The report by Lorna Knowles of ABC Investigations and Nikki Tugwell of 7.30 uncovered further accusations of sexual and physical abuse by elite swimming coach John Wright in the 1980s.
WARNING: This story contains information that readers may find distressing.
Police have told the ABC there is no active investigation into Wright but encouraged any alleged victims to come forward.
The allegations are of sexual abuse by Wright on three boys in the 1980s: Olympian Shane Lewis, who was 11-13 at the time of the alleged abuses; junior backstroke champion Colin Marshall, who was 12 at the time; and Tony Blundell, who was 13.
[In the second part of the series airing tonight, there are allegations of further abuses by Wright including abuse of former elite swimmer and triathlete Paul Shearer.]
The abuses against Lewis and Marshall allegedly occurred at Brisbane’s Chandler Pool, which is now known as the Brisbane Aquatic Centre. The abuse of Blundell allegedly occurred during car trips to the Chandler Pool.
The three boys did not discuss with each other what was allegedly happening to them, and it has taken decades to speak about it.
As Lewis recovered in hospital following a suicide attempt in 2010, he disclosed the alleged abuse to his mother.
In 2016, Marshall heard Lewis was struggling with his mental health and the pair shared their stories with each other.
In February this year, Lewis died after a fatal prescription drug overdose. The coroner is yet to determine the cause of the 47-year-old’s death, but his family believes it was suicide.
In 2016 Lewis decided to go public with the allegations and turned to child protection advocate Hetty Johnston for help.
In February 2016, one his friends emailed swimming authorities about the allegations.
Swimming Australia requested more detail, emailing a short questionnaire about the nature of the alleged abuse and when and where it happened.
Lewis wrote back that he didn’t believe filling out a few boxes with high level information would yield significant interest nor kick start anything.
He also said in the letter: “I’d like to acknowledge too that it’s not just swimming, not just sport in general. Abuse doesn’t discriminate between demographics. There are too many people out there who have and are still suffering.”
He received a letter from Swimming Australia’s then-CEO Mark Anderson to say he would welcome the opportunity to hear more from him about “past and present circumstances”.
“Swimming Australia would like to deal with the concerns raised against John Wright and any other allegations immediately, fairly, effectively and sensitively as possible,” Anderson wrote.
“As such, we would welcome the opportunity to hear from you further — either in writing, verbally by phone, or in person — as soon as you are able.”
Hetty Johnston said Lewis felt discouraged by the letter.
“Swimming Australia wrote a lovely letter. But the word sorry didn’t appear in it anywhere,” Johnston said.
“And what a survivor always looks for is that everyone wants to know, deep in your soul, that what happened is not your fault. And he was, you know, he was discouraged by it, most definitely discouraged by it.”
Lewis gave up pursuing the complaint.
Swimming Australia’s response
Swimming Australia’s acting CEO, Eugenie Buckley told the ABC that the issue had not been “swept under the carpet”.
She says that while Swimming Australia would handle the complaint differently today, it acted appropriately at the time.
Then-CEO Mark Anderson asked Lewis for more information, spoke to Johnston, the police and referred the allegations to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse, Buckley says.
She says Swimming Australia did not investigate Lewis’s claims at the time because it did not have enough detailed information and it did not have the resources.
“One, there wasn’t enough detail upon which to investigate, and two it was a resourcing issue. Swimming Australia didn’t have the resources,” Buckley told the ABC.
“Now we’ve got an in-house resource that looks after member protection. The other resource we have now is in relation to athlete wellbeing and engagement that can really support the athlete through this process a whole lot better.
“In terms of an investigation, that’s not our expertise, we’re not investigators.”
Buckley says if the complaint was received now, it would be immediately referred to police and the independent government oversight body, Sports Integrity Australia.
She says Swimming Australia has also signed up to the national redress scheme to compensate victims of sexual abuse and had implemented a coaching accreditation system to better protect children.
“We can absolutely commit to doing better. I think this is a process that just never stops. It’s never ‘job done’ in relation to child safety.
“So we’ll always listen, we’ll always learn and we’ll always improve.”
Primarily, that the unnamed elite swim coach that elite swimmer and triathlete Paul Shearer named in 2009 as allegedly abusing him in the 1980s was John Wright.
In 2009 Shearer did not publicly name the coach for legal reasons, but the ABC revealed that the coach he was talking about was Wright.
Swimming Australia CEO Eugenie Buckley told the ABC that after Shearer contacted them in 2009 after the TV broadcast in which he detailed the abuse but did not name the coach, the Swimming Australia representative – a lawyer – had a conversation with Shearer, who was asked to make a formal complaint, which was not forthcoming, despite the lawyer following up twice.
The file was also passed on to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
However there was no investigation into Wright.
Paul Shearer took his own life in 2020.
If you or anyone you know needs help:
Lifeline on 13 11 14
Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636
Headspace on 1800 650 890
ReachOut at au.reachout.com
IMAGE: John Wright. ABC