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In Our Own Words

“I was sexually assaulted by my coach”

By: Anonymous USA Cycling member  November 12, 2019

An Anonymous USA Cycling member was sexually assaulted by her coach; here she shares her experience of reporting, the SafeSport process, and how we all play a role in prevention.

***This is one individual's experience and not meant to represent a broader population***

Some people say it is healing to read or write about something traumatic but the honest truth is that every time I try, my heart starts racing and I’m shaking from adrenaline. It didn’t used to be this way, there was a time when the memory of that day was packaged into a neat little box at the very edge of my brain. The memory was (relatively) easy to ignore, to pretend it didn’t happen or that it happened differently. That all changed when I reported my sexual assault.

Everyone who experiences sexual misconduct will have a very different story, and I don’t claim to speak for the masses. My hope is that by sharing my story I might provide some insight on sexual assault and help educate other athletes.

What happened

I was sexually assaulted by my coach. I was 22, he was married and more than twice my age. At the time, I didn’t understand the gravity of what had happened, and tried to move on as best I could. It was almost a year before I finally made the decision to report. After an additional year of investigation, The US Center for SafeSport (SafeSport) determined that he had committed sexual misconduct and suspended him for two years plus two years of probation. He appealed the decision, and ultimately the sanction was overturned by an arbitrator.

Why didn’t I report it immediately?

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Some people have trouble understanding, if this really happened…why didn’t I report it right away? In fact, it’s something I still struggle with. If only I’d told someone sooner, things might’ve turned out differently. I am still myself processing what happened, but this is my best attempt at explaining why it took me some 11 months to report.

Ignorance: I genuinely did not know that what happened to me would be considered sexual assault. For reference, Wikipedia defines sexual assault as “an act in which a person intentionally sexually touches another person without that person's consent, or coerces or physically forces a person to engage in a sexual act against their will.” I didn’t go look up sexual assault right after it happened because I didn’t think it was predatory at the time; I thought it was an accident. I thought that I’d made the mistake, that I had given the wrong impression. He was my first personal coach, and I didn’t know what was considered “normal.” Furthermore, I didn’t know that I had options for recourse or what they were.

Strength: From an outsider’s perspective, I always thought this one sounded really stupid. Why on earth would someone suffer abuse in order to appear strong? How does that make sense? Here is what I have to say about it… It wasn’t a conscious decision; I didn’t think to myself “I’m not going to report this because I don’t want to appear weak.” What made me feel “strong” was my ability to let whatever he said wash over me and to keep living my life despite what had happened, I didn’t want to be a victim. I continued to be successful both athletically and in academics. “Let him see that he can’t hurt me,” I thought. “Victim” has a negative connotation in our society. A victim is someone who is being dramatic, a whiner, a tattletale. Someone who couldn’t stand up for themselves. Realizing that I didn’t have the power or the weight to stand up for myself was a crushing blow. From my perspective, I was up against someone who had been a part of the local cycling community for over twenty years, someone who appeared to know everyone, someone who was larger than life. I’d barely been alive for twenty years! Not only could I not defend myself in a physical sense when the assault happened, I felt like I couldn’t defend myself in my own community when my word disagreed with his.

Love: This one is really hard to understand but I’m going to write about it because it is important. I actually thought I loved him--not in the romantic sense--but in the family/close friend sense. In my family (comprised of Mexican-American heritage), we say “I love you” to everyone; aunts, uncles extended family etc. I tell my closest friends that I love them and that’s how I envisioned our coach-athlete relationship. What’s more, he actually encouraged me to use the word “love”. He told me another one of his athletes had said it, and had looked at me expectantly, made me feel like I should say it too. He used a lot of “love” words in order to manipulate me. He would say how he was only doing this because he loved me and cared about me, that his heart was always open, etc. These things seem like obvious red flags now, but at the time they were a disguise for what was really going on. Having told him that I loved him was another reason that I felt responsible for what had happened, even though he encouraged it. Even after I was assaulted, I still cared about him and I didn’t want to hurt him. I believed that he didn’t want to hurt me because he said he loved me. He would send me emails telling me how he is always there for me, how giving he is, how he wants nothing in return. I didn’t understand the concept of grooming then, but I see it clearly now.

