An Underage Sex Scandal Leads to Fort Lauderdale's Swimming Hall of Fame
Minutes after this article went to press, Chuck Wielgus, longtime head of organized swimming, withdrew from his planned induction into the Swimming Hall of Fame on Fort Lauderdale Beach. For details, see "USA Swimming Executive Director Withdraws From Hall of Fame Consideration Amid New Times Investigation Into Sex Abuse."
It was 5 a.m. on a Friday when Alexandre Pussieldi, a sturdy, dark-haired, Brazilian swim coach, strode onto the pool deck at the Fort Lauderdale Aquatic Complex. A group of muscular swimmers was already waiting in the bleachers, decked out in Speedos and goggles. Pussieldi, then 39 years old, ordered the athletes into the pool. Most of them complied. A lean 20-year-old, Roberto Cabrera Paredes, did not.
"Get in the water, fucking idiot," Pussieldi spat, according to a deposition Paredes gave a year later. "Who the fuck do you think you are to come into my pool and be like this?" He told Paredes to leave the pool area. Again, the young man defied him. They cursed each other out.
The 200-pound Pussieldi grabbed the towel that was hanging around Paredes' neck and yanked him out of the bleachers, banging his body into the metal stands. The young swimmer ran, shaken up, to the locker room as his teammates and a few older swimmers gasped at the spectacle.
Cops were called, and later that day — February 13, 2004 — Paredes headed to the hospital with "multiple recent contusions," according to a doctor's letter.
Pussieldi immediately resigned his coaching position with the Fort Lauderdale Swim Team. But what was not reported back then — and what now has South Florida's swim community abuzz — are newly surfaced details on Paredes' side of the story.
At least five times over two years, the alleged victim told other Fort Lauderdale swim coaches, police, and national swimming authorities that Pussieldi had sex with his swimmers and videotaped them in the bathroom without their consent, the new documents show.
Pussieldi denies the allegations, and no charges were ever brought against him for any such offense. His attorney, John Weinberg, calls the claims "nonsense. If there had been anything to this, the police would have been all over Mr. Pussieldi like a cheap suit."
Yet the newly revealed documents, including a report from the Fort Lauderdale Police Special Victims Unit, emails between city officials, Paredes' deposition, and an internal investigation by USA Swimming — the governing body that oversees competitive swimming — suggest that police barely investigated and that swimming officials fretted more about bad publicity and government contracts than the alleged victims' well-being.
Revelations about the case's handling echo a disturbing pattern of sexual abuse and subsequent cover-up in swimming that's been simmering for decades: Hundreds of young athletes across the country have been routinely molested by their coaches, but over and over again, authorities have dismissed victims' accounts, letting pedophiles bounce from program to program. Alleged victims have compared the scandal to Penn State and the Catholic church, but it has taken a dozen lawsuits and the persistence of two bloggers, Irvin Muchnick and Tim Joyce, to prompt action. In just the past four years, at least 45 coaches have been suspended. And finally, now Congress is investigating.
In the meantime, instead of being ousted and ostracized for his failure to protect alleged young victims, Chuck Wielgus, the longtime head of organized swimming, is set to be inducted June 14 into the Swimming Hall of Fame on Fort Lauderdale Beach.
Wielgus told National Public Radio last year that preventing sex abuse is "something we've worked very, very hard at. I'm very proud of where USA Swimming is today in its efforts. We've made enormous progress, and the program will continue to get better as we go."
Fort Lauderdale is one of America's swimming meccas — but allegations of impropriety in the sport are nothing new here.
The city's world-class aquatic complex is the longtime home of the International Swimming Hall of Fame. And it is here that famed coach Jack Nelson for years ran his private Fort Lauderdale Swim Team under a contract with the city. Though Nelson didn't start swimming until he was 21 years old, he qualified for the 1956 Olympics and coached the 1976 Olympics team. He trained five Olympic medal holders, six national championship teams, and a whopping 30 state championship teams.
