By Bob Schaller//Correspondent
Susan Woessner—a former Indiana University swimmer who completed her master’s degree in social work at theUniversity of Texas—is USA Swimming’s Director of Safe Sport. She took up the position three years ago, though she has been with the sport’s National Governing Board for nearly a decade. In her role as director, she helps develop and create positive environments, as well as healthy, appropriate relationships, which she explains in this week’s 20 Question Tuesday.
Please read these links to learn more about Susan Woessner’s work and USA Swimming’s program: http://www.praesidiuminc.com/armatus/reference_parents.php
1. It seems like the program has moved forward a lot – can you see the progress?
Susan: We really can but we are always looking to improve. The program has evolved; at the beginning, we had to see what we could do to develop a proactive abuse-prevention program. The last three years have been spent implementing that. The cornerstone [of the program] has gone from being reactive to proactive. It is largely in the proactive state, and that’s where we can really reduce the risk for abuse. Our goal is to increase awareness and help people recognize the signs of inappropriate behavior before it happens.
2. You have been in the water a long time, haven’t you?
Susan: Absolutely! I was a water baby growing up, and as soon as we moved to a neighborhood that had a community pool and I joined a team, I was hooked. I have a deep love for the water and a deep appreciation for the sport; it’s been so positive in my life. To be able to work in my interest area, which is social work, and be in a role of social services for a sport that has been wonderful in my life, means a lot.
3. People might not think of a social work degree leading to a swimming job, but it involves relationships and everything else we see in society, so there is that important place for it, right?
Susan: There really is. Social work really is about helping people. Coaches do a lot of social work in their roles mentoring and counseling the swimmers – they are an ear for our kids and see them every day. So they may be among the first to know if things are going well or poorly in young people’s lives.
4. The whole thing about the swimming lifestyle really is true, isn’t it?
Susan: Sport in general is really a vehicle to a lot of life lessons. A lot of that is social work related. I do think that anytime you can use a positive vehicle to promote life lessons, it is a benefit to young people when it is done right.
5. You mentioned moving from reactive to proactive – getting that understanding up front prevents the huge moment and escalation, at least sometimes, right?
Susan: It’s taken some time to reach an equilibrium. You probably understand this as a crisis manager that you have to honor the person’s crisis when they come to you, find out what has happened and why, collect a lot of information, and make sure you think of young people’s safety first.
6. And this isn’t something you always want to ad lib or do on the fly, correct?
Susan: You have to establish processes to handle things. That is a great mark of the progress of the program. But you have to have a healthy attitude, be committed to the work, and know that in continuing in the right direction, you are going to get better every day.
7. This was something you had to get back out in front of relatively quickly, right?
Susan: One of the things that I am especially proud of is our leadership. When this came up and there was litigation and a lot of negative news, the leadership, rather than being reactive and going back to the way things were done, said, “No, this is a dark time, but to move forward we have to figure out a way to address this and reduce the risk that this could happen again.” I think that is something that a lot of our membership is proud of, and should be proud of. We had to call more attention to this issue to address it properly and from the top management to everyone else, there was no wavering whatsoever in trying to address this and to prevent such abuse in the future.
8. Though it’s a constant thing to be aware of, aren’t some days and issues harder than others?
Susan: I think there are tough days and tough decisions. But what Chuck Wielgus has always said is that we are going to do the right thing in this program. That is a core value for me personally and a guiding principle for the whole program, from Chuck’s directive at the beginning. This is an ongoing, evolving program; we learn things as we grow. Whenever you are confronted with a decision, you think back to what Chuck said, “Do the right thing.” I’m not saying we’re perfect by any means but that is what we try to do every single time.
9. That takes out a lot of layers and simplifies it – if such things can ever be termed as being simplified – right?
Susan: You go back to doing the right thing, and one of those things is always telling the truth. You do that, and every email or conversation that comes out of that, you are moving forward and dealing with things with a lot of integrity. If things get taken out of context, you have to remain firm in your resolve and integrity and keep moving forward. You can’t control what others say, how they portray what you said, or if they take it out of context. You just tell the truth and do the right thing.
10. This program you direct has really become something that a lot of people outside the sport are taking notice of – though it’s for a very difficult issue, you must feel good that people see that and know you are trying your best to protect our kids?
Susan: I think that we have a robust program and we continue to improve that program. We are looking forward to the independent review that is being done to see how we can do even more. I must say that the USOC has provided leadership for our program – the working model and standards. We have had a lot of contact with a lot of different NGBs at different stages of implementation. I think we can feel good about the Olympic movement because there is such momentum toward reducing abuse in sports and raising awareness. This is an exciting place to be as a part of sports communication, and USA Swimming is proud to be out front addressing these important issues.
11. Swim coaches and teammates and all of that – it’s such a big part of kids’ lives, isn’t it?
Susan: I definitely think that we are one cog in the lives of our kids and the influences that they are taught. One thing that is really motivating is to be in the national conversation about reducing the risk for abuse. We know that we are all serving the same young people – the ones who go to school, play other sports, have other activities, and are active in volunteer organizations and other things in their community. We have to have a consistent approach so we can reduce the risk in the same manner wherever there are adults and kids. We need to work together for those kids and to help their lives. And together, we can more effectively reducing the abuse.
