When I was a 15-year-old gymnast, I missed qualifying to nationals, but that wasn’t the worst thing that happened that day. Driving home from that meet I was riding with my coach as well as two teammates. I had known for several years that my coach had a “relationship” with my friend Katie, who was sitting on my right. He was on my left driving (back in the day of front bench seats). He had been pretty talkative with me about how much he loved me for a couple years, and teased me a lot, and talked more about my body and sex than I was comfortable with, but until that day I felt like it was all fairly ok. I felt like he really loved and respected me.
It seemed almost like a game. He was married with a kid, and he was sleeping with Katie too, he just flirted with me and talked a lot, but nothing was really wrong in my head because nothing physical had happened. Another teammate had told me about him and Katie years ago, but then Katie told me herself more than a year before the day that I failed to qualify for nationals when everything changed. It was raining, and one of the windshield wipers had broken off the car we were driving. There was a sock over it to keep it from scratching the glass and I was almost in a trance watching it go back and forth on the windshield wiping a thin line clear.
I was devastated that I had failed to qualify for nationals AGAIN and had been crying a lot already. This was my last season to do gymnastics. My last chance to compete at the level that I knew I should be competing at. My body was hurting all the time and I weighed in at 115lbs. I felt like I was too big to do this for 6 more years and that’s what finishing high school and four years of college meant. I fell off the beam four times that day and beam was typically my best event.
I had tanked, and there was no going back. I felt like a complete failure and now I had to tell the people who hadn’t witnessed it. There was a blanket laying over our laps and he was holding my hand under it even though Katie was right next to me and would probably be angry. She had been asking me lately whether or not anything had happened between us, and at that point I could honestly say no (at least not physically). We pulled into a rest stop and I jumped out and ran inside to call my dad. I was tearful and just leaning up against the telephone booth when he came in and walked right up to me, grabbed my chin and bent down and kissed me on the lips.
Katie and our other teammate were coming in right behind them but he immediately hugged me and I don’t think they saw. While I was terrified and adrenalized, I can’t say that I was really all that surprised. Just by the way that he had been talking to me for the past year, I knew it was something that he had wanted to do, but I NEVER THOUGHT HE WOULD BE SO BOLD. My heart was racing, and all the sadness of working my butt off for the past 13 years and still not making it to Nationals became pretty insignificant.
What was going on?! He was with Katie, not to mention his wife, not to mention the fact that I was dating my first ever boyfriend whom I loved very much, and I really thought he respected that. In that one instant in my head I became a cheater, an accomplice to adultery, a horrible friend, and pretty much DAMAGED GOODS.
The next several months went fast. I knew I was quitting the only sport I had ever known. He was leaving to go to Chiropractic College in a different state, and any and all of this drama was going to end because of that, but he was also a father figure in my life and I was going to miss him profoundly. He found places to get me alone every once in awhile and kiss me. Every time I was sweaty and shaking and didn’t quite know what to do. The attention that he used to give me that felt loving and respectful now felt polluted and foul. Katie switched from being jealous to strangely accepting, and it all culminated in a night where she and I lied to our parents that we were staying at one another’s houses and we spent the night with him at his house. Two songs came on that night while we three were sitting together on his hideaway bed in the living room which I will never forget: Benny Mardones “Into the Night” and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons “My Eyes Adored You”. He knew them each word for word and sang them in their entirety. It took me years to realize that that probably was not a coincidence. He took turns leaning over to each one of us and kissing us and we were all holding hands.
Fast forward 15 years. I am 30 and just called off an engagement. I have a professional job, own my own house, and have an awesome dog. I feel broken. I feel like I can’t do anything right when it comes to men and relationships. I have dated lots of wonderful men and am clearly a serial monogamist, but nothing seems to work out or stay good. Thankfully I didn’t fall into that reckless promiscuity that some who’ve had their boundaries blurred can so easily and understandably do. I decide to reach out to Katie and see how she is; we haven’t spoken in twelve years. We start to reconnect and find that our situations are eerily similar. We appear to be successful professionals, but there is something missing in our worlds and neither of us has had a successful relationship (we both want it).
I will make a very long and amazing story short and summarize what happened next. We decided to go to the police and make a report. It was an old case, but seven months or so later one of his chiropractic patients reported him for inappropriate behavior, he was brought in the next day and arrested after questioning about us. The floodgates opened and so many women came forward with stories about him that the State had to close the case at seven of us. He was offered many reasonable pleas, but he has a god complex and wouldn’t accept one. About a year and a half later we finally went to trial. We testified and sat through five full days of a jury trial and finally he was convicted on four counts of rape and two counts of gross sexual misconduct. He was sentenced to forty-three years in prison. His church congregation (literally hundreds of people) and family supported him to the end and yelled profanities at us after his conviction.
Not long after Katie and I reconnected, we both met our present husbands. We are now both happily married with two children (each) and I personally don’t think that I would be if it weren’t for dealing with that injustice to my teenage self. I struggle sometimes to trust that my children are safe in what appears to be completely safe settings, but thanks to the help of adventure healing (rock climbing and skiing), great friends, an excellent therapist, self care, homeopathy, a judicial system that worked, and Katie’s willingness to move forward and tell her story, I am generally GREAT.
The following are a few things that you can do to help prevent grooming from happening to those you love:
- Keep an eye on the relationship that your child has with YOU first. Keep conversations as open as possible and let them know they can come to you with anything. Talk about specifics of what this might mean (someone telling them they love them, complimenting their bodies, or that they wish they could spend time alone with them, etc.).
- Monitor anyone in a power position with your child (teacher, coach, close neighbor). Ask your kids directly about what they talk about and their relationship with that person when you are not around. Make sure that your child understands that some conversations are completely inappropriate with these people and to tell you immediately if someone makes them at all uncomfortable or asks them anything extremely personal.
- Take basic precautions with adults traveling with your children. Have an extra adult along if kids need to travel with a coach or a parent other than yourself.
- Do not trust that nothing could happen with multiple children (or even adults) present. Predators find subtle ways to get alone time and gradually get closer and closer.
- TRUST any child who tells you that a coach/teacher/family member makes them uncomfortable or has said or done something. Get details on what happened and bring it up with a healthcare professional or therapist if you are unsure of whether or not the action is worthy of reporting to the police. Worry more about the child than the potential of ruining someone’s reputation. (Our coach was allegedly fired from the prior gym for having sex with a student at a sleepover, but he was such a “nice guy” they didn’t tell our gym’s owners).
At the wise old age of 39 when I look back on this I think about how it impacted me, I can see it much more clearly. I am not broken and I never was. I had really blurred boundaries for a lot of years. I coped, sometimes in healthy ways and sometimes in unhealthy ways. I finally approached it head on and that’s when I started to truly understand the depth of the pain that I experienced. It didn’t matter that the physical acts that happened were not all that many or all that intense. It was the clear crossing of a line that should have never been crossed that destroyed some little part of myself and planted a seed of shame inside me. During my healing process I mourned for my 15-year-old self. I let go of the shame and the guilt. I finally understood that he was a predator, not a great friend and coach. I now know the difference between a heartfelt caring relationship and one that’s about power and manipulation. I trust myself in knowing the difference and this is how I’ve truly healed. If I can help you or someone you love on a similar journey, please contact me.