One former University of Utah swim team member says he swam underwater sprints with a PVC pipe taped to his back until he blacked out in the pool. Another former swimmer says she felt like she couldn’t breathe when she was made to do laps with a mesh bag over her head and a parachute attached to her body.
Todd Bradley, who swam at the U. of U. from 2006-2010, had to do both training techniques in his time at the school — and he says they made him a better swimmer.
As a pair of appointed investigators begin reviewing the university’s swimming and diving team — and the school’s response to written complaints dating back to 2008 — former student-athletes and their parents offered conflicting portraits of embattled coach Greg Winslow, and very different frustrations.
For Bradley, the former U. swimmer from Kearns, the allegations are an attack on the swim program to which he dedicated four years of his life and the athletics department of which he was proud to be a part. They are both shocking and untrue, he said.
“I did not feel like we were abused at all,” Bradley said. “I went through three years of training under Greg. I really enjoyed my training, actually.”
Bradley said the PVC pipe attached to the back was a “tool to help you keep your body and spine in line.” Swimmers had to use the mesh bag and parachute for one length of the pool, he said.
“It’s something any high school kid could do,” Bradley said. “It just added some extra resistance. If you had trouble or got freaked out, you could stand up in the pool. Our pool was shallow.”
Other former swimmers, however, said they felt the practices were out of the ordinary.
“I’ve never seen it done, I’ve never heard it done,” said Vlas Lezin, a Russian-born swimmer who spent two seasons under Winslow before being removed from the team.
Winslow’s practices have come under fire in recent weeks, following Winslow’s suspension from the team Feb. 28 amid allegations of sexual misconduct with a 15-year-old girl in 2007. Media reports have shed light on years of written correspondence from swimmers and their families, alleging abusive behavior by the coach.
The U. announced Monday it had appointed two attorneys, Michael Glazier of Kansas City, Mo., and Alan Sullivan, of Salt Lake City, to investigate the swimming and diving team, and the university’s response to complaints for parents and athletes.
“It’s defeating that we’re here doing this again,” said Suzanne Jurgens, whose daughter transferred from Utah in 2009 after one season at the school.
Jurgens’ twin daughters, Lauren and Kenzie Hewson, went to different schools at the start of their collegiate careers. Kenzie enrolled at Wyoming, Lauren at Utah.
The mother said the programs provided a stark, and frightening contrast.
“Kenzie was pushed and prodded and trained hard and never once did the red flags go up that this was too much,” Jurgens said. “They went up immediately when Lauren told us what was going on at Utah.”
Lauren Hewson wrote at the time of her transfer that she felt “bruised” after her one year in Utah, according to documents obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune. Hewson attended counseling “to help me cope with my depression and the stresses I was having with swimming.”
Parents of former swimmers said they had long complained of Winslow’s treatment of his athletes. Those complaints included allegations of showing up drunk or hungover at practices; failing to report two swimmers who were caught buying marijuana on a trip to Arizona; punching an assistant coach; having an improper relationship with a female swimmer; and buying an underage swimmer beer.
Utah athletics director Chris Hill has declined to discuss his knowledge of the complaints that had been lodged over the years, saying he did not want to taint the investigation. But parents who talked to The Tribune said Hill was directly contacted on multiple occasions, dating back to late spring of 2009.
“It’s not like he was just copied on emails and didn’t see them,” said one parent, who The Tribune agreed not to identify. “He was getting emails directly and having conversations directly with kids and parents back in May 2009.”
Jurgens said she made the trip from Colorado to Salt Lake City and confronted Winslow and then-associate athletics director Pete Oliszczak. Later she wrote to Hill, according to correspondence provided to The Tribune.
Lezin described Winslow as a demanding coach, but never thought the training exercises put him in danger.
“He was trying to have everyone on the really high bar,” he said. “It was really hard and challenging. I could see how the physiological pressure turned into psychological pressure.”
Austin Fiascone, a former walk-on who was dismissed from the team in the fall, said the underwaters — sprints swam under the water line — are common but “never at the volume that he was asking for.”
Both Lezin and Fiascone said they believed the university failed to take proper steps at addressing the concerns and complaints of their teammates. Fiascone said he regrets only that he did not speak up sooner about Winslow.
“We were so young, but we knew it wasn’t right,” he said. “It was unbelievably evident. A lot of people are still afraid to talk, but we were so afraid to talk because he was a guy who would seek revenge on you.”
Twitter: @aaronfalk, @chriskamrani