But Nelson is now 82 and infirm. Diana Nyad — the now-64-year-old famous for last year's Cuba-to-Florida swim and this year's role on Dancing With the Stars — has since the 1980s accused Nelson of having raped her when she was 14 and he was her coach at Fort Lauderdale's elite Pine Crest School. No criminal charges have ever come of her allegations, and Nelson remains enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
In 2007, city commissioners received an anonymous packet of information suggesting Nelson protected bad coaches. It included Nyad's allegations, a veiled reference to Pussieldi's alleged videotapes, and details on the life of Cecil Russell, whom Nelson had coached. As a grownup, Russell admitted to helping a friend burn and dispose of a murder victim's remains. He was also convicted of dealing steroids. Yet Nelson subsequently hired and publicly defended Russell. In 2000, Russell pleaded guilty to trafficking ecstasy. The hubbub over the packet died down when Nelson's company left the aquatic complex and a new firm was awarded the contract to run swim programs.
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.
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.
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.
"I realized he had hidden cameras in the bathrooms and bedroom, so I was not secure anymore," Paredes explained. "And I tried to explain that to my coach at the time, which was Coach Nelson, [but he] didn't believe me. He told me he was going to confront Alex about it, and so I was just by myself and decided to move out."
He continued to swim but avoided Pussieldi.
Miami Dolphins vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
TicketsSun., Nov. 19, 1:00pm
Miami Heat vs. Indiana Pacers
TicketsSun., Nov. 19, 5:00pm
Florida Panthers vs Toronto Maple Leafs
TicketsWed., Nov. 22, 7:00pm
Miami Heat vs. Boston Celtics
TicketsWed., Nov. 22, 7:30pm
Florida Panthers vs Chicago Blackhawks
TicketsSat., Nov. 25, 7:00pm
The day after the fight on the pool deck, though, the 20-year-old resolved to speak up again. He visited the Fort Lauderdale Police station to file a supplemental report. Paredes told police that "Pussieldi was having sex with several of the underage male swimmers and videotaping the sex. Pussieldi also had child pornography on his computer." He "said he found a hidden camera in the A/C vent in the bathroom."
The young man returned to reiterate his allegations in a taped statement on February 19. The swimmer says he'd found a videotape that showed "three different boys on the tape, having sex with Pussieldi at different times." He guessed the video was made abroad because the teenaged boys were speaking Portuguese. Paredes also "advised of a second videotape that showed him and his roommate... using the bathroom and getting undressed to take a shower." After he found the camera in the vent, he removed its batteries and scratched the lens so it wouldn't work.
More than a month later, on March 22, police detective Jeff Jennings spoke to another alleged victim who says Pussieldi had touched him inappropriately when he was 17. But this swimmer did not want to press charges.
Weeks later, on April 8, police talked to Pussieldi, who denied the accusations. Paredes "was jealous" of Pussieldi's relationship with another swimmer, the coach explained.
And with that, the case was closed. The report makes no mention of any other interviews or a search of the coach's home. It says simply: "Based on this Detective's investigation and the statements given by the parties involved, there is no evidence to prove the allegations. This case will be closed and cleared as unfounded."
But even if police didn't act, swimming authorities could have.
Sources say Nelson met with coaches but downplayed the fight. So another coach went above Nelson's head and complained to City Commissioner Dean Trantalis (who now contends he doesn't remember the incident).
This angered officials of the Fort Lauderdale Swim Team. Internal memos show that on February 18, Stu Marvin, manager of the aquatic complex, wrote that it was important that "all coaches [project] the same position on all matters concerning FLST. Sharing independent points of view can be very detrimental to the organization... The relationship with the city is of utmost importance." He wrote that formal written notice should be given to both Paredes and the coach who stood up for him to express that "their actions are not 'in the best interests of FLST.' "
Some adults wrote letters to the city on Paredes' behalf, while others sided with Pussieldi. One parent said that Pussieldi was "caring, concerned and helpful" and that the alleged victim was "a troubled young man." Another family wrote: "We heard about the swimmer who is causing you all of this trouble. He must be a real jerk!" In a private email, Sun-Sentinel reporter Sharon Robb suggested Pussieldi get a copy of the police report "for your files in case this gets out of hand... Keep in touch and call me when you are reinstated so I can write another story saying you are back coaching."