Loyalty: It took years of knowing him before he sexually assaulted me. And in that time, with his help, I’d become a national champion, twice. It wasn’t just his coaching either (which he gave me at a significantly reduced price). He’d lent me all kinds of equipment, helped me with bike mechanics, even purchased things for me on occasion although I almost never asked for anything. Have you ever had someone do you a favor that you didn’t ask for and expect something in return? Magnify that a hundred times. I felt indebted to him, and the way he talked, I was nothing without him. When I started to come to grips with what kind of person he was, I tried to set some boundaries and was always met with a hurt message asking why I was being “combative” and saying how much he’s done for me while I “owe him nothing.”

Trust: Ultimately, the reason that what happened occurred is because I put my absolute trust in someone. I think this is something that people tend to forget about being in your early twenties. You are still looking at older people as “adults” who have your best interests at heart. You want to please them, to earn their respect. Reality doesn’t really set in for a few years of realizing that people aren’t perfect (and neither are you). This is why sexual assault and rape is so common between children and family members. I am not trying to compare in severity by any means but the tendency to put trust in “adults” doesn’t vanish when you turn 18. While there was a lot that I didn’t see, there were definitely some things that made me uncomfortable. The reason that I looked past them though was because I trusted him. Trust further deterred me from reporting because once I finally realized that I couldn’t trust my coach, I wasn’t sure who I could trust. He even made me fear reaching out to my own family who he had connected with while coaching me.

Pride: Admitting to myself that I was sexually assaulted and emotionally manipulated meant that much of this had happened without my realizing it. My pride almost couldn’t take feeling so incredibly stupid. Once I started telling some close friends and family what had been going on, it seemed so obvious. How could I have been so blind? Perspective can play a huge role in perception. It also highlights the fact that abusers are very good--and very practiced at--abuse. Many times, abusers were abused themselves, something that my coach even told me about himself. Furthermore, only with time and perspective did I realize that one can be an intelligent person and still be emotionally immature. I think I was very emotionally immature at the time and I don’t think that is highly unusual for someone in their early twenties.

Fear: I testified that I was afraid my coach would try to hurt my career if I reported the assault, which was true but only a fraction of the reasoning behind why I waited so long to report. The defense argued that because my coach did not directly call my team manager, he did not hurt my career and therefore my supposed ‘fears’ were unfounded and could not have been a plausible reason for my not wanting to report. I think this is ridiculous because even if something isn’t ‘real’ you can still be afraid of it. But it wasn’t just that I was afraid of him hurting my career. I was afraid of long-term emotional abuse. He had at one point gone so far as to call my dad, saying he was “worried” about me, asking about my childhood. He later used these details to try to hurt me, saying that he’d “learned of my past” and that I was “messed up” or “acting like my mother” (my parents were divorced). He even went so far as to suggest that I “relocate.” After things ended between us, he continued to attempt to discredit me in any way that he could. I told myself that once a bit of time passed, he would cool off and leave me alone. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

Life: Reporting him meant that I would be putting not just him or myself through emotional turmoil, but possibly our loved ones as well. I wasn’t wrong in fearing this either. Now that I’ve reported, I still have trouble talking about the assault or the case without feeling upset. It was so much easier when it fit into that little box at the edge of my brain. I didn’t know the SafeSport process would take over a year from start to finish. During that time, my closest relationships were tested more than ever before. I also knew my coach’s wife, and always thought I liked her. I didn’t particularly want to put her through this process either...I didn’t want to be a real-life “homewrecker.” Not only that, but life doesn’t stand still when things like this occur. Try talking to a lawyer about sexual assault and then going back to class or to work or go on a ride (all of which applied to me at the time).

Reflections on the SafeSport Process

First, it was crushing for me to take the SafeSport training and read the SafeSport Code and realize that a lot of this could have been prevented if I had known what to look for. After reading through all of that, it was clear that there was a lot about our coach-athlete relationship that was inappropriate. I don’t believe that national governing bodies (NGBs) are doing enough to make this information known to athletes. Furthermore, material from SafeSport is geared towards potential abusers rather than educating potential victims. It also deals mostly with child sexual abuse which is another issue when considering sports like cycling that have large adult memberships.

If you make a report and SafeSport accepts jurisdiction, you will engage with an investigator who will gather evidence and write a report of findings on the case. For me, this process lasted over a year. The investigator will then give the report to a “decision maker” whose job it is to determine the outcome. I did not hear back from SafeSport representatives for long periods of time during this process. They are completely overloaded and do not currently have enough resources. That said, I believe it is worth the wait for a good decision to be made. I hope in the future that more resources will be allocated towards SafeSport so that they can improve their process.

Once a decision is made, SafeSport will send a written letter that contains all of the evidence and a summary of the decision. This was incredibly tough for me to read. Even though SafeSport had concluded that sexual misconduct did occur, it still can be very painful to read through witness testimony. This is where I felt that I finally understood some of the issues that plague women, particularly those in the public sphere. Up until this point, I’d never felt that objectification, double standards etc. really affected me. It was a rude awakening to read that there were rumors about me sleeping with my coach. All of a sudden, the comments I’d heard from others over the years seemed darker. I don’t think most of these guys were out to get me, but they certainly helped create an environment that made my coach feel it was okay to think about me and to touch me the way that he did. Not only that, but I finally understand how objectifying someone can be degrading. After reading all of the testimony, it seemed evident that my word was worth less than his to people in our local community as a result of some of these false rumors.

After notification of SafeSport’s decision, the defending party can decide whether or not to appeal and if an appeal is made, a date is set for the arbitration. I didn’t have to testify but was told that it would be helpful if I did. Here is where I think I went wrong. I was so exhausted and overwhelmed at this point, that I allowed the arbitration to be scheduled at an extremely inconvenient time, just because I wanted so badly for it all to be over with. I had been lulled into a sense of security by the fact that SafeSport had found my coach in violation of the SafeSport Code.

The defense tried everything possible to discredit me rather than focusing on the event itself. Overall the ordeal was more than twelve hours. Needless to say, I wasn’t the sharpest at the end when SafeSport’s lawyer asked if there was anything else that I wanted to say. Even the arbitrator himself stated toward the end that it was too much in one day and that they should consider more time in the future.

In contrast to the year it took for SafeSport to look at all the evidence and come to a decision, everything was presented to the arbitrator in just a day. I want to believe that the arbitrator in my case evaluated the evidence fairly, impartially, and to the best of his ability, but the fact of the matter is that we all have biases based on our past experiences. Still, it came as a shock that he made the decision to overturn the sanctions imposed by SafeSport.

Overall, I think there is a lot to be improved about the process. One of my biggest disappointments about it is that I felt like SafeSport overlooked the mental/emotional aspect of my experience. Again, I didn’t realize initially that the actual event was considered sexual assault, I only found that out after talking to a SafeSport representative about it. I thought I was reporting that to some degree when I called, but I actually had a lot more grief about the emotional abuse that I was suffering. For me, at the time, that was the worst part. It is an extremely complex, multifaceted issue that should be analyzed as such. SafeSport did consider this when they made their decision but when it came to arbitration, very little weight was given to that aspect. Again, I think this had to do with how little time there was in the single day of the arbitration hearing.

Prevention

My case may not have resulted in sanctions being imposed and upheld, but I like to think that doesn’t mean that I didn’t do anything. My hope is that by coming forward, I’ve helped to pave the way for more cases to be made and removed some of the stigma surrounding this issue. I think people generally don’t consider the idea that sexual misconduct is occurring until it happens to someone they know. This is a letter to those in the cycling community who may be skeptical that sexual assault and emotional abuse is happening in our sport…it is happening, closer to you than you realize.

Ultimately, we as a community can help prevent these instances of abuse from ever occurring. How can we be proactive instead of reactive? Even if it isn’t happening to you, you can be on the lookout for others. You can speak up and educate yourself, your kids, your teammates and your friends. Teach them about why physical and emotional boundaries are important and make yourself a safe person to talk to about issues. I’ve learned that having a safe/open space to talk about things makes a world of difference. When I signed with my first professional cycling team, I finally had peers I could relate to better than I ever had before. I suddenly realized how very alone I’d been. When we lack a close peer group to confide in, we start to become very isolated emotionally. Having a trusted group of confidants is absolutely part of the reason I finally gained the confidence to come forward.

More than anything else, we need to make it known that inappropriate behavior is not okay. Brushing something off because someone is “eccentric” or “charismatic” means that we are allowing that person to feel that their actions are acceptable. They will continue to push boundaries over time until something more serious eventually occurs. Just because someone may have a long-standing history in their community doesn’t mean it’s okay to let their caustic, uncomfortable remarks go unchallenged. I understand that it can be incredibly difficult to say something because often the people who push boundaries are very reactive and unstable. You may not personally want to get on their bad side, but if we as a community decide to reject that kind of behavior then it becomes much easier to take a stand. Furthermore, by highlighting inappropriate behavior, we are teaching younger, more vulnerable athletes about boundaries. I learned long after I stopped working with my coach that he made a lot of people (women in particular) uncomfortable. However, I can think of only one instance where someone actually said something to him about it in public.

Final Thoughts

One of the things that made me hesitate in speaking up was that what I experienced seemed insignificant when it came to “more serious” forms of sexual misconduct. I felt taken advantage of, hurt, and abused but I wasn’t raped/penetrated. I wasn’t sure that I had the right to be upset about it, given what others have been through, and sometimes I still feel that way. For anyone who is struggling with the same feeling, that maybe it’s not worth it to report something less than rape, consider that having a record of sexual misconduct could help build a case against someone. It’ll also likely discourage that person from going further in their abuse. You also have the option of reporting anonymously to SafeSport if you choose to. While this option holds slightly less weight, it can still add to a case down the line.

The reality, though, is that reporting was the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do. I chose to go see a counselor a few times when I was really struggling and didn’t want to keep weighing on my friends and family. She told me that this might never permanently go away but would get easier with time. I don’t mean to discourage anyone from reporting but rather to better prepare anyone considering it for what lies ahead. I have to admit that I didn’t feel particularly brave in making a report, I just didn’t know what to expect. Now, I understand why people say that it is a “brave” thing to do. I think it is important for people to understand the process and the potential outcomes before they choose to report. The current SafeSport system makes this difficult because of the secrecy surrounding the process and I believe that is a disservice to victims. Every person and every situation are different and ultimately the physical, mental and emotional health of the athlete should be paramount. For me, it was worth it to come forward because I had the opportunity to stand up for myself in a situation when I otherwise would have simply continued to suffer abuse, but that might not be the case for everyone.

I hope I’ve shed some light on why it can be so difficult to report sexual misconduct and hence make a decision that will so greatly impact one’s life. Bringing issues to light that impact women in particular will help increase equity, safety and fairness in our sport. While it is everyone’s responsibility to speak up when there is inappropriate behavior occurring, consider that many women in your community might not have an avenue to confirm their feelings. That reassurance is crucial in order to gain the confidence to stand up for yourself. So, on a parting note, let’s all look out for one another. Consider the implications of not only your actions but your inactions. Together we can shift the long-term health of our athletes, our community and our wonderful sport.


About the Contributor

In Our Own Words welcomes all contributors. Sometimes for a particular story, contributors wish to remain anonymous to protect themselves. USA Cycling respects those decisions and will publish and share these contributors stories. If you have a story to share with In Our Own Words, please email Kelsey Erickson.