Breaking a Silence

So this happened:

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I am among the many for whom this week’s breaking news was not news. When I saw it, my reaction was simple – finally, get lost, disgusting pervert, enjoy jail. As it turns out, however, there was much more sitting on that dusty old shelf in my brain.

I have hesitated to write this. This is not my story. He was never my coach. ‘It’ took place the year I left Canada to ski in Colorado. I have had a glimpse of the aftermath over the years, but that does not come close to living it. I am reluctant to put words onto someone else’s experience or to come off like I am trying to be at the centre of something now that it is national news.

But I am saying my piece anyways. I feel that I contributed to creating an environment that helped keep a dirty secret for way too long. Furthermore, there is no such thing as too much talk about sexual abuse and I want these women to know that I back them and that their support base is bigger than they may know.

Culture of secrecy

This week I ended up chatting with a friend I haven’t seen in years who said, “after 20 years of therapy, this is so beyond freeing I can’t even put into words”. I also received a message from a different friend who is “trying not to think about it because after years of making me miserable I decided to put it behind me and be happy”.  ‘G’, the first to come file charges, steadfastly denied it since 1998. When she saw him recently in a store, she had a panic attack and hid beneath the stairs.

I had no idea. I grossly underestimated how much he took from people and how many of my friends and peers kept it to themselves because it was not a safe environment to talk about it.

In the wake of the ‘scandal’, news poured in and continued to pour in for years. Most of it was framed as who was ‘sleeping with’ him. I think we even vilified one of the victims that pulled the rug out from under it all by quite publicly implicating herself.  It led to him being fired and ended the abuse, but conversation hinted that she was calculating since she knew at least one other girl was already ‘involved’ with him.

No wonder people denied it for 20 years.

Add to the mix that these were highly focused performance-driven athletes in their prime in a sport that is especially psychological, and you have a perfect recipe for secrecy. Conditions change every day in skiing. Becoming the best involves learning to focus expressly on elements within your control. Each girl was highly conditioned to internalize their own actions and release the parts that were not.  Nobody knew that better than him: he taught it.

We were teenagers, we knew shit all. But of course we felt perfectly in control of our own decisions. I know I did.  And I became one of many who projected that onto the situation. It was well understood that he was a predator, but it was definitely implied that there was an element of choice. I contributed, without meaning to, the stigma that led people to stay quiet. We missed a crucial opportunity to make these girls feel safe and a teaching moment that could have re-framed how we understood and handled the issues.

What should have happened was a rallying cry by everyone in the sport that said something like this:

“We are really sorry for what you have been through. That someone used some of your greatest strengths against you in the worst way possible. It is not your fault. Can we do anything to help you heal all the while respecting your privacy?” Repeat.

If we failed to do it or did not know how because we were stupid teenagers, someone should have stepped in and taught us. Which brings me to my next point:

Where the fuck were the adults?

I won’t be-labour this point too much, but only because I don’t know the details.  Otherwise, my wrath on this subject has the voracity to break the internet faster than Kim Kardashian’s backside. I am an adult now and like to think I have a simple understanding of our basic duties as responsible, moral beings. From where I sit, these girls were completely and appallingly failed.

Let’s pretend for a second that no adult – no coach, no staff, no administrator, or otherwise knew about this while it was on-going. Or that, if they did, they pulled out all the stops to end it but, through no fault of their own, fell short. And that when it finally blew up, all of them stood up for the girls and fought like dogs to make things right. Because imagine the horrible message that would send to a bunch of kids if the very adults charged with their care chose to turn the other cheek instead. I mean, nothing says you are valued and supported… impunity for the perpetrator.

But somehow, 20 years later, the same sociopath is in the exact same position – coaching 12 year old girls?! And who had to stand up to change that? One of the victims. Twice, because her first efforts were ignored.

I get that there were limitations to what people could do without the girls coming forward or taking legal action. And I fully respect that they wanted to put it behind them.  But let’s put the bullshit aside – every one knew about this. It was the worst kept secret ever and there was enough evidence for him to lose his job the next day. This means there was enough to do more. Instead, people chose to avoid upsetting the balance of a system that allowed it to happen in the first place or to protect their own reputation or job. That is just pathetic.

It could have been me

In the throws of my sadness, I rattled off a message to my sister pledging to keep my daughter the hell away from individual sports. Her former coach was charged with sexual misconduct involving underage boy athletes. Out of 2 daughters, 2 were proxy to gross abuses of power but managed to avoid it.

My sister (the younger) had a far more balanced response:

“We may have been lucky, but I think that we ended up ok. There are a ton of coaches who are healthy, balanced and positively influence their athletes.”

She is right, as usual. It could have been either of us. I bring it up because it is an important point in ensuring the girls understand it wasn’t their fault and in changing how we approach the issue.

As a parent, I would like to believe we have some control, but I know better. The girls were well-parented and this predator designed it to fall outside the parenting spectrum. I joked with my friend that my unibrow came in handy after all and saved me. It’s not true either.  I was totally vulnerable.

I had as much teenage angst and insecurity as anyone.  I was equally focused  – I wasn’t cool or fashionable, the boys didn’t like me, but I could ski. My coaches, all but 1 of whom were male, had an alarming ability to influence. I am just lucky (and grateful) that they were stand out people who recognized their power and used it for good.

In the spirit of this blog, I want to take a minute to mention one in particular – Hans Edblad. When I was 14 I had my most successful year. Skiing for one of the small clubs, I spent countless hours with him, most of it alone. I did everything he said. He could have convinced me of anything he wanted. I have no doubt that he understood his power and that he used my commitment and competitive nature as a protracted opportunity to teach me about life. He taught me discipline, commitment and goal-setting. He challenged me spiritually and continuously raised the bar for how I behaved.  He encouraged me to dream big and showed me how to make them come true. It was among the most magical times of my life and certainly the most empowering relationships. I often wonder if he understands how much of his impact remains.

In the end, skiing is nothing more than trying to go as fast as you can down a pile of snow while wearing sticks. All the girls whose worlds’ were once so singular, have moved on. We are professionals, parents, citizens. Sport will forever be a building block that helped shape us, but never the end game. I hope coaches understand their ability to influence and how fragile kids – no matter how hard they come across – really are and that their true duty is as stewards of their well-being.

To the girls that were victimized – I am sorry for what he took from you. I am sorry I didn’t do more to help you heal. It was never your fault. Your courage in coming forward (or not, because that is ok too) is so very admirable. You were, and still are, exceptional role models for so many girls to follow. I am 100% behind you in making sure this never happens again.