Debbie Denithorne was a Bay Area 11-year-old with Olympic aspirations in 1980 when Andy King approached her parents about coaching her.
“I could be an elite swimmer, perhaps an Olympian,” Denithorne recalled King telling her parents. “This was wonderful news because I had dreamed of being an Olympian, and it legitimized that dream because Andy King had coached Olympians.”
King would soon turn her Olympic dreams into a nightmare of alleged sexual abuse that continues to haunt her today, 40 years later.
King began grooming Denithorne, now Debra Grodensky, shortly after she started training with him at San Ramon Valley Aquatics, according to a court filing obtained by the Southern California News Group.
She was 12 when King began sexually assaulting her at USA Swimming sanctioned meets, 15 when King had sexual intercourse with her for the first time at the 1984 U.S. Championships in Fort Lauderdale, according to the court filing.
Grodensky was 16 when King, then 37, asked her to marry him. Alarmed and frightened, she quit the sport.
“I truly believe my life trajectory would have been drastically different if USA Swimming did not have a culture that enabled coaching sexual abuse,” Grodensky said this week.
Grodensky and five other women this month filed a series of civil suits against USA Swimming, its Southern and Northern California associations, and former U.S. Olympic and national team coach Mitch Ivey, U.S. national team director Everett Uchiyama, and King in Alameda County Superior Court.
The suits obtained by SCNG allege USA Swimming, including former executive director Chuck Wielgus, and other top officials, the local associations and clubs were aware of Ivey, Uchiyama and King’s predatory behavior but refused to address it, creating a culture of abuse that exposed dozens of underage swimmers to sexual abuse and harassment. It is a culture, survivors maintain, that continues to exist within USA Swimming.
“USA Swimming must clean house and get rid of the coaches and executives that created this culture that condones sexual abuse by coaches and that still exists today,” said Suzette Moran, who alleges she was sexually abused by Ivey. “If I have the courage to tell my story on a national stage, USA Swimming should have the courage to clean house and make this sport safer for all children.”
USA Swimming and Pacific Swimming, USA’s Swimming’s Northern California association, the suit filed on behalf of Grodensky and three other women alleges, “enabled Andrew King to use his position of authority to manipulate and sexually assault over a dozen minor female swimmers over a 30-year period.
“Both organizations could have taken action to stop this serial pedophile coach from harming children but chose to look the other way. USA Swimming and Pacific Swimming placed the profits and reputation of their organization above the safety of their young, vulnerable female athletes.”
The survivors and their attorneys, Robert Allard and Mark J. Boskovich, said in interviews with SCNG this week that they hope the lawsuits force USA Swimming to require all its members to undergo a comprehensive education program on sexual abuse and other forms of abuse.
“I want this lawsuit to wake up USA Swimming and to push them to mandate prevention, education, and training for its coaches, officials, volunteers, athletes, and parents,” Grodensky said.
Liz Hahn, USA Swimming senior manager for Safe Sport, testified in January that less than 10 percent of the organization’s athlete members have taken Safe Sport training, according to a January deposition in an unrelated case obtained by SCNG.
Hahn acknowledged in the deposition that between Jan. 1 2012 to Jan.1 2014 less than 1 percent USA Swimming athletes took SafeSport training with the number still under 5 percent for the period between Jan. 1, 2014 and December 31, 2017.
“Continues to go up, but it is — it’s not everybody that has taken it, so as far as percentage, I don’t have the exact percentage. I would say approximately — it’s probably less — still less than 10 percent,” Hahn said.
The suits are believed to be the first major filings under a new California law that allows sexual abuse victims to finally confront in court their abusers and the organizations that protected predators.
Assembly Bill 218, which was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom last year and went into effect January 1, created a three-year window to file past claims that had expired under the statute of limitations. The bill, authored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), also extends the statute of limitations for reporting childhood sexual abuse from the time a victim is age 26 to 40. The period for delayed reasonable discovery is also increased from three to five years.
Alleged survivors must file civil suits within eight years of becoming an adult or three years from the date an adult survivor “discovers” or should have discovered they were sexually abused, under current California law.
USA Swimming paid a Sacramento firm $77,627 in 2013 and 2014 to lobby against similar legislation. That bill that was approved by the legislature but then Gov. Jerry Brown declined to sign it into law.
“The 16-year-old Tracy had dreams,” said Tracy Palmero, who was sexually abused by Uchiyama. Her and her father Joe’s complaints and pressure on USA Swimming led to Uchiyama being banned for life in 2006. “I dreamt of having a typical dating life and meeting the man I was going to marry and have children with. Those dreams were taken away from me by Everett and his actions. Being abused impacted my availability to be in a healthy relationship, as well as the way that I chose my partners. The abuse delayed the finding of a healthy partner and eliminated the possibility of me having children.
