My mom put me in gymnastics when I was not quite three years old. I’d been jumping on the couch so much that I was ruining the furniture, and she figured I needed something to do with all my energy.
Growing up, gymnastics was my happy place. I was small and strong, and I was good at it, and pretty quick, so I loved it. I also had my own set of friends at the gym that were different from my friends at school. It was something that was all mine.
The man that would eventually abuse me was my coach. He was hired as the coach of the High-Level team at my gym, which I wouldn’t join until a few years later. In the summer when I was 12, our extended team went to Australia as a showcase for the World’s Fair, and he was with us.
I remember feeling on that trip like I wanted to be around him. He was a charismatic guy. People used to call him ‘Mr. Wonderful’; he was just this bigger-than-life personality. I was drawn to him.
My parents divorced the year before that trip. I was living with my mom and my dad and brother lived somewhere else. So I had a broken family, if you will, and I remember him checking in on me about that. He’d ask me questions about how I was doing at home, and how my brother and my dad were doing. He started talking to me a lot, and it felt like we developed a special friendship, even before we had an actual coaching relationship.
In seventh grade, I joined the High-Performance team and one of my teammates basically told me to watch out for him, because he was ‘seeing’ another member of our team. The next year, the girl he was seeing, we’ll call her Sarah, told me herself that they were in a ‘relationship.’ She was 14. He was in his 30s.
By then, ‘Mr. Wonderful’ was already telling me he loved me all the time, something I realize now was part of the grooming process. He would talk about my body, my abs in particular; and ask if he could touch them. He would tell me sexual stories about himself and other women, and within them, he would plant these keywords or ‘seeds’ that he would say out loud later in front of other people, when I was there. It was a kind of secret between us, because no one else would know that he was actually making a sexual reference, but I did.
In ninth grade, when I had started high school, he got married to another coach at our gym. That was a surreal experience.
He was up there at the altar, and Sarah and I were standing there, together, attending his wedding. I learned later that he had told her at one point that he would wait for her, and they would get married when she turned 18. But she’d told him, ‘No, don’t do that.’ And so there she was, at my side, crying the whole time. Looking back, there were so many different dynamics going on that day.
My sophomore year in high school was the last year of my gymnastics career. ‘Mr. Wonderful’ was leaving to go to chiropractic college out of state that June. And my body just wasn't handling the demands of the sport anymore, and I knew it.
I had been at the level that I should have qualified for nationals many times, but something would always happen; I would fall off the beam five times, or something, and it wouldn’t work out. As I reflect back, there was so much psychological noise in my head during those years, and I’m sure a lot of it resulted in self-sabotaging. But the stakes were even higher that spring because it was my last opportunity to qualify for nationals.
Long story short, it didn’t end the way I wanted it to: I fell a bunch of times, and I didn't make nationals. Afterward, ‘Mr. Wonderful,’ Sarah, another teammate, and I all drove back together. I was sitting in the front seat between him and Sarah. I was a tearful mess. There was a blanket on us, I think the heater in the car was broken, and he was holding my hand under the blanket.
We stopped at a rest stop on the way home. I went to call my dad on the payphone—this was before cell phones—and when I picked up the phone, Mr. Wonderful walked over, and came right up to my face, and tipped my chin up, and kissed me on the lips. It was the first time anything physical had happened between us, and he 100% initiated it.
In my 15-year-old mind, I never thought he would actually make a move, not because he knew he shouldn’t, but because he was with Sarah, not to mention, at this point, he was also married with a child. That weighed on me. I felt like I was involved in an adulterous relationship, and I was also helping him cheat on my friend.
In the months that followed, ‘Mr. Wonderful’ often tried to get me alone in the gym and other places. He would kiss me, and he tried to take things further, but I said no. I don't remember at what point I told Sarah that something was happening between us—that he was in essence working me into the ‘mix’—but at some point, I realized she knew. It seemed like she accepted it.
The night before he left town, the two of us spent the night at his house. We were all on a fold-out bed, and he was in between the two of us, and he would kiss her, and then he would lean over and kiss me. Later, it dawned on me that we were actually witnessing each other’s abuse, even if the full extent of Sarah’s abuse, at least physically, was more extensive than mine.
I started writing him letters after he moved. I would ask him to explain our relationship, and what happened. I straight up asked him how, if he loved me, how he could also be with Sarah? He would write me back, and in those letters, he admitted to kissing me, and he signed his name. Somehow, I had the wherewithal to keep those letters.
