Anthony Rocchi was one of the world’s top distance swimmers — at one time, the South African ranked seventh in the world in the 1,500-metre short course freestyle, behind Grant Hackett and Daniel Kowalski.
“My dream was the Sydney Olympics,” Rocchi told the ABC. “My dad was a Springbok swimmer, as we call it if you achieve your international colours, and he was a silver medallist at the Cardiff [Commonwealth] Games in ’58.”
However, Rocchi says, his career was cut short by his Australian swimming coach, John Wright.
Rocchi alleges that Wright sexually assaulted him over a period of six months in 1998, when he was training for a world championships event in South Africa.
He has decided to speak publicly for the first time about his experiences after reading the ABC’s exposé on Wright last week.
“My whole life, I had to lie to people and tell them that I wasn’t good enough to go to the [Olympic] Games,” Rocchi said. “It just wasn’t for me.
“And today, I can tell people that I was good enough, but that my dreams were destroyed by this horrible man.”
As revealed in an ABC investigation last week, Australian Olympian Shane Lewis complained to Swimming Australia in 2016 that he was sexually abused by Wright from the age of 11 to 13 in Brisbane.
Shane Lewis died in February this year and his family believe it was suicide.
The ABC spoke to two other former elite swimmers who allege Wright also sexually abused them as boys when he was their coach at the Chandler pool in Brisbane in the mid-1980s.
Another swimmer, Paul Shearer, alleged Wright abused him as a boy when he trained him at the Palm Beach Currumbin pool on the Gold Coast in the late 1980s.
Shearer took his own life last year.
The day after the ABC story broke, Queensland Police assembled a task force to investigate the allegations.
‘You felt seen, you felt like somebody’
After Wright trained children on the Gold Coast, he went to South Africa to coach children in Johannesburg.
Rocchi was 11 years old when he first met Wright on the pool deck in Pretoria. It was 1991.
“When he arrived, he dropped names like Hayley Lewis and Michael McKenzie. And I knew about these people. We all did,” Rocchi said.
“The Australian swimmers of the ’80s and the ’90s were actually my idols. Because we didn’t have any of our own.
“We were still isolated through the apartheid sanctions. And so I was in awe that he had trained these now Olympians in their youth.”
Rocchi signed up to train with Wright at the Rand Afrikaans University in Johannesburg.
“He was charming. He was funny. As an 11-year-old, you know, he would do funny handshakes and call you ‘muscles’. And, as a youngster, it was very entertaining,” he said.
“He had a way of really just shining a light on you, and you felt seen, and you felt like somebody. He didn’t just glance over you.”
Rocchi said Wright was a tough coach who got results from his young swimmers.
“John really pushed me. He was very good at turning me into a very fierce, a tough opponent in the pool.”
In 1998, after taking a year off swimming to complete his schooling, Rocchi wanted to make a comeback. Wright offered to train him one-on-one in Durban.
“I had six months left to make the team or to prepare for the team to the World Championships in Hong Kong. And so, John sat me down and said: ‘Well, let’s go for this, go for Hong Kong.'”
Rocchi left his family home in Johannesburg to train in Durban. It was here that he alleges Wright repeatedly sexually assaulted him.
“John invited me to his house after practice on a Saturday afternoon, and we were watching tapes of former Olympics and Commonwealth Games and really just going through or preparing me for that next step to really compete at the very highest level.
“At the end of the evening, it got dark and I realised he wasn’t going to take me home. And I was now getting uncomfortable. But I figured I could just sleep on the couch or in a spare room. But instead, he insisted that I share a bed with him.
“The way he groomed me was to say that all his previous champions had done this.
“So, I was now part of the special club of previous champions that shared his bed, and that he shared a special bond with.
“I told him that I don’t share a bed with another man. But he persisted. And so I spent that whole night on the edge of the bed almost falling off with him, pressing himself, pressing himself against me.
“I was terrified. I was afraid, I was lonely. And I was a few months away from the most important race of my life.
Rocchi alleges that, for the next six months, Wright sexually assaulted him once or twice a week at his apartment and before and after races.
“You’re told by former Olympians that you have to give up everything to get to the Olympics, and I don’t think anyone should be made to give up their bodies for that opportunity.”
At the time, Anthony was 18 and, under South African law, he was below the age of consent.
“After swimming practice, John would drive me to my apartment, and often invite himself up where he would sexually abuse me,” Rocchi said.
“If he stayed over, he would stay in the master bedroom, and I would just get up, get dressed. And go to my room where I was living in and just often cry myself to sleep.”
“He would abuse me before and after my swimming races, the trials for the World Championships.
“When I got to the trials, my psychological state was just so weakened that I couldn’t post the same times that I had swum four or five weeks prior.”
Wright was a family friend and Rocchi kept his allegations of abuse to himself.
“I was completely disillusioned. I didn’t really have anyone around me to counsel or even to tell what had happened to me. So I decided to quit competitive swimming at the end of 1998.”
Wright left South Africa to take up the position of head coach at the Kingston Royals Club in London.
It wasn’t until 2004 that Rocchi broke his silence, when Wright came to stay at his family home.
“After being numb about my abuse for six years, the anger had started building up and I could no longer tolerate to be in his presence,” Rocchi said.
