Attempt to solve crisis at Canada Artistic Swimming panned by swimming community

Canada Artistic Swimming is trying to address criticisms by some athletes, who say there is an unhealthy mix of psychological harassment and abuse going on.

With Montreal training centre shut down, swimming federation tries to move forward

The team has been in turmoil, its training centre in Montreal closed, after complaints from some swimmers. (Al Bello / Getty Images)

Many people in the sports community are reacting to an action plan presented by Canada Artistic Swimming after the closure of its national training center on Sept. 28, and the publication of a report written by the independent firm ITP Sport.

Three swimmers on the National Artistic Swimming Team say they are deeply disappointed following the release of a report into Canada Artistic Swimming (CAS) Oct. 30.

The report's mandate was to recommend improvements based on the analysis of the current practices in a safe sport perspective. In other words, recommendations to help create a safe space for athletes.

ITP Sport was not asked to address complaints, or to investigate allegations brought to its attention. However, the report did chronicle "a culture of fear," as well as psychological abuse, harassment, neglect, sexual harassment and discrimination.

Three athletes who spoke to Radio-Canada Sports were among those who spoke out following the closure of the center. We have agreed to protect their identities because they fear reprisals if they speak out. We are referring to them as Sarah and Caroline and Patricia.

Sarah says she is not surprised by the swimming organization's decision to leave all the coaching staff in place.

"Nothing has changed ever. I was totally disappointed and a little heartbroken. Jackie [Buckingham, CEO of Canada Artistic Swimming] told us that they would support us if we decided that we wanted to leave and couldn't handle the situation."

"To me, that's heartbreaking that they don't really care about us. That's the decision they made. And if you like it, you like it. If you don't, goodbye," said Sarah.

The National training centre has been closed since September. Canada Artistic Swimming hopes it can reopen, with new policies in place, soon. (Radio-Canada)

Another swimmer, Caroline, said Canada Artistic Swimming seems more concerned with keeping coaches than athletes.

"What the heck? Wouldn't you rather be supporting your athletes' Olympic dreams and try to fight for them to stay? Because without us, you don't have a team! There is zero incentive for us to want to stay," she said.

In an interview in French following the publication the report, the the CEO of the swimming organization told Radio-Canada Sports, that coaches need to understand the standards and practices included in code-of-conduct policies, if they are to be evaluated on that basis.

"We need to help them to understand where things have changed and in particular with these new rules coming out around the universal code of conduct. It's not fair … to evaluate someone against a criteria that they really didn't know was there or haven't had a chance to understand yet," said Jackie Buckingham.

That's a statement Caroline finds frustrating. She says most people already know what abuse or harassment is.

"Those aren't 'code of conduct terms'. Those are human rights terms," Caroline said. "To me, it's absurd that you think that it's fair to give them a second chance for something that they should have known. It's their job to understand the code of conduct when they come take the job on."

Canada Artistic Swimming has put in place an action plan that includes specific education on safe sport for all its staff and athletes. It is hoping that once that is well underway, athletes and coaches can begin to return to their training facility with the help of a facilitator.

The three swimmers are waiting to see what happens next, but they are also considering retiring.

"It is not worth the Olympic dream for me and my mental health," says Patricia

Veteran Olympian fuming

Former Olympic synchronized swimmer Sylvie Fréchette says she can't fathom how Canada Artistic Swimming is making its decisions. Fréchette, who won gold at the 1992 games in Barcelona, is now head coach of Neptune Synchro, a team based in Saint-Jérôme.

She says she doesn't think the federation is taking the situation seriously.

Former Olympian and now coach Sylvie Fréchette is disappointed by Canada Artistic Swimming's approach to the problem. (Alain Décarie / Radio-Canada)

"It's as if we were saying yes, there was psychological abuse, verbal abuse. Yes, there is a culture of fear. But don't worry. We're going to go back there [to the training centre] and do some education. Everyone together, we are going to teach the athletes to be able to speak up when they are not well. And it will be better." Fréchette said.

Fréchette says nothing will change and that it's not clear what they plan to "educate" the athletes about.

"Educate them to what? To shut up next time? I don't understand."

Fréchette, who is also the mother of an artistic swimmer, is adamant: she would not send her own daughter to the national centre. She doesn't feel the current leaders have the legitimacy to lead the federation.

Young athletes support group appalled

Sylvain Croteau is the general manager of the independent organization Sport'Aide, which offers support, listening and guidance services to young athletes who have witnessed violence against young people.

This is the first time that the organization has agreed to comment on a specific case.

"I don't have the impression that they are there for our young athletes," Croteau said about the situation at the swimming federation."They do not protect our young athletes."

Sylvain Croteau, is the general manager of the independent organization Sport'Aide, which offers support, listening and guidance services to young athletes. (Radio-Canada)

What worries Croteau even more is that Canada Artistic Swimming's plan seems to be focusing on asking athletes to determine what is acceptable for them and what is not.

"When you're a sports organization that wants to take good care of its young athletes and ensure that they have a positive sporting experience, the least you can do is assume your responsibilities and take on the leadership as you should."

Croteau said it's up to organizers and coaches to be responsible and accountable.

"It is not up to young athletes," he explained. "You do not make them responsible for changing behaviors and culture in a sports organization. It is unfair."

Former coach also wants change

Debbie Muir, a well-known figure in artistic swimming, coached the 1988 Olympic champions, Carolyn Waldo and Michelle Cameron.

From the perspective of an interested outsider, she said she believes CAS should be put under supervision.

"I would love if the synchro community somehow just kind of had an uproar and said, … 'look, this leadership group is not working and this is where the change needs to happen if we're ever going to move forward.'"

with files from Radio-Canada's Diane Sauvé and Jacinthe Taillon