The mother of a teenage boy who was photographed in a girl’s swimsuit has denied he was forced to wear it as a form of punishment by coaches and explained he had simply worn them as a replacement for his own forgotten togs.
A three-year-old photo of Soren Zwolsman, now 16, wearing a one-piece swimsuit was seized upon as evidence of routine bullying of young swimmers by coaches, but his mother said there was an innocent explanation.
Olympic silver medallist Maddie Groves had sparked a debate last week about treatment of young swimmers when she tweeted that ‘misogynistic perverts’ within the sport were body-shaming and gaslighting them.
The photo of Soren Zwolsman was then used as supposed evidence of bullying, with claims he was made to wear it as punishment for ‘swimming like a girl’ but his mother Monika Zwolsman said the photo was grossly misinterpreted and the story around it ‘created out of the air’.
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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.
‘What happened, is that my son (and the coach) were having a quality session. He had forgotten his togs, so he looked around and saw the (girl’s) togs,’ Ms Zwolsman told Sunrise on Tuesday morning.
‘He threw them on and obviously they were a bit small, so he thought it won’t work, so he then decided he will cycle instead.’
Ms Zwolsman took aim at the wannabe bullying whistleblower who provided the photo to media, asking why that person was taking candid photos of a 13-year-old boy trying on a swimsuit.
‘What we need to be looking at here is who took pictures of my 13-year-old son changing in and out of swimmers,’ the mother-of-two said.
‘Who was that pervert? And what other photos does he have of my son in that situation?
‘That’s what I want to know.’
Self-proclaimed ‘Tiger mum’ Monika Zwolsman (pictured) has rubbished claims there is a toxic culture within the Australian swimming community
Ms Zwolsman has been a part of the swimming community for years as her eldest son Yannick is also an elite competitor, currently preparing for the Olympic trials in Adelaide on Tuesday.
She said she was ‘insulted’ by claims of routine bullying of young swimmers, as it insinuated that parents were allowing their children to be mistreated under their watch.
‘We are a very small and tightknit group who absolutely love our coaches, we’re 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 kids, and we trust them.’
Growing up in a single-mum household, Ms Zwolsman said her sons were not concerned by stigmas surrounding cross-dressing, with Soren having worn dresses in public in the past.
‘My children are raised by a single mum. They are not worried about gender stereotypes,’ she told The Age.
‘Soren has gone to school wearing girls’ dresses. When he was little he walked around in dresses all the time. He doesn’t care. If there is something he likes he will wear it.
‘They are probably his own bathers. Why would that be a problem?’
Former Commonwealth Games gold medallist turned academic Dr Jenny McMahon had interviewed hundreds of swimmers and coaches over the past 14 years and had turned up testimony of ill treatment.
She said 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 to make them more streamlined.
It was in that context that a concerned parent forwarded the picture of Soren to The Australian and said the boy was forced to put on the female swimsuit because he was swimming ‘like a girl’.
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
‘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.
Dr Jenny McMahon (pictured) has spoken out about the culture in Australian swimming
‘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.
On Monday night, Swimming Australia issued a statement saying the changing ‘changing of swimsuits was not a form of shaming or punitive action.’
‘Swimming Australia has spoken to the mother of the child concerned and she is deeply upset her child has been shamed for wearing his choice of swimsuit,’ the statement read.
Daily Mail Australia has contacted Swimming Australia for further comment.
The latest allegations have overshadowed the current Olympic qualifying titles in Adelaide, where world and national records have been smashed.
Dr McMahon, a researcher from the University of Tasmania, said there was no doubt that ‘good coaches’ remain in the sport, but 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’.
Dr McMahon said such treatment dated back to her days as an elite swimmer in the 1990s, 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.
Ms Zwolsman said swimmers’ weight and diet had to be monitored in order for them to compete at an elite level, which is what the coaches were paid to bring about.
‘I have seen poor swimmers who don’t want to train properly, or want to eat sensibly and healthily that then turn around and blame their coaches when they aren’t performing well,’ Ms Zwolsman said.
Dr McMahon described the sport’s reporting system as broken and claimed she was told by swimmers they had to make any complaints in the presence of their ‘abuser’ – often their own coach.
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
Former Olympic gold medallist Grant Hackett said he was horrified by reports of ill-treatment of young swimmers.
‘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 said the body had tried to speak with Groves about he repeated complaints, which 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.