Don Heidary, ASCA Board President, Writes Of ‘Real Culture of American Swimming’

Lane lines - photo by Patrick B. Kraemer

The SwimVortex Safe Sport series

Don Heidary, the president of the Board of the American Swimming Coaches Association, has issued an open letter in defence of the profession and peers he serves as figurehead for at a time of calls for investigation into the role of USA Swimming on Safe Sport and the protection of athletes from sex-abuse predators.

That sex abuse in various forms, including criminality of the kind covered by jail-term penalties, has unfolded on USA Swimming’s watch is not in question: the federation’s own banned list confirms a past that the federation has only just caught up with. There are complexities in the mix; and their are simplicities in the mix that some would like to present as complexities in order to lessen the impact of the past on the current desire to present swimming governance and its handling of abuse allegations as ‘something we’re on top of and committed to’.

Heidary’s intervention, as we publish the responses to our questions from the head of the World Swimming Coaches Association, George Block, and, in the next 24 hours, the head of ASCA, John Leonard,   and Mark Schubert, the former USA Team Director, focusses not on what’s wrong but what’s right.

We reproduce Heidary’s letter with minimal comment at this stage of a process yet unfolding the week after USA Swimming’ heads of Safe Sport and Club Development resigned from their posts after an email was sent by the lawyer of Ariana Kukors, Bob Allard, to USA Swimming demanding they step down by February 28

Heidary’s message, below a banner of ‘The Real Culture of American Swimming‘ is likely to meet with two responses: a. in general, nothing he writes is untrue (some open to interpretation but by and large, the message that much great work has been done and continues to be done by coaches, volunteers and others is correct); b. the timing of that message, however, will be interpreted, whether it is so or not, as an attempt to own the narrative and to shut down the essential discussion and debate about governance structures and an accompanying go-along-to-get-along culture that, deliberately or not, with open eyes or blindness wilful or that caused by naivety and fear,  have contributed to bad and unacceptable outcomes.

Those outcomes have including the death of a USA swimmer and abuses of various forms, those of a sexual nature perpetrated by coaches who at times seemed to find a safe haven for themselves in the midst of the very people who ought to have called them out, according to the lobby seeking justice and a new start. The record is one that includes evidence that senior USA Swimming figures have in the past leaned towards non-disclosure agreements that serve to keep truth and transparency in a locked cupboard. The record is one in which the former head of USA Swimming issued a tardy apology to victims of abuse and paid a price for his tardiness by being locked out of the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

Some outcomes may also, some in the swim community note, have led to injustices against coaches accused, never found guilty, given free-to-go cards by inquiry, including law-enforcement decisions, and yet still ostracised and even, in some cases, placed on a banned list with no legal judgment ever having been made against them.

Ariana Kukors on her way to the 2009 World titles over 200IM – by Patrick B. Kraemer

Some cases, such as that of Ariana Kukors and her allegations against coach Sean Hutchison – linked to the resignation of Susa Woessner as head of safe Sport – are subject to legal inquiry.

Meanwhile, the rogues, no matter what percentage of their peer population in any realm, matter; what governance did and did not do about it matters; the good folk doing fine work matter, too, of course. And against that backdrop, Heidary – surely knowing that he may well invite a clobbering from critics who, understandably, want to focus on what’s gone wrong to put it right, not on what’s right that doesn’t need righting – defends the record of the sport and the vast majority of coaches who do fine work day in, day out.

He writes of the coaches and volunteers who work tirelessly in the light: “This is what lies beneath the surface of our sport.”

Of course, abuse lives in the same place; and there is another level of ‘volunteer’ that takes far more than it gives, with the blessing of USA Swimming.

Here’s the word for those who do it right.

The Real Culture of American Swimming

By Don Heidary

The best time to learn – photo courtesy of FINIS

As there has been a great deal in the media of late on the “culture of American Swimming”, I am compelled to offer a vastly different perspective, and I believe with all my heart, a more accurate one. Over the past forty years, I have coached in the summer-leagues, at the high school level, and as a proud member of USA Swimming. What I have seen, and have been blessed to be a part of, is a culture that is anything but predatory, abusive, and certainly not profit-driven.

What lies beneath the surface of the sport of swimming are the greatest lessons of life, of relationships, of personal growth, and of athletic development. I have seen countless children learn invaluable social skills, overcome debilitating fear, develop profound self-esteem and self-awareness, build life-long friendships, and discover mentors and programs that changed the trajectory of their lives. I have seen swimmers find a home away from home and a second family, and often a respite from life’s stresses and challenges. I have seen kids learn things they cannot learn in a classroom or at a dinner table, such as work ethic, resilience, sacrifice, humility and teamwork. I have seen young adults learn to celebrate the success of others, transcend pain thresholds, discover acts of courage within themselves, and begin to see life through the lens of team, service, and leadership. I have seen kids that never found “success” in athletic endeavors, find it their role as an inspiration and a role model.

I have seen teenagers contemplate the tipping point of their physical and mental capacity and discover a strength within that they never thought possible. I have seen kids’ academic priority shift from indifference to mastery as a result of the transforming self-discipline learned through swimming. I have seen young student-athletes redefine their academic focus, social priorities, and their predisposition to work and challenge with the possibility and opportunity of being a collegiate athlete. I have witnessed countless swimming careers evolve from nervous children on the stairs of their learn-to-swim programs to high school seniors giving emotional farewell speeches to teams that changed their lives.

