Last week, during a hearing at New York’s Supreme Court, the Roosevelt Island Marlins board of directors was forced to capitulate on its controversial termination of a family’s membership from the swim club as part of a settlement agreement. The agreement also affirmed a slate of 10 nominees for the upcoming board elections – a group that includes one of the plaintiffs. The board was granted its request stipulating that club parents may communicate with the team’s head coach only through the board.
Though the court case is officially resolved, a deep chasm remains between the two groups of parents within the competitive swim program. Both accuse the other of harassment and self-interest – with one side portrayed as troublemakers spreading unhappiness and gossip from the shadows, and the other as a controlling cabal who uses their power to root out dissent. A board election, set for June 21, will determine which group shapes the future of the 13-year-old Island swim program.
Harry Juricic, a swim-team parent who fully supports the board, described what parents on both sides of the divide feel. “If we’re not careful, [members] will elect self-serving board members.”
The Roosevelt Island Marlins practice six days a week at the Sportspark pool. Photo: RIOC Public Information Office
The two parties landed in court after the board terminated the Olsen/Doruk family’s membership without the hearing prescribed by the team’s bylaws. Notification of the termination came just one day after Bige Doruk, the mother of a Senior competitive swimmer, submitted her nomination to the board’s upcoming elections – a move Doruk believes was not coincidental.
As a result of being banned from the team, the board informed Doruk that her two kids would no longer be able to train or compete with the club. Rather than accept the decision, Olsen and Doruk went to court.
“[The board] wasted thousands of dollars to keep out a member of the club; that’s nothing but pure revenge,” said Doruk. “There’s nothing that’s not resolvable. They don’t know how to de-escalate issues. You always negotiate, work these things out.”
Hundreds of Emails
For its part, the board has accused Olsen and Doruk, along with former board member Olga Seliger and her husband Yuri Seliger, of working together to post derogatory information on social media, text messages, and emails, and of launching a negative campaign against the swim team, creating “a hostile atmosphere against board members and coaching staff.”
Board member Ivana Maslo says harassment of head coach Roman Sludnov has been going on since December 2016, after Sludnov had been with the team for just a month. She paints a picture of the coach receiving hundreds of emails and text messages criticizing decisions and suggesting changes, at all hours of the day and night. She says 500 were from the Seliger family alone.
Olga Seliger acknowledges that there have been many email exchanges, though she says there couldn’t be 500, “not even close.” She characterizes those exchanges as work-related.
For seven months, she and head coach Roman Sludnov worked closely together to coordinate team efforts. Because the Sportspark pool was closed at the time, there were logistics being worked out daily. She said she designed the club’s posters, did their accounting and grantwriting, and scheduled and secured facilities, coaches, and lifeguards at various pools. “I was doing all of the work.”
Maslo gives Seliger credit for her hard work during that time. “Olga did it without complaining. She did a lot of it alone. It was not fair to her.”
According to the board, a new wave of emails began at the end of January 2018, after plaintiff parent Ib Olsen resigned from the board. Maslo says he started spreading rumors that the board was illegal.
For the next couple of months, the board received 50 emails regarding the legality of the board and similar topics. Some came from an anonymous group that referred to themselves as “Concerned Parents.” They questioned the operating status of the board, its bylaws, why the board hadn’t yet appointed a nominating committee, and wanted to know why the board’s meeting minutes were not online. Eventually the group threatened to involve the Attorney General.
“I personally feel that I was harassed,” said Maslo of the correspondence.
She says that insubordination was the true factor behind the termination of the Olsen family membership. “I absolutely know [Olsen and Doruk] are the ‘concerned parents,’” she says, pointing out that the same lawyer that represented the family in court was named in the emails. “They were terminated for negativity,” she said, “and for being troublemakers.”
The Last Straw
When asked to name a turning point in what had previously been a relatively congenial relationship between swim team parents, both sides point to the 2016-2017 winter break.
With the Sportspark pool closed for renovations, and no swim practice scheduled for a week, Seliger called in a favor with a coach who was a friend and arranged to have her children practice with another team.
Maslo said this offended Sludnov. “Roman asked Olga politely to share that offer with the entire team,” says Maslo.
Seliger did not.
She points out that other members invested in swimming camp, or private lessons, and some members have a pool in their building.
“How could I offer it to the team?” asks Seliger. “It was offered to me as a personal favor. People have different advantages. If your friend gives you something, you can’t offer it to everybody else. I did ask the coach if Andrea’s [board member Andrea Grozdanic] daughter could come practice and she came to a couple of practices. ”
Seliger says the coach’s rebuke stung especially hard because, at the time she was spending 40 hours a week on board duties.
“I was doing everything I possibly could for the team,” she says. “We were saving money, we were renting all of the pools, I was going to the pool, trying to keep up morale. When others swim in their building in Westview, do they have a responsibility to offer that to the entire team? Of course not. I don’t understand it.”
By June 2017, Sludnov, still simmering, sent an email, which included as part of the court documents, giving the board an ultimatum that either Seliger step down as a board member or he would reveal, in an email to all members, a detailed description of “everything that has happened for the past seven months and was not recorded in any of the board’s minutes.” When asked to explain the threat, Maslo referred to the week Seliger spent practicing with another team.
Seliger resigned in frustration in July.
Since her resignation, five other board members have resigned. One, Amba Singh, whose resignation email is part of the court documents, resigned over similar issues. “I cannot work in such a hostile, aggressive and negative space,” wrote Singh.
