Deena Deardurff Schmidt says that sexual abuse has long been rampant in swimming and that throughout the decades, officials have dismissed it as an accepted element of the sport. The 57-year-old knows the issue personally. She was 10 years old when Paul Bergen, 16 years her senior, began coaching her club team in Cincinnati. He would train her for four years through 1972, when she snagged gold in the 4-by-100 meter relay at the Munich Olympics.

USA Swimming's executive director, Chuck Wielgus, who reportedly draws a $750,000 salary and will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale next month, brushed off the cases as "bad apples."

Bergen was "an excellent groomer," she says. A fit goody-goody type, he didn't drink or smoke: "Everyone thought he was a god as a coach." But behind closed doors, he began touching Schmidt — beginning when she was age 11, she says. "Everything but intercourse. He'd make me satisfy him." He would drive her to practice. He would spend hours on the phone. He told her he loved her. "I was the star," she says.

But if the team performed badly, Schmidt was the one who paid. If she didn't do "exactly what he said at any given moment, my punishment was, he wouldn't coach me. If I didn't go a certain time, after everyone left, I'd have to stay and keep doing it. Other people were jealous. They thought it was good because I was getting so much attention. They didn't know what the attention was based on." Schmidt finally stood up to him when she was 15.

The competition pool at the Fort Lauderdale Aquatic Complex.
Bimini4u via Wikimedia Commons
The competition pool at the Fort Lauderdale Aquatic Complex.


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But when he moved on to other girls, she recognized the signs: "He'd have girls sit on his lap at swim meets... He'd have his leg over a girl's leg or her hand on his leg. If you are... forcing her to be like that in public, imagine what's going on in private." She says she once caught Bergen with an 18-year-old swimmer in the pool office in sleeping bags.

Schmidt's teammate, Melissa Halmi, who lives in Jupiter now, was two years older. She says Schmidt and Bergen "were inseparable — they'd be under the pool together, in the car." Halmi soon went away to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Not long after, Bergen became the coach there, where he "would touch my private parts."

The girls confessed to each other. In those days, no one called the police over that sort of thing. Halmi remembers that it was only after another girl announced to her mother that she and the coach were going to elope that adults began asking questions. Halmi says her mother dragged her to a prosecutor in Cincinnati, where the college student was asked mortifying questions in front of 20 men in suits. But there had been no intercourse, and because she'd been touched in Wisconsin, the Hamilton County court had no jurisdiction.

Schmidt also went to a prosecutor — but not until eight years after the abuse had ended. The statute of limitations was up. Plus, "I didn't have any evidence. I didn't have Monica Lewinsky's dress. He didn't write anything like, 'Gosh, it was great to abuse you.' "

She began to think: "How can I save somebody else down the line? I would see where he would get jobs as I got older, and I would let teams know what they were hiring. Every big coach in the country I have told."

Halmi likewise interceded in Bergen's professional maneuvers. When he was asked to be the swim coach at Mission Bay Aquatic Club in Boca Raton, she called and reported, "Paul Bergen is awful; he molests girls." Executives rescinded his contract.

Afterward, Bergen called her, she says. His eerie response: "You could never accept that I really loved you."

Bergen has never been charged with a crime and is not banned by USA Swimming. In December, the 72-year-old was quoted in The Oregonian newspaper as saying he was aware of the allegations against him, adding, "I'm sure somewhere down the road in the near future, all of this will be resolved."

Schmidt has been quoted by ABC and says she was always afraid Bergen might try to sue her for defamation, but "I'd dig up people all over the country who were also abused. I think that's why he hasn't done it."

Halmi likewise worried. "He could have sued. But it was true. I was telling the truth."

Alex Pussieldi once described his coaching style as "intense." In the wake of the 2004 fight on the pool deck with Roberto Cabrera Paredes, one mother explained in a letter to city officials that she had pulled her daughter out of swimming because Pussieldi drove the girl to tears. He yelled that she was "terrible" and "had gained weight and was out of shape. She is 12 years old and weighs 75 pounds."

Another mom tells New Times that he could be harsh but that "he made kids go really, really fast."

Paredes, of Mexico City, first visited Fort Lauderdale's aquatic paradise for a meet when he was 12 years old. Several years later, in 2000, he was recruited here as a high schooler.

It's common for foreign swimmers to find cheap accommodations by bunking together in the extra room of a low-paid swim coach. So, along with three or four Brazilian swimmers, Paredes came to live in Pussieldi's house. That lasted a year or two. Although Paredes declined comment for this article, he explained in an August 2005 deposition (taken as part of USA Swimming's review of his case) that in 2001 or 2002, when he was a senior, he had moved out after making an unsettling discovery.

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