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Families put through years of turmoil, says Paralympic champion's father

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The father of a two-time Paralympic gold medallist says families have been put through “years of turmoil” by the “climate of fear” at British Swimming.

An independent inquiry into complaints of bullying made by 13 Para-swimmers found they and their families faced “unacceptable behaviours”.

Carson Russell, whose 21-year-old daughter Hannah was among the athletes who complained, said it had been a “very challenging” time.

He said solutions must now be found.

“It is disappointing when you have to listen to your daughter on the end of the phone who is upset and fearful at the way she’s being managed, and that is a big concern,” he told BBC Sport’s Patrick Nathanson.

“I am aware that other families have been through a lot of turmoil, a lot of distress over the last two or three years. It’s very challenging for parents and athletes who might be in a new environment for them so they’re unsure what best practice looks like.

“As a parent, you want you child to be in a rewarding environment, that’s how you get the best out of athletes – but if they’re pushed too far, that can slide away, and I believe that’s what’s happened, and that then did become a climate of fear that people couldn’t operate in properly.”

British swimming’s governing body said an unnamed member of staff – understood to be former head coach Rob Greenwood – was found to have been “communicating with athletes in an abusive manner, as well as using derogatory terms to describe athletes”.

Greenwood left his job before the investigation began, and it is not known whether he disputes the allegations.

When contacted by the BBC, he declined to comment.

A second member of staff, whose management and communication was criticised and who “acknowledged mistakes”, has faced disciplinary action, but remains in post at the Manchester-based organisation.

“In the pursuit of excellence, we recognise there have been failings in the culture and communication within British Para-swimming” said Maurice Watkins, chairman of the national governing body.

Hannah Russell

‘The most important thing is to find solutions’

Carson Russell said striving for medals must be balanced with the welfare and safety of athletes.

“The pursuit of medals is integral to athletes getting up every day, driving themselves forward – it’s what elite sport is all about,” he said.

“Getting that balance right is really important, but you can strive for world-class performances in an environment where you are looking after athletes and their welfare comes first.”

He acknowledged British Swimming had carried out a “thorough investigation” and added it was “right and good that they have made some recommendations”.

He said: “The important thing is you have to be careful of throwing sticks and highlighting problems all the time. The most important thing is to find solutions.

“There are some recommendations, but the caveat to that is that those have to be delivered.”

Russell said his daughter was willing to “draw a line in the sand” and was focused on securing a place at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics.

“Unfortunately for my daughter she did have to cope with stresses and things that weren’t great for her,” he said. “But becoming a resilient athlete, being able to bounce back, that’s part of elite sport as well.

“What’s gone has gone, let’s make sure we learn from that.

“There’s some new people and coaches involved in British Para-swimming and she’s working with them. Her focus is purely on Tokyo 2020 and what she needs to do to try and get selected for that.”

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Background

In March, BBC Sport revealed Britain’s Para-swimming squad – which includes some of the country’s youngest and most vulnerable athletes – had become embroiled in a bullying controversy after multiple complaints against a coach.

British Swimming says that “after an initial investigation by a law firm concluded there was prima facie evidence which warranted further inquiries, the matter was referred by the British Athletes’ Commission (BAC) to the governing body in December 2016”.

In February, an independent investigation into the allegations began, and 13 athletes and 10 members of staff were interviewed.

British Swimming says it has committed to “a robust action plan… to make sure transparent procedures are followed and adhered to… and a closer working relationship with the BAC”.

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Athlete welfare in the spotlight

With a third of governing bodies having been drawn into athlete welfare complaints in recent months, this latest scandal will heighten fears that medal success and UK Sport’s ‘no-compromise’ funding strategy has come at the expense of duty of care.

  • In June, a report into claims of bullying at British Cycling found a lack of good governance, heard there was “a culture of fear” and criticised UK Sport for missing crucial warning signs.
  • BBC Sport revealed a senior coach working with Britain’s Winter Olympic bobsleigh squad has been accused of racism amid multiple complaints over a “toxic atmosphere” in the sport.
  • The BBC also revealed police had reopened an investigation into a senior Archery GB coach having been suspended following a complaint to police over an alleged incident involving a young female Para-athlete.
  • An independent investigation has begun into “failings” at British Canoeing following claims of abuse.
  • UK Sport, meanwhile, has promised a “root-and-branch review” of culture in high-performance programmes, and appointed a new head of integrity, with chair Dame Katherine Grainger saying athlete welfare is “a huge concern”.

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