“It took me approximately 15 years (in therapy) to realize I was a victim of sexual abuse. Once I learned that I was a victim of sexual abuse, it rocked my world. It shook and almost destroyed the foundation of who I thought I was as a human being.”
The suits come as USA Swimming, USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, are under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Internal Revenue Service for the organizations’ handling of sex abuse cases and financial practices related to sex abuse crimes, according to eight people familiar with the investigations.
A Washington, D.C., based-team of approximately 10 federal investigators and prosecutors have interviewed more than two dozen people, including Olympic and world champion medalists, about the USOPC and the national governing bodies as part of a probe into potential money laundering, sex trafficking and child sex labor.
The USOPC could be added to the lawsuits filed in Alameda County if the California Supreme Court rules in a USA Taekwondo case later this year that the USOPC has a legal duty to protect athletes from sexual and other forms of abuse, Allard and Boskovich said.
USA Swimming did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
USA Swimming is a Colorado Springs-based tax exempt, non-profit. The national governing body (NGB) reported $74.5 million in assets in a 2019 audit. That same audit reported that the organization paid $9.63 million on employee salaries while it spent $4.17 million on direct athlete support for the 2019 fiscal year. USA Swimming spent $4.74 million on legal fees between 2012 and 2018, according to IRS filings. During same period USA Swimming transferred $5.26 million to the USA Swimming Foundation, the NGB’s philanthropic arm.
A 2018 SCNG investigation found that USA Swimming repeatedly missed opportunities to overhaul a culture where the sexual abuse of underage swimmers by their coaches and others in positions of power within the sport was commonplace and even accepted by top officials and coaches.
While prioritizing success at the Olympic Games and World Championships and the sport’s branding, top USA Swimming executives, board members, top officials and coaches acknowledged in the documents that they were aware of sexually predatory coaches for years, in some cases even decades, but did not take action against them. In at least 11 cases either Wielgus or other top USA Swimming officials declined to pursue sexual abuse cases against high profile coaches even when presented with direct complaints, documents showed.
Wielgus died in 2017.
By the time King began coaching Grodensky in San Ramon in 1980 his sexual misconduct was already well known within Northern California swimming, the suit alleges. He was sexually intimate with a girl when she was 17 and married her at 19, according to the suit.
He performed hot oil rubs on female swimmers’ upper thighs and lower back and shaved their legs, the suit alleges. Grodensky said King told her “her swimming career would end if she told anyone about their affair.” But King’s sexual abuse of her was such common knowledge in the sport that “competitors would raise the issue with her,” according to suit.
San Ramon declined to renew King’s contract in 1985 because of his misconduct with Grodensky, the suit said. He accepted a coaching post at Chabot Aquatics in Hayward where his sexual abuse and harassment of minor aged female swimmers continued, court filings allege.
King held parties on his sailboat, showered female swimmers with stuffed animals, clothing and private dinners and lunches. He openly discussed sexual topics at training and meets and encouraged swimmers to engage in similar discussions. He told male swimmers at the club they should “bang” girls at their schools. King also pressured swimmers into playing a game he called “suck face,” the suit said. The game consisted of King telling two swimmers to kiss in front of the rest of the team. The longer the swimmers kissed, the earlier King would end practice. He also had a group of boys between the ages of 12 and 18 rate a 13-year-old girl’s appearance on a scale of 1 to 10.
King had sexual intercourse with a 12-year-old swimmer, the lawsuit alleges, and told girls sex would ease menstrual cramps.
King required club parents to sign an “agreement not to step foot on the pool deck …or interfere with practice,” according to the court filing. But officials at Pacific Swimming, USA Swimming’s local association, were aware of King’s sexual abuse. One Pacific official called King a “pedophile” and “child molester” and referred to the coach sleeping with swimmers, according to the suit.
King moved on to a club in Oak Harbor, Washington in 1993. He resigned in 1997 after two swimmers reported alleged sexual misconduct to Oak Harbor police. Parents later complained directly to Wielgus that King had sexually abused their daughter while coaching in Oak Harbor, according to USA Swimming and court documents. While USA Swimming promised it would investigate the matter, the probe never took place, according to USA Swimming and court documents.
San Jose Aquatics hired King as the club’s head coach in December 2000. A former swimmer told executives at Pacific Swimming in January 2003 that King had forced her and other underage swimmers to perform sex acts on the pool deck in front of other teammates when he was coaching in Hayward in the 1990s, according to the suit and USA Swimming and Pacific Swimming documents. The reports of King’s “sex games” were forwarded to Wielgus along with assertions from two Pacific officials that the former swimmer was a “very reliable individual” and “very upstanding.”
A Pacific official wrote to Wielgus for advice on how to handle the matter. In a Jan. 27, 2003 email, Wielgus told the Pacific official to do nothing and that “this matter should be kept confidential by both you and us.”
