In the early Eighties, Andy King, the coach of the Seawolves, a swim club in Danville, California, instructed Debra Denithorne, aged twelve, to do doubles — to practice in the morning and the afternoon. King told Denithorne’s parents that he saw in her the potential to receive a college scholarship, and even to compete in the Olympics. Tall swimmers have an advantage in the water, and by the time Denithorne turned thirteen, she was five foot eight. She dropped soccer and a religious group to spend more time at the pool.
That commitment, and King’s relentless training, made her an exceptional swimmer. When she was in eighth grade, college recruitment letters began to fill her mailbox. Yet as Denithorne grew dependent on King — he’d offer her rides home, travel with her to meets — he cultivated her for a predatory relationship, which led to intercourse when she was fifteen.
Denithorne’s parents suspected nothing. King had forged a connection with them too, “grooming” them, in psychiatric terms, to preempt questions about whether he could be trusted. After dropping Denithorne off, he’d linger at the door; often, he stayed for dinner. Denithorne’s father was a U.S. Marine turned businessman; her mother was a teacher. Occasionally, she remembers, her parents wondered about the intensity of the coach’s interest, but for the most part they were pleased by his attention to their daughter’s athletic career.
Parents of other swimmers, however, observed King’s behavior with skepticism. Denithorne sometimes overheard moms gossiping poolside that King showed her favoritism because they were sleeping together. But none of the conjecturing parents approached her with concerns about an affair or inquired about her well-being. Denithorne lacked the vocabulary to identify the nature of the relationship she was in — she was not King’s girlfriend, but she did not view herself as a victim. As time went on, though, she started to feel that he was putting too much pressure on her. “He asked me to marry him,” she told me. She wasn’t sure how to extract herself, so she believed it would be best to quit the team.
One night in 1986, members of the swim club’s board arrived at the Denithornes’ house to discuss their suspicions about King’s inappropriate involvement with Debra. Her parents dismissed the possibility and never spoke to her about the confrontation. Nevertheless, the board decided not to renew King’s contract. They didn’t report him to law enforcement, however, or to U.S.A. Swimming, the national governing body for the sport. King went on to coach another team nearby, and as a senior in high school, Denithorne joined him there. She made him promise not to ask her to sleep with him again.
In college, at Arizona State University, Denithorne stopped swimming and began seeing a sports psychologist. At the age of twenty-one, still unable to suppress her memories of King, she went home to confront him in person. He told her that she hadn’t looked fourteen when he started pursuing her. Denithorne knew that it was a ridiculous defense, but she blamed herself, unable to acknowledge that she had been repeatedly raped. “It carried such horrible stigma,” she said. It was only in the mid-2000s — after she’d finished college, married, gone through years of counseling, and had a baby — that she began to consider filing charges. As the new mother of a daughter, she was sickened by the possibility that King might have raped other girls too.
By that time, stories about King had reached the top levels of U.S.A. Swimming. In 2003, Katie Kelly, who had been coached by King in the East Bay when she was in her early teens, sent the organization a letter in which she described him as “terribly abusive.” She was “shaking,” she wrote, as she composed an account of her time training with him. “Over ten years later, I feel I need to say what I wish I said then,” she went on. “I can’t change what happened but maybe something can be done to stop this from continuing.” Her letter was meant to be informational; she assumed that she would not be allowed to file a formal complaint, because so much time had passed.
Kelly’s letter was passed up to Chuck Wielgus, the head of U.S.A. Swimming. No leader of an Olympic organization has served as long a tenure as Wielgus, who, over twenty years, oversaw teams that won a cumulative 156 medals, about a third of America’s total from recent summer games. “This matter should be kept confidential by both you and us,” Wielgus wrote in an email to members of his staff. Because Kelly had not filed a formal complaint, there would be no inquiry; U.S.A. Swimming would open a file on King, and if more reports ever surfaced, they could decide to act at that point. Wielgus did not mention that, a year before, a woman had informed him that her daughter had been sexually abused by King. He had told her that something could be done “if there is evidence of wrong doing and if there is someone willing to file a formal complaint.” He said no such thing to Kelly.
