HARTFORD -- The shocking allegations of abuse involving USA Gymnastics, and now USA swimming, must have all parents concerned about their young athletes.
Having been a lifelong swimmer, and former Olympic medalist in the sport, FOX61 turned to me, for my own insider perspective. In this exclusive account, I sat down with my parents to talk about the sport I grew up with, and their advice for all parents of athletes.
Today, I am known as a reporter, but before that, I was known as a swimmer. I was in my first pool at six months, on my first team at six, and at 21, I won an Olympic medal.
“I remember the first time you jumped in the pool, and you dove in off the block, and you gave a thumbs up like you did it, and the race was still going on,” said my Dad, Bob Farrell.
“That was true,” said my Mom, Sylvie Farrell. “You also took off your goggles, and waved at the crowd, and you were six.”
Growing up, I was defined by swimming, and my parents provided crucial support to guide me along the way.
My mother, a French citizen, is the reason why I have dual-citizenship. She was also an elite swimmer, once ranking seventh in the world, and fifth in Europe. She missed the 1976 Olympic Games by one-hundredth of a second in swimming, and that story became my inspiration to one day qualify for an Olympic team.
“The proudest moment is when you qualified for the Olympics, because you did it in my country under my flag,” said my Mother. “ I missed the Olympics a million years ago, and it was very sweet to see that.”
My father, though not a swimmer, was an athlete growing up, and he too cheered me on at swim meets, drove me to practices, and was always my number one fan.
“The progression was just incredible to see year after year after year,” said my dad. “So the whole cycle of life from 6 years old to winning a bronze medal was my proudest moment.”
But I see now that my experiences with the sport were far different than the headlines that have recently rocked the sport.
Earlier this year, an investigative report published by Southern California news organization documented hundreds of cases of abuse spanning two decades, alleging that USA Swimming did nothing to stop it.
“I think it is really sad and sick,” said my Dad. “I think parents especially have to really pay attention, and be proactive, and know what’s going on, and talk to their children, and tell them that if something doesn’t seem right to tell us.”
Over the years, I spent countless hours away from my family training and traveling. It is a culture my mother grew up with as well.
“As an ex-swimmer I knew that there are good and bad coaches, not necessarily about sex allegations, but you know verbal abuse, and that kind of stuff,” said my mom. “I was looking for it.
My parents say these headlines make them realize how lucky they were that nothing like that ever happened to me.
“I never really thought about it, I mean, we had dropped you off, you had gone to trips, you traveled to different states, different events,” said my dad. “It really didn’t cross my mind at that point because I think we trusted most of the people who were training you.”
These allegations, coming on the heals of the abuse that has plagued USA Gymnastics raises questions about the future of swimming. Would parents now fear signing their kids up for the incredible sport that shaped me? Would kids be too scared to experience the sport for themselves?
“I think parents cannot be blinded by goals,” said my mom. “For example, when I listen to what’s going on, or what happened in gymnastics, and I am not saying that the parents were wrong at the time, but you are kind of in a swirl where your kid has been chosen to go to an Olympic camp with other girls, and you have to let them go, and you do that because you have full faith in the process, and who is going to be watching them.”
But as we know now, that is not how the story ended for the many gymnasts we saw testifying in court against a former team doctor.
“Then, in the end, you have a horrible result with those girls being abused,” said my Mom. “I think that now that we know that, I feel like parents need to be absolutely involved, and vocal, and watch, and really ask questions, and not think that because my child is at practice, I am good to go. They have to be involved.”
It is a principle that my parents believe can be applied to other aspects of a child’s life as well.
“It’s the same thing as when you drop your kids in school,” said my mom. “The kids who succeed, it’s because the parents are involved, to me, it’s the exact same thing, you just have to be involved, and know who is around, ask questions, and watch.”
For me, swimming is the reason I am who I am. But for others, it will be a memory of the trauma that will follow them for life.
“As a family, I think you also have to be very open with one another, and just put it on the table just so everyone is aware of what could happen, what possibly might occur,” said my mom. “Just make sure that your kids can trust you to do the right thing too if they feel uncomfortable, or if they have problems.”
Earlier this year, an investigation by a Southern California new organization documented hundreds of cases of abuse of swimmers. Those allegations spanned across decades, and claimed that USA swimming did nothing to intervene.
