Sydney – Three-time Olympic champion Tracy Stockwell never shirked a challenge in the pool and is likewise totally committed to reforming an Australian swimming team culture that some female swimmers have branded toxic and misogynistic.
Thirty-eight years after winning three gold medals under her maiden name of Caulkins at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, the American has just started her new position as president of Swimming Australia (SA).
“We’ve got some excellent coaches, but like society there are sometimes a few who don’t do the right thing and we are committed to making sure that some of those past experiences are not repeated,” she said in a telephone interview.
She was speaking in the wake of a recent SA apology over its treatment of women and girls on national teams, following a report by an independent panel that examined allegations of sexual misconduct made last June by double-Olympic silver medalist Madeline Groves.
Groves pulled out of the Australian trials for the Tokyo Olympics, saying her withdrawal should be a lesson to “perverts … and their boot lickers” who exploit, body-shame and “medically gaslight” young women and girls.
Another swimmer, Jenny McMahon, also slammed the sport as suffering from a “toxic and dysfunctional” culture.
Stockwell moved to Australia after marrying fellow swimmer Mark Stockwell and is a dual citizen. She knows well that times have changed and that comments and actions that might have been considered normal in the not-too-distant past no longer are.
She says she enjoyed her competitive swimming experience and that even in a more sensitive modern era coaches still need some latitude to get the best out of elite performers.
“High performance is challenging because sometimes coaches have to be tough, but there is a proper way of doing that,” she said. “Every athlete is different. You know the ones you can give a bit of a serve to and there might be some that you have to go a bit more gently with.
“While I had some very tough coaches who said things they wouldn’t be able to say nowadays, I had a very positive experience but I acknowledge that there are people who have had negative experiences and some of them have had long-term impact.
“I think it’s improved a lot and society’s different than it was 20-30 years ago. What people saw as acceptable back then is not now.”
The independent panel listed 46 recommendations for SA to adopt to improve its culture, a “handful” of which Stockwell says have already been completed.
She said the organization would shortly post the recommendations on its website and then issue progress reports for each.
“We want to show some action, not just words on this,” she said.
“The findings of the report provide a road map for us to do better and … make our sport safe for everyone, from young people, to people competing on world stage, to everyone in between, so that they’ve got the opportunity to have a positive experience.”
Another concern of Stockwell’s is increasing swimming’s participation numbers.
“We’ve got this decade of opportunity leading into home (Brisbane in 2032) Olympics,” she said.
“I was inspired by the ’72 Olympics watching when I was nine years old and seeing Mark Spitz and Shane Gould.
“I’d only been competing for about a year but (becoming an Olympian) then became a dream of mine.”
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