In the years that followed, a former teammate of Denithorne’s, now a detective, contacted her about King; they joined other victims in reporting him to the police. In 2010, he was convicted of molesting several girls, including a fourteen-year-old he had impregnated. The same year, Wielgus’s email about Kelly was leaked, and the revelations set off an uproar. U.S.A. Swimming responded by releasing a list of banned coaches, with King’s name on it. Wielgus also hired an athlete protection officer, who was tasked with overseeing education and guidelines on confronting sexual abuse. Officials at the United States Olympic Committee commissioned a study to assess the scale of the problem across sports.
U.S.A. Swimming’s banned list now has nearly 150 names, including Everett Uchiyama, the former director of the national team. But sexual assault tends to be heavily underreported, which means that the actual number of predatory coaches is probably higher. Under Title IX, schools that receive federal funding must investigate allegations of sexual assault, but a local swim club is not subject to the same requirements. Absent a national entity like a ministry of sport, which other countries use to oversee the training of young people, American athletic organizations have never had much guidance in how to identify and remove abusive coaches.
Under the U.S.O.C.’s purview, there are forty-eight national governing bodies (N.G.B.’s), overseeing thousands of club teams and gyms. The patterns that emerge within this network resemble those of other private institutions — the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, boarding schools — that place children and adults in close proximity. For years, standard procedure tended to shroud sexual assault, not crusade against it. “They don’t deal with the root of the problem,” Dani Bostick, a swimmer who was abused by her coach before she turned twelve, told me. “Their approach has been to ignore it, as if that’s how it will go away.” Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a former swimmer who won an Olympic gold medal and is now the head of Champion Women, an organization that advocates for female participation in sports, said, “The U.S.O.C. doesn’t make change until there is a media blowup.”
When the news about King broke, in 2010, Wielgus appeared on TV to comment on how his office was handling the situation. On ABC’s 20/20, he seemed befuddled by the suggestion that he ought to have reached out to victims. “You feel I need to apologize to them?” he asked. In 2014, Wielgus was considered for induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, and Hogshead-Makar successfully led a petition to keep him out. The signatories included numerous athletes who had been assaulted by their coaches; they accused Wielgus of a “lack of remorse or compassion towards victims and survivors.”
Wielgus withdrew his candidacy, and, in a post on the U.S.A. Swimming website, finally adopted a contrite stance. “I wish my eyes had been more open to the individual stories of the horrors of sexual abuse,” he wrote. “I wish I had known more so perhaps I could have done more.” (Wielgus died in April.)
By then, the controversy had escalated enough to demand action. The same month that Wielgus took himself out of contention for the hall of fame, and as King was beginning a forty-year prison sentence, the U.S.O.C. board approved plans for the establishment of the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a centralized authority that would take sexual assault prevention and investigation out of the hands of the national governing bodies. In March, after several delays, SafeSport opened its doors.
When I spoke with Scott Blackmun, the head of the U.S.O.C., I asked what had ultimately brought about the change, after so many years. “Evolution,” he said. “In 2010, when the swimming scandals hit, people became aware of the extent of some of the abuse that was happening.” He went on, “Honestly, it was not on my radar.”
By the fall, SafeSport was investigating fifty-two cases from thirty-one sports. Blackmun told me that he believed the office would “have a huge positive impact on the lives of our young athletes.” Yet it remains to be seen whether SafeSport can really transform how victims are treated or end the protection of revered coaches.
There are a million easier jobs,” Shellie Pfohl, the CEO of SafeSport, told me when I met her at the organization’s headquarters, in Denver. The office, which sits across from a strip mall, is a few miles from the city’s downtown. One reason that SafeSport is based there, rather than in Colorado Springs — the hometown of the U.S.O.C. and U.S.A. Swimming — is to put seventy miles between it and the organizations it polices. Pfohl explained that if her post is seen as merely an extension of the national governing bodies and the U.S.O.C., it can’t be an effective watchdog. Of course, distance doesn’t guarantee independence.
