USA Swimming named in explosive sexual abuse lawsuit involving former coach Joseph Bernal

Swimming coach Joseph Bernal led Harvard University to seven league titles. He trained multiple Olympians, including a gold medalist. And he served on the coaching staff of the U.S. National Team in the 1980s.

He was also a "known child rapist," according to an explosive new lawsuit that blames USA Swimming and others for failing to protect one of his former athletes from sexual abuse.

USA Swimming quietly banned Bernal from the sport in 2016 for sexual misconduct, but the allegations that led to that decision have never been made public.

Now, the woman whose complaint led to the ban is speaking out for the first time. Her 33-page lawsuit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Boston, presents a devastating portrait of a legendary coach who brazenly abused his position of authority ― and others in the sport who allegedly allowed Bernal's misconduct to continue unchecked for years.

A look at the pool inside Lucas Oil Stadium, which is hosting the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for USA Swimming. It is the first Olympic-size pool to be built inside an NFL Stadium.
A look at the pool inside Lucas Oil Stadium, which is hosting the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for USA Swimming. It is the first Olympic-size pool to be built inside an NFL Stadium.

Amanda Le, 31, of Orange County, Calif., says Bernal sexually abused her at swim meets across the country during her time with his Gator Swim Club, an elite youth swimming squad based in Waltham, Massachusetts. The abuse included oral sex or intercourse in hotel rooms in Florida, New York and Hawaii from 2008 to 2010, according to her lawsuit.

Le was just 15 when it began. Bernal was in 60s. The former hall of fame coach was never charged with a crime, and died in 2022.

The abusive relationship continued into Le's college years, when Bernal got her pregnant and paid for an abortion two weeks before her college championship swim meet, the lawsuit claims. Le said it took her years to understand that her frequent panic attacks and struggle with depression were not solely due to the stress of swimming, but to the abuse she suffered.

Amanda Le as a teen in an undated photograph.
Amanda Le as a teen in an undated photograph.

In her first interview since reporting Bernal to USA Swimming in 2015, Le told IndyStar she feels betrayed by the organizations and adults in positions of authority who failed to protect her or intervene. Her lawsuit accuses USA Swimming and others of allowing Bernal to have "full access to a never-ending cycle of young girls to prey upon," all while supporting him with "infrastructure, position, and prestige."

"It just had a really devastating impact," she told IndyStar. "I'm 31 now. I just got married. And I don't want to have kids... I don't want to deal with this situation in the future and it's very hard for me to trust other adults."

The lawsuit, filed on the eve of the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in Indianapolis, is a stark reminder of the sport's troubling history with sexual abuse. At least 155 people have been permanently barred by USA Swimming for sexual misconduct.

The suit includes a claim under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which creates civil liability for those who commit sex trafficking offenses or benefit from forced services. The suit also includes a claim of battery against Bernal's estate and negligence against the remaining defendants, which include USA Swimming, New England Swimming, Gator Swim Club and four of its current or past officers and coaches.

USA Swimming declined to comment on the lawsuit other than to note it had banned Bernal. None of the other defendants responded immediately to messages from IndyStar, which is part of the USA TODAY Network.

Le's attorney, Jonathan Little, claims that Bernal's abuse of young athletes was known and tolerated for years.

"This was an open secret in United States swimming," he said. "This is normal behavior in their (expletive)-up world... Coaches 'dating' athletes is how it goes."

Le is the second woman to accuse Bernal of sexual abuse. Another former Gator Swim Club athlete claims Bernal began molesting her in 1976, when she was 12 or 13.

Little, who represents both women, said he believes Bernal's misconduct was overlooked because of his success.

"It's part of the culture," Little said, "that only cares about medals and money."

Amanda Le preparing for a race.
Amanda Le preparing for a race.

Who was Joe Bernal?

For decades, Joe Bernal was a highly vaunted figure in the world of swimming.

He began his coaching career at Fordham University in New York City, where he founded Gator Swim Club in 1969. One of his swimmers, Bobby Hackett, was an Olympic medalist in 1976.

In 1977, Bernal became head coach at Harvard University in Massachusetts. He brought the Gator Swim Club with him. He was on the Olympic coaching staffs in 1984 and 1988.

