At the ’96 Atlanta Olympics, Team USA won gold in gymnastics for the first time. It was a big deal and a big inspiration for me. I loved watching Dominique Moceanu. She was 14 and I remember doing the math and figuring out when I could be in the Olympics.
I probably started gymnastics later than most kids. My family was military, so we moved a lot. I was in third grade when I really got involved.
I was never a great gymnast, but I loved it and eventually moved up to the competitive team. That's when I met the head coach at my gym, the man that ended up abusing me.
He was the coach everybody loved. He was funny. He could physically spot you and help you do bigger skills. I was excited to be a part of that group.
It was at a time in my life, too, when I needed to throw myself into something. My dad served in Desert Storm. In the years after, he had a lot of mental health symptoms that took a toll on my parent’s marriage. The gym was a place for me to get away from the problems at home. Looking back, I know that was one of the reasons I was targeted.
I only worked with Coach for about six months before he was fired. So a lot of it went down in a short period of time.
The abuse started with subtle things. For vault, we would all have to line up against the trampoline and put our arms up and put our body in a hollow shape. As a coach, you often help mold gymnasts' bodies into the right shapes and forms. When I coach, I don't touch someone on their breast or private areas. I'll point and say, “This is where you have to push in” or I might touch the side of their ribs. He would be fully touching your chest, fully touching your body and putting you in that shape.
At the time, I’m thinking, this feels weird, but we're all in a line. He must be doing it to everybody. This must be normal.
I know now that was part of the grooming process. Him seeing, is this girl going to get upset that I just did this or not? It was him testing the limits.
But then there would be other days where it was much more obvious. On bars, he'd be standing on the spotting block and I'd be on the high bar and he would pull back my leotard to see if I wore a bra to practice that day and tell me not to and things like that. Other times, he would call me at home and be breathing really heavy on the phone, not making a lot of sense, or he would tell me to go buy a lacy black or red bra. And I'm thinking, I'm 12 years old. How am I going to go to a store and tell mom I need a lacy red bra?
So it ranged from very mild to something that was clearly not right.
At the time, I didn’t know what to do about it. He was in his late 30s and the head coach. I wanted to be on his team. I wanted his approval. And my dad wasn't around a lot then, so Coach was an important male figure in my life.
When another girl in my group was allowed to skip a level and move up, I wanted to as well and part of that was you have to practice more hours. He brought me into the office and said if I wanted more hours, I had to let him do things. I remember him hugging and touching me that day.
A lot worse stuff happened that summer when our team went to a three-day gymnastics camp with two Olympians. It was a big opportunity. My parents didn’t come on that trip. It was a lot of the team kids and a couple of chaperons, so I rode up with somebody else.
One night we're all down in the hotel pool. Everybody's swimming. The coaches were throwing kids in the pool. I was in the pool and Coach was holding me. He slipped his hand up inside my swimsuit and reached between my legs, then grabbed my hand and pulled it behind me to touch him on his swimsuit. And I'm just frozen. This was happening in front of a bunch of kids, parents, and other coaches. But I guess he was good at what he did and nobody noticed.
That same night, he and I were alone in the hallway and he stopped me and said, “You're my girl, don’t tell anyone,” and kissed me on the cheek.
Later, everybody was watching TV in one of the hotel rooms. My back was always sore, so I was laying on the bed and he was giving me a massage. I know there were other adults in the room. There were definitely other kids sitting on the bed. And he reached his hand inside my tank top to touch my breasts and I remember freaking out, like someone's going to see and I'm going to get in trouble.
I don't know how long that went on, but finally, I got up and moved to sit behind him, thinking that would be a better spot. He just turned around, and I'll never forget the look on his face and the sound of his voice saying, “Why did you move?” Then he reached his hand behind and started touching me between my legs. So it felt like, don't bother trying to move away, it's still going to happen.
I shared a room with one of the female coaches on that trip. The next day, she said that I was talking in my sleep. For a year after I was afraid: Did I say something about it? Does she know?
Coach ended up getting fired from the gym around October for sexually assaulting three of the female staff members. The parents at the gym were just told that he was no longer coaching, but there were rumors. The three female coaches were accused of lying just to get his hours.
When I found out he’d been fired, I was terrified that it had something to do with me. That someone knew. But you can't go and ask, Hey, did you fire him because of me? So I just had to carry around this worry. And I was torn. This bad stuff happened. But I also didn't want to lose my coach.
Even after he was fired, the president of the booster club held a big birthday party for him and invited the whole team. She had a daughter my age and actually let him move into her basement for a while. I remember wanting to go to the party. My parents said no and I was really upset about that.
