A girl testified last week that the ongoing sexual assaults her swim coach began inflicting on her when she was just 12 robbed her of her dreams of becoming an elite swimmer and left her with memories so horrifying she can’t imagine ever jumping in a pool and competing again.

“I feel like I am in a hole with no way out, no stairs, no light, nothing,” the girl told a judge.

coach

Shunichi Fujishima

A short time later, the Stockton, Calif., judge sentenced the former coach, Shunichi Fujishima, to 12 years in prison. Fujishima, 23, had pleaded guilty to sexually terrorizing the girl over seven months last year and targeting a 13-year-old girl he coached with unlawful sexual communications for four months.

This week, a lawsuit filed on behalf of the sexual assault victim is scheduled to go to trial in California. The lawsuit accuses Colorado Springs-based USA Swimming of negligence that allowed the Stockton Swim Club to become a sexual hunting ground for the team’s head coach — a man parents once affectionately called Coach Shun.

The girl’s lawyers, led by San Jose-based B. Robert Allard, plan a blistering attack on USA Swimming’s promises under new leadership that it had addressed a history of scandal involving sexual abuse of young swimmers by coaches.

“USA Swimming does not seem to understand that almost 95 percent of its members are children,” Allard said. “As such, they are one of the largest child care organizations in the country and have a critically important obligation to keep kids safe, especially from predators.”

USA Swimming contends others are to blame for the sexual abuse of the young swimmer in Stockton. The governing body also claims sexual safety training was made available to the Stockton Swim Club before the incident, absolving USA Swimming of responsibility if that training wasn’t done.

The Stockton Swim Club and a regional swimming association, Pacific Swimming, earlier reached confidential settlements and are no longer named defendants in the current lawsuit. The girl’s parents were negligent and careless themselves, USA Swimming claims in court filings. Fujishima remains a named defendant in the litigation.

The characteristics of the Stockton case are all too familiar to Allard, who has sued USA Swimming for other sexual assaults by swim coaches. Once again, a predator coach exploited an imbalance of power over a young girl eager to please and vulnerable to manipulation because of her hopes for swimming stardom, he said. USA Swimming failed to act after receiving warning signs, the lawsuit alleges.

USA Swimming did not aggressively investigate the Stockton Swim Club despite receiving a sexual misconduct complaint from another parent in 2017 about another coach with the club — Marco Villanueva — according to evidence in the case reviewed by The Gazette.

That complaint sent to USA Swimming included a copy of Snapchat messages Villanueva, then 19, wrote in 2014 and 2015 to a girl, then 13. In one message, he wrote, “Now I basically have your” body, which he referred to in an explicit and vulgar manner. In another message, Villanueva wrote to the girl that he had a friend “who wants to get laid also.”

“Lol. Eh. I need a cuddle partner!!” Villanueva admitted writing to the girl in one Snapchat message.

Despite reviewing the Snapchat messages and finding that Villanueva transported the girl to social engagements without the permission of the girl’s mother, USA Swimming issued only a written warning that allowed Villanueva to continue coaching young swimmers.

The lack of a stringent response from USA Swimming became a green light for the other Stockton Swim Club coach — Fujishima — to target and prey sexually on the other young girl who believed he would propel her to new heights of athletic glory, claims the lawsuit filed on behalf of Fujishima’s sexual assault victim.

“There was a complete absence of any child protection measures which were implemented at the Stockton Swim Club, thereby making it a very attractive haven for predator coaches,” Allard said.

While USA Swimming was debating how to handle the complaint against Villanueva, Fujishima began pressuring the other girl for sex, the evidence in his criminal case shows.

Fujishima texted the first nude photo of himself to the girl the same month that USA Swimming received the complaint about Villanueva, court records show. By May 2018, Fujishima was regularly driving the girl from swim practice to his condo to have sex with her, according to the criminal complaint. He went on to film her performing sex acts, according to the documents.

Allard’s client now recoils from physical contact with others, according to her testimony in the criminal case. She hates her own body. She doubts herself and wonders if her coach targeted her because she looks easy to manipulate. Late at night, when she drifts toward sleep, she forces herself to wake up because the thought of becoming so vulnerable and out of control scares her.

“Now I feel sad, empty, lonely and full of shame,” the girl, now 14, testified during the sentencing hearing of her former coach, according to a copy of her prepared remarks reviewed by The Gazette. “I get frustrated with what was ripped from me as a child. My words and emotions have been taken away, and I question what I knew and thought to be true.”