Over the years, he coached several more Olympians, including gold medalist David Berkoff. In 2015, Bernal was inducted into the American Swimming Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

His legacy was marred, however, in 2016, when USA Swimming added him to its list of coaches permanently banned from the sport. Around that time, Bernal suddenly sold the the assets of his Gator Swim Club and his home in Massachusetts.

Bernal's alleged abuse, however, pre-dated USA Swimming's ban by decades.

A history of alleged abuse

Another lawsuit, filed in 2021, accuses Bernal of a "five-year campaign of systemic emotional and sexual abuse" against former Gator Swim Club athlete named Kimberly Stines, who now resides in Illinois.

The lawsuit claims Bernal first kissed Stines on the mouth in his Fordham University office in 1976. She was 12 or 13. Bernal was in his 40s. Stines later moved to London, but during a visit to Boston in 1981, Bernal took her to a wooded area and sexually assaulted her, according to the lawsuit.

Joseph Bernal has his hands on the shoulders of swimmer Kimberly Stines in this photograph included in a federal lawsuit against USA Swimming and others connected with the former coach.
Joseph Bernal has his hands on the shoulders of swimmer Kimberly Stines in this photograph included in a federal lawsuit against USA Swimming and others connected with the former coach.

In court filings, an attorney for Bernal's estate has denied Stine's allegations of abuse and assault. The other defendants in the case, which include the Gator Swim Club, Fordham University and the sport's national governing body at the time of the alleged abuse, the Amateur Athletic Union, have also denied any liability.

The case is ongoing.

'Easy to manipulate'

By the time Le began swimming, Bernal was already "known as a coach who took inappropriate liberties with his young, female athletes, including making inappropriate sexual comments, and coerced/non-consensual touching, fondling, and sex," her lawsuit claims.

At the time she joined the club in 2006, she had no idea.

During her interview with IndyStar, Le said she was initially impressed with the charismatic coach who had trained Olympians and world record holders. She worked hard to make him happy during twice-a-day practices at MIT and Bentley University.

In hindsight, she said Bernal created a Lord of the Flies-like environment that pitted his young swimmers against each other. He then chose favorites and lavished them with attention.

"I wasn't very popular in school. I didn't have a lot of friends. I had terrible self-worth. I didn't have boyfriends. I felt like I just didn't have a lot of people in my corner," Le said. "And he's the only one who's giving me like any attention or affection or telling me I'm pretty or smart."

Bernal charged her reduced club membership dues. He gave her one-on-one lessons. He began to drive her to practices.

"He was God," Le said. "It was so easy to manipulate me. And it was easy to manipulate us not-wealthy kids, because we're just grateful that we can even be a part of this."

Lawsuit describes alleged abuse

When she was 15, Bernal kissed her after practice at the Bentley University pool, according to her lawsuit. It was her first kiss. Soon after, he asked Le if she could "handle this," then made out with her, the lawsuit says.

Amanda Le says coach Joseph Bernal abused her for years.
Amanda Le says coach Joseph Bernal abused her for years.

The abuse continued to escalate, according to the lawsuit. While she was still 15, Bernal drove her to a swim meet in New York in 2008. At the hotel, Bernal texted Le to let her know the "coast was clear" to come to his room. When she arrived, he placed her hand on his penis. They also engaged in oral sex, the lawsuit says. They did so again during a team trip to Hawaii. In 2009, they began having intercourse. During a two week trip to Florida, Le snuck out every night to have sex with Bernal, the lawsuit says. Le was 16.

Bernal tried to conceal his abuse, according to the lawsuit. The coach and Le texted regularly, but used fake names in their contact lists to avoid getting caught. Sometimes, Le would ask her mom to drop her off at the mall to meet up with friends. Instead, Bernal would pick her up and take her to his house. Other times, Le skipped school to have sex with Bernal. He forged excuse letters, the lawsuit says.

Still, signs of what was happening leaked out, according to the lawsuit.

In 2008, when Le was in New York with Bernal, for example, her mother found her diary. It detailed her relationship with Bernal, including the physical aspects. Le was mortified. Her parents showed the diary to Alex Cronin, another coach at Bernal's swim club, but he did nothing to protect her. Meanwhile, Bernal told Le to tell her parents that the diary entries were fantasies, not what actually happened, the lawsuit says.