I kept them all through college, and after I moved to Colorado, and after I went to graduate school in Arizona, and then moved to California. I probably lived in more than 15 different places, and the whole time, I knew exactly where those letters were.
I recently took a youth mental health first-aid class, and one of the statistics I learned is that if a kid has just one trusted adult in their lives, then they will usually be ‘okay’ from a mental health perspective. I’ve thought about that a lot. He was my trusted adult. And he abused that power.
With the exception of a couple of close high school friends, I didn’t tell anyone what had happened to me until years later. When I was in college, I told my mom that he had kissed me. I didn't say anything more than that. She said, ‘I'm sorry that happened to you.’
For a woman born in 1947, ‘I'm sorry that happened to you’ is a lot better than it could have been. These are the things that most adults didn’t know back then, and that we as a society are only starting to learn now. Today, as the mom of two kids, I notice when a child is really connecting with a coach, or another adult. Part of me thinks it’s fantastic. And in the same breath, part of me also thinks, I need to keep an eye on that guy. Because there's a reason that adults are drawn to children.
Most kids don’t realize they’re being groomed, or why. Even to this day, it's still hard for me to pull apart the good and the bad in ‘Mr. Wonderful,’ because he was, in some ways, a really big influence on my life. There are things that he taught me that I want to hang on to, but I can't differentiate between those positive life lessons and the manipulations.
I didn’t really start processing what had happened until I was 30 and had called off an engagement, and started seeing a counselor. It dawned on me then that maybe something was wrong with me, and not just all the guys I’d been dating.
At that point, I hadn’t talked to Sarah in 12 years. The last time I’d seen her was in college. Her boyfriend went to school there, too, and he’d organized a party for her and invited me as a surprise. When Sarah saw me, she lost it. I remember, at one point that night, she was curled up in the bathtub, sobbing. In that moment I realized, although I still cared about her, my friendship wasn’t good for her; I wasn’t good for her. We hadn’t spoken since.
But in my 30s, I was working as a physician’s assistant, and I emailed her out of the blue. I said, ‘Hey, how you doing? I have a house, and a dog, and a good job. What's going on in your life?’
She wrote back something like, ‘Wow, that's funny! I have a house, and a dog, and a good job, too.’ That sort of opened up the lines of conversation. Eventually, I told her that I had just pulled out of an engagement, and asked if she’d ever dealt with any of the stuff that went on with our coach.
By then, ‘Mr. Wonderful’—now a chiropractor and physician’s assistant—had moved back to our home town to practice. I’d started hearing from parents that they were sending kids from the gym to see him as patients.
As a physician’s assistant myself, I knew how intimate that relationship could be. I thought, I can't manage this. Not on my watch. I’d already done a little research on the laws in my home state, where he was practicing about the statute of limitations for statutory rape, and I reached out to Sarah and said I think we need to go to the police. At that point, it was nowhere in Sarah’s wheelhouse to do that. I don’t think she’d even considered it. She was a lot more vulnerable than I was, on a lot of levels. And while I knew I couldn't go forward and tell my story without telling a part of hers, as well, her story was far more significant, trauma-wise.
Thankfully, she was willing. We filed a report. We developed a good relationship with the officer who took our statements, but we were told it was a very old case, and that it was likely that nothing would ever happen.
As part of the evidence gathering process, one of the things that was requested by the prosecuting attorney for our case was a tapped phone call. I knew I was mentally in a better position than Sarah to be the one to take that assignment on, so I volunteered to call him. I felt certain that ‘Mr. Wonderful’ would admit details about what happened to me over the phone. And sure enough, when the time came, he did.
When I got off the phone, the prosecuting attorney asked me how I knew he would still talk to me about what had happened, more than a decade later. I didn’t even hesitate. I told her, ‘Well, I knew he still loved me, and respected me enough to talk to me.’
I’ll never forget the look on her face.
It wasn’t until that moment that I saw my relationship with ‘Mr. Wonderful’ for what it truly was. It had taken me 16 years and that prosecutor’s facial expression to understand it fully: he didn't actually love me or respect me. He’d manipulated me.
I share this because I feel like I can understand how people get stuck in these loops of abuse. It’s so hard to know, when you’re in it, and that’s how your brain is wired.
Six months later, fate tossed us a bone.
A woman from ‘Mr. Wonderful’s’ chiropractic office came forward to report that he’d abused her and the officer who’d been working on our cases caught wind of it.
The police brought him in for questioning and, just like Larry Nassar, our former coach brought in all these textbooks to explain why the procedures he was doing on his patients were completely legitimate. At the end of the interview, they dropped our files on the table in front of him and said, ‘What about these two girls?’
