Four swimmers with Canada Artistic Swimming break silence about allegedly toxic environment

Four members of Canada's artistic swimming team say there is a toxic environment at the Montreal training centre.

‘It’s been going on for too long,’ says one swimmer

Canada's artistic swimming team won gold at the 2019 Pan American Games in Peru. Gábor Szauder, head coach since 2018, is accused of making racist and hateful remarks. (Moises Castillo/The Associated Press)

UPDATE: Sept. 22, 2021: Since the publication of this story, Canada Artistic Swimming mandated an external and independent firm to conduct a disciplinary investigation following a complaint made about Gabor Szauder. At the conclusion of this process, Szauder was cleared, and no sanction was imposed on him. An appeal of this decision was subsequently dismissed by an external and independent arbitrator.

Four members of Canada's artistic swimming team, training in Montreal, are speaking out about what they call a toxic environment.

Last month, allegations of abuse and harassment from swimmers and people outside the program led to the shutdown of the senior national artistic swimming team's training centre, pending a review by an external firm.

Due to their fear of reprisals, Radio-Canada has agreed to protect the swimmers' identities and to refer to them as Caroline, Sarah, Patricia and Rose.

"It's been going on for too long within that organization," said Caroline. "There is a toxic environment in artistic swimming."

According to the swimmers, the alleged incident that sparked last month's shutdown was troubling to several athletes.

During a conversation with team members, head coach Gabor Szauder is said to have made what were qualified as racist and hateful remarks.

"He was talking about what's happening in China, the Black Lives Matter movement and Muslim people," said Rose.

"He said all Muslims were extremists," said Patricia. "And then he added: 'When is the last time you saw a white person crash a plane?'"

When one of the swimmers confronted him about the comment, Szauder allegedly became verbally aggressive.

"He answered: 'This is a free country. I can say whatever I want. Who are you to tell me what hate speech is? Are you God?'"

Head coach Gábor Szauder has had leading roles in synchronized and artistic swimming on the international level since 1993. He is originally from Budapest, Hungary. (Radio-Canada)

Verbal abuse

Another swimmer, Sion Ormond, isn't surprised by these events. She says she retired two months ago because, amongst other reasons, the atmosphere at the training centre had become unbearable.

"The abuse that I witnessed regularly at the pool — It was just something that I did not want to be a part of anymore," she said.

Ormond claims she and some of her teammates were victims of verbal abuse last year in China, during a competition.

"He said that if we kept swimming like that, he would hit us so hard, we wouldn't know what happened," she added.

Those comments were allegedly addressed to substitutes with the entire team present after a pre-competition warm-up deemed inadequate by the head coach.

Sion Ormond says she saw abuse regularly at the pool and no longer wants to be a part of the team. She retired two months ago. (Radio-Canada)

"Maybe it was like ten minutes before our competition swim," said Rose. "And there were various adults who were there that witnessed what was said."

The coach apparently explained his comments after the fact, but the swimmers say they were not satisfied.

"He just said that we all misunderstood what he had said and that he was going to hit us really hard with a hard workout," explained Patricia.

Screams and tears

According to the swimmers, Szauder would often zero in on one athlete to pick on.

Patricia recalls one incident in Hawaii during training camp.

"There was a girl that was publicly shamed for her weight, in front of the whole team. The staff was there. It was made clear to us that she was being publicly shamed. He verbalized that to us," said Patricia.

"I felt sick listening to the conversation," Rose said. "It was a really inappropriate way to handle that type of subject."

Ultimately, the swimmers say these types of incidents became a burden, affecting the mood at the centre. They say Szauder is prone to mood swings and can get carried away, causing tears and anxiety.

"There's been times when he's yelled at girls to the point that they have panic attacks in the pool, in the gym," Patricia said.

"And then he will continue to yell at them and harass them and swear at them. He will call them babies and tell them to stop crying, to compose themselves."

The coach is also alleged to have made sexist comments on more than one occasion.

"He told us that girls should learn how to cook and clean, to take care of our men, or else they won't want us," Sarah said. "And that was all men looked for in a woman."

They also say Szauder made comments of a sexual nature.

Ormond recalls one incident that took place in Prince George, B.C..

"He said: 'Sion, zip up your hoodie before I get too excited," Ormond said. "It was in front of multiple athletes. This is a 47-year-old man."

Ormond is emotional as she recounts what happened. She claims she only found the courage to tell her parents about it after her retirement.

"I knew how inappropriate that comment was, that it never should've been said and I was scared," she said. "I was afraid of what my dad would either say or do. I was afraid he would get involved and I would be perceived as a troublemaker."

Fingers pointed at Canada Artistic Swimming

The four swimmers are critical of Canada Artistic Swimming for not taking the situation seriously enough, when incidents were reported.

Caroline says she often heard the same thing.

"We were constantly told: 'You know, he comes from Eastern Europe.'"

"They would often meet with us after the fact to tell us we weren't resilient enough and could not deal with anxiety and stress in training situations," said Patricia. "It only made us more and more fearful to report it."

Canada Artistic Swimming declined Radio-Canada Sports' interview requests, citing the ongoing review that is being carried out by an outside firm.

In a written statement, coach Szauder denied the allegations. He says he is confident that the report will ultimately negate any sort of misconduct on his part.

The four swimmers say if nothing changes, they will seriously consider following Ormond's lead and retiring — with the next Olympic Games less than a year away.

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