Five hundred twelve pushups.
By BRIAN BURNES
The Kansas City Star
That’s 1,024 pushups.
Alexandra “Ali” Swee, now a Memphis, Tenn., college student, says she was told to do them one night five years ago during a Blue Springs practice when she was a 13-year-old member of the Kansas City Blazers swim club.
She contended the excessive pushups represented punishment dished out by her coach and contributed to shoulder pain that continues today. Her family filed suit, seeking money for past and future medical expenses related to her shoulder issues.
Her former coach and representatives of USA Swimming, the national organization with which the Blazers are affiliated, maintained the pushups were part of an occasional exercise intended to motivate swimmers to improve their speed.
Late Friday, a Jackson County jury ruled for the defendants.
The trial, which began Monday in an Independence courtroom, had drawn the attention of coaches within the Kansas City-area swimming community.
Issues debated during court testimony included the importance of recognizing physical limitations when working with young athletes, and the need to balance the demands of competition and common sense while coaching a demanding sport that offers opportunity for individual achievement and collegiate scholarships.
“Nobody is taking this lightly,” said Bill Shalley, the boys and girls swimming coach at Blue Springs High School who spent several years as a staff member at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. “Several coaches I know are considering reassessing their own policies.”
So many repetitions of one exercise could reach a point of diminishing returns, said Jim Aziere, who has coached boys swimming teams for the Raytown School District for 39 years.
“If some kids had timed intervals to hit and they are not hitting the intervals, I don’t want them to keep doing pushups,” he said. “You don’t make kids go faster by making them more tired.”
Brad Cottam, a former Kansas City Chiefs tight end who today serves as co-owner of Kansas City Speed & Sport, a Leawood sports training facility with about 25 young athletes currently enrolled, hesitated to criticize the coach without more background about the case.
Perhaps, he said, the pushups were part of a larger team-building exercise, similar to when an entire team would perform exercises if one team member fumbled the football.
The pushups, former Blazers coach Mike Lewellyn said, were part of “a nice team-building exercise.” His athletes were on the honor system while performing them, he added.
“We did not stand over them with a whip and chair,” Lewellyn said in videotaped testimony played in court this week.
Lewellyn, who now coaches in South Carolina, described the exercise as an “F.I.P.,” or “fastest interval possible.” In that exercise, he challenged swimmers to complete 25-yard intervals within specific times. If a swimmer missed the time, the swimmer would perform sets of pushups that would increase by a multiple of two.
The swimmer would leave the pool and perform perhaps four, eight, 16, 32, 64 or 128 pushups.
“The farther they went into the (interval) set, the fewer the pushups,” Lewellyn said. “If you made none, it was 512.”
Swee said she missed her first interval twice, in two separate F.I.P. exercises. That meant two separate sets, she said, of 512 pushups.
Lewellyn described the F.I.P. as an exercise he only ordered occasionally as a way to urge his swimmers to improve their interval times.
“On that particular night, I decided we were going to incentivize them,” he said. “We had a large number of kids stuck on the same number.”
The exercise was not intended as punishment, he said. He was supervising about 25 swimmers that evening and did not devote his exclusive attention to Swee, he said.
“I’d look,” he said. “I would say, ‘Ali, keep going.’ My main concern was that her posture was right. She was sagging a little bit in the middle.”
Swee conceded that she did not literally complete the 1,024 pushups. Still, Swee said, she made every effort to do so.
“I looked at my coach and did what he told me to do,” she testified. “I did my best and did as many as I could.”
Swee and her mother, Jodey, testified that the pushups contributed to shoulder pain that continues today despite multiple doctors visits, physical therapy sessions, surgery and visits to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. She lost the ability to effectively compete in competitive sports, she said, and her continuing shoulder issues present challenges in completing everyday tasks like driving a car.
Her lawyers had been trying to recover monetary damages for past medical expenses and anticipated future surgeries.
Lawyers representing Lewellyn and USA Swimming maintained that despite her alleged shoulder issues, Swee continued to swim competitively after that January 2008 practice and traveled with team members to a meet days later in Texas. She later participated in a triathlon and swam on a high school swim team, they said.
“They are trying to present her as an invalid,” lawyer Michael McCausland told the jury.
The Missouri-side Blazers, whose coaches are employed by the Blue Springs Parents Swim Club, is recognized as an elite program, Aziere noted.
“When swimmers go up from the beginner level, there is more practicing, more responsibility,” he said.
Veteran youth coaches must realize that expectations likely have changed since they were teenagers, said Jim Tuso, who operates the Missouri Wolverines youth football program and also is host for an annual youth football camp at William Jewell College.
“When I was young, there were no questions if we would run a half-mile with very little water,” said Tuso, who played football for Rockhurst High School and Iowa State University.
“You just can’t do those things today. Just last night, we had a kid come back to practice after having pneumonia for two weeks.
“We could see that he was struggling, and we made him sit.”
Swee testified that she had been suffering from a respiratory ailment that had curtailed her conditioning before the January 2008 practice. Lewellyn said that he was unaware of any illness and would not have subjected her to a demanding exercise regimen had he known.
Shalley, of Blue Springs High School, lamented that undue attention on the 512 or 1,024 pushups might distract casual observers from the challenges facing coaches like Lewellyn who, he said, operate with long-term perspectives while motivating young athletes over several years as they mature and develop muscle strength and coordination.
“There is always a plan, working with athletes in three- or four-year cycles,” Shalley said. “Context is critical.”
In court, Llewellyn testified that he had “no idea” if other USA Swimming coaches ever assigned sets of 512 pushups. But, he added, he had pondered whether so many pushups could be effective in motivating young athletes.
“The only mistake that I made was that the pushups would be an incentive,” he said.
“They were not.”
To reach Brian Burnes, call 816-234-4120 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.