USA Swimming Strives to Make Sports Safe for Everyone


by mike watkins//correspondent

Every child has an innate right to be safe and trust the adults who influence their lives.

That was the overwhelming message delivered by a series of speakers and presenters – a few of them affected by sexual abuse at the hands of trusted adults themselves as children – at the first-annual Safe Sport Leadership Conference sponsored by USA Swimming Jan. 27-29.

Among these influential adults are sports organization administrators, coaches and parents – audiences targeted during the conference. A champion of children’s rights to safety in and out of the water – and an organization impacted by recent sexual abuse accusations – USA Swimming stepped to the forefront among sports organizations to address this omnipresent issue.

“The Safe Sport Leadership Conference was a unique way to bring together other organizations, both in and outside of the Olympic movement, to talk about abuse prevention in sport,” said Susan Woessner, Director of Safe Sport at USA Swimming. “We are thrilled with the turnout we had at the conference, and we are excited to continue the on-going dialogue about this important topic.”

The event – attended by representatives from USA Swimming, the United States Olympic Committee, the NCAA, Boy Scouts of America, other sports organizations and Olympic National Governing Bodies (NGBs) – focused on preventing and even eliminating opportunities for administrators and coaches to be alone with kids of all ages and risk sexual abuse or accusations of sexual abuse.

“It’s a very difficult topic, but we appreciate the willingness of USA Swimming and sports leaders to discuss the details,” said Aaron Lundberg, a presenter from Praesidium Inc., the national leader in abuse risk management. “The intent of the conference is to not just talk about the issue of child sexual abuse and opportunity but to take information and apply it to swim practice or whatever.”

In addition to discussing ways to prevent one-on-one opportunities with kids, conference presenters also discussed what makes some children more vulnerable to abuse than others, the types of adults who historically cross boundaries to abuse and the future trends toward managing the risk.

According to Lundberg, goals of the conference included: 

• Raising awareness of abuse in sport. “Managing this risk takes a lot of effort. If we don’t understand why this important, we simply won’t do those things.”
• Recognizing how this may exist in your organization. “We serve youth in different contexts. What we know is when we analyze risks, different trends appear. Depends on how a child is being served.”
• Identifying ways to safeguard youth in your organization. “The fix is general and unique. The challenge to all of you is that you will hear a lot of enthralling information; however, that in and of itself, won’t prevent kids within your program from being abused. It’s you taking that information and saying how can I use it in my program?”
• Coming together to support each other and attack abuse. “Each of us has things we can learn from one another. Share ideas, talk to one another, but talking about doesn’t just happen. It takes leadership. Without leadership, things don’t get done. You are the leaders to bring this forward in your communities.”

Fellow presenter Dr. Sandy Wurtele, a psychologist and professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs recognized as an international expert in child sexual abuse (CSA) prevention, who spoke on the subject of sexual exploitation of minors in youth-serving organizations, admitted the problem is pervasive in our society.

Wurtele said children are sexually exploited for an individual’s personal needs (emotional or sexual gratification) or a financial gratification or gain.

“People are sexually exploiting our youth,” Dr. Wurtele said. “It’s not fair to put the entire burden on their (children's) shoulders. The fact is that children are susceptible to sexual abuse by adults because they don’t fully comprehend their involvement.

“It’s our intent to use the information from this conference to go back to your organizations and implement some of the action steps that we generate together.”

Wurtele said it is equally important to teach children to recognize and respond to requests and signs of sexual exploitation – the difference between safe or not safe touch – and what do you do if that happens to you.

She emphasized that parents are a critical component in the assessment of risk and stopping opportunities for abuse.

“We’ve got to inform parents about this problem. They play a key role in enhancing some protective factors in their kids, making safe decisions for their kids,” Wurtele said. “There have been numerous stories where kids have been key in helping identify a perpetrator as well as horrific stories where parents have put their children in harm’s way because they got groomed just like their children do.”

She added that it is imperative to educate professionals about what to look for to make their organizations safe; monitoring and training help reduce the risks within organizations.

“Youth-serving organizations serve children for various purposes – schools, youth groups, father-based institutions, organizations and clubs,” Wurtele said. “Kids spend a lot of time there. Unfortunately, the sexual abuse of children can and does happen anywhere – where there are children.”