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USA Swimming: Major progress since abuse scandal

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Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, front row, center, smiles as he sits with fellow Olympians during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Friday, Sept. 14, 2012, where President Barack Obama welcomed the 2012 U.S. Olympic and Paraly

Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, front row, center, smiles as he sits with fellow Olympians during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Friday, Sept. 14, 2012, where President Barack Obama welcomed the 2012 U.S. Olympic and Paralympic teams. Phelps ended his Olympic career in London with six medals and a record tally of 22 career medals.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais, Associated Press

Two years after a sexual abuse scandal rocked the sport, USA Swimming has banned 16 people for life as part of a wide-ranging program that stepped up training and led to enhanced background checks for nearly 36,000 coaches, officials and volunteers.

Susan Woessner, the governing body's director of safe sport, said Friday that swimming has turned a corner since revelations of dozens of coaches having inappropriate relationships with underage swimmers.

USA Swimming released a report on its efforts during its national convention in Greensboro, N.C., just a month after a dominant performance by the American team at the London Olympics.

"There has been a shift from being reactive to proactive," Woessner told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "We look forward to strengthening the program even more."

The report showed that 35,718 coaches, officials and adult volunteers have completed a mandatory criminal background check since an enhanced program went into effect in January 2011.

Over the past year, 31,309 non-athlete members have taken part in a mandatory online training program. More important, Woessner said, there has been a significant increase in the number of members coming forward with questions or concerns since USA Swimming passed new safety measures at its convention in Dallas two years ago.

"We've come a long way," said Woessner, who joined the organization in a newly created role that focuses on weeding out sexual abuse and other inappropriate behavior. "I'm really proud of the efforts we've made."

At the height of the scandal, USA Swimming grudgingly revealed 46 members had been given lifetime bans, mostly for sexual misconduct, including the former director of the national team. The organization now posts on its Web site the names of everyone who's been banned for life or permanently given up their membership, a list that has grown to 70 names.

Since the athlete protection program went into effect, a total of 24 members have been sanctioned — 16 of them receiving lifetime bans.

"Maybe this is not the most comfortable thing to know," Woessner said. "But I see that as a real positive sign that our membership is aware of the problem. We have enhanced their awareness and they understand what they're looking for. They know how to make reports. They know the complaints and sanctioning process works efficiently and effectively. I see that as a positive."

USA Swimming has added another full-time staffer to assist Woessner and dedicated a section on its Web site to keeping athletes safe, including rules and guidelines, as well as instructions for training, screening and reporting potential abuse. In addition, the governing body has released customized online courses that are available for free to the parents of USA Swimming's 300,000 members. In the coming weeks, the organization will be conducting three regional training conferences.

"This is not a one-off, one-time effort," Woessner said. "The local swimming community has reached out to us and asked us to bring the training to them."

USA Swimming also plans to host the inaugural Safe Sport Leadership Conference at Colorado Springs in January, bringing together experts in the field of sexual abuse as well as the leaders of other Olympic sports.

"We just want to further the dialogue," Woessner said.

Several measures to strengthen athlete protection are scheduled to be considered at the convention on Saturday, most notably a ban on coaches becoming romantically involved with an athlete they are coaching, even if it is a consensual relationship between two adults.

Also up for a vote: a requirement that local clubs set up guidelines regarding appropriate contact on Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites, as well as a proposal that would ban swimmers at any USA Swimming meet from changing into or out of their suits on the deck or anywhere outside the designated locker room area, another step toward reducing the chances of inappropriate contact.

"This is the third convention in a row that we've had a slew of proposals brought forward by the membership regarding safe sport," Woessner said. "We pass legislation, then see how it works in practice. We continue to revise the legislation. Additionally, we've had to create new legislation that addresses some of the new things we're seeing in society."

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