How a legendary Harvard swim coach became an international fugitive

Swimming is plagued with sexual abuse scandals — but none as strange as the saga of Joe Bernal (aka Hugo Calderon)

By Irvin Muchnick

Contributing Writer

Published October 15, 2022 12:00PM (EDT)

Underwater Empty Swimming Pool (Getty Images/Allexxandar)
Underwater Empty Swimming Pool (Getty Images/Allexxandar)

Strap on your goggles for the wild, and until now untold, story of an iconic but now disgraced Harvard University swim coach named Joe Bernal. He mentored legendary swimmer David Berkoff, inventor of the revolutionary "Berkoff Blastoff" underwater backstroke start. Bernal himself was on U.S. Olympic team staffs in 1984 and 1988, and was inducted into three Halls of Fame — all this before his lifetime achievement honors were rescinded after he was banned by USA Swimming for multiple episodes of sexual abuse.

On Oct. 1, Bernal reportedly died in Florida at age 82. In some corners of the anti-abuse activist community, there was speculation that his death had been faked for complicated business reasons. We'll get to that, but at this point the speculation seems unfounded. It's true that there's a record of a call from Bernal's phone four days after his reported death. As of this writing, there is no evidence that a death certificate has been filed, as funeral homes in Florida are required to do within 96 hours. A source told Salon through an intermediary, however, that he saw a body that appeared to be Bernal's in a casket at the wake held for the former coach in Boca Raton.

Joe Bernal reportedly died in Florida on Oct. 1. But no death certificate has been filed, and a call was made from his cell phone four days later.

The reputational demise of Joe Bernal is yet another chapter in global competitive swimming's tawdry, tangled tale of coaches, whether famous or obscure, who prey on youth athletes.

Bernal's chapter proves at least one other thing: Shakira isn't the only Colombian expatriate with cross-border legal problems. Salon's investigation shows that Bernal fled to the South American nation for, at minimum, a 13-month period in 2015 and 2016, using a newly acquired Colombian passport under the name Hugo Bernard Calderon. He disclosed as much to a Florida court five years ago, explaining that was also the name on his Colombian birth certificate.

Bernal goes to his apparent grave as the central figure in baroque litigation surrounding his former USA Swimming age-group team in Waltham, Massachusetts, once known as Bernal's Gator Swim Club and now just as Gator Swim Club. An ex-swimmer named Kimberly Stines, who was sexually abused by Bernal, is suing in federal court in New York to recover damages from various Bernal and post-Bernal corporate entities. That case turns on the technical issue of whether, when Bernal sold his club's brand and assets in the wake of his scandal, he unloaded only the assets — or whether his successors also assumed financial liability for Bernal's malfeasance.

With Bernal's Ivy League pedigree and his peregrinations throughout the Western Hemisphere, his saga also offers disturbing new context to the widespread but little-noticed phenomenon of abusive coaches who globetrot their way out of trouble. The catalog of bad-actor coaches who have fled one country for another to escape consequences — and in some cases resumed their coaching careers — are too numerous to list in a single article. But here are a few.

Alex Pussieldi, a Brazilian, moved to Florida, where he had a successful high school and club coaching career and forged connections that landed him a side gig running the Kuwait national team. After he was finally busted for human-trafficking teen swimmers from Latin America to Florida — and peeping at some of them through a hidden camera in a bathroom — Pussieldi returned to Brazil and became an Olympic TV commentator on the country's ESPN-like sports network.

In 2001, Danny Chocron jumped a $250,000 bail while facing 14 charges of molesting both female and male athletes he coached at the USA Swimming club and school team at the exclusive Bolles School in Jacksonville. His USA Swimming administrative hearing — which resulted in a lifetime ban — was overseen by a young lawyer named Travis Tygart, who is now CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee's "independent" drug-policing arm, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. (Tygart also happened to be a Bolles alum and former employee of the school, during the period before public pressure forced USA Swimming to publish the names of all banned coaches.) Chocron fled back to his native Venezuela by way of Spain and continued coaching. In 2017, the Venezuelan aquatic sports federation suspended Chocron for a year on the basis of reports at my website, Concussion Inc.

