Young athlete’s account of assault sidelines coach, but fight continues

Last modified: Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sitting in a coffee shop in Southampton, Monica Strzempko of Westfield recalled when her now 20-year-old daughter, Anna, was a happy, popular 13-year-old who was good at most everything — especially swimming. She had Olympic aspirations and was training hard with the Greater Holyoke YMCA Vikings club, an elite team that drew swimmers from across the region.

But 2½ years later, Anna had become depressed and anorexic. She could not sleep alone. In December 2010, a doctor ordered her to stop swimming on the team due to her anorexia.

“I remember being surprised that she wasn’t disappointed,” Monica Strzempko said.

She wasn’t disappointed, Strzempko knows now, because quitting swimming meant no more private meetings at the YMCA with her then coach, Randall Smith. It wasn’t until years later that Anna told her family that Smith had beaten and raped her in the storage room next to his office roughly 20 times for 2½ years, starting when she was 13.

“There were signs,” Monica Strzempko said. “I missed them.”

She knew her youngest daughter was going through something. But she never dreamed that Smith, then the 55-year-old who had coached Anna since she was 10 and hinted he might get her to Olympic Trials, could brutalize her daughter in the storage room next to the fitness center where she worked out while Anna was at practice.

“I was literally on the other side of the door on the treadmill while he was raping her,” Monica Strzempko said.

Smith, 61, of Holyoke, denies the allegations and has never been charged with a crime. The Gazette left a message at Smith’s home and sent him a letter seeking his comments on the allegations against him, but got no reply. His attorney, Michael Aleo of Northampton, said his client won’t talk to reporters until USA Swimming , the governing body for the sport in America, reaches a decision about whether to ban him from coaching.

The Strzempko family did not want Anna to have to testify in court, so they never asked prosecutors to press charges.

Nonetheless, Anna’s story has had an impact locally and across the country. Smith was fired, although the YMCA has refused to say why.

The allegations were investigated by Holyoke Police, the state Department of Children and Families and USA Swimming, which closed but then this year reopened an inquiry into the allegations against Smith. Its National Board of Review held a hearing Nov. 17 as part of the process of considering whether to ban Smith from coaching.

The same week as the hearing, USA Swimming settled out of court with the Strzempkos. Anna posted on her blog that she was given $400,000 for pain and suffering.

Also last month, Outside magazine published an article about Anna and the prevalence of sexual abuse in the world of elite swimming. In response, the Greater Holyoke YMCA released a statement to reassure members that it fired Smith and that it has taken steps since then to prevent abuse and protect children.

In testimony Smith gave to investigators at the Department of Children and Families in 2012, Smith said he never touched Anna and never had private meetings with her in his office, though he told investigators that he did talk to her when she came to his office. Other former swimmers and YMCA staff told police in 2012 that they could not believe Smith would do such a thing. With the exception of one former swimmer, they all said meetings never happened behind closed doors. The department initially supported Anna’s allegations, but after Smith appealed, a DCF official ruled in November 2012 that the agency did not have enough evidence to support the allegations against him.

It isn’t clear whether USA Swimming has ruled on whether to ban Smith. USA Swimming’s spokesman, Scott Leightman, said in an interview Nov. 23 that no decision had been made. But after being asked the same question Dec. 17, he said he could not comment on whether a decision had been made because all decisions are confidential until there has been an opportunity to appeal.

Smith could still technically coach swimming, but Aleo says he isn’t working. “He’s unemployable at the moment,” Aleo said, because of the allegations against him.

Smith filed a complaint in April with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, alleging that he should not have been fired. An MCAD spokesman confirmed the commission was investigating to see if there is probable cause to move Smith’s complaint forward.

Swim community

Meanwhile, Smith’s supporters in the area have ostracized the family and accused Anna of lying about being raped to get attention, according to Strzempko.

In a Facebook message, Anna declined to speak with the Gazette, saying she had no interest in making herself a target of the people in western Massachusetts “who have been torturing my family and me for years.” She said they have called her names on the Internet and scrutinized her mother’s parenting skills. “We’ve lost friends and been outcast.”

But nationally, Anna’s story has renewed discussion about the problem of sexual abuse in swimming. It was a major scandal back in 2010 when several media outlets reported on court cases involving coaches abusing swimmers and criticism that USA Swimming failed to crack down on the abuse.