King was arrested in April 2009 after a 14-year-old San Jose swimmer told police King had molested her from May 2008 to March 2009. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison after pleading no contest to 20 counts of felony child molestation in September 2009. Some of his victims were as young as 10 years old.
“The sad fact is that King could have been stopped years ago, sparing other victims from King’s sexual desire,” Santa Clara County deputy district attorney Ray Mendoza said in a report submitted to the court in the 2009 case.
Suzette Moran was also coached by King at San Ramon. King was friends with Ivey, a two-time Olympic medalist, who was then coaching at Concord Pleasant Hill Swim Club and the two clubs would sometimes share the same pool for training. (CPHSC later merged with another club that is now known as Terrapins Swim Club.)
Ivey was 29 when he began making sexual advances toward a then 15-year-old swimmer he was coaching, Noel Moran Quilici (no relation to Suzette). Ivey began having sex with Moran Quilici when she was 17, according to court documents. She had an abortion that same year after Ivey impregnated her, according to court and USA Swimming documents. The pair was married when she was 18 but separated six months later and eventually divorced when she caught him having sex with a 17-year-old swimmer, according to court documents..
Suzette Moran alleges in her lawsuit that when she was 16 and competing at the 1983 U.S. Championships in Indianapolis, a trip chaperoned by King, Ivey went into her hotel room and had sexual intercourse with her.
CPHSC, according to the suit, “knew, had reason to know, or was otherwise on notice that Ivey was engaged in an intimate relationship with (Moran). Despite knowing this, CPH Swim Club took no measure to protect plaintiff and failed to notify Child Protective Services or law enforcement that Ivey was engaged in an intimate relationship with a minor.”
Ivey impregnated Moran, then 17, on or around December of 1983, the suit alleges. When she told Ivey of the pregnancy, “he said it was her problem to deal with it.” Moran had an abortion.
“As a result, (Moran) could not swim for eight weeks,” according to the court filing. “The physical and emotional toll of the abortion and her relationship with Ivey made it extremely difficult for her to train for the 1984 Summer Olympics. As a result, plaintiff did not qualify for the 1984 Summer Olympics, which was devastating for her.”
Moran said she and Ivey became engaged when she was 17.
When Moran was a freshman in college, the suit continued “she broke off the engagement with Ivey in part because he lied to her about having a relationship with another female swimmer.
“Due to Ivey’s position of power and control over plaintiff, and the psychological effects imposed upon her by childhood sexual abuse, it took years for plaintiff to realize she was betrayed by her trusted coach. By late 1987, USA Swimming and Pacific Swimming knew Ivey had engaged in an intimate relationship with (Ivey) when she was a minor. Despite this knowledge neither organization took any action to ban Ivey from coaching or to warn minor female swimmers and their parents that Ivey posed a threat to them.”
In fact, USA Swimming named Ivey to the 1988 Olympic coaching staff.
Ivey was fired in 1993 as the University of Florida swim coach after allegations surfaced that he was sexually involved with teenage swimmers and had sexually harassed female athletes since the late 1970s. But even after his dismissal at Florida, Ivey remained active in the sport, making appearances at high-profile clinics, his photo and teaching aides were prominent on the American Swimming Coaches website and he was seen on the television broadcast of the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials. He continued to coach at the Episcopal School in Jacksonville, Fla., an exclusive private high and middle school located on a 56-acre campus.
Ivey was finally banned for life by USA Swimming in 2013, 20 years after his history of sexual misconduct was first publicly reported and more than 30 years since his sexual abuse and harassment of female swimmers began.
USA Swimming found that Ivey had frequent sexual relations with Moran when she was a minor and that “the evidence is clear that (Ivey) used his control and imbalance of power and authority over numerous underage females who swam with him which resulted in inappropriate sexual and romantic relationships.”
Tracy Palmero alleges in her suit that she was 14 when Uchiyama, then her coach at So Cal Aquatics in Tustin, began grooming her for a sexual relationship in the 1980s. She said she was 17 when Uchiyama began having sexual intercourse with her.
Uchiyama, Palmero said, was a “predator” with a “long term plan.”
Palmero and her attorneys said a top USA Swimming official and prominent coach ignored or disregarded red flags that should have alerted them to Uchiyama’s sexual misconduct.
“I want an investigation into who enabled Everett Uchiyama to abuse me sexually, and I want every one of those individuals banned from the sport of swimming,” Palmero said.
Even after Uchiyama was banned for life for sexual misconduct by USA Swimming in 2006, the organization kept his ban from the public for four years. During that time Uchiyama was hired as a swimming instructor at a nearby country club after he received glowing recommendation from a top USA Swimming official.
“This is how USA Swimming takes care of its predator coaches,” Palmero said.