10 Scandals That Completely Rocked USA Olympic Swimming

The following article includes allegations of sexual assault and child abuse, and mention of suicide.

USA Swimming has been associated with scandals for decades, from the swimmers and coaches to even those representing the board. We're not just talking about Michael Phelps's previous DUI or Ryan Lochte's sensationalized story about being robbed at gunpoint in Brazil, either. The organization has a reputation for sweeping issues under the rug, and fostering a culture of sexual abuse that has raged on for dozens of years. 

The situation is not unlike what occurred simultaneously within USA Gymnastics over several years, where coaches and professional sports medicine professionals took advantage of young, impressionable athletes. With the dawn of the Me Too movement, more and more sexual abuse cases have emerged within USA Swimming, exposing the cracks in what many found to be a highly respectable organization. Officials are cracking down, releasing a no-tolerance policy in 2018 after widespread allegations tarnished the organization's reputation.

USA Swimming is one of the most popular sports to watch by spectators at the Olympic Games, despite its dark history of controversies. With all eyes on the 2024 Olympic Games, we're breaking down some of the biggest scandals that completely rocked USA Olympic Swimming over the years. 

Michael Phelps's bong incident

Michael Phelps made some waves in 2009, and not just the kind he makes while he's sprinting to the end of his swimming lane. The Olympian made headlines in February of that year after a British tabloid ran a photograph that featured him smoking marijuana from a bong.

Phelps quickly apologized for the incident, releasing a statement saying, "I engaged in behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment. I'm 23 years old and despite the successes I've had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner people have come to expect from me. For this, I am sorry. I promise my fans and the public it will not happen again."

The Baltimore native wasn't hit with just a slap on the wrist either. Phelps lost a major contract deal with the cereal giant Kellogg, who declined to renew their contract with the athlete following the controversy. He was also suspended from USA Swimming for three months, and the organization withdrew his monthly $1,750 stipend during his time off. "We decided to send a strong message to Michael because he disappointed so many people, particularly the hundreds of thousands of USA Swimming member kids who look up to him as a role model and hero," USA Swimming said in a statement at the time.

46 coaches were banned for decades of misconduct

2010 was a shocking year for USA Swimming, as they battled the aftermath of decades of sexual misconduct being exposed to the public. In May of that year, officials released a list of 46 individuals who were banned from the organization — with at least 36 of them involved in sexual misconduct cases.

Sexual assault victims criticized USA Swimming for letting abuse run rampant, and not being transparent with the public about what was going on behind the scenes. One unidentified woman noted that the offenders' list was almost unnoticeable on the organization's website. "You would not know where to look, not know where to find it," the woman told ESPN. "I was disgusted with the way USA Swimming posted it. It's like they're trying to hide it on their website."

Many sexual assault victims blamed former USA Swimming director, the late Chuck Wielgus, who they say turned a blind eye to the abuse while he was in power from 1997 until his death in 2017. It was only three years before he died that Wielgus released a formal apology, stating, "Going back in time, I wish I knew long before 2010 what I know today. I wish my eyes had been more open to the individual stories of the horrors of sexual abuse. I wish I had known more so perhaps I could have done more."

Michael Phelps dealt with suicidal thoughts after his DUI

Michael Phelps was in deep water again in 2015. The most-decorated swimmer made headlines that year when he was arrested for a DUI after driving 84 miles per hour in a 45 mph zone. He was subsequently suspended from USA Swimming for six months  and ineligible to compete at the 2015 FINA World Championships. Phelps entered a treatment facility shortly after, doing a month and a half of rehab amidst the controversy.

While the incident took a major toll on his swimming career ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games, it took an even bigger toll on his mental health. Excessive media coverage bombarded him daily, making his day-to-day life a huge struggle. Stuck at home in Baltimore, he did his best to avoid the outside world for days on end. "I was in a really dark place," Phelps admitted in an interview for Sports Illustrated. "Not wanting to be alive anymore."