One of the female coaches who had come forward left the gym soon after. She was someone I would confide in about things that were going on at home, so I started writing her letters. I still have some of them. I remember asking, Do you remember that night I was talking in my sleep? Because Coach did some of these things...
I didn’t know it at the time, but my mom found the letters. My parents asked me directly if anything ever happened to me but I was adamant: “No, no, no.” I mean, I didn't want to go that route, especially after hearing these three coaches were assaulted and now they're being accused of lying just to get his hours. Why would I want to own up to what happened to me?
Things were getting really bad with my dad around that time. He was later diagnosed as bipolar, but we didn't know then. With everything going on at home, my parents did get me into counseling. The therapist was well meaning, but she didn't want to report the abuse until I was owning up to it. So at least a year went by before it was finally reported to the police.
Looking back, a lot of people dropped the ball. Nobody immediately reported. Not the gym, not the coach I sent the letters to, not my mom, not the counselor.
I was 12 when the abuse started. I was almost 13 when he was fired. And I was 15 when it was finally reported. I remember going to the police station and doing a forensic interview. I know the police interviewed other people. I was told that they didn't get to interview my coach because he was avoiding them and that they didn't have enough to enforce it, which I don't quite understand.
And that's all I ever heard about it. For years.
I always say that gymnastics really hurt me, but it also saved me. Even after Coach was fired, I still needed a place to get away from what was going on at home and I really threw myself into the gym. I eventually started working there.
At one point, probably in my late teens, I found out he was working at other gyms. We got him fired a few times. The owner of my gym would call the gyms that hired him and say, “Hey, head's up. This is what has happened,” etc.
But later, he opened his own gym and then what do you do? You can't get someone fired from their own gym.
We met with a lawyer about it. He said we could publicly say something, but Coach could try to sue for slander since he was never convicted of anything. I was so torn on what to do. I would drive to his gym, it was about 30–40 minutes away, and sit in the parking lot, wanting to go inside and yell, This man’s a pedophile! But I never did.
Not long after I heard he'd been arrested for abusing another child, we’ll call her Jess, and I felt awful. I felt so guilty. Like it's my fault I wasn't able to do more. I should have stopped him.
I immediately called the police, thinking we finally have enough now to arrest him for what he did to me. But I was told that the statute of limitations had run out. I reached out to USA Gymnastics and tried to get him added to the banned member list in their monthly magazine, but they refused because he was never convicted of abuse when he was a member.
I ended up doing a short news story. I just felt like I needed to do something. I was able to connect with Jess. We talked on the phone once, but she was 14 at the time and I was 22, so it was kind of awkward.
In the end, technology finally caught up with him. With me, Coach would call. Jess, he would text. So they had documented proof to move ahead on the case. He ended up taking a plea for two years because Jess was older than 13, so it had a lesser sentence than if my case had been prosecuted. At the sentencing, a woman in the crowd stood up and started cussing at him and the bailiffs immediately took him out.
In 2016, everything started coming out about Larry Nassar. Someone I had coached with showed me a women's advocacy group that was looking for people that were abused in gymnastics and suggested I contact them.
I'm thinking, Oh, this is only for Nassar survivors, but I went ahead and filled out their questionnaire and was immediately contacted. They set me up with an attorney and slowly I became part of the USA Gymnastics U.S. Olympic Committee lawsuit.
At first, I was really hesitant. I'm not a Nassar survivor. I had that mentality that what happened to me, it wasn't that bad compared to others. I was never raped, etc. And I felt guilty being in a lawsuit against USA Gymnastics while I'm working for gyms that are part of USA Gymnastics. I didn’t want anyone ever thinking, I'm just trying to get money.
My attorney did a really great job explaining that what happened to me is bad, it doesn't matter what degree it was, and that what happened to me was also part of a culture that was allowing it to happen. Because, at some point, multiple coaches knew what had happened to me, all within the statute of limitations, and if any of these people had reported to the police, it's a lot more likely that he could have been arrested.
My attorney also said that organizations don't change unless they're forced to, and oftentimes financially is what causes those changes to happen. So if they're hit with a lawsuit because all of these bad things happened under their watch, they're going to create policies to make sure that this doesn't happen again so that they don't get sued again.
The lawsuit finally ended in 2022 and I did receive a settlement. They came up with a point system where you were financially awarded based on how many points you got based on the degree of the abuse and how often, but also for things that have occurred in your life since the abuse or during.
Parents divorcing got a point. A parent passing away got a point. There were points if there was substance abuse, mental health issues. Going through that questionnaire helped me put some things together.
In the letters I sent my coach, I talked about wanting to go on diet pills. I ended up having an eating disorder. I started cutting. I was severely depressed as a teen.
