The following was told to espnW by a former gymnast whose coach was found guilty of rape of a child and indecent assault and battery on a person over 14. She felt compelled to share her ordeal after recent reports that USA Gymnastics has repeatedly failed to report abuse cases?in the hopes that her story, when added to the voices of other young women, can help to enact change.?
To prevent retaliation or harassment, we are not identifying her or the coach involved.
It had been three years since we started having sex when the man who would later be convicted of raping me took me to an abortion clinic. He had scheduled the appointment for after my 18th birthday so that I wouldn’t need a parent to sign their permission for the procedure.
We went to a clinic that was an hour from where he lived and he dropped me off at the corner because he didn’t want to be seen. I went in by myself, and I sat there in this room full of scared young women, all of whom had someone to support them except for me.
I was taken into the back room. I remember lying down on the table and then waking up on the table. But I was in a total daze. They wheeled me out into the waiting room and I said, “I’m ready to go.” And when they asked whether someone was there to pick me up, I said, “I’m sure he’s waiting outside.”
And there he was, waiting in his car. He took me to a restaurant, and I ate two bites of food, then ran to the restroom and vomited violently. We went back to his house and he had to go coach gymnastics, so he left me there. And I remember thinking, “What the f—? Why am I doing this? Why isn’t somebody taking care of me right now?”
I had my follow-up appointment scheduled for a week later, and during recovery you’re not supposed to have sex. But the night before I was supposed to go, he forced me to have sex with him because he “just couldn’t wait that long.”
I thought, “What am I doing with this guy?” This wasn’t a real relationship.
You’d think that any interactions with a child predator would be scary, but my first moments with that coach?didn’t scare me one bit. I was a gymnast, and he came up from Connecticut for a meet with our gym in Massachusetts, and then all of the gymnasts and coaches went to an amusement park together.
I was 13 years old, and I remember thinking he was very handsome and exuberant and had this larger-than-life personality. He was 33, and everybody wanted to be around him. He was one of those people who made you think, “I would like him to notice me.”
On that first day, we were all standing in line for a roller coaster, singing the Billy Joel song “Captain Jack.” He came up to us, a bunch of 13-year-olds, and was like, “You know what that song is about, right?” And we said, “It’s about a captain! Captain Jack?” And he said, “No, that song is about masturbation.”
And I don’t know if I’d even heard someone say that word out loud before — and obviously never a gymnastics coach. Looking back, it was this icebreaker. He threw this word out there, and all of a sudden we went from being coaches and athletes to having an adult conversation. And every teenager wants that, right?
At the end of the day he gave me a jacket from his gym, and I was the only person he gave one to, so I thought, “This is somebody who is so interesting and everyone wants to be around him, and yet he’s paying attention to me.”
I can trace everything back to that day. I wasn’t the best gymnast in the gym, so his attention was a way for me to stand out. This amazing coach has noticed me. From that day onward, I was excited to see him, and we’d see each other fairly often at gymnastics meets and at a summer camp.
For two or three weeks in July, he and two other coaches would run a gymnastics camp. It was usually held on a college campus, and we’d train during the day, stay in dorm rooms at night and do some normal summer camp things when we weren’t in the gym, such as campfires and talent shows.
But it was far from a wholesome camp experience, at least for me. Once you became a junior counselor around age 14, you were a part of the staff, and although you still trained during the day, you were allowed to hang out with the coaches at night, drinking and playing games that included things like strip poker and group showers. And that sexual environment often carried over to the daytime workouts.
Once, I finished a tumbling pass at camp and was walking past the coach when he turned to another coach and said, in front of me, “It’s taking all of my willpower not to go after that one.” I was 14 years old, walking past him in a leotard.
It didn’t matter to me that this older coach shouldn’t be making those comments. From my perspective, it was just nice to be noticed. This gymnastics camp was billed by our coaches as something special — you’re part of it, and it’s a family. Whatever happens here stays here. And if people didn’t subscribe to this and stopped coming to the camp, they would be shunned. God, you didn’t want to be outside the circle.
As gymnasts, we were conditioned to show how tough we could be, how little emotion we could show. We were trained to say that nothing bothered us and not show any sign of fear or pain.