Paredes, meanwhile, was kicked off the swim team and told to find another club.
On February 24, Paredes wrote to Florida Gold Coast Swimming, which oversees competitive swimming in the state, to ask for a hearing. Jack Nelson retired that October, and USA Swimming assigned investigators, who finally called Paredes in December 2004. The swimmer repeated the claims he had made all year: He had found "a hidden camera in a heating vent." He and another swimmer found videotapes of "themselves... using the bathroom at various times." A supervisor had dismissed their worries, saying the coach "was receiving professional help from a psychiatrist." Paredes said he hadn't kept the VHS tapes and feared "no one would believe him because he had no proof."
In January 2006, almost two years after the assault on the pool deck, USA Swimming's National Review Board found that in regard to the assault, "both petitioner and respondent used poor judgment and acted immaturely and inappropriately. However, a coach must never physically assault a swimmer." Pussieldi was suspended for three months and put on probation for one year.
Oddly, the decision does not address the sexual allegations.
Pussieldi's attorney, Weinberg, says it's because "there was nothing there... The kid had an attorney." If there were any merit to his claim, why wouldn't his attorney have brought the case?
"The Catholic Church got sued for billions," Weinberg taunts. "In today's climate, if any abuse was going on, people would be suing USA Swimming and getting billions in damages."
Head Coach Andy King of San Jose Aquatics was almost 60 years old. His swimmer was 14. That didn't stop the older man from sliding his fingers underneath her swimsuit.
It was only because she spoke up that investigators found King to have abused at least 15 girls over 30 years, including a 14-year-old whom he got pregnant and who had an abortion. In 2010, King pleaded no contest and is serving 40 years in prison.
Attorney Bob Allard remembers getting a phone call from an alleged victim of King's shortly after the coach was arrested. "It was a small, little claim against a small, little club," Allard remembers, "but it quietly mushroomed into a full-scale, nationwide cover-up not only of Andy King but many, many other coaches who had molested children over the past decades. The more we looked into the Andy King matter — and saw some of the lies and misrepresentations by the higher-ups at USA Swimming — the more we realized this was the beginning of something much larger."
Allard has since filed more than a dozen lawsuits against USA Swimming, "but that number is infinitesimally insignificant," he says, "compared to the number of calls I have received from people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s who claim to have been abused."
The scandal blew up in 2010, when 20/20, an investigative ABC news show, revealed that over the prior decade, 36 swim coaches had received lifetime bans from USA Swimming.
Simon Chocron had been found to have had sexual relations with a 15-year-old male and a 16-year-old female at the Jacksonville private school where he taught. He fled to Spain but was arrested when he showed up to compete in the world championships. He then headed for Venezuela, which refused to extradite him. Brian Hindson of Indiana had secretly videotaped female swimmers, some as young as 12, in the shower. In 2008, he was sentenced to 33 years. The list went on.
When confronted on camera by 20/20, USA Swimming's executive director, Chuck Wielgus, who reportedly draws a $908,432 salary and will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale this month, brushed off the cases as "bad apples" among his 12,000 coaches. Then producers confronted him with audiotape of a call in which Wielgus could be heard saying, "This happens almost every week. We get calls at the office. I get informed about it."
In the wake of the bad publicity, USA Swimming set up a "Safe Sport" department to strengthen its procedures to prevent abuse. Public relations director Karen Linhart says that since the program's inception in 2010, "USA Swimming has trained 35,000 nonathlete members in abuse prevention" and "expanded its then-existing and robust background check program to screen all nonathlete members on a monthly basis."
The organization requires "the reporting of sexual misconduct by any member," she says, adding that USA Swimming has a lower tolerance than law enforcement and "does not require an arrest/conviction to move forward with an investigation. USA Swimming can and has sanctioned members for noncriminal behavior that violates its code of conduct."
