“Swimming’s dark secret”, ABC Investigations (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)
Exclusive by Lorna Knowles, ABC Investigations, and Nikki Tugwell, 5 Oct 2021
Australian swimming legend Lisa Curry fights back tears as she recalls her old friend Shane Lewis.
Curry and Lewis trained together in the 1980s and both represented Australia at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.
WARNING: This story contains details that readers may find distressing.
“I knew Shane when he was in his teens and he was always the joker,” Curry says.
“He was a good guy, he was funny, and a hard worker.
“We swam together as teenagers at Leander in Brisbane.
“And we were often in the same lane together, being breaststrokers. So, you know, lots of good memories from those days.
“But, you know, once everyone leaves the pool, you don’t know what goes on.”
Curry and the close-knit Australian swimming community were left reeling when Lewis died unexpectedly in February this year.
The coroner is yet to determine the 47-year-old’s cause of death, but his family believes it was suicide.
The ABC can reveal that before his death, Lewis told friends and family that he had been sexually abused by an elite swimming coach.
“I’ve been in the public eye for nearly 40 years and I think that this is probably the most important interview that I have ever done,” Curry told the ABC.
“Because it’s about time that people stopped hurting kids.
“We’ve got to stop hurting these children that grow up with this pain and this trauma and this shame.”
In 2016, 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.
She said her son told her that John Wright would perform oral sex on him.
“He said he had been sexually assaulted as a minor over a year or more. When he was 11,12,13.
“We didn’t know at the time. There were always innuendos around the place. Whispers around the clubs to be careful of John Wright. But Shane always seemed OK.
“He was the eldest of six kids. He was very good at hiding it.”
Wright trained junior and elite squads, alongside leading swimming coach Laurie Lawrence. The ABC is not suggesting Lawrence was involved in any wrongdoing.
Disturbingly, Lewis is not the only swimmer to allege he was sexually abused by Wright.
In the wake of Lewis’s death, two other former swimmers have told the ABC Wright molested them around the same time, at the same Brisbane pool.
A pool of champions
In the 1980s, the Chandler pool in Brisbane was a training ground for a generation of young swimming champions.
The Chandler pool, now known as the Brisbane Aquatic Centre, is a world-class indoor pool with grandstand seating for over 4,000 spectators. The venue has hosted a number of high-profile events including the 1982 Commonwealth Games and the 2001 Goodwill Games.
Shane Lewis was one of many big names to train at Chandler, along with Hayley Lewis, Duncan Armstrong and Jon Sieben.
The junior and elite squad training schedules were gruelling and the competition was fierce.
National junior backstroke champion Colin Marshall joined the Chandler club as a 10-year-old when it opened in 1981.
He said John Wright started coaching him in 1983 and recalled he was a charming man with a quick temper.
“There were times where he was, you know, like your big brother or your mentor or close pal, or you could talk to him about whatever was on your mind,” Marshall told the ABC.
“Then there were other days where he would be off his tree, mad and aggressive, incredibly verbal, and with a lot of verbal abuse across the board for anyone in the squad. And he could flash the two in any one given session.”
Marshall alleges Wright started sexually abusing him when he was 12 years old.
“He’d initially ask for cuddles. And then, you know, he’d want to be kissed. And then he would often ask very inappropriate questions about your masturbation and all that sort of stuff. And then often would then touch you in the areas that you’re not supposed to be touched.
“It started at the pool. He would use the excuse that he was going to weigh you on the scales, which were in a room behind one of the major stands at Chandler and that’s where all our gear was kept. Obviously he could walk off with a boy down there in that direction and no-one would question why.
“He would grab you by the testicles and push them upwards. You know, lightening your weight and making out that was a funny thing to do.
“And then it’d be all, ‘Come on, give us a cuddle,’ and sort of that was the beginning of things and progressions from there.”
Wright had a large house in the suburb of Carindale, where a number of junior swimmers lived with him. He would host regular movie nights for the boys.
“Sometimes you might get there and John was just there alone. And potentially, that would be a time where something might happen like that or even while you were there, he would say, ‘Oh, I need to, you know, see you in my room for a tick,’ or something like that. And take you away from the rest of the group.”
Marshall said he was forced to leave the club in 1985 after Wright violently assaulted him at the pool.
One afternoon, the boy staged a kind of protest by refusing to swim more than one lap in a training session.
“He threw me into the gear room that we had all of our boards and kickboards sitting in, and all I remember then was literally his hands around my throat and me sort of pinned against the wall,” Marshall said.
“My recollection is that he was probably enraged enough to kill me at that point. Certainly, my air was being cut off. It wasn’t long after that a parent came into the room and saved me, I suppose.
“The memory of that particular event is one of the clearest of my childhood.”
Marshall said he was told to keep quiet about the assault.
“I was asked not to make too much fuss about it because there could be issues for the parent that had rescued me, in the sense that he might end up, you know, being dragged through something. And, you know, in the end, he did save me.”