It all clouded my ability to see that what was happening with this coach was wrong.
The first time he kissed me was in a moving truck. I was 14. He was driving. It was at the end of camp, and we were bringing mats back to one of the gyms. I remember he asked me to come sit on his lap — while the truck was speeding down the highway. My heart was racing, knowing that something was going to happen. I was completely inexperienced with boys at that point, and then all of a sudden my coach was French-kissing me.
Not long after, we were alone, and he had me put my hand down his pants and touch his penis. I knew this was not normal, and afterward I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t talk to anybody the next day. Now when I look back, I can see clearly that it was a violation — that I had trusted this person, and he went way too far. At the time, I thought I was ready for something like this. But when this very adult thing happened, I wasn’t ready at all.
We talked later about it on the phone, and he said, “Maybe you can’t handle this. Maybe you aren’t as mature as I thought you were.” He was challenging me. I was supposed to rise to it, not shy away from it. So I said, “No, no, I can handle this. I do want to be with you.” And I actually thought we were in a consensual relationship.
He would say, “You can’t tell anyone. I could go to jail. What we have is special; no one will understand.” That never triggered in my mind that something was wrong. I wanted to think that we did have something special, and I never told anyone.
He continued to pursue me. We had intercourse when I was 15. It wasn’t pleasant — it was painful. But I remember walking away and feeling proud of myself, like I got through it. It was like in gymnastics, when you do that move that you’re so scared to do.
The thing I was most scared of was getting caught, because I thought I was going to get in trouble. I thought I was the one doing something wrong.
The turning point for me wasn’t that abortion at age 18. It was about two years after that, when I was hanging out with a couple of the gymnasts he coached, and I heard about a woman he was dating. I thought that he was cheating on me, so I went back to his house, where I’d been staying, and started searching for evidence.
I found a letter one of his former athletes wrote to him, talking about how he manipulated her into having sex with him when she was 15. She said she remembered the first time he entered her and how she cried, and how he would bribe her with gifts and money not to tell anyone, that she would sneak out of her house to meet with him.
I didn’t understand. It felt like I was reading about myself. I started to realize that I wasn’t special — he had done the same thing in the past. He was a predator. I couldn’t believe there was another “me” out there.
I confronted him about it, but he somehow twisted it around so that I was in the wrong for snooping in his house. He raged at me, and I was scared of his anger. I came away feeling guilty — that I had done something wrong. And I wanted to believe that I was wrong about what I’d found. So I didn’t walk away, but I was very suspicious from that point forward, and finding that letter was the best thing that could have happened to me. It shifted my path forever.
A few months later, he called me and told me that three women — in addition to the woman who had written that letter — had accused him of sexual abuse and that there would be an article coming out in the newspaper. He said he felt horrible that he’d ruined so many people’s lives. It was the one moment when he displayed any sense of wrongdoing. Later, he would fight tooth and nail against the allegations. He said the girls were all older than 16, the age of consent, and that yes, he had relationships with them, but considered it dating because he’d been only 25 at the time.
I often wonder why I stuck by him as I watched the investigation go on. But I never felt a draw to stand beside these other women. There was a part of me that still wanted to hang on to this idea that his relationship with me was different.
The accusations from those four women didn’t lead to any criminal charges because they couldn’t prove the girls had been under 16. But he was banned from USA Gymnastics in 1998. He could no longer be a member. He made a big deal out of it at the time, but I remember thinking that it didn’t seem to have any impact on his life. Maybe parents didn’t fully understand what had happened because he tried to garner a lot of sympathy, claiming it was all untrue and unfair. Only a few parents took their gymnasts out of his gym, and he competed with his team under different organizations instead of USA Gymnastics. He still was a director at the camp, and it seemed as if other coaches stood by him.
When I look back at this, it makes me feel very frustrated by USA Gymnastics. I often think that I could have been saved if its policies were different. It all comes from the leadership down, and unless the leadership stands up and says, “We are not going to tolerate this,” nothing will change*. It needs to say, “Anyone who crosses a toe over the line we’re drawing here is going to be out. You will be banned. We’ll talk to our sister organizations, and you won’t be able to find a loophole and have access to kids. You can’t run a gymnastics camp.”
