CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The deck of the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center was crammed with swimmers and coaches Friday, all riding the wave of swimming's surging popularity during the Michael Phelps era.
A disturbing undercurrent has threatened the image of the sport, however – right when it should be reveling in its unprecedented success.
Several female athletes have come forward with accusations of sexual abuse by coaches, putting USA Swimming on the defensive and catching the sport's biggest stars off guard.
"When that came out, it was shocking to all of us," said Olympic gold medalist Aaron Peirsol, among those taking part in the Charlotte UltraSwim this weekend. "My experience in the sport has been nothing but spectacular. To know that has gone on is absolutely terrible. I hope it's isolated."
At least four lawsuits have been filed around the country, an Olympic champion from the 1970s claims she was molested by a Hall of Fame coach, and at least 36 coaches have been banned for life over the past decade because of sexual misconduct.
"It definitely is bad for the image of the sport," said Rebecca Soni, another gold medalist competing in Charlotte.
At its regular board meeting this month, USA Swimming adopted four proposals designed to protect young athletes from sexual abuse, including the hiring of staffers to focus on athlete protection.
But the sexual-abuse scandal could undo many of the strides made in the past decade, driven largely by Phelps becoming the winningest Olympian with 14 gold medals. The sport was televised live in prime time during the Beijing Olympics and can make a strong case that it's the most popular Olympic sport in the U.S., based on a major increase in sponsorships and a membership base that has surged to 300,000.
"Swimming has been such an important part of my life. I've been able to meet some of the most important and influential people ever in my life," Phelps said. "I'm thankful to have this sport and have these people as a part of my life."
Phelps' stance mirrors that of many top-level swimmers, who believe the sexual abuse cases are horrifying but largely isolated, a symptom of a larger problem in society and not an indictment on their sport.
"I'm not worried about the overall image of the sport," said Natalie Coughlin, winner of 11 medals at the last two Olympics. "I'm glad some of this stuff has come out because it opens up communication between parents and their kids and the coaches. It's not rampant. It's not like we're harboring predators or anything like that."
Phelps' longtime coach, Bob Bowman, said the flurry of lawsuits and accusations is a painful reminder that no sport can afford to let its guard down – especially when adults are interacting with children.
"If there's anything to come out of this which will help us going forward, maybe now all of us will be more diligent," he said. "This is a reminder that we still have to really watch what we're doing and particularly who we're hiring."
A former USA Swimming vice president has suggested a series of rigid standards to cut down on inappropriate conduct, such as a ban on any one-on-one interaction between an adult coach and a youth swimmer. Bowman said that's a good start, but he's not sure the national organization can come with rules that address all potential problems at thousands of local clubs.
"I don't know that you can have a hard-and-fast rule to meet every circumstance," said Bowman, who runs the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. "If Michael and I want to sit down and have a one-on-one conversation, I'm not sure that's out of bounds. But if it's one of my 8-year-olds, maybe that's a different story."
David Marsh, the director of coaching at SwimMAC Carolina, which is putting on this weekend's meet, is particularly sensitive to the issue of sexual abuse since he's got two daughters, ages 12 and 10. His club is already looking at additional steps to beef up the measures approved by USA Swimming.
For instance, SwimMAC Carolina won't allow females to wear skimpy two-piece suits while training outdoors this summer. Also, the club wants to make the relationship between coach and athlete more formal, hoping that will prevent improper relationships from developing.
"A lot of the swimmers call us coaches by our first name," Marsh said. "We're going to implement a program where we ask the swimmers and parents to call us 'Coach Such and Such' or 'Mr. Such and Such.' That will separate some of the casualness."
But Matt Grevers, who captured two golds and a silver in Beijing, said the bond between a coach and an athlete is a powerful one.
"I think it's different than a teacher and student," he said. "People in sports really love what they're doing. They're passionate about it. Obviously, there are passionate students. But in sports, everyone is passionate because they choose to be there.
"It's really sad to know that some people might abuse that kind of power and status."
Garrett Weber-Gale said it's important that parents take a more active role in their child's swimming career.
"My parents never left my sister and I at the pool by ourselves with the coach," he said. "You don't really know who these coaches are, and you're going to leave your kids there alone for two of three hours? They're just kids. Anything could be going on."