“[Since Seliger’s resignation], she has been planning this [coup],” believes team parent Azer Yesil Emre, whose 13-year-old son has been with the club for four years. “She took this so hard, so personal, especially with Coach Roman.” As a result of the bad blood, Emre believes that “[Seliger] has been collecting bad experiences with Roman.”
Seliger, however, says she feels so traumatized by the campaign against her after all of the effort she put in to ensure the team’s stability, that she hasn’t been able to go to the pool since her resignation.
Code of Conduct
After Seliger’s tussle with the coach during winter break, she says her daughter’s code of conduct violations starting piling up.
“They started to come up with code of conduct violations that were never there before,” recounts Seliger. “My children never had any trouble in school. My daughter has never had a single disciplinary infraction – ever. And they started to say that she is disobedient. I talked to our previous coaches and they said, ‘What could she be doing?’”
Doruk concurs. “We have no behavior issues on this team; they’re all good kids.” She believes that when Seliger was on the board, she kept Sludnov in check. “That’s why last spring there were no issues. She did a good job of reminding him that he’s an employee.” She believes the current board members overindulge Sludnov because of his impressive swimming record, which includes an Olympic bronze medal and a world record in breast stroke.
But other parents of the competitive team cite this strict sense of discipline and no-excuses attitude as one of the advantages that Sludnov offers the team and one of the key factors in the team’s success in competitions.
Following the settlement in court, Sludnov, who had resigned six days earlier, on May 12, returned to his position.
“I’m glad the judge saw what we see in Roman, what most of the team sees in Roman,” said Maslo. “We’re glad he’s back and the team is united again,” acknowledging that “I’m glad it’s over. It was a financial strain.”
Emre was particularly happy to see him back. She says that, after a string of coaches quit the program, the discipline from Coach Roman has made a difference with her son. “What I see as a parent is the knowledge, the discipline; ascertaining from each individual what he or she needs is the whole package that Coach Roman brought to the team.”
Queens parent Gisella Coronel is likewise thrilled with the changes she’s seen in her son since he started swimming with Sludnov. “He changed my son’s life,” she said. “He started achieving his goals. We have no complaints. He used to have low self confidence.”
Juricic, a Manhattan resident and a newer team member, says his family has been with many other swim teams. The youngest of his four children currently swims at the club. “I have complete respect for [Sludnov]. He’s honest.” He says his son has improved remarkably under Sludnov’s coaching. “He really cares about these kids.”
According to Doruk, however, Sludnov’s coaching skills are doled out only to those kids whose parents fall in line and don’t raise concerns. She also found his resignation and return unprofessional.
The board’s critics say a successful team would be growing instead of shrinking. In previous years, the senior team boasted 13 girls, now that number is five; of the five, three have been warned by Sludnov in writing that they are on notice.
“If I hadn’t sued, my kids would not be swimming today,” says Doruk. She says she also did it for the other blacklisted members who don’t have the means. “People can’t just drop $5,000 and sue people. I did it for this community.”
Despite the bad blood, or perhaps because of it, Doruk still plans to run for the board. Since the court fight, her platform has evolved.
“I just want things to get better. It’s time to cease fire.” She says she will also focus on fundraising. “I would raise a lot of corporate money so if we lose the pool again, we’d be okay.” She also believes strongly in supporting the other programming the club offers. “You can’t only have an elite team, because then you can’t afford to pay the coaches.
“I think I can do a lot with this community; that’s why I ran in the first place. It wasn’t retaliatory.”
So why doesn’t Seliger just switch to a different program? Even now, despite everything that’s transpired, Seliger says, “My kids are attached to the team. It is their tribe. My daughter has been swimming with the club for eight years. I believe in what’s morally right, to stand up and fight for my team.” She also points out that, unlike for many of the competitive swim team’s parents, this is her local pool, and the team that she helped build.
Who Can Run?
While the judge in last week’s case affirmed the current slate of 10 board nominations – which includes Yuri Seliger, Doruk, and several first-time nominees – the board’s Investigations Committee proposed changes that would narrow the requirements for board eligibility and circumvent the settlement they agreed on in court.
If the recommendations are approved by a majority of the board, only parents with a swimmer on the competitive team for over one year would be eligible for a board seat. Eligible nominees would also have to have no “adversarial actions” against the club or violations of the parent code of conduct for a minimum of 12 months (their children would have to be free of any disciplinary action for a minimum of six months).
The requirement that only parents of competitive swimmers who have been on the team for over one year would disqualify most club parents from running for the board. According to Grozdanic, an investigations committee member, the majority of the swim club’s membership – 160 children – are enrolled in the club’s Learn to Swim program.
Grozdanic insists the committee has the club’s well-being in mind with those recommendations. In her view, Learn-to-Swim parents are not stable members because younger kids may change their minds about what they want to pursue. She said, “We know how it’s run. Someone from Learn to Swim has zero knowledge about the competitive team.”
Board nominee Susy Del Campo Perea disagrees. As a Learn-to-Swim parent of two, she says she has always rooted for the Marlins and for equality for all swimmers at Sportspark. She points out that she was the only Marlins parent who spoke up in a Cornell Town Hall regarding the Marlins program.
The investigations committee has also recommended a new policy that would charge parents $50 to submit a complaint, which would be returned if the complaint was found to be credible.
Club members will vote in a new board on June 21.