She claimed in a successful restraining order she took out against Fujishima in January that he began manipulating her when she was just 11 years old and initiated sex with her when she was 12. The sexual assaults lasted for seven months, she said in her application for the restraining order.

Isabelle McLemore, a spokeswoman for USA Swimming, declined to discuss USA Swimming’s handling of the Villanueva case because of the pending lawsuit and upcoming civil trial. Top officials at the organization did not respond to email and telephone messages seeking comment.

“Athlete health and safety is our number one concern,” McLemore said. “We continue to look at ways to improve our SafeSport program. This is a top priority for this organization, and we will continue to do better.”

The girl’s lawyers plan to argue that USA Swimming is still not requiring young swimmers to take training on how to spot sexually predatory coaches and how to protect themselves from becoming targets for abuse. While such training has been required for years by the Boy Scouts of America, USA Swimming relies on a voluntary program that makes material available for parents and their young swimmers who want to review it.

The voluntary approach was woefully deficient, according to a 2014 report prepared by an expert in child abuse prevention USA Swimming hired to review its child safety programs. That report, released in the wake of a series of sexual assault scandals involving USA Swimming, found that virtually no parents or their young children review the USA Swimming material on sex abuse prevention.

Only 0.5% of USA Swimming members ages 12 to 18 take the sexual safety training USA Swimming makes available, and only 1.4% of parents take that training, according to the report from Victor Vieth, founder of the Gundersen National Child Protection Training Center, one of the top child abuse protection groups in the nation.

USA Swimming opted not to institute a mandatory training program in part out of fear that doing so would scare off participants in swimming programs or create negative connotations, according to testimony taken in preparation for the trial on the lawsuit.

USA Swimming in July began mandating that its adult members take abuse safety training, but the organization still doesn’t require such training for members who are children or their parents. The organization makes safety training information available online for parents and children who want to review it on a voluntary basis.

Saying the pending litigation constrained her from speaking, USA Swimming’s spokeswoman declined to say whether the rate of children swimmers and parents taking the safety training has improved since the 2014 report.

Allard said only requiring safety training for adults actually can make matters worse. The limited approach can create situations where predator coaches receive training they can exploit to avoid detection, he said. Meanwhile, children, who make up the vast majority of USA Swimming membership, and their families remain in the dark on how to protect against sexual abuse, Allard added.

“I don’t care how many gold medals USA Swimming wins or how much revenue it generates through TV contracts or endorsement deals,” Allard said. “So long as children continue to be left vulnerable at the grass roots level, this organization is utterly betraying the vast majority of its members.”

While taking a recent deposition of a top official at USA Swimming, Allard noted that as of July, 139 of the 178 individuals on USA Swimming’s banned list had been banned for engaging in some form of sexual misconduct.

In a deposition taken last week, Tim Hinchey, who became president and CEO of USA Swimming in 2017, argued that USA Swimming makes sexual safety training available to clubs like the Stockton Swim Club for free. “Ultimately, I’m not — I’m not there every day to ensure that something gets done in the right manner,” he testified, “I mean, we have over 3,000 clubs, over 19,000 coaches, over 400,000 members.”

Documents reviewed by The Gazette show that Hinchey was copied on the written warning Susan Woessner, then USA Swimming’s director of SafeSport, sent to Villanueva in August 2017. Also copied on that written warning were Lucinda McRoberts, USA Swimming’s general counsel, and Bryan Davis, who at that time was the head coach at the Stockton Swim Club. Parents of children on the Stockton Swim Club weren’t copied on the warning letter.

Hinchey, in his deposition, last week testified that he had just started his job as USA Swimming’s CEO and was in New York at the time Woessner sent an email copying him on the written warning.

“I get hundreds and hundreds a day,” he said of his email volume, explaining why he can’t recall being copied on the warning. “I try to do the best I can to get to as many as I can.”

USA Swimming’s 2017 code of conduct vested final authority in how to handle sexual misconduct complaints with the CEO, which Hinchey had been for 23 days at the time of the email to him.

“Being brand new to the organization — I was only in the office nine physical days,” Hinchey testified last week when he was deposed. “I was trying to learn as much as I could at the time and trying to process as much as I could at the time. So I can’t reflect whether I was completely concerned or I was still just trying to drink from the firehose.”

Woessner confirmed in her deposition that USA Swimming’s code of conduct gave Hinchey ultimate authority on how to handle the Villanueva complaint.