George Gibney, two-time Irish Olympic swimming head coach and arguably the most notorious at-large sex criminal in sports history, fled to the U.S. by way of Scotland following a controversial 1994 ruling by the Irish Supreme Court, which vacated his indictment on dozens of counts of illicit sex with minors. (The statute of limitations had expired.) After his 2010 U.S. citizenship application was rejected (because he'd lied about his Irish past), Immigration and Customs Enforcement nonetheless declined to revoke his green card. In connection with his 2016 ruling in a Freedom of Information Act suit (brought by this writer), federal judge Charles Breyer noted that the American Swimming Coaches Association seemed to have "greased the wheels for Gibney's relocation," and added, "We're not a refuge for pedophiles." Though long out of coaching, Gibney, after a peripatetic tour through three regions of the country, lives in retirement in Altamonte Springs, Florida, where he has reportedly been supported by the Catholic fraternal order the Knights of Columbus, as well as by Opus Dei, the semi-secret church organization made famous by "The Da Vinci Code." 

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Joseph Worthington Bernal's alter ego as Colombian native Hugo Calderon surfaced in his 2017 elder abuse lawsuit in Florida circuit court — filed against his son, Craig J. Bernal.

Joe's complaint claimed that Craig — described as a drug abuser who was in and out of rehab, had fathered at least one child out of wedlock and sponged off his mother and "the girlfriend of the moment" — was trying to control his father's finances and convert his property to his own use after the "elderly, sick and vulnerable" Joe was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2014.

In his court narrative, Joe Bernal reviewed his Olympic coaching credentials and his stints coaching at Fordham University from 1966 to 1978, and then at Harvard from 1977 to 1991 (where he was a seven-time Ivy League coach of the year). He also noted that he founded the Waltham club in 1979.

Radiation treatments and chemotherapy drugs had left Joe Bernal "physically fatigued, emotionally unbalanced, depressed and mentally confused at times, and experiencing hot flashes and memory problems," his lawyer told the court.

Joe Bernal's Ivy League pedigree and his peregrinations throughout the Western Hemisphere offer disturbing new context to a widespread but little-noticed phenomenon: abusive coaches who globetrot out of trouble.

Joe claimed that his son Craig took over his home in Waltham, and this is where things get really weird. Already a member of New York's Metropolitan City Hall of Fame and of Fordham's Athletic Hall of Fame, Joe Bernal was named to the American Swimming Coaches Hall of Fame in September 2015. Days later, however, he was informed by USA Swimming that he was under investigation for sexual misconduct. He was added to swimming's banned list in 2016. By then, as the Boston Globe reported in a lengthy feature headlined "Without a Trace," he had already disappeared from the neighborhood where he had lived for more than two decades. "Multiple sources who knew Bernal before the ban said they have heard that he moved out of the country," the Globe reported.

In the 2017 lawsuit against his son, Bernal said he "felt as if his identity and livelihood he had ever known for his entire adult life [sic] had been stripped from him because of one allegation in a 44 year career."

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Joe said Craig pushed on him the idea that the press and police in Waltham would be "hounding him" every day at the front door of his house, and "that he was at risk of losing all his money because of the investigation, and further that there was going to be a global revolution and an ensuing economic collapse, that the U.S. economy was unstable and in danger of collapsing, that the real estate market was going to collapse, that banks were not safe, and Plaintiff needed to put his money into gold/precious metals or risk losing everything."

Joe said Craig packed his belongings and drove him to New York, from where he flew to Mexico. Craig allegedly concocted a scheme for Joe to acquire an Ecuadorian passport and ultimately move to Ecuador. However, the "passport could not be obtained as quickly as defendant CRAIG wanted," so he convinced Joe "to obtain a Colombian passport under Plaintiff's Colombian name of Hugo Bernard Calderon, the name that appears on Plaintiff's Colombian birth certificate."

The Colombian passport was issued on Oct. 22, 2015, according to this account. "Plaintiff traveled to Colombia on October 27, 2015, and remained in Colombia until November 16, 2016, only returning to the U.S. or the Cayman Islands at the behest of defendant CRAIG."

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David Berkoff, Joe Bernal's most famous swimming protégé, is a unique and controversial figure in the sport's history of sexual abuse. Without a doubt, Berkoff was an early whistleblower, whose outspokenness about the widespread abuse of young athletes led to USA Swimming's early studies, ad hoc committees and task forces meant to address the problem.

