Former Olympians and Seattle area residents Margaret Hoelzer and Megan Jendrick said they weren’t concerned about daytime hotel meetings they witnessed, and never suspected Kukors might have been ‘groomed’ for years.
Two former Olympic medalist teammates of Federal Way swimming star Ariana Kukors said Thursday they remembered her meeting privately with coach Sean Hutchison in his hotel room on several occasions while traveling to swim meets.
Seattle area residents Margaret Hoelzer and Megan Jendrick said they weren’t too concerned at the time about the daytime meetups, which had been explained away by Kukors as strategy sessions. But on Thursday, the pair were left wondering whether they’d missed something obvious, with the news that Kukors, now 28, has accused Hutchison of “grooming’’ her starting at 13 and sexually abusing her starting at 16.
Her allegations come in the wake of a major sexual abuse scandal involving USA Gymnastics, where officials were accused of turning a blind eye to disgraced former doctor Larry Nassar abusing more than 250 women. Even before that, USA Swimming has been under fire for years for allegations of coaches sexually abusing their athletes.
“There were definitely times where there would be meetings (between the pair) to go over racing strategy and things like that and they probably should have been in a more public place and they weren’t,’’ said Jendrick, 34, a double-gold medalist at the 2000 Sydney Games, and silver medalist in 2008 at Beijing. “We probably should have known at the time that something was going on but I never thought anything of it … but looking back on it now and her meeting a coach in a hotel room, it makes you wonder now what was going on.’’
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Department of Homeland Security agents searched Hutchison’s downtown Seattle condominium Tuesday, seeking video, photographic, electronic and other documented evidence to support a Jan. 30 complaint by the swimmer. An affidavit used to obtain the warrant says Kukors, interviewed by DHS agents in Los Angeles on Feb. 1, claimed Hutchison began creating opportunities to be alone with her in his hotel room at swim meets – kissing and touching her body over her clothes, then later penetrating her digitally.
The affidavit states Kukors told federal agents that Hutchison, 46, snapped “thousands of sexually explicit, nude photographs’’ of her at 17, then continued sexual contact with her until age 24. The search conducted at the condo this week sought evidence of those photos.
Hutchison was at the condo on Thursday when a Seattle Times reporter knocked at his door. But Hutchison shook his head and closed the door when a reporter identified himself and asked whether he had anything to say.
Calls to the King Aquatic Club in Federal Way, where Kukors got her start and Hutchison is the chief executive officer, were not returned.
Kukors issued a statement Wednesday night saying she went to police because: “I’ve realized that stories like my own are too important to go unwritten. Not for the sake of you knowing my story, but for the little girls and boys whose lives and future hangs in the grasp of a horribly powerful and manipulative person. That they may not have to go through the same pain, trauma, horror, and abuse. That their parents, mentors, and guardians are better able to spot the signs of grooming and realize it’s tragic consequences before it’s too late.”
Jendrick, a product of Emerald Ridge High, says she personally never had a meeting with any coach inside a hotel room. She’d trained alongside Kukors and under Hutchison at the club from 2005 until 2009, when the coach left for the Orange County, Calif., area to work with elite swimmers at the Fullerton Athletic Sports Team (FAST) training facility.
Kukors went to the FAST facility to keep training under Hutchison. So did teammate Hoelzer, who remembers the rumors that soon surfaced about Kukors and Hutchison having an affair.
Kukors was 21 at the time, and Hoelzer didn’t think there might be anything more sinister than a consensual relationship going on. “It’s not appropriate because it’s a coaching/athlete relationship, but I didn’t think ‘Oh, well maybe this started 10 years ago. I just never thought that.’’
Such relationships are considered highly improper and unethical in the amateur sports world because of the potential for favoritism and conflict of interest.
Hoelzer has been very public about her own childhood sexual abuse by the father of a friend and says she feels terrible she didn’t pick up on anything more. She says the pair was definitely closer than Hutchison was to other swimmers and felt jealousy may have played some role in the swirling rumors about a romantic relationship between them.
“They had a very interesting relationship,’’ she said. “I mean, she was definitely teacher’s pet and teacher’s favorite for lack of a better term.’’