12. You swam against some pretty great names didn’t you, including Natalie Coughlin?
Susan: Yes, and it was a complete honor. I came into the sport late; I didn’t really compete until my junior year of high school, so by my senior year I would have been thrilled to know I’d eventually be competing against someone half as good as Natalie Coughlin.
13. You still remember that, don’t you?
Susan: Yes, and she is just a class act, to finish behind her was a complete honor. There were others who were also incredible—Kirsty Coventry and Margaret Hoelzer were just a couple of the many amazing swimmers. Competing against them was such an honor; those backstroke races were amazing.
14. What was it like to finish a distant second to a swimming legend at NCAAs?
Susan: It was my senior year and I was second to Natalie. Rowdy Gaines was calling the race, and he said, “Natalie is so far ahead you can’t even see the second-place person on the screen” – that (laughs) would be me. Being in that race was a highlight of my career.
15. You talk about not being a great swimmer, but you swam for a great swim school and one of the premier academic institutions in the country, Indiana University, how did that happen?
Susan: I had great people around me and I was very fortunate. The people I met during that time are still in my life and helped shaped me in important, meaningful, healthy ways. I was a walk-on and probably had no business being there. But the people from that time, Dorsey Tierney is another one who continues to be a mentor as I have gotten older. I just loved everything about college swimming.
16. As the circle truly does complete itself, you find yourself with Margaret Hoelzer, who is also out front for victims and advocating prevention, right?
Susan: I didn’t really know Margaret when we were competing, though of course I knew who she was. But as I have gotten to know her through work, I’ve found that she is so well spoken and articulate about this very difficult issue – which is not easy to talk about. It is inspiring to watch and listen to her, and be around her.
17. So when you talk about the abuse, you keep mentioning proactive – is that the key?
Susan: Yes, the whole idea is to take a preventative and proactive approach. There is a process called grooming, where the kid’s instinctive boundaries are taken away, leading up to an act of abuse. So we have to eliminate the opportunities for that grooming behavior and create that healthy professionalism. Our big concern is addressing that kind of behavior before it ever becomes an instance of abuse.
18. You hear some people mention “false accusations,” how do you deal with that?
Susan: We get questions about false allegations a lot, and we address that. But a lot of false allegations come from behavior that might very well be believable, so we have to have strong boundaries and have the preventive education and proactive approach to protect our children.
19. We have resources and all kinds of training, and people sometimes say it’s just so much common sense, why do we train for it – but the lack of common sense seems like a great reason to have it – do you see that in swimming?
Susan: Again, I think it’s about responsible and respectful behavior. And yes, so much of it is common sense. One thing we like to use as an example is that these are people who have dedicated their life to working with kids. They have to understand that it’s not appropriate to come home and text with a 14 or 15 year old kid that is not your child. That sounds like common sense, right? We have to get to the point where people understand up front how that is completely inappropriate and outside the boundaries. But in the cases where you have an abuse, you do feel like their “common sense” is more than a little off, too. This is something we are constantly trying to improve. It’s such a delicate topic, like sex education in school – remember how you had to get permission from parents to talk about certain things with kids, things that just are not appropriate. We don’t want to be alarmist, but we have to make sure our kids are safe in our sport, just like in any youth organization. One of the best ways to achieve this through training and information – which we have, free, for parents and for athletes, and our Safe Sport page – they are really good resources. I think those are well done pieces and they help make a tough subject approachable. It is important to have these platforms where parents and kids can talk about this together.
20. You do so much work, and people appreciate and respect it so much, but you just can never stop, not even to take a compliment on the progress, can you?
Susan: I appreciate your kind words. I have a deep love for this sport and so many positive things have come into my life because of this sport. It’s devastating to know the worst experiences of some kids’ lives came from this sport. So what we are doing is creating boundaries that are consistent across the organization, and through the code of conduct everyone is expected behave within the same spectrum. That will make the outliers stand out. If you make different expectations for different people, you are going to get into trouble. Our membership has worked so hard on this and they have a lot of ownership in it, as they should; these volunteers are USA Swimming’s greatest resource along with the swimmers, coaches, sponsors and staff, and other support people. There are tough days for all kinds of different reasons in this field as we move forward but we are also seeing good outcomes, too. Those don’t get the headlines but the courage we see is inspiring, meaningful and impact. Listen, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) tells us that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are victims of sexual abuse. We believe one is too many. You cannot imagine when you are in a group how many people to your left or right, or in front of or behind you, have either been victims of abuse or had a friend or loved one be abused. So we’re creating this awareness and moving people from one step to the next. We have to get people to understand the long-term effects and how this manifests itself. There is still so much work to do when I think of what the future holds, so we will continue to move people from one step to the next, and then to the one after that. It is the most important thing we do, and we are never going to stop.