But it wasn't the first time Phelps was caught behind the wheel in a precarious spot. The incident marked the second DUI for the athlete, who was arrested in 2004 for driving while impaired as well. Phelps entered a guilty plea and was handed 18 months probation at the time. He spoke about the arrest in 2012 to CNN saying, "I'll make a million mistakes in my life but as long as I never make the same mistake again, then I've been able to learn and grow."

Four Olympians caused havoc in a Brazilian gas station

Four swimmers from the U.S. Olympic Team left a gas station in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, leaving a trail of havoc in their wake. Ryan Lochte, Jimmy Feigen, Gunnar Bentz, and Jack Conger allegedly vandalized a gas station bathroom during the 2016 Olympic Games, resulting in "Lochtegate."

The incident took place in August of that year after Lochte and his teammates were returning to the Olympic Village after a night out. Lochte told NBC's Billy Bush (via Vox) the four athletes had been robbed after attempting to leave the facility. "We got pulled over, in the taxi, and these guys came out with a badge, a police badge, no lights ... And then the guy pulled out his gun, he cocked it, put it to my forehead and he said, 'Get down,'" Lochte claimed.

Holes eventually developed in Lochte's story, with Brazilian authorities debunking the swimmers' claims and security footage not aligning with his statement. Lochte backtracked, telling NBC News that there was no gun placed on his forehead. "I over-exaggerated that story," he said. "All we know is that there was a gun pointed in our direction, and we were demanded to give money." Lochte was suspended from USA Swimming for 10 months due to the incident. A security guard who was at the site did claim a gun was pointed at the men, but said they were released after payment was received for allegedly vandalizing a bathroom and the four urinating behind the gas station.

Former coach John Bitter embezzled hundreds of thousands

Former Santa Clara Swim Club CEO and head coach John Bitter might be doing his last name some serious justice. After all, going to prison for embezzlement might mean he's got more than enough to be bitter about. In 2018, he was fired from SCSC –an affiliate of USA Swimming — and investigations into Bitters' finances later found that the former coach embezzled over $750,000 from the swim club.

In addition to paying back those funds, the court ordered him to pay the club an additional $50,000 in punitive damages. In 2020, Bitter was in negotiations to sell his Arizona bar, the Tipsy Coyote, to help pay off his restitution, of which he had paid only $29,000 by that year. The former CEO admitted that he bought the Tipsy Coyote with a $600,000 loan given to the SCSC, and has since apologized for his actions.

"I'm very sorry for what I did. I'm honestly very sorry for what I did," he said in a statement (via The Silicon Valley Voice). "I wake up every day knowing I did something that I shouldn't have done and my goal is to make the restitution necessary." In 2021, Bitter received a prison sentence of three years and four months on four felony charges in forgery, grand theft, and embezzlement.

Ariana Kukors said her sexual assault was an 'open secret'

Former Olympian Ariana Kukors filed a lawsuit against USA Swimming and her former coach, Sean Hutchinson, in 2018. Smith alleged that Hutchinson began sexually abusing her in 2006 when she was 16 years old, and USA Swimming officials covered up his actions instead of protecting her.

Smith claimed that Hutchinson began "grooming" her as early as 13 years old. "He was controlling me since I was a kid," she told Today. Among her allegations were her accounts of the former coach inappropriately touching her and "sneaking" around with her while she was a minor. "It was very much an open secret that Sean was with me," she explained. Hutchinson denied those allegations, instead saying that he and Smith had a romantic relationship only after she turned 18. "I absolutely deny having any sexual or romantic relationship with her before she was old enough to legally make those decisions for herself," he claimed in a statement (via CNN). "Prior to that time, I did nothing to 'groom' her."

"Organizations like USA Swimming have long been in a position to deter, detect, and discipline sexual abuse and have done little or nothing to do such in an effort to protect their public image," Smith said in her statement. USA Swimming declined to comment on details of the suit at the time, releasing a statement saying they "respect Ariana Kukors' bravery in stepping forward and sharing her story." The two parties eventually settled the suit in 2020 under confidential terms.

Did USA Swimming bury sexual assault allegations?