At that point, they told us later, he broke down, and started crying. He said, ‘Yeah, anything they said was true.’ The cops arrested him that same night.
I was actually back in my home state at the same time. My dad had suffered a medical emergency and had to be life-flighted to the hospital. And so I was back, staying with Sarah at her house, the very night he got arrested. The next day, his picture was on the front page of the newspaper.
He was out on bail the next day. So, a year goes by as they’re building their case against him. Mr. Wonderful was offered a plea deal of four years in prison and 15 years as a registered sex offender, but he didn’t take it.
We went to trial the following year.. I had to read those damn letters he’d sent me in front of all the people in the courtroom, my family included. It was understandably harder on Sarah than it was on me. At the time, I was living in California, and knew I could run away to my ‘real life’ when it was over. She still lived in our home state, and she was still involved in gymnastics in the community. She didn’t have the same luxury.
And it was hard. During the trial, an article came out in the local paper, and there were pages and pages of Internet comments on it. A few came from women who said they, too, were victims, but 90 percent of it was basically slut-shaming. People said things like, ‘15-year-old-sluts then, 30-year-old sluts now. They just want money…’
Of course, it was a criminal case, so we didn't make any money. But to me, it was just a reminder of society’s ignorance about so many of these issues. It’s still horribly rampant.
At the end of the five-day jury trial, our former coach was found guilty on multiple counts of rape and gross sexual imposition against Sarah, myself, and other patients he had violated. He was sentenced to 43 years in prison.
It was a hopeful end to the story, because most cases don’t end like that.
Healing is an ongoing journey. I did not go to a therapist until I was 30. It helped me start pulling apart all my very wrong thinking, but I don’t know that talk therapy was ever that effective as a healing mechanism for me. I like massage therapy, but mostly, I like physicality. I used the outdoors a lot, hiking and biking and moving. Eventually, yoga became a huge piece of healing for me as well, but that took time. I had to learn how to slow down, and just be with myself in my own mind.
I eventually got married and started a family. In 2015, my kids were five and three, and we were attending a church in California when the news broke that the worship leader had been arrested for very similar crimes as ‘Mr. Wonderful.’ He was also in his 30s at the time—the same age as our coach had been—and the girls involved were all students in his music classes. That was pretty triggering for me.
It's one of the reasons that, today, I'm not a very religious person. Someone’s religiosity doesn't really hold sway when it comes to defining someone, in my view, as a good or bad person. Mr. Wonderful was Mormon. He didn't smoke, and he didn't drink, and he didn't swear. But he slept with little girls.
That arrest in California ripped the Band-Aid off for me in terms of how I was processing my memories. I had always wanted to write a book, I just never thought I’d write one about this. But after that incident, I decided that I did have a story to tell.
I knew that writing the book would help me become a healthier mom for my children, but I also knew it was going to be really hard. Calling up those memories took me down a very dark road for a while. By the middle of it, I realized the book was for me on some level and by the end of it, I found some grace for my abuser too because men were taught to be like that. One of the opening scenes of Ghostbusters in 1984 is a middle aged professor manipulating his young attractive protegee.
In the end, the timing of my book launch was fortuitous. Larry Nassar’s crimes had come to light in April of 2017, at the same time I was typing out my own story about gymnastics and sexual abuse. By the time it was published, the MeToo movement was in full force, and my voice was part of it. And I’m proud of that.
I really believe that of the 99 percent of people that have a story even remotely similar to mine, I’d guess that only five percent of them will eventually tell somebody and try to find their own healing. Of those, only one percent will get to the point where they can stand up here and share their story, or write about it, or talk about it freely. Even today, there’s still a lot of raw emotion there when I talk about my experience.
But I know it’s important: for those of us that can, it needs to be talked about. As a society, we still have a lot of work to do.
In my own life, I feel like I’m now part of that work. I just accepted a position as an outreach coordinator for a nonprofit organization for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, and I’m really excited about the role. It feels like, in some ways, I’ve come full circle. And I’m ready to share some of the things I’ve learned on this journey.
One of the things I want to tell people is that you can chart your own path to healing, and you don't have to listen to anybody about how that looks.
Start with little things that make you happy. Take that one step: read a book, go outside, go rock climbing, take a yoga class. Let that one ‘right’ thing get you to the next ‘right’ thing. It doesn't have to be hard, and it doesn't necessarily have to be therapy. There’s no right answer.
The point is that you do it for yourself, and get on that path. Because nobody else is going to do it for you.