Wright assaults a parent
That same year, one parent did complain to swimming authorities — Cindy Wee — the daughter of the then-president 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.
In front of 13 witnesses, he then “rushed over to her and grabbed her with both hands” and “pushed her onto a wall and shook her backwards and forwards, to and from the wall”.
Wright “continued his grip upon Mrs Wee whilst she was on the floor and continued to push her by the shoulders or upper arms to and from the floor”.
He was charged and convicted of assault and placed on an 18-month good behaviour bond. Soon afterwards, he left the Chandler pool to take up a coaching position at the Palm Beach Currumbin pool on the Gold Coast.
‘I knew it wasn’t right’
Another former swimmer also agreed to speak to the ABC about his experiences at the Chandler pool in the 1980s.
Toby Blundell alleges Wright abused him during car trips to the Chandler pool when he was 13 years old.
Toby Blundell. Supplied
“My personal experience was just inappropriate touching. I tried sitting in the front seat of a car with a bench seat and he’d ask you to move closer or lean over and touch you and say he’s changing gears and things like that,” Blundell said.
“I knew that it wasn’t right. It felt uncomfortable and I guess in a way I was scared.
“It got to the point where, I guess, I did everything I could to avoid getting in a vehicle with him or going around to the house after that, but it certainly wasn’t pleasant.”
The three boys did not discuss with each other what was allegedly happening to them, and it has taken decades to speak about it.
In 2016, Marshall heard Lewis was struggling with his mental health and the pair shared their stories with each other.
“I was as open as I had been with you about going down and getting weighed,” Marshall said.
“And, you know, like the way [Wright] asked you to do certain things when he was molesting you. And, yeah, Shane and I experienced very similar things.”
Lewis decides to speak out
In that same year, and five years before he died, Lewis decided to blow the whistle on Wright.
At the time, Lewis turned to child protection advocate Hetty Johnston for help.
In an email to Johnston on February 22, 2016, he wrote:
“For 30 years post John, like all victims, I did whatever I had to do in order to get by and survive.
“As you would well know, a lot of the time, how we do this is not good for ourselves and those around us.
“My story is no different to anyone else’s and is peppered with significant milestones that I am sure might surprise some people considering my background.
“Things came to a head 3 years back and I was hospitalised for treatment; voluntarily because I needed serious help.
“To be honest, I don’t think I am after the [perpetrators] … I’m after systems and/or legislations that will limit, naively even remove, the opportunities and trust these gutless arseholes abuse.
“That said, I am a realist. I know that no matter what is in place to make things harder for them, they will always (try) find a way. But if they can be stopped from hurting even one child, then that would be one person who is allowed to fully develop into an amazing human being on their own terms.
“Hetty I am prepared to do my bit to help, in whatever capacity that may be.”
Johnston told the ABC she spoke at length with Lewis about his experiences.
“He told me that he had been sexually assaulted by John Wright and that he wanted to do something about it,” Johnston said.
“He was a beautiful person, a really lovely human being, who was just struggling with what had happened to him, and he just couldn’t get it out of his head.
“It just consumed everything he did.
“He wanted his experience to mean something for other children. And you know, so that it never happened again.
“He reached out to Swimming Australia as a vehicle for that, given that they’re a big and powerful organisation, and he felt let down by Swimming Australia.”
In February 2016, one of Shane Lewis’s friends emailed swimming authorities about his allegations.
Swimming Australia requested more detail, emailing a short questionnaire about the nature of the alleged abuse and when and where it happened.
On March 4, 2016, Lewis wrote back:
“With respect, I don’t believe that filling out a few boxes with high level information will yield significant interest, nor is [it] possibly the best way to kick start anything. Just my opinion.
“I want to help people, chasing people doesn’t motivate me.
“I personally will not benefit by chasing.
“The way I have handled things since it all happened, may only be matched by a few, and would shock a lot of people. Regrettably, there isn’t anything that can take that away or take it back, how one has handled the darkest of dark times is with you for life. It’s part of our make up now.
“I’d like to acknowledge too that it’s not just swimming, not just sport in general. Abuse doesn’t discriminate between demographics. There are too many people out there who have and are still suffering.”
He received a letter from Swimming Australia’s then-CEO Mark Anderson to say he would welcome the opportunity to hear more from him about “past and present circumstances”.
“Swimming Australia would like to deal with the concerns raised against John Wright and any other allegations immediately, fairly, effectively and sensitively as possible,” Anderson wrote.
“As such, we would welcome the opportunity to hear from you further — either in writing, verbally by phone, or in person — as soon as you are able.”
Johnston said Lewis felt discouraged by the letter.
“Swimming Australia wrote a lovely letter. But the word sorry didn’t appear in it anywhere,” Johnston said.
“And what a survivor always looks for is that everyone wants to know, deep in your soul, that what happened is not your fault. And he was, you know, he was discouraged by it, most definitely discouraged by it.