Yet the abuse hasn't stopped. Since 2010, USA Swimming has published the names of coaches banned for misconduct. Four years ago, the list totaled 36. Now it has almost tripled — to more than 100.
To cover just a few of the Florida coaches:
• In 2009, Roberto Caragol — who coached alongside Alex Pussieldi at Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale and served as chairman of Florida Gold Coast Swimming — admitted possessing child pornography and having sex with minors. He is serving a 12-year federal prison sentence in Miami.
• In 2010, a Central Florida swim coach, Jason Michael Lear, was convicted of committing sexual acts on a 12-year-old.
• In 2012, Bryan Woodward was busted To Catch a Predator-style in Osceola County after he met what he thought was a 14-year-old girl online. He traveled to meet her for sex, believing her parents were away on a cruise. He brought M&M's. He is currently a registered sex offender and is incarcerated.
• Mitch Ivey was banned last year, even though he was fired back in 1993 from the University of Florida after a swimmer reported being seduced at age 17 and having an abortion. She married him at age 18 but divorced him six months later when she caught him with another 17-year-old.
Nancy Hogshead Makar, now 52, was harassed by Ivey in Gainesville and grew up to become senior director of advocacy for the Women's Sports Foundation, based in Jacksonville. She explains the complicating factors that make it difficult for alleged victims to come forward: "A good, effective molester will make it feel good. They'll convince the person this is a relationship, that they're in love. There were probably parts of the molestation that were enjoyable. All of those things are exactly why molesters get away with it over and over again. The victims keep quiet. They impose a cone of shame over them that in some cases lasts a lifetime."
She says that she tried working with USA Swimming to help the group enforce its Safe Sport policy but that staff lied to her and she eventually went to the U.S. Olympics Committee to strong-arm swimming to adopt a rule prohibiting all romantic and sexual relationships between athletes and coaches.
Because many alleged victims are juveniles and because cases are sometimes settled privately and include confidentiality statements, it's impossible to get a complete picture of the extent of the abuse. Maryland Coach Rick Curl seduced a 13-year-old swimmer in the 1980s and paid her family a $150,000 settlement to keep silent, then continued to coach.
In the wake of the Penn State scandal, the victim came forward publicly, and charges were brought. She alleged that Wielgus and other swimming officials knew of the abuse and, even while investigating him, gave him a prominent role at the 2012 Olympics. Last year, Curl, age 63, was sentenced to seven years in prison.
As lawsuits brewed, two freelance reporters on separate coasts began following the swimming sex scandal closely. Tim Joyce in Baltimore began investigating the death of 16-year-old Sarah Burt, who killed herself by walking into traffic after telling her parents her coach had abused her. In California, Irv Muchnick became invested after a girl on his daughter's swim team was twice raped by their coach, Jesse Stovall, when he chaperoned her to a national meet in Orlando. Stovall in 2010 pleaded no contest to a second-degree felony charge of sexual activity with a 16- or 17-year-old.
One day, an aide in California Congressman George Miller's office came across Joyce's reporting and brought it to the congressman's attention. Soon, Miller asked the General Accounting Office, which functions as an investigative arm of Congress, to investigate.
"The reports and allegations of abuse of student-athletes participating in public and private swim clubs across the country have been disturbing and cannot be ignored," Miller tells New Times. "We need to determine whether USA Swimming is doing all it can to protect the children in its programs; if reporting requirements are being followed; and whether USA Swimming is making appropriate decisions about when to remove a coach who faces allegations." The investigation is still in the information-gathering phase.
Soon, Muchnick and Joyce started to uncover documents made public via Allard's lawsuits that seemed to show the abuse was far more widespread than anyone had imagined. Heretofore-confidential paperwork related to USA Swimming's internal investigations included documents related to the investigation against Pussieldi, which Muchnick posted on his website, concussioninc.net. The site is sometimes overheated in its rhetoric and straddles the line between journalism and activism. It throws around words like "pervert" and calls Pussieldi a "child abuser and pornographer."