Strzempko and the family’s lawyer, Jonathan Little of Indianapolis, said the assaults are part of the historic culture of elite swimming. In general, the swimming community has for years accepted relationships between coaches and their swimmers, as long as the relationship seems consensual.

They say that coaches in competitive programs have nearly unlimited power over the young swimmers. The athletes fear and idolize them and try desperately to please, all while dreaming of the Olympics, she said.

“The more competitive they are, the more at risk they are,” Strzempko said.

Strzempko said her daughter, now a student at Wesleyan University, is continuing to heal. “She has good days and she has bad days. Writing has been her therapy,” she said.

Starting in the summer of 2013, Anna began to post poems and pieces on a blog about the alleged abuse. This was around the time that, according to Strzempko, Anna came clean about the abuse. She had told family in 2011 that Smith had touched her with his fingers, but in 2013, she said he had beaten and raped her multiple times.

Her blog posts weave together violent scenes — her coach hitting and raping her and leaving her on the storage room floor — with recollections of times she struggled to get past guilt, suicidal thoughts and other lasting effects. Her mother said she has post traumatic stress disorder.

Anna Strzempko started swimming at the YMCA at age 10. She was good, her mother said, and started competing on the club’s national team.

Smith was her coach. He demanded faster times and threw clipboards, Strzempko said. In blog posts, Anna described being simultaneously afraid of Smith and desperate to please him. She called it “the master/subject mentality between male coaches and young, fast female swimmers.”

Anna would later say that in August 2008, right after the national competition, she met with Smith alone in his office to talk about her future. She wrote in a blog post that he angrily questioned her commitment to the sport, ordered her into the adjacent storeroom, and beat and raped her.

Strzempko said that while the assaults continued from when Anna was 13 to 16, her daughter gradually became more reclusive, distanced herself from friends, and started climbing into her parents’ bed every night.

“Her personality changed. She said, ‘I don’t want to live anymore,’” Strzempko said. And she was dropping weight too fast. “I kept thinking everything was because of the eating disorder,” Strzempko said.

Her doctor ordered her to stop swimming in December 2010 because of her anorexia. She seemed relieved, Strzempko said.

In October 2011, when Anna was a 16-year-old junior at Suffield Academy and working the desk at the YMCA, she told a male friend that she had been sexually assaulted by her former coach. The friend called Strzempko, who confronted her daughter about it. She said Anna told her she couldn’t talk about it.

Strzempko said her impulse was to isolate and protect her daughter, and not to press her for details. “But when I saw the 11- and 12-year-olds walking into practice, I felt I had no choice,” she said. “I went home in December and said, ‘I’m a prisoner with this information, you have to tell me what happened.’ And a few days later, she did.”

But Strzempko said that what Anna said at the time — that Smith had kissed and touched her inappropriately — was not the full story.

Strzempko said that looking back, she can see that Smith was a predator who “groomed” his victim with a mix of control and praise. “He was an expert. He knew who pick. Anna likes to please. She likes to do good. She likes to be special,” she said.

When Anna told her she was molested, Strzempko reported it Dec. 29, 2011, to YMCA staffers, who immediately put Smith on paid administrative leave.

The Strzempkos had no idea where to start, but a friend who was a police detective in another community suggested Anna give a statement to police so that it was on record for any investigation that might follow.

The Gazette reviewed the statement Anna gave to Holyoke Police Detective Jennifer Sattler on Jan. 15, 2012. Anna told the detective that during private meetings in his office, Smith violated her with his fingers roughly five times between 2008 and 2010.

Strzempko recalled that Sattler later told her on the phone that her daughter didn’t act like a “regular victim.”

“She said, ‘I think we should give her a lie detector test,’” Strzempko said.

Strzempko said that shocked her, but she really didn’t care what Sattler thought. The statement was on record, which was their goal, since they did not want authorities to press charges. “We were reeling. She was hardly starting to heal. The police were the least of my worries,” Strzempko said.

Holyoke Police Capt. Denise Duguay disputed Strzempko’s account of Sattler’s behavior, in a statement to the Gazette. She said Sattler, like the department’s other trained investigators, knows there is no such thing as a person acting like an abuse victim, “as sexual assault survivors are individuals who respond in a wide range of human emotions with no two being exactly alike.”