The report included two cases here in Connecticut. So, FOX61 asked me, a current reporter, and former Olympic swimmer, to look into what is being done in our state to protect your children.
For the first 24 years of my life, I was a swimmer. My memories of the sport were some of my fondest, but now, more than ever, I am aware that not everyone had those same experiences.
“It was just so devastating to see those types of headlines,” said Jen Lyman, my former swim coach who currently still coaches in East Lyme. “It’s even more disheartening to know that there’s people out there taking advantage of our sports.”
Allegations of abuse within USA Swimming spanning back two decades, are now shining a spotlight on hundreds of athletes and coaches, some I knew personally.
“We never want to see our sports being put in headlines such as that because that’s not what we globally represent,” said Lyman.
Here in Connecticut, there have been two cases. One incident in Plainville in 2003, the most recent in Bridgeport in 2015.
“Two is too many,” said Ellen Johnston, the General Chair of Connecticut Swimming. “It’s unfortunate that we even had those two.
Those coaches have since been placed on USA Swimming’s banned for life list. It is a public list that details dates, names, state, and charges on individuals who will never be allowed back into USA Swimming.
Following separate allegations back in 2012, USA Swimming launched Safe Sport, a program meant to educate and protect coaches, parents, and athletes.
“USA Swimming really took what was a negative black mark on them, and was the first national governing body to really delve into this aspect of it, and to start safe sport, which is all encompassing,” said Johnston.
Safe Sport offers resources that are now available to all teams across the country.
“Every two years coaches have to go through a background check, they also have to go through a safe sport power point presentation, which have to be passed in order for them to keep their coaching certification in the state,” says Rob Riccobon, Connecticut Swimming’s Safe Sport Coordinator. “If any of those expire, and the coaches don’t recertify, they’re not allowed to be on the deck.”
How a coach chooses to use Safe Sport practices differs across teams. My former coach, for instance, hosts Safe Sport Mondays, where she talks to her athletes about different topics every week.
“When I first started, it was you did you background checks, and you passed your background checks for not being a criminal or being on a list,” said Lyman. “Now, having further education, and being able to further educate our athletes with the Safe Sport information that is out there its helpful.”
Safe Sport was implemented as a way for coaches to connect with athletes and their parents on a variety of issues.
“Safe sport covers a number of topics,” said Riccobon. “It’s going to cover sexual misconduct, it’s going to cover bullying, it’s going to cover how to deal with parents, how to deal with coaches, and how to deal with different swimmers, because as a coach you’re going to deal with swimmers that are 8 years old up to 18.”
Coaches say, it is opening the door for communication.
“The safe sport coordinator is available 24/7 for a coach or a parent to call,” said Riccobon.
But Safe Sport is not perfect. USA Swimming’s head of Safe Sport recently resigned following the latest scandals that came about. The spirit of the program however, is what coaches say matters most.
“We have almost over 300,000 swimmers in the United States, and almost over 2,700 swim clubs, that’s a lot of people,” said Riccobon. “One organization, USA Swimming cannot watch over, and I think would be unrealistic to expect that they are going to, watch over every single swim coach, every single parent, and every single swimmer, that’s just a very unrealistic expectation. What is realistic, is that your club, your coaches, your swimmers, your parents, in your little section of this free big world, can watch over people, you can help people, you can listen to individuals, and that’s what going to help us avoid these problems.”
Other changes that have also recently come up in Connecticut Swimming: camera free zones on pool decks, and in locker rooms, written parental consent for an athlete to travel alone with a coach, and various social media protocols for personal and team pages.
“One of the dangers that parents get caught up in is the success of their child, and not putting the success of their child before the safety of their child,” said Riccobon. “There’s got to be more than waiting until something bad happens, and that’s what we are trying to avoid, we are really trying to be proactive, and not reactive to a lot of these situations.”
Meanwhile, at the national level, the CEO and President of USA Swimming released a public letter in response to the headlines that surfaced earlier this year saying quote, "While we disagree on several of the reported statements and many of the conclusions in recent media reports, members were failed, and we are doing everything we can to make sure it never happens again."
For additional information on Safe Sport, and keeping your children safe, you can go here: