The mother of a teenage boy who was snapped dressed in a girl’s swimsuit has rubbished claims the sporting community has a ‘toxic culture’ and that the incident was an act of punishment for swimming slow laps.
A photo of Soren Zwolsman, now 16, wearing a floral one-piece swimsuit three years ago sent shockwaves through Australia swimming after it was reported the shot captured the youth being bullied by a coach.
The image, which was circulated by the media this week, was cited as evidence of the ‘toxic’ bullying culture in the Australian swimming community after former swimmers have come forward with stories of being mistreated in the pool.
But Monika Zwolsman, a self-proclaimed ‘tiger mum’, has hit back at the accusations, arguing the image of her son has been grossly misrepresented and the story ‘created out of the air’.
‘What happened, is that my son [and the coach] were having a quality session. He looked around and saw the togs, he threw them on and they were a bit small, so he thought it won’t work, so he then decided he will cycle instead,’ Ms Zwolsman told Sunrise on Tuesday morning.
A photo of Soren Zwolsman (pictured), now 16, wearing a floral one-piece swimsuit three years ago sent shockwaves through Australia swimming after it was reported the shot captured the youth being bullied by a coach.
Ms Zwolsman said she was ‘insulted’ by the claims, which insinuated that her child was being abused by coaches under her watch.
‘We are a very small and tightknit group who absolutely love our coaches, where all Tiger mums who watch our children,’ she said.
‘To insinuate as mothers, we would allow our children to be abused is very insulting, let alone the implication that their coaches in any way have done anything that isn’t in our children’s interests. These coaches love our cares, and we trust them.’
Former swimmers have recently opened up about the ‘toxic and dysfunctional’ culture at the sport’s elite level which left has athletes psychologically damaged after years of humiliating abuse and alleged bullying.
Former Commonwealth Games gold medallist turned academic Dr Jenny McMahon lifted the lid about her findings from interviews with hundreds of swimmers and coaches over the past 14 years.
Female swimmers recalled horrific experiences of being ‘oinked’ at and dubbed ‘lard a****’ if perceived to be overweight while other young girls were told to get breast reductions.
One of the most disturbing findings was the accusation made by a concerned parents to the The Australian that Soren was forced to wear female bathers as punishment for swimming slowly.
Ms Zwolsman said she was furious the image had been provided to the newspaper and the focus should instead be on the person responsible for taking the photo of a teenage boy.
‘Who was that pervert that was photographing my son and keeping the photos in his or her phone for all these years? And what other photos does he have of my son in that situation?
Maddie Groves withdrew from the Australian Olympic titles days out from the event as she called out the ‘misogynistic perverts’ and their ‘boot lickers’ she says are running the sport
‘That’s what I want to know.’
The humiliating ritual allegedly occurred at an elite squad training session after the young boy was told he had swam ‘like a girl’.
A parent who was at the training session took the photo as evidence of alleged bullying in the sport.
‘I have heard of things like this happening before and just could not believe it when it unfolded in front of me,’ the parent told the publication.
‘The swimmers did not seem shocked at all, and I wonder whether this is normal in their squad.
‘I took the photograph because I just knew that without it, no one would believe me.’
The Swimming Australia board was due to meet on Monday to discuss the fresh allegations.
Dr Jenny McMahon (pictured) has spoken out about the culture in Australian swimming
Daily Mail Australia has contacted Swimming Australia for comment.
The latest allegations have overshadowed the current Olympic qualifying titles in Adelaide, where world and national records have been smashed.
Dr McMahon spoke out after top Australian swimmer Maddie Groves withdrew from qualifying for next month’s Olympic Games in Tokyo as she called out the ‘misogynistic perverts’ and their ‘boot lickers’ she says are running the sport.
The University of Tasmania researcher said there was no doubt that ‘good coaches’ remain in the sport, but she described the culture in Australian swimming as patriarchal, male-dominated, and dysfunctional.
‘It looks like all smiles, gold medals and PBs to the outsider, but it leaves a trail of broken athletes and coaches when they do not conform and perform,’ Dr McMahon told the publication.
Among her findings were claims an 11-year-old girl was forced on go on a 10km run after she was busted eating ice cream while another coach suggested a swimmer get a breast reduction because ‘your tits are too big’.
The toxic culture of the sport goes back at least as far as the 1990s when Dr McMahon was an elite swimmer, winning one gold and two silver medals at the Commonwealth Games.
‘[I was subjected to] body ridicule, daily weigh ins… I was left broken when I finished swimming,’ Dr McMahon said.
She says she suffered mental health issues, eating disorders and later drug addiction as the result of harsh coaching practices she endured.
Dr McMahon described the sport’s reporting system as broken and claimed she was told by swimmers they had to make a report with their abuser – often their own coach – present.
She called for the Australian Human Rights Commission to oversee an independent review of the sport.
‘It is very narrow-minded to think it is just about women, women’s health and body shaming. This is about systemic and cultural issues in swimming,’ Dr McMahon said
Grant Hackett has weighed in on the ‘toxic and dysfunctional’ culture of the sport, demanding abusive coaches be ‘weeded out’.
