RIP Shane Lewis – Whose Passing Reminds Us Of The Dark Depths Of Abuse In A Swimming Pool That Needs Dredging Yet

2021-10-05 Reading Time: 4 minutes
ABC's Investigation into the death and background tragedy of Shane Lewis and teammates - screenshot from ABC's investigation

Shane Lewis, former Australian international, passed away aged 47 in February this year and while the coroner is yet to determine cause of death, his family believes it was suicide as a result of the abuse he suffered as a swimmer.

ABC Investigations now reveals “that before his death, Lewis told friends and family that he had been sexually abused by an elite swimming coach.”

That coach is named by ABC as John Wright. The network’s investigations team reports:

In 2016, Shane Lewis complained to Swimming Australia about his former coach, John Wright. He alleged that Wright had sexually abused him at Brisbane’s Chandler pool in the 1980s.

Shane Lewis’s mother, Sue Lewis, told the ABC Shane first disclosed the abuse to her in 2010, when he was recovering in hospital from a previous suicide attempt.

ABC Investigations

S.O.S. Editorial:

First up: RIP Shane, may your passing not be taken in vain by swimming governors in reform mode, keen to present themselves as reformists but less keen to own a dark past that some in powerful positions yet have taken no responsibility for.

Here’s yet another terrible tale from the murkiest of depths in swimming, a tragic story from Australia but a tale being told the world over in a sport where authorities have simply not done enough down the decades to ensure swimming is not a magnet for rogues who have long known there’s a chance they’ll get away with it.

Governance of any organisation such as a sports body – and in swimming that means vast numbers of under-wage kids – includes guardianship and stewardship… which mean taking responsibility and not only getting it right now but owning the past and the unavoidable truth that some of those in positions of authority in the 1980s and 1990s remain in positions of authority to this day… where were they?

The story of Shane Lewis reminds us of other damaging and devastating stories and experiences of abuse and the fact that some vctims reported their abuse in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and again at the turn of the Millennium … and yet, they were ignored.

In the United States, an Abuses Committee at USA Swimming recommended Safe Sport measures in 1991. What did those with decision-making powers do? Well, they donned their Wilful-Blindness goggles for two decades as more victims piled up and more rogues got away with it – for two decades!

Some of those 1991 Safe Sport measures were indeed implemented … in 2010 and beyond and it took the courage of victims to force the issue. The struggle of victims and advocates led to a massive shift in the balance of power in law in the United States, though of late there have been tales of unconscionable back-tracking through lack of resources and what can be said to come down to retrograde attitudes to athlete welfare.

The ghosts of the kind of darkness from swimming history in the U.S, Britain, Ireland, South Africa, Australia and in many places beyond, will not be exorcised until the sport is finally rid of the leadership figures who were there back then and remain in high office at governance level, international and domestic, to this day…

In the ABC investigation, we come to yet another pool where to read is to weep … RIP Shane Lewis, who lived with his dark secret form three decades and then on two occasions felt like a victim all over again because, after finding the courage to face the trauma he had lived with, he heard ‘there was nothing we could do’. His family, friends and former teammates, including two other men who now report that they too were victims of abuse at the time, believe Shane Lewis could only live with himself if healing could be a part of his life.

Tragically, ABC reports that the whole thing could have been stopped in its tracks back when Shane was swimming and suffering abuse. The investigations team reports:

That same year, one parent did complain to swimming authorities — Cindy Wee — the daughter of the then-prime minister of Singapore. Wright was coaching her daughter, Su-Lin Ch’ng. At the time, Su-Lin was living at Wright’s Carindale house with a number of other swimmers.

According to court documents, Wee wrote letters to swimming authorities about Wright’s “vulgar” behaviour saying he was a bad influence on kids.

When Wright found out, he assaulted Wee at the Chandler pool. Wright first verbally abused Wee, calling her a “Malaysian bitch”, according to court documents.

Wright was served a good behaviour bond… but despite it all, Wright coached on … at some stage he ended up in South Africa and coached there for a time, too.

Understanding the role of governance, guardianship and stewardship and any absence of responsibility by those who apply for and accept roles as guardians and stewards, including coach but also governance figures, must be a part of the process of healing, victims and their advocates (not all of them lawyers, by any means and measures) have long made clear.

At international and domestic level, swimming is a sport in which we find some of the decisions makers of the 1980s and 1990s, including some in direct positions of power and influence, still in leadership roles to this day, without ever having accepted responsibility nor, it seems, having even felt as though they carried any responsibility.

Do we hold such people responsible for the abuse the athlete suffered? Of course not. Do we hold such people responsible for the environment, rules, culture and circumstance young fold found themselves in when their parents sent them along to get a healthy start in life down at the pool? The answer is, in general in swimming, not nearly enough. The answer should be: absolutely.

And: it’s never too late. Why? Because it was too late for Shane Lewis (among others like him) – and that was preventable, say many closest to him … and that’s how many others in swimming see it too.

Right now, there are bureaucrats in precisely the position described above: powerful then, powerful yet. They sit at the top tables in federation-world and related organisations, some where history is kept but not as it ought to be. All who know and allow such people to remain are a part of the problem not the solution.

Legal challenges and review processes are underway in various places in the world of swimming. On some levels, ‘time to move on’ is an appropriate approach but there are dark corners in swimming that require a much bolder way forward. It takes a subtle tweak, like ‘time for them to move on … because they cannot stay if we are to boast of being reborn and reformed’.

Shane Lewis and many others who have lived (and died) with the scars of abuse suffered as swimmers deserve no less.

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