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Olympic Officials Testify On Sexual Abuse Scandal


Some of the most prominent members of the U.S. Olympic movement are being hauled before Congress today. They're going to have to answer difficult questions about the sexual abuse of athletes. Representatives from the U.S. Olympic Committee and top officials from taekwando, swimming, gymnastics and volleyball will testify about the growing numbers of athletes who say they have been abused. As NPR's Alexandra Starr reports, in some instances, cases that were closed years ago are now being reopened.

ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: Sarah Ehekircher says that when she was 17, her former coach, who was 34 at the time, initiated what became a seven-year-long sexual relationship. Three decades later, she still finds it deeply unsettling.

SARAH EHEKIRCHER: I actually get a little bit sick. I feel like I was brainwashed or manipulated.

STARR: This allegedly happened in the late 1980s. In 2010, ABC News aired a segment about coaches abusing swimmers.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The coach's secret has all too often been kept secret.

STARR: Several women who had been raped by their coaches shared their stories. Ehekircher happened to be flipping channels when she caught the program.

EHEKIRCHER: I was like, wow, you know, people are coming forward. I'm not a crazy person.

STARR: It inspired her to report her coach, Scott McFarland, to USA Swimming. That's the organization that oversees the sport. Several months later, USA Swimming conducted a hearing. Ultimately, the board decided not to suspend McFarland. Ehekircher was bitterly disappointed.

EHEKIRCHER: I felt, you know, like revictimized by United States Swimming.

STARR: USA Swimming did not respond to multiple requests for comment. McFarland's attorney at the time says his client was exonerated. In past statements, the coach has said his relationship with Ehekircher started once she turned 18. That would have been legal in Colorado, where they resided. At the time, USA Swimming did not have a rule prohibiting coach-swimmer relationships. Nancy Hogshead-Makar is a former Olympic gold medalist and head of Champion Women, an advocacy organization.

NANCY HOGSHEAD-MAKAR: The first time that they tried to get the rule passed prohibiting those relationships, it failed.

STARR: She says the rule only went into effect in 2013, after the U.S. Olympic Committee threatened to withhold funding from USA Swimming. In 2016, it came to light that the team doctor for USA Gymnastics, Larry Nassar, had victimized athletes under the guise of medical treatment. The following year, the USOC opened the U.S. Center for SafeSport It's tasked with investigating sexual assault across Olympic sports. Ehekircher decided to report her former coach to the center.

EHEKIRCHER: I felt like, OK, here's a separate entity. Things have to be cleaned up. I was hopeful.

STARR: A spokesman for SafeSport says the center has not kept count of how many cases it has reopened. McFarland retired from his latest coaching position in Houston, Texas, last month after E. Kirshner's allegations became public. She says that's not enough.

EHEKIRCHER: Until he's banned, he can continue coaching.

STARR: This is just one case that USA Swimming is facing. Earlier this week, former Olympic swimmer Ariana Kukors Smith announced she is suing the organization. She said it failed to protect her from her coach, Sean Hutchison, whom she says began abusing her when she was a teenager.


ARIANA KUKORS SMITH: Organizations like USA Swimming have long been in a position to deter, detect and discipline sexual abuse and have done little or nothing to do such in an effort to protect their public image. By doing nothing, it enabled Sean Hutchison to abuse me for a decade.

STARR: Hutchison says the relationship was consensual and began after she was of age. The lawsuit, though, alleges another Olympic swimmer says she was victimized by Hutchison and that a different Olympic swimming coach was guilty of sexual misconduct as well.

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

Alexandra Starr