“So, I came out to my parents about the abuse. And I confronted John, who was staying with us.
“My mother had already packed his bags and wrote him a stinging letter and so when I confronted him, it was more like an ambush.
Wright went back to London and Rocchi tried to get on with his life.
Then, in 2015, Rocchi was browsing Facebook when he saw photos of Wright coaching kids in South Africa.
“I couldn’t believe that he would be arrogant and foolish enough to be coaching in South Africa, after I left him with no doubt that he had made an enemy of me,” Rocchi said.
He made a written complaint to Swimming South Africa. The ABC has seen a copy of his signed and dated testimony. Wright quickly left the country.
After watching the Tokyo Olympic Games this year, Rocchi decided to follow up on his complaint to Swimming South Africa. He also reported Wright to South African police.
Then last week, he read the ABC’s investigation on the swim coach.
“I was deeply saddened to learn about Shane Lewis’s death after watching the ABC exposé.
“I couldn’t help but wonder why Swimming South Africa has not reached out to Swimming Australia [and] why Swimming Australia hadn’t reached out to South Africa. Because, if they had done that when Shane Lewis came forward in 2016, and Swimming South Africa were in possession of my testimony, Shane could have gotten some answers before it was too late.”
In a statement to the ABC yesterday, Swimming Australia said it was “unaware of any historic communication between Swimming Australia and Swimming South Africa surrounding John Wright”.
“Swimming Australia welcomes the inclusion of the independent integrity unit announced by FINA which will bring FINA in line with other national and world sporting federations,” it said.
“We look forward to working with FINA to ensure greater protection of child safeguarding and other integrity issues from a global perspective.”
Swimming South Africa president Alan Fritz did not respond to the ABC’s written questions.
However, its chief executive, Shaun Adriaanse, wrote to Mr Rocchi this week about his 2015 complaint.
“Although the alleged perpetrator was not a SSA member at the time, SSA took immediate action to make sure that the alleged perpetrator was removed from pool deck and training camp,” Mr Adriaanse said.
“As to a subsequent complaint and enquiry regarding disciplinary action, we wish to inform you that SSA only has jurisdiction over its members for misconduct. The alleged perpetrator is and was not a SSA member and, as such, SSA is not in a position to act against the alleged perpetrator.”
Mr Rocchi said the email implied that sexual predators could avoid disciplinary action by declining membership of SSA.
“How does that protect children?” he asked.
Mr Rocchi also queried why Wright was training children at an SSA training camp when he was not an SSA member.
Concerns date back to 1970s
The ABC has also unearthed concerns about John Wright’s behaviour dating back to the 1970s.
Veteran Olympic swimming coach Peter Gartrell met Wright in the mid-to-late 1970s. At the time, they both trained children at pools in Rockhampton.
Gartrell recalls that he became suspicious of Wright after seeing him sitting in a parked car with a young boy.
“It happened pretty quickly. I just saw John [Wright] sitting in the driver’s seat,” Gartrell said.
“And this 14, 15-year-old boy was a good swimmer. He was sitting in the seat beside him, and John had his left arm around him, and was fairly close to the boy.
“I couldn’t tell what he was saying or anything but was just a situation that a swimming coach should not … be in.”
Gartrell says he mentioned the incident to the parent of one of the swimmers, a local detective.
“He came back to me about it and said that he never had any convictions for paedophilia or anything like that. But he was banned from training trotters in Tasmania and New South Wales.”
Gartrell says Glenis Halliday, the mother of one of the boys in his squad, complained to him about Wright’s behaviour towards her son
“She just said, ‘He’s a bad man. He can’t be around young people,’ and you know she was fairly worked up about it all.
“She did say to me she was going to sort of speak to the police about him. This was after I had mentioned him to the detective up there.”
Her son was Brydon Halliday. He was nine years old when he first met Wright.
“He was a big, huge man. Very confident and always friendly and communicative,” Halliday told the ABC.
He recalls an incident in the pool’s changing room.
“All I really remember is pushing him away in the change room,” he told the ABC.
“I’m not sure if I blocked it out … I’ve just got these little snippets of little things.
“My brother was two years younger. And he was the sort of little brother that went home and told Mum absolutely everything.
“And he was standing right beside me. So, I do remember that. And I’m sure he would have gone straight home and said something.”
He recalls his mother confronting Wright.
“I do remember a big argument on the steps entering the pool, with Mum and John, and that, not long after, the police were at home when I came home from school.”
Halliday’s mother died 15 years ago. He does not know the outcome of the police complaint and has applied to Queensland Police for any files it may have on the alleged incident.
The ABC has made exhaustive attempts to locate Wright, to put questions to him.
We approached his last known address near Newcastle but he had left in April.
His former housemate told us he might have boarded the Indian Pacific train from Sydney, bound for Perth.
His growing list of alleged victims want him found and brought to justice.
Rocchi said swimming authorities needed to do a better job of handling complaints.
“I’m lending my voice to the growing chorus of voices that the way sexual abuse is being reported and handled by the some of the swimming authorities in my country and in yours needs to change because we are still being failed,” he said.
“Until that change happens, kids are still at risk. And predators are not going to stop what they’re doing.”
Watch the story tonight on ABC’s 7.30