When a high school student told his teacher, John-Michael Lander, about an inappropriate relationship he was having with an adult man in his 30s, Lander knew he had to report the incident to his school’s assistant principal. But the experience awoke painful memories within Lander’s own psyche, and he began to recall the sexual abuse he had suffered, at various hands, during his time as an elite highschool diver for Team U.S.A.
At 15, Lander had just finished eighth at the Junior Olympics. His future in the sport looked bright, but diving was an expensive endeavor, and Lander’s family was struggling to make ends meet. One day, a lawyer reached out to the young athlete’s mother, volunteering to start a fund to assist with his diving-related expenses, and eventually, medical, dental, and eye services for the whole family.
In turn, the grooming and sexual abuse Lander was subjected to by his coach, doctor, and other “benefactors” severely altered the trajectory of his life. “I literally felt like I created two different people,” he says. “There was the boy who was sinful, and guilty, and dirty, and was everything my father didn’t want; and then there was the [ability to] do this to help my family. I kept telling myself, ‘As long as I’m helping my family, then this is okay.’”
Today, Lander’s Tedx talk about his experiences has been viewed more than 2,800 times on YouTube, and he is the author of three books, including the autobiographical Surface Tension (2017), which explores the year he prepared for the World Games. “I think we really have to look at [sexual abuse toward men] from our society’s aspect, [and what it takes] for a male to come forward.
“We’re dealing with all this masculinity and anxiety, and we’re not allowed to talk about it,” Lander says. “[But] I think we’re at a time in our history where people are starting to listen. [There] are people out there that will believe you.”