Berkoff won a combined two gold medals, one silver and one bronze at the 1988 and 1992 Summer Olympics. In 2010 he was elected to the USA Swimming board of directors as a reform candidate. Once in office, though, he disappointed some activists with public statements that were not as full-throated as those he had made as an outsider. Some branded him a turncoat or an apologist.

At the 2012 Olympic Trials, an abusive coach from the Washington, D.C. area, Rick Curl, who had fled to Australia, was seen back coaching in the U.S. When Curl's abuse victim from decades earlier, a woman formerly known as Kelley Davies, spoke out about her experience and USA Swimming's cover-up in a Washington Post story, Curl was arrested, banned by the group, criminally prosecuted and sent to prison in Maryland. Berkoff, who now practices law in Montana (where he also coached a swimming club until 2016), did an interview for a newspaper there in which he said he'd had no idea that Curl had been in Omaha for the trials.

Berkoff also swore out a defensive court declaration for USA Swimming after my reporting partner Tim Joyce and I acquired a massive tranche of the organization's internal documents, with dossiers on abuse accusations against scores of coaches. This stash had been filed under seal in a California lower court on orders of the state Supreme Court late in 2012, and was subpoenaed by the FBI field office in Campbell, California. (To be clear, Berkoff was not the party who leaked the files to us.)

David Berkoff, Joe Bernal's most famous swimming protégé, is a unique and controversial figure in the sport's history of sexual abuse: an early whistleblower and then, to some, a turncoat.

At the same time, Berkoff made at least one important contribution to the anti-abuse cause: One of his first acts on the USA Swimming board was to circulate a lengthy memorandum in which he compiled information on numerous bad-actor coaches, including those who had been credibly accused of abuse but never banned for various technical or jurisdictional reasons. This document, which I published in full here, is the closest thing to what insiders call the "flagged list" — a secret compendium of names held by top USA Swimming executives that includes coaches who have been unofficially blocked from sanctioned positions but not publicly banned.

While denouncing abuse in the sport, Berkoff has found himself in the awkward position over the years of speaking loyally and fondly about his own coaches — who have included, before Bernal, his coach at the Germantown Academy outside Philadelphia, Dick Shoulberg. In 2003, Shoulberg infamously emailed fellow members of a USA Swimming task force: "I would hate to see our organization ever in the predicament of the current Roman Catholic Church — protecting child molesters!" Yet the record would show that Shoulberg's own Germantown program did just that, and in 2013, with at least one major abuse lawsuit hanging over it, the school pushed him out.

With respect to Bernal, Berkoff told the Boston Globe that the credible allegations against his former coach were "not characteristic of what I saw as an athlete in his program. I was surprised. It's not something I saw when I was on the team. It was very difficult for me to hear of this ban.''

Earlier this year in North Carolina, Berkoff testified at a jury trial of a former swimmer, Sydney Mizelle, who was suing USA Swimming for damages over the sexual abuse by her former coach, Nathan Weddle. Berkoff's testimony was considered important and helpful to Mizelle's attempt to pierce the national organization's protection against liability for abuses by member coaches and clubs. In the course of recounting his long history with swimming and this issue, Berkoff noted that his own coach, Bernal, was on the banned list. Berkoff also said that while he was on the board (which he left in 2014), other officials confirmed to him the existence of the flagged list.

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Michelle Sweeney, Joe Bernal's daughter, did not respond to Salon's request for comment for this story. In 2016, Sweeney reached out to me after the Globe story about Bernal's disappearance to express her feeling that she was being unfairly maligned on social media for the sins of her father. We spoke on the phone but she didn't want to be quoted. The report at my website Concussion Inc. summarized it this way: "She is upset that the Globe made no effort to reach her for its story — all while referencing her and soliciting comments from Bernal's former neighbors and others. Sweeney said this had the effect of making it appear that she might be in cahoots with her father, and she is not. Sweeney said the [Globe] article is accurate and that she supports the ban on Bernal, though she has no special information on the background or circumstances of it."

By Irvin Muchnick

Irvin Muchnick's book “Underwater: The Greed-Soaked Tale of Sexual Abuse in USA Swimming and Around the Globe” will be published later this year by ECW Press.

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Harvard Investigation Joe Bernal Sexual Abuse Sports Swimming Usa Swimming