Woman accuses former Olympic swim coach of sexually abusing her as a teen and USA Swimming of failing to stop it

Jun 18, 2024, 10:53 PM

The Olympic rings at the Utah Olympic Park in Park City on Monday, Nov. 27, 2023. The Salt Lake Cit...

The Olympic rings at the Utah Olympic Park in Park City on Monday, Nov. 27, 2023. The Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games announced Wednesday that it has identified 13 proposed venues as part of its bid to bring the 2034 Winter Olympics to Utah.  (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

(Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

(CNN) — A former high-level swimmer accused her Hall of Fame coach of sexually abusing her about 15 years ago when she was a minor and alleged USA Swimming and other organizations and individuals knew about the abuse and did nothing to stop it, according to a federal lawsuit.

The suit from Amanda Le was filed against “the individuals and corporate entities who let a known child rapist work as a youth swim coach, who supported him with infrastructure, position, and prestige for decades, and who allowed him full access to a never-ending cycle of young girls to prey upon,” the suit states. “Amanda Le was one of those girls.”

Filed in US District Court in Massachusetts on Friday, the 33-page lawsuit alleges sexual abuse on the part of Joseph Bernal, the former Fordham and Harvard swim coach who served on the US coaching staff at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics. He coached multiple Olympic medalists and world record holders and was inducted into the American Swim Coaches Hall of Fame in 2015, the lawsuit states.

He also founded the Bernal’s Gator Swim Club, an amateur swim club, and coached Le from 2006 to 2010. Bernal sexually abused Le from about 2008 to 2014, the lawsuit states.

In February 2016, USA Swimming permanently banned Bernal for his abuse of an unnamed “Athlete A,” the lawsuit states. That athlete was Le, the suit states.

Bernal is named on a USA Swimming website listing individuals permanently suspended or ineligible for membership, due to “sexual misconduct.”

“USA Swimming is deeply committed to the safety and welfare of all its members,” the organization’s then-spokesman Scott Leightman said in 2016 in a statement to The Boston Globe. “The Safe Sport program’s mission is to increase awareness to reduce the risk for abuse in sport and our organization has no tolerance for violations of our code of conduct.’’

CNN reached out to USA Swimming for comment on the lawsuit. CNN has also reached out to an attorney for Bernal’s estate and other defendants named in the lawsuits for comment.

Bernal died in October 2022, according to an obituary.

The lawsuit comes amid a series of allegations of abuse and wrongdoing in the national governing bodies that oversee elite-level youth sports like USA Swimming. In 2021, for example, USA Gymnastics, the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee and their insurers agreed to pay $380 million in a settlement with the victims of Larry Nassar, the former Olympic doctor who sexually abused girls for decades.

Jon Little, Le’s attorney, told CNN there is a culture that allows this abuse to happen.

“While what happened to her is sad, it’s far from uncommon,” Little said. “People like Larry Nassar and Bernal, that produce Olympic medalists – as long as these guys produce medals and money, they can literally rape children. The system is designed to protect the producers. Getting rid of Nassar and Bernal does not change the problem.”

The attorney said Le filed the lawsuit to let kids know they are not alone.

“She felt alone back then, but she doesn’t now,” Little said.

What the lawsuit alleges

According to the lawsuit, Le trained and competed with Bernal’s Gator Swim Club of New England, known as BGSC-NE, from 13 to 18 years old. When she was 15 and Bernal was in his mid-60s, he kissed her after practice, and the sexual contact escalated over the next few years, the lawsuit states.

“While she was in high school, Amanda started to have panic attacks, which she believed at the time were due solely to the stress of swimming; she knew that (she) was afraid of performing poorly because she would be punished,” the suit states. “Amanda was also suffering the consequences of the sexual abuse, although she did not realize it at the time.”

On several overnight team trips, Le slept in Bernal’s hotel room, the lawsuit states. From her junior year of high school into her senior year, she would skip school and the coach would pick her up and take her to his house for sex, according to the lawsuit.

Le went to college from 2011 to 2014, and as a junior, Bernal impregnated Le and then paid for an abortion, the lawsuit states.

The abuse continued even though some adults knew about it, according to the lawsuit. In one instance, Le’s mother found her diary, which detailed her relationship with Bernal, and Le’s parents then showed it to another coach for Bernal’s Gator Swim Club, the lawsuit states. That coach did not contact law enforcement and “did nothing to protect Amanda,” the suit states.

In addition, USA Swimming “was aware of complaints about Bernal’s inappropriate behavior with minor female swimmers” before Le began the sport, the suit alleges.

The suit accuses Bernal, USA Swimming and other defendants of violating the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Further, the lawsuit accuses Bernal of sexual abuse and the others of negligence.

Bernal was previously named in an August 2021 lawsuit in which Kimberly Stines accused him of a “five-year campaign of systemic emotional and sexual abuse” beginning in 1976. USA Swimming is not a defendant in the lawsuit.

Little, who also represents Stines, said the litigation is ongoing and a trial is expected sometime in late 2025 or early 2026. He said the system failed to protect Stines.

“The system failed her and now she feels guilty that there is an Amanda Le,” he said.

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Woman accuses former Olympic swim coach of sexually abusing her as a teen and USA Swimming of failing to stop it