The following is the second part in a series of blogs about my meeting on Saturday, December 17th with USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus. Click here for part 1.
I spent nearly all of Saturday processing. I was lucky that Kate was with me. Not only did she ask all the questions I would have kicked myself for not asking afterwards, but she was somebody else I could talk to about what had happened. She also probed me to think more about my own motivations than I had before. That afternoon I told her a secret.
It's not a secret to many of my teammates or my parents, but it is to this audience just as it was to Kate. In my life, I have been abused by my coach. Not sexually, not to the horrifying, debilitating degree that many swimmers have. But I know I was abused. When I told someone who had the power to stop it, to take a stand for me, that person chose to protect my abuser, even suggested that I deserved it. That was the experience that kept me up at night before the meeting.
I'm going to go into more detail only because I believe that it might help someone else. The abuse carried over several years. The coach knew my insecurities and attacked them precisely. The primary, but not the only, target was my weight. It was something that I'd never felt particularly self-conscious about. The more he targeted me, the worse I felt, and the more I comforted myself with food. Emboldened, one of my teammates joined in the "fun". Rather than protect me from that teammate, my coach actually forced me to swim with him every day. When I protested, he told me he was having me swim with that particular teammate so that he wouldn't pick on anyone else.
I remember the anger, sadness and frustration. I remember feeling totally powerless to do anything about it. I had to medicate myself to sleep, otherwise I would lay in my bed restless with anger. I was angry at my coach but also angry at myself for not confronting him. I thought about quitting but I was too stubborn to do it. I loved swimming and I wasn't going to let a coach ruin it for me.
After two years and with the help of family, friends and mental health professionals, I got momentum in the right direction. I lost some weight and felt better about myself. My coach's taunts turned to back slaps. Everything was fine on a superficial level, but I hadn't forgotten what it was like before. At one practice, I saw my coach go after some of my teammates. My anger was back again. I wanted to protect them, I didn't want them to be a victim like me. I wrote an e-mail I came to regret. In it I told my teammates the truth: that coach was abusive and that they didn't need to take it. They could hold their heads high.
I should have known that the e-mail would propel me into a confrontation I had long avoided. One of my teammates forwarded the e-mail to my coach. The next day I found myself in his superiors office. The two of them confronted me. Did I know how serious my allegation was? I did. They threatened to remove me from the team if I didn't recant. I stood my ground. I detailed everything as calmly as I could to my coach and his superior. When I was done, his superior asked me "But wouldn't you admit that losing some weight helped you swim faster?".
My cat out of the bag, reactions from my teammates were mixed. Some of them felt like I was putting them in the way of a fight that was just between me and my coach. Still others came to me and told me stories far more chilling than mine. They had been abused too. I felt like I hadn't done enough. so I climbed one rung higher in administration and told my story again. At this level, I at least wasn't told I deserved it, but the inaction was the same.
I didn't have peace for a long time after that again. I struggled with the same cycle of anger and frustration. I was incredibly lucky that in the next year I would meet my wife, somebody who has lifted me up in too many ways to count. After two years still feeling angry, I read in a book about the power of forgiveness. I wrote my coach to tell him that even though he had never apologized to me, I forgave him. I apologized for my own anger and immaturity in dealing with the situation.
Kate believes (as do I, to a certain extent) that our meeting would have gone differently had I been up front with Chuck and Susan about this event in my past. I have no idea whether either of them were ever abused by a coach- they may very well have been. I recognize that every individual handles it differently. I also recognize that some people will read this blog and scoff at it. They will call it a sob story and think I am playing a victim. There will be those who, like that superior, think I deserved it. I am at peace with that fact although I admit it did give me trepidation before writing this.
So I have to admit, when I see the Chuck respond to Katie Kelly's e-mail with "No formal complaint is being filed, so there is no formal action for us to take" I go back. When I see Deena Deardurff Schmidt hold a press conference and, when asked about it, Chuck says "Well...I wish she would file a complaint", I go back. I go back to that room where I sat with my abuser and someone who could do something about it but chose not to.
It's easy to give in to anger, but I've learned over the years it doesn't help. I'm incredibly lucky that I had so many people to help me do better than be angry. The best I can come up with at the moment is to continue saying as best I can to Chuck and others a simple truth: what you did was wrong.
In my next blog, I'm going to attempt to explain, but not excuse, why these things happen.