Against the backdrop of a culture of (un)social media, technological dependence, and false relevance, the sport of swimming and athletics in general, offers human interaction and relationship dynamics based on depth of character and contribution. Approval or acceptance comes only from earned respect and relationships developed. In swimming, a child’s social life is real life, and it is developed and experienced in the challenge of training, in the unification of competition, and in daily team interaction.

And the culture of coaching has been nothing short of inspirational. I am talking about the ninety-nine percent that define it, that create the cultures described above, the real culture of American swimming. Coaches are individuals who do not refer to their vocation as “work”, view it as a job, or track their hours. Coaches are by and large predisposed to enhancing the quality of the lives they serve: children and athletes. The coaches that I know define success not in pay or recognition but in a life made better, a goal achieved, a note of gratitude, or in a parent’s acknowledgement that they have seen profound change in their child.

The coaches that I know view their role as servants, as leaders, as mentors, and most significantly as privileged. They understand that few athletes will become Olympians but all can become leaders on the team, role models in their community, and “Olympian” in character. The coaches that I know went against the norms of professional pursuit to follow a passion and to make a difference. Most have sacrificed financial security for societal contribution.

An illustration of the role and relevance of many coaches came in a parent’s comment many years ago, that has always resonated with me. It was made against the backdrop of the extreme social pressures that kids face, when a mother said, “Don’t you understand, you (coaches) are the last line of defense.”

Beyond coaching, as a volunteer, I have been a member of the Board of Directors of Pacific Swimming (Northern California), USA Swimming, and of the American Swimming Coaches Association. I have seen the inside of the volunteer culture of the sport, and it is driven first and foremost by service; countless individuals working behind the scenes to support children and the athletic process. These people are true servants and in my opinion, the silent hero’s and profound examples of selfless support. They are volunteers who spend up to forty hours a week in support of the sport and its members, officials who give up weekends to officiate so that the opportunity to compete is never in question, and committees who work tirelessly to create opportunities outside of the pool to enhance the experience of the sport. They themselves become role model for our athletes.

While the sport has been profoundly successful, its achievement has not been manufactured in board rooms or through corporate sponsors. It has been fostered in learn-to-swim programs, summer-league teams, YMCA’s, club teams, and collegiate programs throughout the country. It has been nurtured by caring, professional, and driven coaches, supported by selfless volunteers, and it has been given structure by organizations grounded in methodical plans of athlete development, teambuilding, and coach-swimmer partnerships.

From a different world, the experience that every parents would want for their children when deciding swimming is where they’d like to make their sporting home … in Australia, Dawn Fraser with the kids who can swim – she wants the ones who can’t to learn – courtesy of Swim Australia

The real culture of swimming and the sport itself is a gift to our children and to our society. The benefits are immeasurable and invaluable. Over 500,000 children and young adults enter a swimming pool each year, some from the shallow end to learn a life skill, some from the deep end to achieve at a high level, with the vast majority falling somewhere in the middle. They choose the sport and the commitment because of the dedication of coaches and because of the culture of their team, not in spite of them. And every day, tens of thousands of coaches step onto a pool deck to help develop an athlete to his or her potential, to build a team and a team culture, and to help shape lives.

This is what lies beneath the surface of our sport.

The following is an excerpt from a letter written many years ago by a graduating athlete. It poignantly reveals the impact the sport can make far beyond the competitive process. While this is one letter, it may very well represent hundreds of thousands of teenagers who have benefitted from the sport of swimming. This is the culture of swimming that too few see or read about. “I can only imagine where I would be today, right now, if I had never joined this team back in seventh grade. In middle school, I found myself, like so many others do, at a crossroads of sorts. My best friends were making choices that made me uncomfortable on many levels, and I could feel myself slipping down with them. Looking back, I can see just how far I was about to fall. In joining this team, my life went from slipping downwards, and slipping fast, to something entirely different and profoundly positive. This team, its coaches and teammates, has changed my life in countless ways. It has not only shaped me into the person I am today, but it has made me realize who that person is. Because of this team, I know my values, and I’m standing by them. I have so much gratitude for everything the team has done for me over the past seven years.

To the coaches, I owe not only my career in the pool, but also relationships that I consider some of the most important in my life. I know that there are very few people in the world that would do for me what you would in a heartbeat, and I cannot express how thankful I am to have you in my life. And to my teammates and amazing friends, well, I love you and I could not be more grateful. Thank you all from the bottom of my heart.”

So, I acknowledge and thank the thousands of coaches, administrators, and volunteers who work every day tirelessly, unselfishly, and with the highest character. They create, not only a wonderfully positive sport, but a sport that changes lives, a sport that I believe is the finest and most important sport in the world.

Don Heidary

  • Head Coach, Orinda Aquatics – USA Swimming
  • Head Coach, Miramonte High School
  • Board President, The American Swimming Coaches Association

The SwimVortex Safe Sport Series – so far:

Questions sent out this week to pertinent parties:

Answers provided:

Don Heidary, the president of the Board of the American Swimming Coaches Association, has issued an open letter in defence of the profession and peers he serves as figurehead for at a time of calls for investigation into the role of USA Swimming on Safe Sport and the protection of athletes from sex-abuse predators


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