“He was the direct supervisor of the SafeSport program,” she testified, referring to Hinchey. She added: “The rule book indicates that he conduct the initial inquiry, and since that was designated to the SafeSport staff, he was copied on it.”

She continued that Hinchey was “aware of the initial inquiry and the outcome,” adding that if Hinchey “disagreed with the course of action, he could let us know that and/or indicate that he, instead of the warning letter, wanted an investigation to go forward.”

She added during her testimony that how to handle the Villanueva complaint was discussed over roughly nine weeks during six to eight USA Swimming SafeSport meetings, which were headed by USA Swimming’s general counsel McRoberts. Hinchey wasn’t involved in those meetings, Woessner said.

Hinchey did not respond to an email and telephone messages seeking comment.

Woessner said during her deposition that USA Swimming decided not to require its young swim members to be trained in sexual abuse prevention despite expert advice that participation rates in the voluntary program were low.

The expert, Vieth, warned USA Swimming in his report that parents and young swimmers often subscribe to myths about sexual predators, such as that they are likely to be homeless or strangers when they often are people the victims know.

In reality, predator coaches are skilled at fooling parents and children with cunning and guile that must be combated with training and information, Vieth warned USA Swimming in his 2014 report.

Woessner testified that USA Swimming decided encouraging parents and swimmers to participate in sex misconduct prevention training was a better way to go as opposed to requiring them to take it. Part of the reasoning was that mandating the training could backfire and leave young swimmers with a negative impression, she testified last week. Young swimmers might be left with bad connotations if they were barred from a swim competition due to failing to watch a video on preventing sex abuse, she said.

“We’re looking for long-term culture change, not just check-the-box requirements,” she testified during the deposition.

Woessner was forced out in February 2018 from USA Swimming following allegations she had a conflict of interest in a sexual abuse investigation of U.S. national team coach Sean Hutchison because she allegedly had an “intimately personal relationship” with that coach. She has admitted in a previous deposition to once engaging in a make-out session with Hutchison but denied any ongoing relationship.

Villanueva did not return telephone messages from The Gazette seeking comment. In a past media report, he admitted that he confessed to USA Swimming to sending inappropriate text messages to underage swimmers he coached. He denied in that report having sex with any girls he coached and told The Orange County Register he no longer was coaching.

The litigation comes at a sensitive time for USA Swimming. The Wall Street Journal reported this month that federal prosecutors are investigating USA Swimming, including allegations that the organization stifled sexual abuse claims from swimmers, concealed assets and had a conflict of interest in a former in-house insurance program.

In addition, an internal USA Swimming email sent in April from McRoberts, the organization’s general counsel, revealed to USA Swimming staff that the California attorney general was investigating. The Gazette obtained a copy of the email. In it, McRoberts tells USA Swimming staff that the investigation in California meant USA Swimming needed to gather and produce for outside counsel documents and case files on 15 swim coaches accused of misconduct — including Villanueva and Fujishima. Fujishima was not banned as coach by the U.S. Center for SafeSport until after his arrest in January. McRoberts did not respond to an email seeking comment.

“If anybody has reached out to us regarding any government investigation, we will absolutely do the best to work with them, especially when it comes to health and safety,” said McLemore, the spokeswoman for USA Swimming.

Hinchey, who was hired by USA Swimming after its CEO Chuck Wieglus died in 2017, told a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee in May 2018: “While we cannot change the past, we will learn from it, and we will do better. Our commitment to preventing child sexual abuse and providing a safe and healthy environment for our athletes is long-lasting.”

When deposed last week, Hinchey noted that USA Swimming no longer investigates sexual assault allegations. The U.S. Olympic Committee in 2017 gave the power to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct and other potential offenses at Olympic-affiliated national, state or local clubs to the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a nonprofit based in Denver.

When pressed during the deposition by Allard on how much time Hinchey typically spends on child protection issues as CEO of USA Swimming, Hinchey said he wasn’t sure but that in one recent week he had spent about 5% of his time on such issues.

“In the past several years, have you been made aware of any procedure or program implemented by USA Swimming to ensure that parents and children, such as those at the Stockton Swim Club, are trained on childhood sexual abuse issues?” Allard asked.

Hinchey testified: “I’m not familiar with any.”

“Are you aware of any monitoring compliance program within USA Swimming implemented in the last several years which ensures that members of clubs, such as Stockton Swim Club, are properly trained on SafeSport materials?” Allard continued.

“I’m not aware of any,” replied Hinchey.

Contact the reporter: 303-257-2601 chris.osher@gazette.com

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