SafeSport’s décor is spartan, a reflection of its newness. Most of the main room is empty space under the glare of fluorescent lights. Down the hall, there are offices occupied by three full-time investigators, four contract investigators, support staff, and a chief operating officer who previously worked for the U.S.O.C. Pfohl’s office is decorated with photographs of her with the Obama family — mementos from her previous position, as the executive director of the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition. Tall and lean, she has short brown hair and a crushing handshake. On the day I visited, even though the temperature hit ninety-four degrees, she was dressed in a gray-and-white suit. She had the diplomatic manner of someone who had chaired quite a few interagency meetings in Washington.
Growing up in Iowa, Pfohl played basketball, softball, and volleyball. Her volleyball team attracted crowds rivaling those at her high school’s football games, she told me. “Playing organized sports helped give me a sense of identity.” In her last job, she had aimed to boost girls’ participation in athletics and prevent them from dropping out of team sports after they hit puberty; she sees protecting them from sexual assault as a natural continuation of that effort. “If individuals are harmed when they dedicate themselves to a sport, that is completely unacceptable,” she said. On a whiteboard by her desk was SafeSport’s motto: champion respect. end abuse.
That may be an unreachable goal. For one thing, SafeSport can’t investigate all claims of misconduct; its jurisdiction extends only to those athletes within the U.S.O.C. system. Hundreds of thousands of children play on teams that fall under the Amateur Athletic Union (A.A.U.) umbrella, which operates independently, with its own rules. Rick Butler, a coach who was suspended by U.S.A. Volleyball for allegedly having sex with underage athletes, today coaches an A.A.U. team of teenage girls. Through a lawyer, Butler denied engaging in sexual conduct with minors; U.S.A. Volleyball had not granted him due process, he said, and later reinstated him — though that was on the condition that he no longer train girls, and the chair of U.S.A. Volleyball’s board later said that the decision to readmit him was “flawed.” Sarah Powers-Barnhard, one of his professed victims, has been vocal about the distress caused by encountering Butler at meets. “Nothing has changed,” she told me. Last year, she filed a suit against the A.A.U., and is hoping to see him kicked out. (The A.A.U. did not respond to requests for comment.)
SafeSport also appears to be limited in its ability to exert control over the programs it’s been tasked with monitoring. Each governing body works with hundreds of private clubs, which historically have determined their own ways of processing sexual assault.
Until recently, for example, U.S.A. Gymnastics fielded queries only from victims or their parents. The board’s headquarters is in Indianapolis; last year, the Indianapolis Star revealed that at least 368 gymnasts had allegedly been abused over a span of two decades. One of the most striking pieces of evidence was a letter from Dan Dickey, who operated a gym in Florida. He wrote to warn U.S.A. Gymnastics about Bill McCabe, a coach formerly in his employ. Dickey had fired McCabe after hearing him boast about developing a relationship with a fifteen-year-old in his gym and molesting girls at other training centers. Not long after, McCabe surfaced at a gym nearby. Dickey appealed to the national board to blacklist McCabe, saying that he “should be locked in a cage before someone is raped.” In response, Dickey received a note thanking him for the heads-up — and explaining that a ban was impossible without “an official letter of complaint from a parent or athlete.” Several years later, McCabe was sentenced to thirty years in prison for molesting female gymnasts, secretly videotaping them changing out of their clothes, and posting naked pictures of them on the internet. (In response to the Star story, U.S.A. Gymnastics launched a policy review, which culminated in a hundred-page report on assault prevention and response.)
SafeSport has introduced two measures that intend to avoid a repeat of that fiasco. First, anyone can report an allegation. “It can be someone unrelated to the victim, someone who witnessed something,” Pfohl explained. “It can be anonymous. We will look into it.” Second, SafeSport has pledged to be a mandatory reporter — if someone comes forward about sexual abuse, a staff member will pass the information on to law enforcement.