Six women sued USA Swimming in 2020, alleging the organization covered up decades of sexual abuse at the hands of its coaches. Debra Grodensky, Suzette Moran, Tracy Palmero, as well as three other unidentified women claimed they endured sexual abuse and harassment dating back to the '80s. Named in the suits were former U.S. Olympic coach Mitch Ivey, former U.S. national team director Everett Uchiyama, and former coach Andrew King.

In her lawsuit, Grodensky said she became a victim of assault at just 12 years old, further alleging that King had sex with her against her will when she was 15 years old and later asked her to marry him. Due to the intensity of the situation, Grodensky was forced to quit the sport she once loved. Palmero accused Uchiyama of grooming her at 14 and sexually assaulting her at 16 years old, saying he "took away [her] dreams" of a normal life as a teenager.

Moran was 16 years old when she said she was sexually assaulted by Mitch Ivey, and claims that USA Swimming was well aware of his advances. The former athlete also claimed that Ivey impregnated her at 17 years old, allegedly telling her "it was her problem to deal with." She underwent an abortion and was forced to stop training ahead of the 1984 Olympic Games. Uchiyama, King, and Ivey were all banned for life from all Olympic sports, while King is serving a 40-year prison sentence for child molestation.

Coach Nathan Bernier solicited a minor online

A former Texas swim coach made headlines in 2024 for soliciting a minor online, even using his status as a coach of over 20 years to offer her swim lessons in the process. In late 2023, an undercover agent posed as a 14-year-old girl on the messaging application AntiLand, ultimately uncovering Houston native Nathan Bernier's attempt to solicit a minor for sexual favors. According to an affidavit obtained by Your Basin, Bernier went by "Nate" on the messaging app, and reportedly replied to the agent saying, "Honestly, age doesn't make a bit of difference to me at all, I actually enjoy chatting with people your age."

After exchanging phone numbers, Bernier sent multiple illicit photographs to the undercover agent. The former swim coach made plans to meet up with who he thought to be the underage girl, suggesting the two meet at a hotel with a pool for swimming lessons. Investigators later issued a warrant for Bernier's arrest for online solicitation of a minor, booking him in December 2023. He was later released after posting a $50,000 bond and has since been issued a lifetime ban by USA Swimming.

Coach Mark Black was found guilty of sexually exploiting numerous children

Mark Black, the former board president of the USA Swimming affiliate, the Arlington Aquatic Club, was given a damning prison sentence in 2024 after being found guilty of sexually exploiting several minors. In January, he pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to produce child pornography and one count of coercion and enticement. By April, he was sentenced to 20 years for his behavior online, which included coercing girls to livestream explicit content. Black was a member of two groups online dedicated to locating girls and sharing the sexual content of minors. "Black and his co-conspirators would covertly record this conduct and share the videos with each other," read the DOJ's press release.

Black was a lawyer for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and joined the board of the AAC, as the Virginia-based club achieved silver medal status in USA Swimming's 2022-2023 excellence program. The swim club also saw one of their members make it to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

USA Swimming failed to stop an underage sexual assault

USA Swimming was hit with more sexual assault allegations in 2024, with former swimmer Amanda Le claiming she was sexually abused by her former Hall of Fame coach, Joseph Bernal, who passed away in 2022. Le sued the organization, claiming officials knew about his alleged crimes but didn't act on her behalf. Bernal helped coach Le when she competed in his Gator Swim Club of New England for five years beginning when she was 13.

"It started when I was 15," she recalled in an interview with NewsNation in June. "He kissed me after practice, and it kept going from there. I felt brainwashed by him, and I just wanted to do whatever he said because I wanted to be a good swimmer, go to college, get a scholarship." The former coach had an esteemed reputation within the organization, coaching for Fordham and Harvard University as well as being a member of the U.S. coaching staff during the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Games.

Le wasn't the only one who claimed Bernal abused her. The late coach was named in a 2021 lawsuit filed by Kimberly Stines, who alleged he emotionally and sexually abused her starting in the late '70s. "[He] started kissing me, just went on for a couple of years," she told NewsNation. "I was very confused. He was the first boy that ever kissed me. I didn't know what to make of it. I think at some point in the journey, I questioned if this was love."

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, may be the victim of child abuse, or is struggling or in crisis, contact the relevant resources below: