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.

5 thoughts on “Breaking a Silence

  1. Well written Aimee-Noel. Just to point out he was not fired he was allowed to retire. On another note – where were the adults? Well some were in shock because they had not idea that this was happening and others who wanted to right a wrong towards young athletes were asked to remain silent by the lead organization. So the adults who were ultimately responsible for the athletes were not there for them. It took a crisis for the perpetrator to be asked to leave but his coaching licence was never taken away and until now has been in contact with many young people. One parent said to me just the other day – “I paid a lot of money to have my child in elite sport and I should expect they will be safe on all levels”. I too am proud of these women. It takes courage to stand up against an organization that you trusted and finally say how your life was altered.

  2. Very well written… Thank you! I hope these women do know that their support network is bigger than they might think.

  3. Well written article! I was one of the unlucky ones, but it was from a different coach who is still coaching women today. I was told there was only one hotel room left when I was traveling with my coach alone. I asked him to go check, and he was adamant that all other hotels were booked. I trusted him, so I didn’t push it. Now looking back, I knew I felt uncomfortable but I chose to ignore that warning sign in my head. The coach then went and bought alcohol and stated that since I was graduating from the academy (it was April) and heading back to my public school, he wanted to share a drink with me. I took one sip and no more. I knew that I something was wrong but I was in the middle of nowhere without a car, cellphone, or any way to leave. The coach then came and sat on my bed, pushed me over and held me down. I wouldn’t look in his face and tried to push him away. He then tried to kiss me again, but I kept turning away. Luckily, he stopped at this point. I don’t know why, but things could have gone much worse for me. He then got up and told me that I could never say anything or else he would keep me out of college.

    I remember this like it was yesterday. It has been 15 years since this happened, but it will never leave me. I coached for a few years after college and I remember running into him once. I remember being terrified and walking away as he skied up to say hi. I didn’t know what to say. It was the first time I saw him since I was 18. I never wanted to see him again.

    I am currently married to a women’s ski coach that is amazing and one of the good ones. We have two young daughters that I would never want to see go through anything where someone of power abuses that power. My husband still sees that coach on the hill at times and it makes him sick that he is still coaching women. It makes me sick thinking about what he might be doing. I know there have always been rumors about this coach, but no one has spoken up. I know that this coach did not rape me. I was lucky! But I wonder if other girls and young adults were not so lucky. I worry for those athletes who trust this coach. I worry about past women that I have heard rumors about and I wonder how they are doing.

    Ski racing gave me a lot in my life. I would never give up the experiences that I had and the people I met. I wish I had been strong enough to speak up 15 years ago, but I was too scared. Also, I kept thinking that I was lucky. Today as a woman with children, not speaking out is one of the biggest regrets I have. I worry that since I was too scared, I allowed a predator to continue and possibly still is.

  4. Your questions are legitimate. Human beings are not created equal and their inner capacities along with their bringing up will define what and how they can or cannot identify, process or react to different events. When manipulation is involved, the rules may change completly! Reaching the ripeful age of majority (being therefore labeled an adult) does not shield anyone from a skilled manipulator. His work is not limited to his victims but also extends to his and their whole environnement as well in order to gain as much control as needed, as possible.
    Adults DO have responsibilities. With what I know now in life, I am proactive, aware and sensitive to predators.
    Do you need to have felt the burn to stay away from the flame? I don’t know. I knew squat when I was a young adult. What I do know is how a predator works. That is the information that I share with my children and my friends so they can use it as well. I am sorry. I have a boatload of sorries. Everyday, I try to choose not to question the past anymore because it is so draining. I try not to point fingers at anybody else than the abuser because everyone has been manipulated too.
    The focus is on what can be done now. Without hurting anyone else but him. We all felt guilt and blamed ourselves for whatever. All while he had a light heart… We need not to look in the mirror anymore. We’ve all done it to the point of excess. Let’s bring ourselves together to face him for now. Together. The way it could’ve been done back then, the way it should be done now.

  5. It took an enormous amount of courage for these women to come forward. I understand how that when you choose to write about something that is not directly your story you kind of wonder if you are seeking out the sensationalism. No. The more these conversations keep happening, the more clear and anchored the change will become. At least, that is what I hope. I am sure that there are many who find healing and coping methods on their own through the stories that come to light. There is a continuum of scale of abuse as well as one of resilience. In talking with girls of that age now, I believe that much has progressed.

    I learned of one related (alleged) case sometime around 1993 or 1994 by a second-hand account. My recollection is a bit sketchy but I remember it was pretty dramatic. So I am bowled over to see that there were incidents after that time. It is unacceptable that it is still Herculean-hard to denounce abuse. I do not want to acknowledge here arguments about the flip side – the authority figure falsely accused and ruined. Let that group band together separately. Now and in this situation, I too want to let these women know that they are believed, supported and not blamed. No coach can ever abuse their athletes. Period.

    Think of that time of overpowering emergent womanhood as a girl enters puberty. Her body is curving and shaping out and it is completely normal for her to be testing and discovering her feminine strengths, beauty and prowess. She fantasizes, tests and discovers as she walks the along the tightrope between being naive and unknowing toward adulthood. (I have given the female example, but it is true for boys as well). As you and your sister expressed, the majority of coaches dedicated and hardworking and like that one teacher we all had who influenced us beyond the others, a few are exceptional. I feel learned great, life-long lessons from ski racing.

    A coach has a highly privileged relationship with their athletes. Often they are more influential than either parents or peers. In ski racing, athletes travel with their coaches for weeks at a time. The level of intensity of living a life away from home; training, competing, eating, sleeping, doing school work, dealing with injury and illness, managing conflict and friendships – is all so intoxicating. Athletes dig into themselves to rise to the various challenges and this self-discovery is one of the great benefits of sport. However a teen is still just a kid. The coach, who becomes central to everything, must always hold the best interests of the athletes entrusted to them to heart. And like a psychiatrist, lawyer, doctor, or teacher they should be held to a higher standard of accountability. I do not know if the program has changed but back in the day, ski coaching levels were awarded based on ski technique, analysis of technique, course setting etc. There was no aspect of sport or developmental psychology or ethics. If we are to believe the recent news stories, it would seem that abuse happens in other sports too (hockey, swimming) and schools, scouts, church groups, families….the list is long. Who is teaching sex education? It was taken out of the school curriculum in Quebec. Should sport federations be addressing the subject directly as a part of athlete development? Should there be support mechanisms for the coach who experiences feelings of attraction to their athletes and strategies of how to deal with an athlete who falls in love with the coach? I wonder how long-time married power ski couple, Karen Lee Gartner and Max Gartner, would weigh in on this topic. I believe it would be better to bring these “taboos” to light and have open discussion instead of having the uncomfortable under-the-blanket of secrecy. I think there is a place for this as part of coaching certification training – beginning at club levels. We must find mechanisms for prevention. I think that the ski racing network is filled with intelligent, educated men and women with vast scope of experience in a variety of domains. I encourage them to reflect and then act. Write your experiences, thoughts and solutions.

    Those who prey on minors and abuse their power can never be entrusted with children. They must be found out and denounced. The victims should have help, counselling and know they are supported.

    Michele Van de Kaa

    Former: Member of N.O.D
    Club Coach – Adanac-Laurentian
    Assistant Juvenile Coach – Zone Laurentienne
    Coach – N.O.D. Juvenile Team
    Sales – Mont Tremblant
    Instructor – Club Tremblant
    Real Estate Sales – Intrawest
    Ski Area Manager – Mont Bechervaise

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