Pfohl’s office produced a set of guidelines to be adopted by each governing body; if SafeSport determines that someone has violated its code, the offender’s name is added to a searchable database of banned staff. That list identifies the date of suspension — sometimes “interim” — but provides no details about the case. The rule book itself is filled with jargon, and Hogshead-Makar told me that she is troubled by what she sees as a lack of clarity regarding relationships between coaches and young athletes. “It should be as much a part of the public consciousness as the ban on relationships between a therapist and patient or a lawyer and client,” she said. “Bright lines are important.”
Pfohl said that, as a model of what SafeSport could be at its most effective, she looks to the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. Like SafeSport, the U.S.A.D.A. was created by the U.S.O.C. as an independent organization; it built its reputation prosecuting Lance Armstrong for doping and has occasionally staked out positions in defiance of U.S.O.C. leadership. But the U.S.A.D.A. managed to establish its autonomy partly because it doesn’t depend on the U.S.O.C. for money — most of its budget, nearly $20 million per year, comes from Congress and outside organizations. In contrast, SafeSport has a five-year, $25 million budget that is almost entirely derived from the U.S.O.C. and its governing bodies. Pfohl is soliciting donations from private companies, individuals, and sports organizations, with the modest aim of raising $1.5 million annually. She has had successes — the N.B.A. and the W.N.B.A. have contributed $300,000 — but corporate America hasn’t been persuaded. “There’s the issue of gaze aversion,” she said.
A small contribution may be coming from the federal government: In June, two senators — John Thune, a Republican of South Dakota, and Bill Nelson, a Democrat of Florida — proposed legislation that would bestow $5 million on SafeSport over five years. The bill would amend the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, which created the U.S.O.C. almost four decades ago; the original law contains no explicit language protecting underage athletes from molestation. To remedy that oversight, the senators want to add a new line about promoting a “safe environment in sports that is free from abuse.” It’s a welcome thought, though activists such as Hogshead-Makar question whether merely inserting the provision without establishing punitive legal measures will make much difference.
The greatest obstacle for SafeSport, however, may be the norms of elite sports, which have been known to enable complicity in sexual violence. Dia Rianda, a swim coach in Salinas, California, told me, “I have gone to conventions and it is always the same thing. In the evenings, the coaches go to strip bars and Hooters.” When I asked Pfohl about confronting unsavory aspects of athletic life, she replied, “Culture is a very hard thing to change. We need to define what is acceptable and what isn’t.”
Blackmun said that he hoped SafeSport will put at ease those athletes who have been reluctant to report abuse to their national governing bodies. “The N.G.B.’s are the ones making decisions about their futures and levels of support,” he explained. And athletes “didn’t want to be in a position where they were bringing issues to N.G.B.’s that were controlling their athletic destinies.” He pleaded long-standing institutional ignorance of the extent of this problem, but said that he was now enlightened. “When I have had those conversations, it makes you wonder why we couldn’t have gotten it reported sooner. That’s the great tragedy in these things, is that we were kept unaware of it for so long.”
His comments were at odds with the ample evidence revealing the scope of sexual assault under the U.S.O.C.’s watch. It seemed that Blackmun and his colleagues tended to overlook the darker implications of top-level training, which, at its essence, tests what the body can bear. Emphasis on pushing limits has always made young athletes vulnerable, in different ways, to the whims of their coaches. When I raised this with Blackmun, he conceded that sports culture encourages athletes to follow their mentors, not to question them. In some cases, he said, “You don’t push back against your coach, and you don’t push back against your national governing body.”
There are some 8 million children participating in athletics through the national governing bodies under the U.S.O.C. These institutions devote most of their attention to athletes who might become stars. Leadership has been up-front about setting priorities this way. In response to a question about allocating resources to governing bodies, Blackmun has said, “For us, it’s all about medals. How do we help American athletes get medals put around their necks?”
