Swimmer safety is back in the local spotlight after several former Tri-Valley swimmers recently came forward alleging years of abuse that they said either took place by or under the watch of area coaches.
The public charges have so far triggered one lawsuit naming the sport's national governing body, USA Swimming, and in another instance, potentially a countersuit against one of the athletes for defamation of character.
Debra Grodensky, who competed with San Ramon Valley Aquatics in the 1980s, is one of six women who have sued USA Swimming in three separate lawsuits. Grodensky filed suit in Alameda County Superior Court for negligence and sexual assault of a minor, alleging that USA Swimming knew her former swim coach, Andrew King, was a sexual predator and did nothing to intervene, thereby fostering a toxic culture within the organization.
Grodensky said that King -- who was convicted a decade ago of child molestation and sentenced to 40 years in prison -- sexually abused her when she was 12 years old during swim meets that were sanctioned by USA Swimming.
According to court documents, Grodensky and the other plaintiffs "have suffered from serious, life-long symptoms of emotional and psychological trauma." They are seeking unspecified compensation for general and punitive damages as well as "further relief as the court may deem fit and proper."
Another former local athlete, Suzette Moran, accused U.S. Olympic coach Mitch Ivey of sexual misconduct starting when she was 16. Moran said that Ivey, a two-time Olympic medalist who was coaching at Concord Pleasant Hill Swim Club at the time, came into her hotel room and made her have sex with him during the 1983 U.S. Championships in Indianapolis. King was the chaperone for that trip. She also said that Ivey impregnated her around the end of that year and forced her to have an abortion.
In a statement, USA Swimming said, “We are aware of the information publicly released today in California. We fully support survivors of sexual abuse along their healing journey. USA Swimming’s Safe Sport program continues to work with prominent health and education experts to provide meaningful member resources and SwimAssist funding to those in need. The organization and its current leadership remain committed to providing a safe environment and a positive culture for all its members."
King and Ivey were both eventually banned for life from coaching by USA Swimming but Moran said she saw other coaches acting questionably during that time as well.
In a recent article by the Daily Beast, Moran described often seeing young girls allegedly sitting on the lap of Pleasanton Seahawks coach Steve Morsilli, who has coached the award-winning swim team in Pleasanton since 1975. "It gave me the creeps and I felt uncomfortable around him," Moran said of Morsilli in the Daily Beast article.
In an interview with the Weekly, Morsilli -- who is not named in any of the lawsuits -- objected to being mentioned in the Daily Beast article, which features a prominently displayed old photo of him and Moran that he said "should not have been under that very inflammatory headline."
"I think that type of behavior is horrible," Morsilli said about the lawsuit. "I did not engage in that type of behavior. I don't know why this is coming up again because all the people mentioned in the article ... have all been banned from USA Swimming, and (King's) in prison, as he should be."
"(The lawsuit) alleges that there were and are enablers, people who knew specifically .. .about the behavior these (coaches) were engaging in and didn't report it, and I can tell you categorically, in my case, that is untrue," Morsilli added.
However, one highly decorated Tri-Valley swimmer contends that "the team culture rapidly degraded me and became severely toxic" during her time swimming with Morsilli and the Seahawks.
Though Morsilli was not specifically named, former Seahawks swimmer and five-time state champion Miranda Heckman said in two recent social media posts that she was "physically, verbally, sexually, and emotionally abused by both my head coach and my teammates" -- including being "groped" and "scratched" -- during her final three years of high school. Heckman, who now swims competitively at the University of Texas at Austin, left the Seahawks for Ruby Hill Aquatics without explanation -- a move announced in the summer of 2019 after she graduated from Granada High School in Livermore.
"I was referred to as an “IT” instead of by my name," Heckman wrote on social media. "I was told by my coach, 'you used to be worth something, you used to be fast'. I was told I would never surmount to anything. I was told if I spoke out about the abuse that my coach would end my swim career."
Heckman wrote that she decided to share her experience with the public because "what I want people to get from my story, is not sympathy for me, but for me to be able to empathize with those that have faced struggles similar to my own. I am a part of this huge family called the swimming community and I want to help in more ways than one."
Morsilli, who said he has retained an attorney since then, denied the accusations.
"Her attorney said, 'Well, he -- being me -- may have tapped her on the rear with a clipboard or commented on her swimsuit,'" Morsilli said. "She has every right to express her opinion that I'm a terrible coach, that I was mean to her and whatever else. She does not have the right to accuse me of a crime, the crime being sexual abuse."
He also declared that Heckman "has no leg to stand on when we get to court." When asked if a defamation lawsuit against Heckman was in the works, Morsilli replied, "It's coming," but did not give details.
Heckman declined to speak with the Weekly, but her attorney Jim Wagstaffe told the Weekly that, as far as he knows, "There's no lawsuit ... I've been asked to come in and make sure her rights to free speech are protected."
As for potential sexual abuse allegations, Wagstaffe said the words used by his client "are not technical terms, they're terms about touching someone in a way that a coach and/or adult shouldn't touch a person. We can address what (Morsilli's) concerns are but threatening defamation suits is not the answer."
"No one's suggesting anyone had sexual intercourse with her," Wagstaffe said. "But (Morsilli) acted inappropriately in the ways that were described, particularly in the ways that were described in the Instagram post, and that I already had some facts that were already very troubling."
Annalisa Parker, who swam with the Seahawks from the time she was 9 years old until leaving to attend Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, reached out to the Weekly to defend her former coach. Parker said Heckman's comments and the Daily Beast article were "geared unfairly" toward Morsilli and that he has "dozens" of supporters.
“I don’t believe that one statement made by a previous swimmer, who historically has a negative reputation among other swimmers, should be able to destroy the reputation of a beloved swim coach who changed hundreds of lives for the better," Parker said.
After learning about Heckman's post, Morsilli said he got in touch with his attorney and "called the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which deals with all of these issues. I called them the day I was aware of the post -- many swimmers alerted me to the posts -- and asked them to start an investigation immediately."
When asked to confirm Morsilli's request, a SafeSport representative replied in an email, "The Center doesn’t discuss individual matters to protect the integrity of the process and the safety and privacy of the people involved." Wagstaffe also said he knew "nothing" about the SafeSport investigation.