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The sexually graphic text messages began popping up on the phone of recently retired swimmer Caroline Burckle, a 2008 Olympic bronze medalist, when she was at home in the Los Angeles area on a May evening in 2011.

"They were so aggressive," Burckle said last week to the "Orange County Register," which broke the story.

"I was a 24-year-old female swimmer who had retired way too young but was sick of all the (garbage)," she said. "I wanted to change lives and do different things but felt trapped."

The texts, she said, hit her "like a whirlwind." (She said she also received a voicemail.)

"I was disgusted," Burckle said. "I felt violated, felt sad too. This was a sport that I had just left and loved and so I felt very sad."

On Monday, Bob Bowman, the man who coached Michael Phelps throughout his legendary career, issued a statement about those texts and voicemail for one very good reason: They came from a phone that belonged to him, and he was one of two people who sent them.

"I regret the exercise of poor judgment in being involved one evening seven years ago with inappropriate communications," Bowman said. "I promptly apologized to the person to whom the communications were sent and my apology was accepted. I have nothing further to say at this time."

This shocking and sad news about Bowman's behavior comes at a time of heightened awareness and zero tolerance for the inappropriate, sexually charged mistreatment of young people and athletes in the world at large, and particularly in the U.S. Olympic movement.

But back in 2011 when this happened, after Burckle reported the incident and forwarded the texts and voicemail to USA Swimming, Bowman was put on notice about "the severity of this situation" -- then named to the U.S. Olympic swimming team coaching staff in 2012, hired as head swimming coach at Arizona State in 2015 and named head coach of the U.S. men's Olympic swimming team in 2016.

USA Swimming did tell Bowman that Burckle "experienced significant mental distress as a result" of his actions, adding that had he done this to "a current USA Swimming member athlete, this behavior would be considered a potential violation of USA Swimming Code of Conduct..."

By sexually harassing someone who had just left the sport, rather than someone still in it, Bowman escaped potential punishment.

"If he had power over her, no matter how old she was at the time, then that's a violation," Olympic gold medalist Nancy Hogshead-Makar, an advocate for victims of sexual abuse and the CEO of the legal advocacy group Champion Women, said in an interview Wednesday. "But if he was sexually harassing someone who used to swim, that's not a violation. It's wildly inappropriate, it's gross and sleazy behavior, but it's not a violation."

The text messages and voicemail from Bowman have not been made public. The other person with Bowman that night was former national team coach Sean Hutchison, now the subject of a criminal investigation by the Department of Homeland Security and Washington state law enforcement after allegations were made by world champion swimmer Ariana Kukors that Hutchison sexually assaulted her when she was 16 and continued to have sexual contact with her until she was 24. Kukors has also filed a civil suit against Hutchison and USA Swimming, among others.

As Bowman goes about his duties coaching at the U.S. national swimming championships this week in Irvine, California, his bosses at Arizona State have given us some clues about what they might think of their high-profile coach's 2011 behavior.

ASU vice president of athletics Ray Anderson released a statement saying he "communicated to Mr. Bowman (via letter) that the text message exchange was inappropriate and unprofessional and that no such incidents will be tolerated at ASU."

ASU President Michael Crow took an even stronger position several months ago when he spoke to "The Arizona Republic" about the sexual abuse scandals at Penn State and Michigan State.

"It's zero tolerance," Crow said. "You can't always prevent something from happening, but you can take immediate action the second you hear about it.

"If we heard from someone complaints of physical abuse, sexual abuse, inappropriate conduct, the first thing we would do is investigate," he said. "If it turns out these things were true, all those people would be turned over to the police or fired."

Crow said those words in March. Four months later, they're more meaningful than ever.

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July 26, 2018
 
 
 

 

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