I moved across the country shortly after he was banned to pursue a graduate degree and because I knew I needed to get away from him.
After moving, I was talking to a fellow grad student who asked, “So what was your longest relationship?” I told him seven years, and he couldn’t believe it. I told him it started when I was 14, and it was with someone 20 years older than me. It was the first time I’d said any of this out loud.
And this guy just looked at me and says, “You know that’s illegal, right?” I felt like I had broken through into another universe, where there were clear lines and boundaries. I didn’t have any of that in gymnastics. And I thought, “Holy s—, what happened to me was wrong.”
I didn’t want to bring him down, though. I just didn’t want to be a part of it anymore. So I tried to reclaim my life far away from New England. But my part in it wasn’t over.
A close friend was training to be a therapist, and one day, in 2006, she talked to her own therapist about the way our gymnastics coaches had treated us. She also told her what had happened to me. And her therapist said, “Thank you for sharing that with me. I’m required by law to report this.” It was just like that.
The therapist told my friend that we could report it ourselves if we wanted to, or she would do it. I felt like my entire perspective shifted again. Even though I knew that it had been illegal, I still thought of the relationship as mostly consensual. I’d never thought that what happened to me was a crime that needed to be reported right away, and for the first time I realized this could be happening to other girls, right then. I knew I had to report it.
The process of going to trial would deter anybody from reporting sexual abuse. The district attorney warned me that it would feel like I was the one on trial. I didn’t know what that meant when he said it, but I lived it. Everything that you do is under scrutiny. Your character is questioned. People blog about you and call you a liar and say this is unrequited love or you’re just doing this to get attention.
Throughout the three weeks of trial in 2010, the defense attorney would say things like, “Are you sure you didn’t lie in your journal?” Or, “Weren’t you a very mature 14-year-old?” It was degrading and infuriating, and then we finally got to the end, and the prosecution team told me I needed to be prepared that the jury might come back with a not-guilty verdict.
My heart was pounding when they read the verdicts, and I just froze when they said guilty on every count: rape of a child (three counts) and indecent assault and battery on a person over 14 (two counts). In the elevator as I left the courthouse, I collapsed and cried hysterically. I am so grateful for that jury.
During the trial, many people had come forward with stories of abuse from the same man. I met the woman who had sent the letter that I had found in his house — the letter that had changed my life. I remember this amazing sense of community, that all of these women whom I’d never met before could tell the same story about their childhood as I could. There was so much positive energy in such a negative situation. We had been an army of women, and the pain we’d suffered as kids was validated by that verdict.
I’ve had people tell me how strong I was to go to court and take this guy down. I know it’s meant as a compliment, and I try to hold on to that. But if I could go back and have none of this happen to me, I would do that in a second.
When I look back on my childhood, I wonder who I would be without this experience. I still have nightmares that coaches are coming after me, looking for revenge. I’m scared of when he gets out of jail. It’s something that will always be with me, and I know I can never get those years of my life back.
Some of the best people in my life have constantly reminded me that we are not our experiences — that, as the quote says, we can take the lesson but leave the situation. And I do take this: We brought a group of women together who were so scared and alone, ashamed and hurt, and we created a community of survivors. And we made sure that this man could never hurt another girl.
* In a statement to espnW, USA Gymnastics said?it received a complaint about the coach in 1997 from adults who had previously been athletes in USAG. The organization hired a retired FBI agent, who investigated the complaint and spoke with local authorities. The investigation resulted in the termination of the coach’s professional membership, public notice of that termination and a lifetime ban on his participation in sanctioned competitions and other events. None of the existing USAG staff was with the organization at the time the original complaint was filed.
“It is heartbreaking and unacceptable for a young person to have the intolerable burden that results from being a victim of sexual misconduct,” USAG chief executive officer Steve Penny said in the statement. “We share the outrage that sexual assault victims and their families feel. This is why USA Gymnastics has implemented SafeSport training?and created educational materials that encourage members to contact law enforcement first when reporting incidents of abuse.”