In another case, Le got into an argument with a roommate during the two-week Florida trip in 2009 and told her teammates she was sleeping in Bernal's room. Early the next morning, Cronin came to Bernal's hotel room and Amanda answered the door. He was surprised, but again took no steps to ensure her safety, the lawsuit says.

By the time the team traveled to Orlando for Junior National Swimming Championships in 2010, Le's teammates knew to look for her in Bernal's room, the lawsuit says, even though he made her hide under or behind furniture.

'I don't want to do this anymore'

After graduating high school, Le accepted an offer to swim at the University of Miami, but Bernal kept her close, according to the lawsuit. He paid for return flights to Boston so she could be with him. She spent a week with him in November 2010, the lawsuit says. She was still only 17.

At the end of her first semester, Bernal convinced her to transfer to Bentley University, where he had first kissed her years earlier. They continued to have sex, leading to the abortion when she was 19 or 20. Le said she finally ended the relationship in 2014 after a physical confrontation with Bernal's daughter, Michelle Sweeney, who found Le alone one day at Bernal's home. Sweeney accused Le of sleeping with Bernal for years. He came home during the fight and gestured for Le to lie about their relationship, Le said.

USA Swimming banners hang over the stands Saturday, June 15, 2024, during the first day of competition for the U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
USA Swimming banners hang over the stands Saturday, June 15, 2024, during the first day of competition for the U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

I don't want to do this anymore, she thought.

After graduating from Bentley, Le's depression deepened. She felt she needed to tell someone about Bernal's abuse. So she turned to her former swim coach at Bentley, a woman to whom she had grown close.

The coach reported Bernal to the university, which immediately banned him from its pool, according to Le's lawsuit.

Le also reported Bernal to USA Swimming, setting off the investigation that led the sport's national governing body to permanently ban him from the sport.

Lawsuit: Bernal's abuse was widely known

Le's lawsuit claims multiple people in positions of authority knew about Bernal's abuse, but chose to cover it up.

One of those people is Alex Cronin, who is now the head coach and owner of Gator Swim Club.

During USA Swimming's investigation of Le's claims in 2015, Cronin admitted that he had heard rumors that Bernal "fondled children," but attributed the alleged fondling to Bernal's "Latin heritage," the lawsuit says.

In a 2016 letter to USA Swimming supporting Bernal, Cronin also acknowledged that Le's parents had confronted him about her diary entries, which he described as depicting embraces and kisses between Le and Bernal. Still, he never reported the concerns to law enforcement, the lawsuit says, even after discovering Le in Bernal's hotel room.

Cronin remains a USA Swimming certified coach.

The lawsuit also claims that Joe Frazier, who previously co-owned Gator Swim Club with Bernal, was aware of both the diary and hotel room incidents. Frazier was a board member of New England Swimming, which is USA Swimming's local committee in Massachusetts.

The USA Swimming logo on a barricade along Georgia Street.
The USA Swimming logo on a barricade along Georgia Street.

Sweeney, who worked at her father's swim club as a coach, said in a sworn affidavit in 2016 that she had been aware for decades that her father had engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with young swimmers, according to the lawsuit. Sweeney is also a past board member of New England Swimming, according to her LinkedIn page.

All of those people should have reported Bernal to the authorities, but chose to look the other way, said Little, who has brought dozens of cases on behalf of USA Swimming athletes over the past 15 years.

The failure to protect children at the club and local committee level is reflective of longstanding problems in USA Swimming, Little said. He said many USA Swimming coaches are married to their former swimmers and he noted that the national governing body did not restrict coach-athlete sexual relationships until 2013, despite many documented cases of abuse before then.

Le said she wants USA Swimming to "give more power to the athletes than to the coaches."

"There's too big of a culture of holding coaches on a pedestal," she said.

In speaking out, she also hopes to send a message to young swimmers.

"Don't be scared to disappoint the people who you think are your authority figures," she said. "Swim for yourself."

Contact IndyStar reporter Tony Cook at 317-444-6081 or Follow him on X: @IndyStarTony.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: USA Swimming accused of failing to protect swimmer from sexual abuse