Duguay said that in addition to Anna, Sattler interviewed approximately 10 others about the allegations and “provided an opportunity for an interview to the accused,” although he did not take her up on it. She also said the Strzempkos were informed that Anna could change her mind about pressing charges at any time.

Because of that, the department considers the case to be open, though inactive, and denied a Gazette request to view documents related to it.

The Gazette informed Duguay about how Anna had changed her story from the one she gave police — that she was touched inappropriately — and later said she was beaten and raped.

Duguay said she could not comment on the specifics of this case, but said that it is fairly common for a sexual assault victim to minimize crimes or delay giving details about what happened. She said that could be due to embarrassment, shame, or denial, as well as fear of not being believed or of the reactions or judgment of loved ones, the offender, and others.

State review

After the Greater Holyoke YMCA reported the allegations to law enforcement, the Department of Children and Families started investigating. The YMCA never did its own investigation, telling DCF staff that the organization “was not skilled to do so,” according to DCF documents that Strzempko provided.

The Strzempkos refused to let DCF staff interview Anna, explaining that they did not want to put her through it, so they arranged for Sattler to send Anna’s police statement to DCF.

The main DCF investigator on the case, Amy Coelho, interviewed Smith at the department’s Holyoke office Jan. 17, 2012, with his attorney present.

According to the DCF report on the investigation, Smith denied touching Anna. He told Coelho that he only had meetings to discuss goals with swimmers in the conference room with the doors open while other people were in the building. He said the doors to the conference room were always open during the two meetings with Anna he could recall. When Coelho asked if Anna ever came to his office, Smith replied, “Sure, she came to my office.”

The investigator and her supervisors agreed in January 2012 that there was reasonable cause to support the girl’s allegations. But that decision was overturned later that year after Smith appealed. A DCF official who presided over the appeal hearing May 23, 2012, ruled that the investigation was insufficient and that Smith seemed credible, while Anna’s statement was vague.

Strzempko said that on the advice of their lawyer, her family did not participate in the hearing of Smith’s appeal, so his was the only side told at the hearing.

Linda A. Horvath, an attorney for DCF who served as hearing officer and decided the appeal, wrote in her decision that she had to question Anna’s credibility because of the “multiple versions of alleged abuse.” Strzempko said that the “multiple versions” were because she misunderstood Anna’s initial disclosure and then gave incorrect information to the DCF and the YMCA about where and when the alleged assaults took place.

Horvath considered testimony that six of Smith’s former swimmers and fellow coaches gave to Sattler, something DCF did not when coming to the earlier decision. And perhaps most damning was the fact that Coelho’s supervisors approved supporting Anna’s allegations even before they had read the swimmer’s statement. Documents used in the appeal indicate that the initial decision to support came Jan. 18, 2012, almost two weeks before Detective Sattler sent the statement to DCF Jan. 31.

Horvath also believed after Smith’s testimony that it was his decision to take Anna off the swim team after she tried to rejoin in April 2011 but lost too much weight again. Horvath wrote that she may have falsely accused Smith because he “denied her the chance to be part of a nationally ranked swim team.”

Strzempko sharply disputed that, repeating that it was her decision to take Anna off the team both times.

The YMCA fired Smith in July 2012, after his appeal hearing but before the decision in his favor. Strzempko said she and her lawyer spoke to the YMCA’s executive board in May, challenging them about keeping Smith on the payroll despite the allegations, and she believes that led to his firing.

“The Y did all the right things on paper,” Strzempko said of the organization’s suspension and firing of Smith. “How the Y failed us was they slammed the door in Anna’s face.”

Strzempko said the YMCA’s lawyers advised staff not to talk to the Strzempkos, and their donation banners were taken down. Most surprising was that most of the swim team families closed ranks and stood by Smith, she said.

“When I told the other mothers, I expected support, I expected them to say, ‘What can I do?’ and they all ran in the opposite direction with a few exceptions,” Strzempko said. “One of the mothers said, ‘she does wear her suit higher up on her hips than the other girls.’”

It was easier for them to believe that Anna was lying than that their coach was a child molester, she said. “There has been nothing in this for Anna but shame and isolation,” Strzempko said. “That she did this for attention, which was the charge of her former teammates, is ludicrous.”