The Australian swimming legend, who won gold at two Olympics, said he was horrified when former competitive swimmers lifted the lid on the abuse – which left athletes psychologically damaged after years of humiliating abuse.
‘The people that are partaking in this behaviour need to be weeded out,’ Hackett told the Today show on Monday morning.
‘We need to get rid of these people and move the sport forward.’
Australian swimmer Maddie Groves (pictured) pulled out of the Olympic qualifiers last week in protest of who she dubbed the ‘misogynistic perverts’ running the sport
Grant Hackett (pictured), 40, has weighed in on the ‘toxic and dysfunctional’ culture of Australia’s elite swimming program, demanding abusive coaches be ‘weeded out’ of the sport
Hackett went on to say the allegations had shocked him and insisted that he had a positive experience as a rising athlete back in the early 2000s.
‘To hear these accusations is very, very disappointing,’ he said.
The 40-year-old former athlete welcomed an investigation into the allegations and said he had no doubt it would result in abusers being dealt with accordingly.
‘There are so many great people within the sport and we’re seeing so many great performances over the last few days,’ Hackett said.
‘We need to make sure that none of this stuff takes place because it’s just so disappointing.’
Hackett is considered one of Australia’s most successful swimmers, setting 15 world records, winning a total of seven medals at three Olympic games between 2000 and 2008 and 10 gold medals at World Championship games.
Hackett (pictured with his wife Sharlene) went on to say the allegations had shocked him and insisted that he had a positive experience as a rising athlete back in the early 2000s
Dr Jenny McMahon (pictured swimming for Australia) competed at the 1990 Commonwealth Games
Groves (pictured), who claimed the sport is run by misogynists, says she felt ‘supported’ in her decision to quit and vowed to return to racing later in 2021
Groves, who claimed the sport is run by misogynists, says she felt ‘supported’ in her decision to quit and vowed to return to racing later in 2021.
‘You can no longer exploit young women and girls, body shame or medically gaslight them and then expect them to represent you so you can earn your annual bonus,’ she wrote.
‘Make them pervs quake in fear from the number of people supporting a statement that threatens their existence.’
Groves, winner of two Olympic silver medals at the 2016 Games in Rio as well as two Commonwealth golds, announced on Wednesday she would not swim at the Olympic trials in Adelaide, due to begin this weekend.
The 26-year-old then unleashed on the Australian swimming community and in particular those in charge in a series of blistering social media posts on Thursday.
‘Let this be a lesson to all misogynistic perverts in sport and their boot lickers,’ her furious post said on Thursday morning.
Groves was due to compete in the 100m butterfly and 50m freestyle events at the trials in Adelaide, which began on Saturday.
Maddie Groves poses on the podium during the Women’s 200m Butterfly medal ceremony at the Tollcross International Swimming Centre in 2014 after winning a bronze medal
Swimming Australia president Kieren Perkins later claimed the sporting body had tried without success to contact Groves about the complaints she first aired on social media in November 2020.
‘We’ve reached out to her since December 2020 to try and engage her on these concerns that she has,’ Perkins said on Friday.
‘We’ve done it again now and unfortunately at this point, we’ve not been able to have a direct conversation with Maddie to understand what her concerns are, who the people involved are, so we can investigate and deal with it.
‘We certainly encourage her to do that because this is one of the most significant issues and challenges that we and all sports have, to make sure our athletes are well supported and protected in their environment.
‘Unfortunately we’ve just not been able to do that because Maddie has not engaged with us directly yet.’
Groves was entered in the 100m butterfly and 50m freestyle events at the trials in Adelaide
Swimming Australia statement in response to Maddie Groves’ claims
Swimming Australia has been consciously working on issues of institutional concern for the past decade.
Our focus is what we do today and in the future to ensure safe elite performance.
We are committed to the work of a solutions-based framework for Swimming Australia’s future.
This is ongoing and daily work.
Integrity and care are vital to our sporting success, we recognise this and it forms the foundation for our actions as an organisation.
Our Board of Directors is committed to the wellbeing of our swimmers and to the work it takes to create an environment of success and safety.
Our new CEO Alex Baumann has proactively begun a strategic structural review of Swimming Australia, five weeks into this role. Our Board will meet at the end of the month to have this strategy session. In addition to this planning, our Ethics and Integrity Committee of the Board will be closely examining all matters relating to issues raised this week.
This is a crucial week ahead of us, we know though these issues are too important to ignore. They need to be addressed here and now. We are committed to keeping our people safe and well.
We have taken the following steps to further our work – and have instigated these steps this morning.
We will prioritise our current work across our integrity program. We will work with an independent female panel to investigate ongoing issues related to women and girls’ experience and advancement in our sport. Their focus will be on our future.
Our board director Tracy Stockwell will help establish this process. She has significant personal elite athlete experience and organisational experience with Swimming Australia.