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.

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Deirdra Funcheon