USA Swimming To Settle Sex Abuse Lawsuit Filed By Former Olympian

Mar 11, 2020
Originally published on March 11, 2020 11:59 am

Two years ago, Olympic swimmer Ariana Kukors Smith went public about abuse she alleges an elite USA Swimming coach inflicted on her when she was a minor. USA Swimming and Kukors Smith's attorney announced Wednesday they had reached a settlement for an undisclosed amount in damages. That doesn't mean, however, that the organization's legal battles over sexual assault claims are over.

Kukors Smith was in middle school when Sean Hutchinson relocated to Seattle, Washington to coach at the KING Aquatic Club, where she was already breaking records in her age group. She says Hutchinson, who was 18 years her senior, quickly drew her into an abusive relationship.

"He started grooming me when I was 13," she said on NBC's Today show in 2018. "The sexual abuse began [when I was] 15, 16. He had been controlling me since I was a kid."

Kukors Smith says after she turned 18, Hutchinson had sex with her, while he was still her coach. Hutchinson became an Olympic coach in 2008 and Kukors Smith made the Olympic team four years later.

By then, Hutchison had been forced off the staff. In 2010, The Washington Post reported he was in a relationship with one of his swimmers. USA Swimming then conducted an investigation which exonerated Hutchinson. Kukors Smith's attorney, Robert Allard, says the inquiry was flawed.

"Number one, it was very fast," he says. "Number two, it was limited. And number three, the investigation was directed by USA Swimming's lawyers."

In a statement announcing the lawsuit's settlement, USA Swimming commended Kukors Smith, saying she "has shown incredible strength and bravery and offered a powerful voice to all survivors."

The attorney representing Hutchinson did not return phone calls. In a previous statement he said his client only entered a relationship with Kukors Smith when she was an adult, and that it was consensual.

Marci Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, points out that state laws are empowering sexual abuse survivors to hold institutions accountable in ways that didn't exist just a few years ago. For example, California, the state where Kukors Smith resides and where she filed her lawsuit, has increased the penalties covering up instances of sexual abuse.

"They are permitting treble damages," Hamilton says, "which is to say whatever damages the victim can prove showing the harm that was done, you multiply that times three, if there was a coverup."

Allard says he is bringing at least 10 more cases against USA Swimming this year.

Meanwhile, the federal government is conducting its own investigations. The FBI and attorneys with the Justice Department have interviewed Kukors Smith. And last year the Southern of District of New York convened a grand jury to examine USA Swimming's finances and how it handled allegations of sexual abuse.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

An update now on a case of alleged sexual abuse in Olympic sports. Two years ago, swimmer Ariana Kukors Smith claimed an elite coach molested her when she was a minor. Now NPR confirms that USA Swimming will announce today it is settling with Kukors Smith. But as Alexandra Starr reports, that doesn't mean the organization's legal battles over sexual assault claims are over.

ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: Ariana Kukors Smith was a middle-schooler in Seattle, Wash., when Sean Hutchinson coached her swim team. As Kukors Smith described on NBC's "Today Show" in 2018, she was drawn into what she describes as an abusive relationship.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TODAY")

ARIANA KUKORS SMITH: He started grooming me when I was 13. The sexual abuse began at 15, 16. He was controlling me ever since I was a kid.

STARR: She says after she turned 18, Hutchinson had sex with her while he was still her coach. Hutchinson became an Olympic coach in 2008. Kukors Smith made the Olympic team four years later. By then, Hutchinson had been forced off the staff. In 2010, The Washington Post reported he was in a relationship with one of his swimmers. Kukors Smith's attorney, Robert Allard, says the investigation conducted by USA Swimming afterwards, which exonerated Hutchinson, was flawed.

ROBERT ALLARD: No. 1 - it was very fast. No. 2 - it was limited. Then No. 3 - the investigation was directed by USA Swimming's lawyers.

STARR: In a statement announcing the lawsuit's settlement today, USA Swimming commended Kukors Smith for her, quote, "incredible strength and bravery." The attorney representing Sean Hutchinson did not return phone calls but previously said his client only entered a relationship with Kukors Smith when she was an adult and that it was consensual. The settlement amount was not disclosed. Marci Hamilton teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. She says a new California law has increased the penalties for organizations that may have covered up instances of sexual abuse.

MARCI HAMILTON: They are permitting treble damages, which is to say whatever damages the victim can prove or are showing the harm that was done, you multiply that times three if there was a cover-up.

STARR: Attorney Allard says he is bringing at least 10 more cases against USA Swimming. Meanwhile, the federal government is conducting its own investigations. The FBI and attorneys with the Justice Department have interviewed Kukors Smith, and the Southern District of New York is examining USA Swimming's finances and how it handled allegations of sexual abuse.

For NPR News, I'm Alexandra Starr in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.