happy ex-employees. No business does. Some were poor hires on my part. Some were people who started well and deteriorated. Some were people who wished more money/benefits which I did not think were warranted. But the overwhelming majority of our employees and ex-employees, admire and respect the ASCA and their experience here. The number of letters I have my employee file that reflect that working here was the best and most impactful employment of their life, number in the dozens and I take significant satisfaction in that.”
End of statement.
George Gibney – an Irishman who can’t or won’t go home
In light of sex abuse allegations in U.S. Olympic sport, The Irish Times returned to the theme of George Gibney of late under the headline “No justice, no peace for the victims of George Gibney”.
That report noted that Muchnik “exhausted his efforts in the US courts to have him [Gibney] deported”. In fact, Munchik has corrected that view, his role that of seeking, through Freedom of Information requests, to have all documents related to the case released for scrutiny.
Gibney fled Ireland in the 1990s when Irish courts said he could not face trial because of the time that had elapsed since the allegations of child abuse were made. Just over a year ago, a new allegation of the rape of a 17-year-old Irish swimmer in Florida in 1991 was made against Gibney, while politician Maureen O’Sullivan, a Teachta Dála Independent for Dublin Central wrote recently to two prominent US politicians this year urging them to become involved in the case of “one of Ireland’s most notorious abusers”.
His victims have still not had their voices heard. The U.S. politicians contacted were congresswoman Jackie Speier, and US senator Diane Feinstein, who, with Nancy Hogshead-Makar, the 1984 Olympic 100m freestyle champion turned lawyer, led the campaign to get the Safe Sport bill on the statute books (it was signed into law on February 14, ironically Valentine’s Day).
Asked about Gibney, Leonard said the truth of the matter was the opposite of what some alleged, the record clearly showing that Leonard and ASCA had actively sought out information on the foreign coach and supplied media reports on his alleged abuse in Ireland to a club that had asked the coaching body for its opinion before they employed Gibney.
Leonard was deposed on the subject of Gibney several years ago but it came down to ‘no case to answer’.
Indeed, documents show that Leonard did indeed supply damning evidence to the potential employer, that Gibney was not employed as a result and that the Irishman took serious offence with ASCA when he found out.
Gibney contacted ASCA, after failing to get a job at a program in Colorado, to tell them they had “no legal basis” to provide the material charting the very serious allegations against him in Ireland. Leonard’s response was “go ahead and sue me”, on the grounds that even if he had escaped Irish justice on “some technicality as his lawyer indicated”, there was serious doubt as to whether any American court would find against those seeking to warn a club employing children of the nature of allegations against a coach seeking a job.
Reporter Johnny Watterson wrote in The Irish Times: “The pressing issue was that the most notorious paedophile in Irish sporting history was living freely in Florida and had been resident in the US since 1994, when he attained an American diversity lottery visa.”
The reporter notes that Gary O’Toole (silver medallist over 200m breaststroke behind Britain’s Nick Gillingham at the 1989 European Championships in Bonn) was the whistleblower on Gibney, the Ireland head coach when Michelle Smith made her first Olympic Games a decade before she would fall foul of anti-doping rules in the wake of three gold medals at Atlanta 1996. A year before Seoul, Smith left the King’s Hospital club where the coach was Derry O’Rourke, who would take over the national head coach position after Gibney fled to the United States. In 1998, O’Rourke was jailed for 12 years for the sexual assault of young swimmers.
As a child, O’Toole rejected the advances of Gibney and told him to leave his bedroom during a trip to the United States. Eventually, seven swimmers, including Tric Kearney, Chalkie White and Ber Carley, came forward to swear statements to gardaí that Gibney had sexually assaulted them at various times between 1967 and 1981.
Leonard accepts that ASCA had written recommendations for foreign coaches seeking work in the U.S. down the years, as a matter of course at a time when programs were seeking assurances in the wake of terror attacks. He could not be sure – and had no record to show – whether any such letter was sent for Gibney “before we had any idea of his paedophilia [allegations]. I just don’t know.”
In Ireland, they have known for decades about Gibney but victims wait yet for justice to be served.
The harrowing pain of all that is well documented in Waterson’s Irish Tiemns piece, which includes this from Tric Kearney:
“I’ve resigned myself to the fact the ship has sailed. I will never receive justice in this country. I would have no faith in the system we have, to try Gibney, or find him guilty of any crime, if he was deported.”
Even so, calls for Gibney to be deported grow louder.
The SwimVortex Safe Sport Series – so far:
- significant developments in GB Masters
- the words of Olympic podium placer Michael Jamieson and considered their relevance to woeful culture at the heart of FINA and the poor response of national federations who show no inclination to use their potential power to change the game in the interests of athlete protection from various forms of abuse.
- the Larry Nassar abuse case, a story about much more than a doctor who traded the hippocratic oath for hypocrisy and criminality; a story that calls into question the usefulness of the Olympic Movement, the United States Olympic Committee and the role of USA Swimming when it comes to the protection of athletes.
- Climate Change: empowering coaches to ensure sport is a safe, healthy and enriching place for all, at whatever level: we recall 2014 lectures delivered by Prof. Joan Duda, of Empowering Coaching, at the World Aquatics Development Conference in Lund on a day of high relevance to current events; and by Dr. Fiona McLachlan, academic adviser to Shane Gould in the 1972 triple Olympic champion’s PHD studies, for the guardians of swimming youth to consider “How to be Good”.
- the relevance of Fran Crippen and his passing to events at the Winter Olympics.
- the death of Qing Wenyi
- World Coaches call for global swim community to press FINA on clean sport
- If Prohibition Must Sober The Olympics, Then Ban The Blazers Craving Nobel Prizes
- Time To Ban The Olympic Cold Shoulder To Truth, Whistleblowing & Red-Flag Waving
- I Ran Past The First Watchman … Does your silence indicate permission to pass?
- Why USA Swimming’s Leadership Must Face Full Inquiry Into Abuse Down The Years – The Orange Country register’s telling investigation
- Susan Woessner Resigns As USA Swimming Safe Sport Boss Admitting Hutchison Link
- Don Heidary, ASCA Board President, Writes Of ‘Real Culture of American Swimming’
- Athletes On USA Swimming Board: ‘Why Was Complacency Allowed To Take Hold?’
- ‘Knock. It. Down. & Burn The Remains’ – Time to Torch The Olympic Scam Of Us & Them
Questions sent out this week to pertinent parties:
- Questions For Coaches On Their Jobs, Athlete Welfare & The Role Of Blazers
- Questions For USA Swimming, USAS & Their Busy Safe Sport Unit
- Questions For Athletes Who Represent Athletes At The House Of FINA
- World Coaches: We Need Global Safe Sport Regime But USA Fear Of FINA Stands In Way
- Safe Sport: ASCA Boss Puts Parents On Line & Tells Coaches ‘be correct, beyond reproach’
- Mark Schubert: ‘I Told USA Swimming Boss Of Abuse Claims ‘numerous times’ – In Vain