In March, the Roosevelt Island Marlins, a swim club that’s been based on the Island since 2005, brought home an impressive 14 medals from the Junior Olympics, 7 from the Eastern Zone Short Course Championship, and 10 from the Eight and Under Metro Championship.
Out of the water, though, some parents say the team’s winning ethos comes at a cost. They paint a picture of a deeply divided organization where bullying is common and even small disagreements between parents and the organization’s leaders often get taken out on the swimmers.
Earlier this spring, as the swim club prepared to hold annual elections for its board of directors, a long simmering power struggle abruptly spilled into public view. A family was exiled, lawyers were called, a flurry of accusatory emails were widely circulated through the swim club, emergency court orders were handed down, and the upcoming election was delayed from their bylaws-prescribed April date. At the heart of the fight lies the question of just what kind of swim club the Marlins want to be – a community swim league where all are welcome or an elite competitive program focused on winning.
According to Dov Medinets, a lawyer representing parents Ib Olsen and Bige Doruk, who have two kids in the Marlins program, the latest bit of trouble started at the end of March when Olsen and Doruk discovered a widely distributed snapchat video portraying their son as a demon. Medinets characterized the video as “shocking” and says it was deeply upsetting to the family. At the end of the video, the credits identified those who made the video as the children of current Marlins board members.
Upon receiving a copy of the video, Olsen notified the board and the team’s head coach, Roman Sludnov, and requested that the club investigate the incident. His email also asked that board members whose children’s names appear in the credits be excluded from taking a leading role in the investigation.
Sludnov and the board did briefly suspend two of the swimmers, one other went unpunished, and then they turned the accusation back onto the parents. On April 11, Sludnov sent a letter to the entire swim team publicly placing blame for the video on Olsen and Doruk themselves, claiming they had made and distributed the video mocking their son in order to create a “negative and hostile environment” around the board members’ children who were included in the credits.
Deciding that the best way to deal with this situation was to run for the board herself, Doruk submitted her nomination for the upcoming election the same day.
The following day, April 12, following a previously unannounced board meeting (and bypassing the club’s own bylaws which state that all board meetings must be announced at least seven days in advance), the board sent an email to Olsen and Doruk letting them know their membership was terminated, effective immediately. As a result of being banned from the team, they said, Doruk would not be able to run in the election and their two kids would no longer be able to swim with the club. Though, according to the bylaws, there is no stipulation that people running for board seats must be members of the Marlins swim programs.
Rather than accept the decision, Olsen and Doruk went to court the following week seeking emergency action to keep their kids on the team. The court granted the family’s request, and the board consented to the temporary order pending an upcoming hearing, which is scheduled for next Thursday.
But, according to Medinets, they had to return days later. Despite the judge’s original order that the board could not exclude the two swimmers from upcoming swim meets, the Marlins board insisted they were still allowed to exclude the children from practice.
“The Judge was beyond incensed,” says Medinets. “After a back and forth about how to move forward, the judge had us execute a stipulation in which [the board] agreed to allow the kids to go to practice, with their rights reinstated.” Both parties have also agreed not to discuss the case while at the pool, though parents say that’s all that is discussed at the pool.
A Culture of Fear
Current Marlins board members and head coach Sludnov declined our request for an interview for this story; however, we did interview nine parents with past experience on the board and/or current involvement with the team. All the parents requested that we not use their names for fear that their children would be retaliated against.
Each of the parents expressed a deep love for the Marlins, a program that historically has not only taught children how to swim, but has fostered a love of the sport. But the parents say they’ve seen a dramatic change in their club’s approach over the past 18 months, with the learn-to-swim program, traditionally a feeder for the team, neglected and deprioritized. Weaker team swimmers are demoralized and there are reports of team members being berated for their physical appearance or called fat. Parents, they say, are publicly chastised for raising concerns or asking questions of the board.
For many, that change began with the hiring of Sludnov in 2017. The former Russian bronze medal Olympic swimmer had limited prior coaching experience, but was willing to take on the team. Almost immediately, though, some parents began raising concerns about his methods. “He has an iron-fisted way of doing things which he seems to have carried over from those days,” says Medinets.
“I did not see fair treatment towards all kids by the head coach,” says one former board member. “Some were punished incessantly, others ignored for months, and some given constant tips for improving. A coach has to be a leader and I did not see the leadership skills. I saw excessive misogyny toward board members who did not agree with his style of functioning.”
Another former board member describes Sludnov as an uncompromising figure who pushes the kids to extremes and then threatens to quit when parents complain or suggest changes. “The yardage he gives them is insane,” says the parent. “He’ll break their bodies.” The result, says the former board member, is that the team has seen an exodus of members. The parent estimates that as much as 65% of the competitive team has left – primarily the female swimmers who, several parents agree, the coach is particularly hard on.
When they went to raise concerns, the parents say they found little help or support from fellow directors.
While there is technically no president of the Marlins board, every parent we spoke with identified board member Andrea Grozdanic as the group’s de facto leader.
Grozdanic, who Medinets describes as having a “strong personality,” joined the board in 2016. By November of 2017, three of the six-member board had resigned.
One former board member says they left after experiencing constant criticism, hectoring, and lecturing by Grozdanic, and says many parents feel that the board has decided to protect the coach at the expense of the team. “Parents no longer feel safe speaking up; they are concerned it will be taken out on their child.”
“The board should intervene but they don’t,” says another parent. “The coach isn’t the boss; he’s an employee of the board. Now it seems like he’s the boss.”
The former board members point out that, according to the team’s bylaws, membership can be terminated only for failure to pay team dues or for “just cause” after a hearing before a committee established by the board. In the case of Olsen and Durok’s two children, there was no hearing.
A Team Divided
All of the parents we spoke to for this article describe the swim club as being divided between the parents who support coach Sludnov and his tough approach, and those who do not, preferring a more “club” spirit.
For both groups, the club’s future appears to hang on the results of the upcoming board election, now scheduled for May 24. Ten people have added their names to the slate, including some new faces. Board members serve for one year, so all six seats are up for grabs.
However, the election may be postponed again. In a statement, the board explained that elections were temporarily suspended until they receive a decision from the judge. “We look forward to holding elections within 30 days after receiving a decision,” the statement adds. They also informed Medinets that the nominating committee’s previous email titled “Introducing the Candidates for the Marlins Board Elections,” does not represent the final slate of candidates.
Next up is a court appearance on May 17 in the New York Supreme Court for a hearing to determine whether the board acted outside the scope of their power in terminating the Olsen children’s team membership.
To support their case, the Marlins accepted Island House resident Frank Farance’s offer to investigate events around the termination of Olsen and Durok’s membership and to submit a report to the court – a move that did not go over well with several parents, who pointed out that Farance lacks basic qualifications to lead an investigation into a non-profit as he is not a business law attorney.
Others lodged complaints with the board when Farance appeared on the pool deck with a camera earlier this week to meet with board members while kids in bathing suits, both in and out of the water, practiced.
Medinets says Farance has submitted a report to the court, based solely on conversations with the board, documents provided by the board, and conversations with Sludnov.
“Most of the report I would be inclined to simply ignore, as the ravings of a nut,” says Medinets who has a copy of the report. He is disturbed by the inclusion of sensitive information about a minor child whom the report identifies by name, which when submitted to the court will become available to the general public. Still, Medinets points out that even Farance acknowledges that Olsen and Doruk did not make the video victimizing their son.