Shayna’s swim club under fire for ‘military-style’ program

 

Parents of swimmers from Shayna Jack's elite swim club have complained of a win-at-all-costs culture in which teenagers have been fat-shamed, bullied and left seeking professional help.

Olympic swim coach Dean Boxall presides over a military-style program at St Peter's Western swim club in Brisbane, which has produced world champions and Olympic and Commonwealth Games gold medallists, as well as Tokyo gold medal favourite Ariarne Titmus.

The allegations include a claim that swimmers are subjected to public weigh-ins and that at least one swimmer in the high school swim program has taught junior swimmers how to "purge" themselves after eating.

Swim coach Dean Boxall (second from left) gives advice to junior swimmers in Cairns last month. Picture: Stewart McLean
Swim coach Dean Boxall (second from left) gives advice to junior swimmers in Cairns last month. Picture: Stewart McLean

The claims, first raised in anonymous letters sent to Swimming Australia and The Sunday Telegraph, have been supported by other parents, including three fathers of former swimmers who say their children were left physically and mentally shattered by events at the club.

Swimming Australia and St Peters Lutheran College, which hosts the swim club, have denied any knowledge of bullying, and Swimming Australia has said it will "look into" the claims.

"In the time I have been here, I am aware of at least three girl swimmers who left due to aspects of bullying and demands for results," the letter claims.

According to the letter, two students left the school and are "currently are being treated by psychologists for anxiety".

Shayna Jack trained as part of the St Peter’s Western swim club in Brisbane. Picture: Delly Carr/Getty
Shayna Jack trained as part of the St Peter’s Western swim club in Brisbane. Picture: Delly Carr/Getty

Other allegations in the letter include an incident where a student collapsed during Boxall's infamous "Hell Month" training period in January.

Swimming Australia said it was interested in investigating the allegations but was unable to contact the parent who wrote the initial letter, who wants to be anonymous.

St Peter's Western swim club assistant coach John Gatfield in 2014. Picture: Instagram
St Peter's Western swim club assistant coach John Gatfield in 2014. Picture: Instagram

St Peters Lutheran College said in a statement: "St Peters does not tolerate bullying of students or staff, including bullying on the basis of weight or body shape.

"I can confirm that during my time at St Peters there have been no reported incidents of bullying within the swimming program,'' head of college Tim Kotzur said.

"The claims made in the anonymous letter provided to The Sunday Telegraph have not been raised with St Peters, and Swimming Australia has not informed us of any concerns.''

During the annual "Hell Month", as it has been dubbed by Boxall, swimmers as young as 14 take part in a gruelling four-week training regime which includes daily four-hour land or pool sessions beginning at 6am, followed by another three hours in the afternoon.

In a 2017 YouTube clip promoting the swim program, Boxall recites Jack Nicholson lines from the movie A Few Good Men.

"The time has come when we stand as individuals and we unite as a unit. I command you all to pick up your weapons and stand at post and prepare for your greatest battle,'' Boxall says on the video.

"Here we use words that have purpose and action, like unbroken, tenacious, conditioned, contender, ruthless.

"I will never give up. Therefore, pain must be your friend and contentment your enemy. Now, my squad, pick up your axe and start swinging.''


Rated the number one swimming club in the country, St Peters offers scholarships of up to $20,000.

Titmus is one swimmer who thrives on her coach's tough program.

"Some of the things he says aren't quite appropriate [to share publicly]," Titmus said in an interview with the ABC last year.

"But he always says if I get better, he has to push harder, so it's been tough.

"I keep my ground, I think, but he pushes me harder than anyone else in the squad. He is always on my back. There is never a moment I can relax - I always have to be on.''

Australian swimmer Ariane Titmus talks with her coach Dean Boxall at the World Swimming Championships in Gwangju, South Korea in July. Picture: AP/Lee Jin-man
Australian swimmer Ariane Titmus talks with her coach Dean Boxall at the World Swimming Championships in Gwangju, South Korea in July. Picture: AP/Lee Jin-man

A parent of a former Australian champion who quit the club after requiring counselling told The Sunday Telegraph: "The girls, some just 14 and 15 years of age, had to weigh in on scales in front of everybody, and if you had put weight on, you were called fat.

"There were some girls that really struggled with their weight and to see them transform their bodies as a result, to be so thin … just awful.

"As parents, we had a great relationship with our daughter. But she had become quiet, she was miserable and crying all the time. Teachers would find her crying in the toilets. It was the workload, the pressure.

"She found some strength through counselling (twice a week) and then she had a meeting with Dean and just hit him with everything that was wrong. That's when we walked out.

"If any of the parents at St Peters could grow a set of balls, you would have 40 to 50 parents all complaining. But they're all scared. Why are we going through so many swimmers to get a good one?"

One father claims he heard Boxall say to a swimmer: "You graze like a cow."

Australian Dolphins swim team coach Dean Boxall gets the Tobruk Swimming Club kids working. Picture: Stewart McLean
Australian Dolphins swim team coach Dean Boxall gets the Tobruk Swimming Club kids working. Picture: Stewart McLean

Boxall did not reply to requests for comment.

Another parent, whose daughter was one of the most talented swimmers in the country only two years ago but has quit the sport, said: "It upsets me to even talk about this. When (former St Peters head coach) Michael Bohl left, I just knew it would end up like this. Because he (Boxall) just drives them. Dean has a way, which, sure, can get results. And I was happy for my daughter to be challenged, but not to the extent of what happened. She said: 'Dad, I can't please this guy. Every time I walk in, it's about my weight'.

"He told them they had to have this (physical) look, so you can intimidate everyone.

"He always said: 'We work like lions.' I've thought about bringing this into the public eye, but my daughter is still seeking professional help.

"I lie in bed sometimes, why did we come here? Why did we do this? He's (Boxall) so driven, but the problem is, it comes at a huge personal toll.''

Having been shown the letter which was sent to The Sunday Telegraph, Swimming Australia responded by saying: "Swimming Australia takes seriously any complaint at a swimming club and has a dedicated Integrity resource to investigate and handle formal complaints under a due process … We will continue to look into this matter.''