A Letter From a Swim Parent. Part 1
The last few weeks Chris DeSantis and I have discussed the grooming of swimmers, parents, and teammates. We believe this is one of the biggest problems within our sport- because it leads to abuse. I’m continuing the discussion with a letter from a swim parent. She most graciously shares her experience with grooming.
~ I was a timer for lane 5 at the “swim meet” in the afternoon session on Saturday, June 15th. My timing partner was “Joe” (don’t know last name). The last event was the 200 free.
During the last event, swimmers were stacked 4-5 heats deep behind the blocks, so there was lots of time for kids to stand and talk before the event.
There was a group of 3-4, 9-10 year old boys gathered together talking behind the timing tables around lane 5 where I was timing.
I recognized one of them as “Tommy” because he is a friend of my daughter. I had a pleasant exchange with “Tommy” regarding his shoes (we were both wearing VANS).
He and his few friends were talking quietly and acting appropriate from my perspective. They were just behind me and I could not hear their conversation.
A lady I did not recognize came by and yelled, “WHAT DID YOU SAY!?” in a very loud voice. I turned and saw she was addressing the group of 3-4 boys that “Tommy” was with. She was clearly very angry.
I heard her say “Nipple” and “inappropriate” and tell “Tommy” to go tell his mother what he said and ask her if he should swim. This was 1 heat before his race.
I watched “Tommy” do as he was told without talking back. He was very distraught, crying very hard and went over to his mom. I saw him speak to his mother briefly then he made it back to the block just in time for his heat. I gave him a “five” and told him to “put it in the water.”
The angry lady saw “Tommy” with his hands on the blocks and yelled, “What is HE doing?” She then asked “her assistant” if he had talked to his mom. She did this very loudly so everyone could hear. “herassistan” told her that he HAD talked to his mom, but the lady still insisted that “Tommy” NOT swim. “Tommy” was clearly crushed (again) and walked away crying, but without being disrespectful.
I left the meet upset. I learned later that this lady was actually “Tommy’s” coach, which made me extremely upset.....and really turned my perspective of the “club program” on its head. At no point should a child be treated like “Tommy” was, even if they make an "inappropriate" comment. ”Tommy” was publicly humiliated by having his private statement, “nipple,” said loudly enough for girls his age and adults to hear. Then after doing exactly what he was instructed to do (go see his mom) without talking back, he was pulled off the blocks which was counter to what he was told would happen if he followed instruction.
I imagine “Tommy” could have said something "inappropriate," as any person does from time to time, but I can't imagine the situation being handled any worse. An opportunity to teach and show good leadership was turned into a terrible experience for the child which could effect both his respect for his coach and motivation for the sport.
Our Club always hosts a big outdoor meet the weekend after school is out. On the second day, the day referenced above, I was coaching my swimmers he came up to me crying saying that his Coach told him he couldn’t swim. I said that isn’t true and to get back there and swim the event. He went back and when the race started, his lane was empty. I had no idea what happened and was angry if in fact she told him he couldn’t swim that event.
Her assistant Coach came up to me and said that she would have done the same thing, not letting him swim, but she couldn’t tell me what he did that would warrant him not being allowed to swim. By then, my son was in the locker room inconsolable and the Coach was gone. She packed up her things, left the deck and went home. She never told me what my son did other than “he needs to tell you” when I said “what happened?”. Those were the last words she ever spoke to me. I was leaving the pool and several people said they witnessed what she did and thought it was wrong. I was still confused about what exactly happened and why someone that I considered a friend wouldn’t allow my son to swim in a race and make him so upset.
The coach resigned as soon as she got home.
On Monday morning, the assistant brought the group together and was emotional and expressed that nobody should be blamed for what happened and that she hoped to coach with her again. The now ex-coach sent and email to the group, excluding me. Another parent shared it with me. She expressed appreciation for all the prayers and support and that in hindsight, she should have taken my son “somewhere private” to address his “ongoing behavior issues”. She said that I shared information with her about his behavior at school and that things were not good at home. She also implied that my son was a sexual predator at 10 years old.
The next day, Tuesday, there was something in the paper about the irresponsible parent who allows their son to behave badly resulting in the resignation of a beloved swim coach. Now I was being called out in the local paper. One day, she showed up with presents for certain swimmers and her assistant would escort them to a private room near the pool where she could console them privately. My kids were getting flack from teammates as “you’re the reason our coach quit” and “she made you the swimmer you are”. The parents started having secret meetings in the park at night to brainstorm how to get her back on the staff.
I was not a swimmer. I did not come from a family of swimmers. My Dad’s idea of teaching me to swim was throwing me off a dock at the nearest swimming hole. I always swore that if I ever had kids, they WOULD learn to swim. All 3 of my kids learned to swim starting at the age of 4. I never thought I would become a swim parent, but I ended up with 3 competitive swimmers and I became a swim mom. I also served as an official as well as on the Board and eventually started coaching.
In February of 2015, 4 months before the incident, my son started getting into trouble at school. He was caught lying and stealing from classmates. He was in 4th grade and never got into trouble until then. His grades plummeted at that time too, another first. His swimming was going fantastic, so I focused on that talked to his Coach hoping that she could guide him and get him back on track. I trusted that she would be a positive role model for him since she was a very successful swimmer on every level and that our conversations would be discreet. I also considered her a friend. But after the email to the team the day after she resigned, I was jolted out of being a groomed parent. I found out that my son was getting yelled at by her during practices starting in February, around the time that his behavior and grades were plummeting. Nobody told me because they knew that since she and I were friends and I was not only a groomed parent, but a groomed coach and I would have gotten upset or made excuses for her with whoever told me what she was doing to my son. My kids swam great for her and got faster. I put my faith in her that she was the best coach my kids would ever have.
I eventually took my son away from the Club and went to another town so he could swim. It was the best decision I made for him. It was hard at first because the now ex coach was the coach he had since he was 8 years old. He wasn’t sure he would be successful without her. The new coaches were incredibly patient and his new teammates were supportive from the first day. The spell was broken, we moved forward from the unhealthy environment we found ourselves in.