A recent BBC article has reported a large number of swimmers coming forward to report a culture of fat-shaming, abusive practices and unreasonable criticism by coaches. These allegations, which are worryingly similar to those made by participants of other sports, portray a culture of criticism, overtraining and a fixation on weight that caused many former swimmers to experience issues with their body image, mental wellbeing and diet for many years after leaving the sport.
Former Commonwealth youth gold medallist and world hopeful Phoebe Lenderyou led the influx of complaints when she reported issues of poor weight management by her coaches. These issues are alleged to have caused Lenderyou to leave the sport “mentally ruined” and resulted in her spending years trying to recover from her injuries.
Lenderyou describes a pervasive fixation on her weight and how this impacted her for many years after leaving the sport. She states that she was one of the many swimmers that would starve herself before being weighed due to the fear she felt of gaining weight as coaches would often criticise those who were seen to gain weight and blame weight gain for any failures in performance.
Lenderyou further describes occasions where athletes were “tested” by coaches. The coaches would provide swimmers with a chocolate cake during training camps but tell those who had eaten a slice afterwards that they had “failed”.
These allegations bear striking similarity to those voiced by Olympic bronze medallist, Cassie Patten. Patten states that her adoration of swimming turned into a loathing of the sport when her coaches’ “fixation” on losing weight caused her to suffer from disordered eating. It is stated that a “massive disproportionate amount of focus” had been placed on her after she gained weight following her Olympic triumph.
Moreover, Patten states that she was made to feel inhuman and like no more than a “commodity” to her coaches. Patten describes being ignored for months before she left after she had told a coach of her intentions to change clubs, undermining any belief she had in her relationship with the coach.
Patten, who left the sport at 24 years old after a shoulder injury, states that the events had left her “mentally a shell” of her former self. Patten states that she had grown to hate swimming and felt “unable to put on a swimming costume for years”.
Since the publication of these allegations, it is stated that Patten and the BBC have been inundated with many other swimmers coming forward to highlight their own stories of abuse. Patten reports that more than 100 swimmers have joined an online support group to discuss the issues they have faced as a result of their involvement in the sport and the malpractices of their coaches.
The accounts, which are said to date back more than a decade, include allegations of bullying, fat-shaming, emotional abuse, being allowed to train whilst injured, belittlement, a fixation on weight and a failure to deal appropriately with eating disorders. One teenager has reported being made to continue exercising with a broken rib so that she could continue with her “fat-burning sessions”. Others have described losing so much weight their periods stopped and training without water for hours to ensure that the scales were not affected by fluid retention.
These reports have been met with sympathy by those responsible for the wellbeing of swimmers. Jane Nickerson, Head of Swim England, has confirmed that she is “truly sorry” for all of those who have suffered as a result of malpractice of their members. Nickerson has stressed that Swim England have a “zero-tolerance approach to poor behaviour” and explained the need for all those involved in the sport, whatever their role, to be “collectively doing everything [they] possible can deliver the positive, safe, welcoming environment and culture” that the institution is seeking to provide.
This attitude is echoed by Louise Graham, regional development manager for Swim England North-East, who confirmed that she was aware of multiple examples of victim-shaming and bullying. Graham expressed the need to address “outdated” attitudes and describes the belief that athletes need to be tough to success as “irresponsible” attitude that needs to be changed.
Swim England’s desire to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all members began after an investigation resulted in the closure of one of the sport’s most prominent clubs. An independent review has already been triggered to assess their handling of the complaints that followed the closure of Ellesmere College Titans after an investigation into the City of Oxford Swimming Club.
Ellesmere College Titans had been the home of several world-class athletes who have since reported that the toxic environment resulted in their love of the sport being ruined. The club was closed after a year-long probe by child safeguarding experts uncovered more than 70 separate complaints relating to the behaviour of the coaches and the club’s failure to deal with the multiple serious issues relating to the children in their care. It was discovered that derogatory comments, of both a sexual and personal nature, were made towards swimmers and the club’s practice of weighing swimmers as young as ten years-old was linked to some of their members developing eating disorders.
Titan’s director and world silver medallist, Alan Bircher, was suspended and stopped from forming part of Team GB’s Tokyo 2020 coaching squad in 2021. Coach Danny Proffitt was also suspended but has since returned to working.
Titan’s reputation for producing world-class athletes meant swimmers flocked from across the UK to train there and many families relocated to facilitate their child’s participation in the club. However, many former members have reported disturbing accounts of being told that they needed to lose up to 10kg, being given weight loss advice and having their weight publicised to other members of the club. Athletes as young as 12 describe being sworn at by members of Bircher’s staff and crying to their parents about the constant berating and criticism of them by their coaches.
The reports of abusive practices by former swimmers follows reports made by many other former athletes who had been involved in elite sport. At the forefront are reports by former gymnasts whose allegations of abuse and malpractice were considered in detail in the report undertaken by Anne Whyte KC and published last summer.
Swim England have announced an independent review similar to the Whyte Review, giving an opportunity to engage with swimmers and coaches alike. Details of the independent review have been revealed by the governing body as part of the launch of its safeguarding and welfare plan, The Heart of Aquatics. Its primary goal is to help create an environment in which all participants feel safe, included and welcomed.
It is hoped that the disclosure of abuse by former swimmers will be dealt with appropriately by the sport’s regulatory body and that changes will be effected that will ensure the continued safety and wellbeing of all its members.