Pepperdine Replaced Coach After Swimmer Complaints

Brock Fritz Headshot

The Pepperdine University women’s swim team made a coaching change midway through the season due to athlete complaints.

The Malibu, Calif. university announced Jan. 3 that Joe Spahn was no longer the head coach and Jana Vincent was taking over in an interim role. Lauren Larson stayed on as the diving coach.

The initial announcement didn’t mention why Spahn was no longer coaching. However, SwimSwam acquired a Pepperdine document, dated Dec. 20, that showed Spahn had been put on paid administrative leave earlier in the season due to allegations that he created a hostile environment. School officials interviewed 47 people about the claims, which included bullying, favoritism, sexual harassment, requiring athletes to compete through injury, and violating the NCAA’s 20-hour limit on weekly athletic hours.

“While the University cannot comment on private employment matters, Pepperdine Athletics takes seriously any concerns or allegations brought forward by student-athletes and investigates them appropriately and thoroughly,” athletic director Steve Potts said in a statement to SwimSwam. “The physical and mental well-being of our student-athletes is the number one priority for Pepperdine Athletics. I am confident that the appointment of Coach Vincent as interim head coach of the women’s swimming and diving program will position the program for success going forward.”

Pepperdine’s document spells out how, after speaking with everyone involved with the swimming and diving program, school officials found “Mr. Spahn appears to be a technically exceptional swim coach. … While some appreciate being challenged by Mr. Spahn, other upperclassmen expressed Mr. Spahn’s ‘eat, sleep, swim’ and ‘winning is the most important thing’ attitude as having created a significant divide among the team.

“We have observed that most swimmers on the team express dismay about the current state of disunity on the swim team. There were multiple reports of bullying and disparaging comments being made by teammates about other teammates.

“At Pepperdine, we expect that all students, faculty and staff be treated with dignity and respect in all matters, and for students to be able to participate in and pursue all educational experiences – including athletic participation – in a safe and supportive environment. It is regrettable that any member of the swim and dive team perceives that they have been bullied, harassed, demeaned, or perceives that they are less valuable due to illness and injury.”

Spahn was hired in March 2018, replacing Nick Rodionoff and leading the Waves to a second-place finish at the 2019 Pacific Collegiate Swim and Dive Conference, setting five school records in the process. Pepperdine is 3-8 in duals this season, which began in early October and is scheduled to run through March.

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