Hoelzer remembers seeing Kukors exiting Hutchison’s hotel room on occasions, but always during daylight hours. Though she couldn’t say for certain the door was “100 percent closed’’ Hoelzer could only remember a couple of occasions when she’d meet a coach in a hotel room and always with the door propped open.
Neither Hoelzer nor Jendrick kept in touch with Hutchison after retiring from swimming.
Hoelzer retired in August 2010, right when a scandal involving Hutchison and Kukors was about to break. That fall, USA Swimming national team head coach Mark Schubert said he began hearing rumors about the romantic relationship.
At the time, Schubert was on a 60-day leave from his job and about to be fired in November 2010. But upon hearing the rumor, he contacted FAST chief operating officer Bill Jewell and told him the star coach at his club might be having an affair.
Schubert told The Seattle Times on Thursday that others at the FAST club were made aware of the situation. But nobody was sure what to do.
“I think everybody was a little bit nervous – if it wasn’t true – of having a lawsuit against them,’’ said Schubert, who had taken over as national team coach in June 2009. “Now, obviously, if he’s suspended, you call the police. But it just wasn’t the thing to do back then without concrete proof.’’
Rather than report it to USA Swimming higher-ups – or the authorities – the pair hatched a plan to hire a private investigator to trail Hutchison.
Schubert’s wife, Joke, was a manager at Horseman Investigations – a private detective agency – and the company’s owner, Patrick Carroll, had even once dated his daughter. Using the personal connection, Schubert put Jewell in touch with Carroll, who hired the agency.
Documents show that on Oct. 2, 2010, a private investigator named William Kimo Ard photographed vehicles belonging to Kukors and her coach outside Hutchison’s apartment in Irvine, Calif. at 6:15 a.m. That same morning, at 7:23 a.m., he photographed Kukors and Hutchison exiting his apartment with luggage.
Schubert said a group of administrators at the California training center confronted Hutchison about the photographs and he agreed to resign. But once again, no authorities were called in.
“He admitted this in front of them and that’s the reason he resigned,’’ Schubert said.
Jewell did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
Then, once the investigator’s findings became known in October 2010, Schubert also passed details of the rumors about Hutchison and Kukors on to Washington Post reporter Amy Shipley, who first wrote about it in December 2010. USA Swimming subsequently issued a statement in early 2011 that it had investigated the matter but concluded that no wrongdoing had occurred.
“In my mind, someone needs to be fired over that,’’ Schubert said, adding: “Not only did I never get a copy of the investigation, but I never was called. It was the most un-thorough investigation in the history of USA Swimming.’’
USA Swimming issued a statement Thursday that: “In 2010, USA Swimming became aware of a rumored relationship between Hutchison and then 21-year-old Ariana via a third-party. Based on the information, USA Swimming retained an independent private investigator and conducted a full investigation into the rumor and the possible Code of Conduct violation.’’
It said Kukors, her sister, Emily, and Hutchison all denied the existence of any sexual or romantic relationship. “With the denials from both parties, the investigation provided no basis to conclude that a Code of Conduct violation occurred, and the case was closed,’’ the statement says.
Soon after the USA Swimming investigation concluded, Schubert said a national team swimmer told him she’d seen Hutchison leaving Kukors’ hotel room at 2 a.m. He declined to name the swimmer.
By then, Schubert had already been terminated by USA Swimming in November 2010, though his contract was supposed to run through 2013. A subsequent lawsuit filed against Schubert in another matter later claimed he had been paid $625,000 in hush money by USA Swimming not to go public about allegations of sexual abuse of swimmers.
The allegation was never proven.
Schubert denied Thursday ever receiving money. He says his firing came down to internal clashes with USA Swimming higher-ups.
Schubert now coaches a swim club in Mission Viejo, Calif.
“It was certainly a learning curve on my behalf,’’ he said of the Kukors-Hutchison episode. “Seeing everything that’s gone on, not just in our sport, but in gymnastics, I could have handled it differently. But the knowledge just wasn’t there back then. And like I said, we were all afraid of being sued.’’