“He felt let down by Swimming Australia.”
Johnston said Lewis gave up on pursuing the complaint. In February this year, Lewis died after a fatal prescription drug overdose.
His daughter, 20-year-old Mikaela Lewis, told the ABC she felt Swimming Australia had failed her father.
“When he complained, I feel like there should have been action taken,” Mikaela said.
“And I feel like if the correct actions were taken, then I would have known about it.
“My brother would have known about it. But we didn’t find out about any of this until after Dad had passed. So like, what was done?
“I keep thinking about how he’s never going to get to meet his grandchildren. He’s never going to get to see my brother graduate high school. It still doesn’t feel real.”
Lachlan and Mikaela Lewis at their father Shane’s memorial at Hemmant Cemetary in Brisbane. ABC News: Chris Gillette
Lisa Curry: ‘I can’t stay quiet’
When Curry heard Lewis had died, she was determined to find out more about what happened to him
“I needed to know what had happened to him and why and so I messaged one of my friends, Angie, and I asked her what had happened,” Curry said.
Angie is Angie Simpson, a former national swim team member.
Her husband, former elite swimmer Brad Simpson trained with Lewis at Brisbane’s Leander club and the couple remained friends with Shane over the years.
Curry said Simpson told her there was a group of boys who had allegedly been abused by Wright.
“I just felt I can’t stay quiet,” Curry said.
“I can’t not say anything about this. Because this is wrong on every level. These people should be held accountable in the most serious way possible.”
The two women were so concerned by what they had heard, they went to Queensland police.
“We told them the story. We told them what had happened. We asked them what they could do. And we wanted them to find John Wright. We wanted to know that he was still alive. So they found him. I don’t know what the next steps are.”
Police have told the ABC there is no active investigation into Wright but encouraged any alleged victims to come forward.
The ABC tracked down Wright’s last known address to a quiet cul-de-sac near Newcastle, but he was not there to respond to questions.
The owner of the house told us Wright had lived with him, but had left suddenly in April, telling him he was going to visit friends in Queensland.
The man said he found a handwritten note by Wright of a cabin fare on the transcontinental train, the Indian Pacific, which runs from Sydney to Perth.
He later provided two mobile phone numbers for Wright, but both were disconnected. Despite extensive searches in two states, including doorknocks at three houses, the ABC has been unable to locate Wright.
Curry is angry that Swimming Australia did not do more to investigate John Wright when Shane Lewis complained in 2016.
“Well, of course more could have been done to help them. They went to authorities I think back in 2016 and nothing happened. Why? Why does nothing happen?” Curry said.
“This is serious. These kids, who are now grown men, don’t make this shit up … they have lived with this.
“I’ve been on the phone to Kieren Perkins, who is now the president of [Swimming Australia], and I have given him a heads-up that this story is going to come out. And I said, unlike people in the past, Australian swimming now will not be able to sweep this under the carpet.”
Perkins was unavailable for an interview, but Swimming Australia’s acting CEO, Eugenie Buckley, told the ABC she could understand why Curry was angry.
“Her friend got to a situation where he felt he had no option but to take his own life,” Buckley said.
“That would make anyone incredibly angry.
“In terms of being swept under the carpet, that’s just not true.”
Buckley, who was appointed to the role of acting CEO four weeks ago, said she had reviewed the correspondence and file notes on Lewis, which she declined to release to the ABC for legal reasons.
She said while Swimming Australia would handle the complaint differently today, it acted appropriately at the time.
Then-CEO Mark Anderson asked Lewis for more information, spoke to Johnston, the police and referred the allegations to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses into Child Sexual Abuse, Buckley said.
Swimming Australia did not investigate Lewis’s claims at the time because it did not have enough detailed information and it did not have the resources.
“One, there wasn’t enough detail upon which to investigate, and two it was a resourcing issue. Swimming Australia didn’t have the resources,” Buckley said.
“Now we’ve got an in-house resource that looks after member protection. The other resource we have now is in relation to athlete wellbeing and engagement that can really support the athlete through this process a whole lot better.
“In terms of an investigation, that’s not our expertise, we’re not investigators.”
Eugenie Buckley is the CEO of Swimming Australia. ABC News: Chris Gillette
Buckley said if the complaint was received now, it would be immediately referred to police and the independent government oversight body, Sports Integrity Australia.
She said Swimming Australia had also signed up to the national redress scheme to compensate victims of sexual abuse and had implemented a coaching accreditation system to better protect children.
“We can absolutely commit to doing better. I think this is a process that just never stops. It’s never ‘job done’ in relation to child safety.
“So we’ll always listen, we’ll always learn and we’ll always improve.”
Mikaela Lewis has a message for Swimming Australia.
“I think they should understand that sport is not just about winning.
“There’s so many other things that are involved [such] as mental health, there’s incidents behind the scenes as things go on in people’s home lives that they probably aren’t aware of. And that is impacting the athletes greatly.”
Watch the story on 7.30