Some were upset because they felt that without Smith’s coaching, their children may not earn college scholarships. “That’s what swimming is like. That’s what they would do for their coach,” Strzempko said.

The Gazette left messages over three days for families who were part of the Vikings swim club at the time, seeking responses to Strzempko’s statements. The only one who commented to the Gazette was Lisa Manzi of Holyoke, who was a member of the YMCA’s Parent Advisory Committee at the time of the allegations. Her children were swimmers who were several years younger than Anna.

Manzi said she takes guidance from the fact that Smith has never been charged or found to be guilty of the charges. “When Randy was removed, I thought he was removed until it could be investigated — you have to protect kids no matter what. I had faith that the Holyoke Police and the district attorney would do due diligence,” she said. “But he was never arrested and we never heard anything .... If I don’t see them come forward with charges against someone, I’m going to hope they’re innocent.”

She said that Anna could very well be telling the truth, but she can’t help but worry that the allegations are false.

“I loved Randy as a coach. I felt like he dedicated his life to this program,” she said. “And if no one who investigated found anything, why is it still coming up? I feel like he’s being tried in the court of public opinion.”

Even if USA Swimming decides to ban Smith, Manzi said she would still want to know what evidence they had to come to that conclusion. “I know they have to protect privacy and there are legal issues, but we’ve had no information on it,” she said.

The Strzempkos are still considering suing the YMCA, their attorney said.

Strzempko said the organization should have done more to protect her daughter and other swimmers. “Why is this guy having private meetings with kids? Why wasn’t anyone policing that?” she asked.

Little, the family’s lawyer, said that compared to USA Swimming, the national YMCA has been “cleaning up faster” and making changes to protect athletes.

In a message to YMCA members after the Outside Magazine article, Greater Holyoke YMCA Executive Director Kathy Viens said the YMCA keeps children safe by not allowing staff to be alone with them, doing background and reference checks on staff and training staff and volunteers to recognize and report abuse.

Viens said she could not answer questions about the case because of the threatened litigation.

USA Swimming actions

Strzempko said she first met with Little in December of 2012 in Boston to talk about forcing change at USA Swimming. But he said a suit could take years, so the Strzempkos decided not to pursue legal action at that time.

“They had faith that USA Swimming would do something,” Little said in a phone interview from Indianapolis. The organization did interview people involved, but eventually closed the investigation without banning Smith.

It isn’t clear why USA Swimming reopened the case earlier this year. Strzempko and Little both said they could not discuss it because of the terms of the recent settlement, although Strzempko did say that USA Swimming never contacted her about reopening the investigation — she heard about it from her lawyer. Scott Leightman, a USA Swimming spokesman, said he also could not discuss it.

Little read Anna’s blog posts and contacted the family again this spring, and they agreed he should represent them, Strzempko said. She is adamant that the family’s goal is not money. They got a lawyer to force things to change at USA Swimming, she said. “It’s the only way to get them to listen to you,” she said.

She said her daughter did not participate in Smith’s hearing before USA Swimming in November because she did not want to see him or hear his voice.

Meanwhile, Smith’s attorney, Aleo, said that Smith made a strong case in front of USA Swimming’s National Board of Review at his hearing Nov. 17.

“We presented very strong evidence that Randall Smith did not engage in any behavior that the swimmer alleged,” Aleo said. “Neither the swimmer nor anyone who ever spoke with the swimmer testified at the hearing. Mr. Smith testified on his behalf and presented other evidence to support his innocence.”

USA Swimming will not announce its decision about whether to ban Smith. His name will either appear on the public list of 110 others who have already been banned — overwhelmingly for sexual misconduct or other illegal activity — or it won’t. He could also be suspended, Leightman said.

Smith’s name has not appeared on the list, which was last updated on the USA Swimming website Dec. 3. If a decision is made to ban a coach, the ruling would not be made public until after an appeal period.

Strzempko said that with all this going on, her daughter is still trying to be a normal college student, but the effects of her alleged abuse “have turned her life upside down.”

Strzempko was reluctant to talk to a Gazette reporter, saying she was not sure what the point would be because Anna did not want any more attention. But in the coffee shop Dec. 1, Strzempko said she was willing because it is important for parents to hear the story, be vigilant and know the signs of abuse.

“Listen to your kids,” she said. “It can happen to you.”

Rebecca Everett can be reached at


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