Kukors Smith says USA Swimming became aware of sexual-abuse allegations against coach Sean Hutchison around 2005 or 2006. Her lawsuit also accuses USA Swimming of mishandling its investigation into the matter and manipulating background-check procedures to cover up for Hutchison.
Ariana Kukors Smith, a former University of Washington swimmer and 2012 Olympian from Federal Way, filed a civil lawsuit against USA Swimming on Monday, alleging that key officials within the sport’s governing body knew of her alleged sexual abuse by her coach, Sean Hutchison, but collaborated to cover it up.
“We are here today to force USA Swimming, the national governing body of the sport of swimming in America, to accept responsibility for allowing, and in fact, enabling a known predator coach to sexually molest for almost a decade, my client Ariana Smith beginning when she was just a young child,” Kukors Smith’s attorney, Robert Allard, said at a news conference held Monday at the Four Seasons Hotel in Seattle.
Kukors Smith, 28, went public in February with her story alleging sexual abuse by Hutchison, her longtime coach who worked with Kukors from when she was 13, through the King Aquatic Club. Hutchison denied her allegations in a statement released in February.
If you need help
News reports of sexual-assault allegations could be a trigger for victims and survivors of abuse. Here are some resources:
• The King County Sexual Assault Resource Center offers a 24-hour resource line (888-998-6423). Additionally, KCSARC can help connect people with therapy, legal advocates and family services (kcsarc.org/gethelp).
•UW Medicine’s Center for Sexual Assault & Traumatic Stress (depts.washington.edu/hcsats) offers resources, including counseling and medical care. For immediate help, call 206-744-1600.
• For readers outside King County, the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs lists 38 Washington state providers that offer free services. (wcsap.org/find-help)
• RAINN: Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network provides a free, confidential hotline (800-656-4673) and online chat (hotline.rainn.org) with trained staff members.
In the civil suit filed with the Superior Court in Orange County, California, Kukors Smith says USA Swimming became aware of sexual-abuse allegations against Hutchison around 2005 or 2006 and adds that the organization did nothing about it. The suit also accuses USA Swimming of mishandling its investigation into the matter and manipulating background-check procedures to cover up for Hutchison.
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“This lawsuit is about holding accountable people who should have protected a 15-year-old girl,” Kukors Smith said Monday, standing at a podium surrounded by her husband, Matthew Smith; her attorney; and members of her investigative team. “I needed help, and there were people in positions of power who could have helped me.”
In the filing document, Kukors Smith’s lawyers allege that USA Swimming officials “secretly agreed” to protect Hutchison from the background-check process coaches undergo because “pervasive rumors of his inappropriate, sexually motivated behavior toward minors such as the plaintiff would inevitably surface through contacts with prior employers.”
“Hutchison was an excellent coach who produced Olympic-caliber swimmers, these USA Swimming officials reasoned as part of their scheme,” Kukors Smith’s lawyers stated in the filing. “And therefore they should all ‘look the other way’ ” when it came to Hutchison’s suspected sexual abuse of children.
The suit names former USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus, former vice president and board member Murray Stevens and former Club Development Director Pat Hogan — who resigned his position in February — as officials who were complicit in the alleged cover-up.
USA Swimming officials “warned others that if they spoke out against Hutchison they could be liable for ‘slander’ and/or labeled an instigator of a ‘witch hunt,’ ” the lawsuit stated.
USA Swimming released this statement Monday: “As expressed earlier this year, we respect Ariana Kukors Smith’s bravery in stepping forward and sharing her story. We have been in regular contact with her legal team over the last several months and will continue to work with them and Ariana through this process. No further information will be provided at this time, given the pending litigation.”
At Monday’s news conference, Allard called for a reorganization within USA Swimming. The attorney said he has been involved in litigation against the group for almost a decade, and based on his experience, Allard said, “I feel that I have the standing to tell you that the culture of protecting pedophile coaches is so deeply ingrained into the culture within USA Swimming’s management model that the only solution to this grave problem is to blow it all up and rebuild it from the ground up.”
USA Swimming has dealt with sexual-abuse allegations before. An investigation by The Orange County Register in February found at least 11 cases in which the group’s officials were allegedly aware of sexually predatory coaches but declined to pursue action against them. Congress is investigating USA Swimming’s handling of such cases.
At Monday’s news conference, Kukors Smith said Hutchison started grooming her from the age of 13 and that the abuse started at 15.
“He told her she was ‘special,’ that he ‘saw things in her that no one else can see’ and that if she did what he told her, she would become an Olympic champion,” Allard said. “Little did Ariana and her beautiful family know that this coach was starting to groom this girl so that he could get her fully under his control and basically do whatever he wanted with her.
“He was going to eventually sexually abuse her for as long as he wanted because he knew there was no one in the swimming world who would stop him.”
Department of Homeland Security agents interviewed Hutchison and searched his downtown Seattle condo in February. Homeland Security spokesperson Lori Haley said Monday that their investigation of Hutchison “remains ongoing.”
Hutchison has not been charged with a crime, and said in his statement in February, “At no time did I ever abuse Ariana Kukors Smith or do anything with her that was not consensual.
“I absolutely deny having any sexual or romantic relationship with her before she was old enough to legally make those decisions for herself. Prior to that time, I did nothing to ‘groom’ her,” Hutchison said in that statement. “I deeply regret that she would make these wild allegations all these years later.”
The lawsuit also names as defendants former Olympic swim coach Mark Schubert; Hutchison’s company, the Aquatic Management Group; Western Zone Swimming; the King Aquatic Club; and Pacific Northwest Swimming.
Emails and voicemails left for the King Aquatic Club requesting comment Monday were not immediately returned.
The filing document alleges that Schubert failed to report “a reasonable suspicion of child abuse or endangerment.”
On Monday, Kukors Smith called the filing “the next step in the healing process I began back in January.”
“It is about accountability and, ultimately, prevention. Organizations like USA Swimming have long been in a position to deter, detect and discipline sexual abuse and have done little or nothing in an effort to protect their public image. By doing nothing, it enabled Sean to abuse me for a decade,” she said.
“During that decade, he stole many things from me, including my swimming career, my college experience, friendships, my virginity and ultimately, my Olympic dream,” Kukors Smith said. “Those in power need to remember that a report or a rumor is not just that.
“Behind that report is a child who desperately needs help. That child is depending on USA Swimming to do the right thing and report and properly investigate claims.”