"Being independent journalists, Tim and I have the ability to say things in a way that corporate journalists will not," Muchnick says. He says the Pussieldi case illustrates "the depth of the cover-up — it showed that it involves local community leaders and local staff as well as USA Swimming."
The documents uncovered by Muchnick and Joyce prompted New Times to take a fresh look into the scandal and uncover additional records. One swimming insider says that in Fort Lauderdale, city officials and swim leaders were too close. "All those people grew up together, went to the same schools, got drunk together at Elbo Room. The Swimming Hall of Fame generated a lot of hotel rooms, and that's what it's all about. They didn't want a black scar on the Swimming Hall of Fame or the Aquatic Complex because of hotel rooms. Just think of this city being another Penn State." Last year, an inspector general's report found the city broke the law by awarding a $32 million contract to renovate the aquatic complex to one politically connected company without receiving any competing bids.
Recent efforts by New Times to reach Paredes suggest he is not interested in discussing the incident today.
A Brazilian swimmer who lived in Pussieldi's house around the same time as Paredes says "I never had any issues" with Pussieldi and "actually he helped me out quite a bit, like with getting a scholarship in college."
Pussieldi went on to coach swimming at Pine Crest and St. Thomas Aquinas high schools before coaching a competitive swim team called the Davie Nadadores.
In 2012, an alarmed parent filed a complaint with USA Swimming alleging that he'd seen Pussieldi "rubbing the chests, stomachs, backs, and shoulders of athletes, as well as rubbing the inner thigh of a male athlete while this athlete was in his swimming suit." In a letter last year, USA Swimming reminded Pussieldi of the code of conduct — including one statute that expressly prohibits rubdowns and massages by coaches — but stated that "USA Swimming is not moving forward with any kind of formal investigation."
Also last year, on January 28, 2013, Pussieldi was issued a notice to appear on a charge of cruelty to animals for leaving a Great Dane without food and shelter and "dehydrated to the point that its eyes were sunken in," court records show. The dog had "sores" and "insect bites." Ultimately, the charges were dropped.
Pussieldi left the Davie Nadadores last July, as he was facing $17,000 in fines for 355 violations while working with Gold Coast Swimming. The board of directors found that Pussieldi "with intent to conceal and defraud" used ineligible swimmers to win swim meets. In July, he moved back to his native Brazil and has found work as a television commentator. He reported from the Olympics in Sochi.
His lawyer, Weinberg, described the rehashed allegations as "a fantasy" and said he intends to sue Muchnick for defamation and invasion of privacy, though he did say it depends on whether "Mr. Pussieldi finances [a lawsuit]."
Muchnick, meanwhile, has publicly pressured Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz to have law enforcement authorities reopen the 2004 allegations against Pussieldi. Her spokesperson says that they "contacted the City of Fort Lauderdale Police Department to ensure they were aware of the allegations against Mr. Pussieldi" but that the department said the case "was now closed and in the department's opinion did not warrant a reopening." Fort Lauderdale Police spokesperson DeAnna Greenlaw says police are reexamining the case and attempting to reinterview alleged victims.
USA Swimming spokesperson Karen Linhart refused to comment on Pussieldi specifically but says "we vehemently deny that sexual abuse is systematically being covered up by the organization."
On June 14, USA Swimming Executive Director Wielgus is scheduled to be inducted into the Swimming Hall of Fame.
The gesture is "an absolute slap in the face to anyone who's ever been abused by a swim coach," says Allard, the attorney.
Alleged abuse victim Schmidt says of Wielgus' upcoming induction: "I think it's tragic... If USA Swimming really cared, they would have rounded up people like myself, like Diana Nyad, who know what it was like. They could clean out the whole board of directors." But instead, all of the same officials have been ensconced at the top for decades.
Nyad, Schmidt, and other alleged abuse victims last week formally asked the Hall of Fame's board of directors to reconsider inducting Wielgus.
"They just want it to go away," Schmidt says. "They just want us to go away."
Get the Things to Do Newsletter
Find out about upcoming events and special offers happening in South Florida.