I look back on my life. I was raped in college at a party. I woke up to half my clothes off, not knowing what had happened. I let myself be in a lot of toxic relationships. I was cheated on in every relationship I was in. I came up with tests to see if a guy was bad or not. I would pretend to fall asleep next to someone and wait to see if they would try to touch me in my sleep. I remember telling my now-husband about it, thinking I'm a genius for coming up with this test, and he's like, ‘That's not normal. Do people really do that?’
I'm like, “Well, yeah.” And I could name off people that failed my test.
I think I've always grown up believing that sex is something that you let men do to you. It's not for women. So that's definitely been a process.
Jess and I reconnected later in life when we were both contacted to do another news story.
It's crazy how similar our stories are. My dad was in the Air Force and had mental health issues. Things were really rough at home. Her dad was in the Air Force. Her mom had some issues and was out of state. The gym was her escape. She started coaching there. Our stories are almost identical.
She became an attorney because of what she went through. I became a social worker for the same reason. It's funny how that worked out.
We ended up doing a couple of news stories. Both were nominated for News Emmys and one of them won. So that was cool.
And we just keep sharing our stories and supporting one another.
For the past two years, we’ve worked with a senator on a law to remove the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse for civil cases. In our state, you only have until age 21 to file a lawsuit against someone that abuses you and 21 is ridiculous. The average age of disclosure of child sexual abuse is 52 years old.
I am one of the rare cases in that I told a couple of coaches what happened. I don't want people hearing my story to think she reported, why don’t other people report when it's happening? Because that's often such a big question. I only told the police because my therapist eventually reported. Jess says she only came forward because the one friend she told said she had to tell her dad or she would tell him. Most survivors don't come forward.
I think I am also a case for why child sexual abuse laws need to change, because technically I did everything right. I did tell. I told a coach. I told a therapist. I eventually went to the police. I told a lot of people all within the statute of limitations and the ball kept getting dropped. So if it doesn't work for me, who did everything right, why are we looking down on others?
As we were working on that bill, Jess was able to get a copy of her police report and through it we pieced together that there were at least ten of us that were known to have been abused by the same coach.
One of the victims came forward for the first time after she saw the news piece that I did on TV after he was arrested. That was really impactful for me to hear. Last year, another victim came forward. So we now know we're two of 11.
We started doing a lot of more news stories and finally got the attention of some of the upper leadership in the State Senate. They changed our bill, but it passed unanimously. Now, you have until age 31 to file a civil case in our state but only if you weren't already over 21 before the bill was passed. So this new law will not help anyone for about ten years. But it's a step. We were also able to remove the statute of limitations for criminal cases of child sexual abuse. We plan to come back for the next legislative session to get a bill to completely remove the statute of limitations for civil cases.
I think the thing that has been most helpful for me is connecting with other survivors. Jess and I are probably best friends now because we just get each other. We can text and rant and go all over the place and we understand each other.
Now I'm at a point in my life where I have shared my story so many times that I've gotten very comfortable with it. I want to be able to use my voice to help others, especially others that aren't willing to come forward. I'm one of 11 that were abused by the same coach. Only two and a half of us are willing to be public about it. And that's their choice to remain anonymous. Everybody does things in their own way, and that's okay.
I want people to be aware that people who abuse children are often the last person that you would ever think would do such a thing. It’s not the creepy guy in the corner that nobody likes. They have to be able to build that trust and relationship. That's how they're able to do this.
I think parents need to teach their kids what to do if something ever happens to them, and not just assume that their kids will confide in them. I didn’t and my parents asked directly. I want my kids to know, yes, you can always come to me, but if something is ever making you feel uncomfortable, tell someone. Tell mom or dad. Tell an aunt or uncle. Tell Grandma. Tell a teacher. Tell a coach. Tell the neighbor. Tell someone, until someone listens and does something. I won't be mad at you if I'm not the one you tell.
I’ll also teach my kids that if your friend tells you that someone's hurting them or making them uncomfortable, you don't have to keep that secret. It's okay to tell your friend’s secret to help your friend. Jess got me onboard with “we don't keep secrets, we keep surprises.” Because surprises are something that everybody gets to know eventually and it's a happy thing. We're just waiting for the right moment to share that surprise.
There should never be a time that an adult tells a child to keep a secret. And that even goes for little things ‘Okay, we'll go get ice cream. But don't tell Dad I got us ice cream’ because that's instilling in that child there are things that I keep from my parents.
Mostly it’s just being aware. Be involved. Ask questions. And if something doesn’t seem right, look into it. I wish someone had for me.