There’s an obvious economic incentive: The U.S.O.C. reaps millions of dollars from television broadcast rights and sponsors of the International Olympics Committee, but the U.S. government does not cut a check, as is the case in most countries. Instead, the U.S.O.C. is left to solicit donations and forge marketing partnerships with companies such as Coca-Cola and Chobani. A medal — and the stories of sacrifice and triumph behind it — makes for the most compelling TV commercials. When athletes dominate the medals platform, the U.S.O.C. rewards them with thousands of additional dollars, and their national governing body stands to gain — this is known as “money for medals.” Even more lucrative are licensing agreements, since a champion gymnast like Gabby Douglas wearing a logo on her leotard makes for valuable publicity.
One afternoon, at a coffee shop on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I met Jessica Howard, a former top-ranked rhythmic gymnast. Now thirty-three, she works as a personal trainer for ballet dancers. She is striking, with porcelain skin and big blue eyes. During her athletic career, she garnered several impressive achievements, becoming, at the age of fifteen, America’s youngest national champion. Describing how poisonous the world of elite gymnastics can be, however, she slumped in her chair, as if trying to make herself smaller. “There was no positive reinforcement,” she recalled. Her principal coach was verbally tough, and “had a way of finding what would hurt you most and then just twisting the knife.”
Howard’s family had made sacrifices so that she could pursue the Olympics. Her father was a minister in Jacksonville, Florida; her mother served as music director for the congregation and raised four children. Paying for practice equipment, coaching, and travel to meets was a stretch financially. When Howard turned twelve, her mother started homeschooling her so that she could put in the requisite six hours per day on the mat. Gymnastics was not an activity; it was her identity. Coaches were the arbiters of her self-worth.
As an adult, Howard figured that the best way to advocate for up-and-coming athletes would be to serve as their representative on the U.S.A. Gymnastics board. She held the position from 2007 to 2013, hoping to help change the coaching practices she found so emotionally painful. But it didn’t prove to be a perch from which to shake up gymnastics culture. Instead, Howard found the board to be a bastion of yes-men. There were decadent dinners and V.I.P. seats at Indiana Pacers games. Howard’s term coincided with the U.S. women’s gymnastics team dominating the podium at the 2012 Olympics, and members of the board received plaques of a Sports Illustrated cover featuring the “Fierce Five.” Kids watching Team U.S.A. clamored for lessons, which drove up membership.
With all the success, Howard said, there was no talk of revising coaching practices, to say nothing of reviewing files with allegations of sexual assault. U.S.A. Gymnastics contends that it has always been engaged in athlete welfare, and during this period, the board updated its process for submitting grievances. Yet Howard remembers the subject of abuse coming up on exactly one occasion, when a staff member briefed the board about a pending lawsuit. As she recalls, the overriding point was that the liability was manageable. Hearing that, she excused herself from the table, ran to the bathroom, and threw up.
Last year, a fellow former gymnast reached out to Howard about allegations against Larry Nassar, their team doctor. With that call, her sickness over the liability talk suddenly made sense. After competing in the 1999 World Championships, Howard had suffered from a hip injury so excruciating that at times she could barely walk. Staffers at U.S.A. Gymnastics recommended that she see Nassar, an osteopath who spent time at a ranch owned by the coaches Béla and Márta Károlyi, where elite gymnasts train. The ranch is remote — it sits on more than 2,000 acres, sixty miles from Houston — and athletes live under extreme pressure. They eat communally; some say that consuming a full meal is verboten. Howard welcomed the chance to see Nassar in part because “it meant I could get a break from my coach.”
Before their first session, she said, Nassar told her to wear loose shorts and no underwear. The request seemed odd, but she complied. On the exam table, Howard has alleged, he penetrated her vaginally with an ungloved hand. She was shocked but didn’t think to question what he was doing; he was a doctor with a stellar reputation. In other cases, Nassar allegedly penetrated a girl anally, touched her clitoris, and fondled her breasts; he also allegedly performed acupuncture on and around girls’ genitals.
Howard now sees gymnastics culture — including the atmosphere at the Károlyi ranch — as especially suited to encouraging predatory behavior. The coaches were tough, and Nassar positioned himself as an athlete’s ally. In a 2013 interview with a podcast called GymCastic, he said that he resisted revealing his patients’ ailments to their trainers. “If you do something where you break their train of trust, you’re done,” he explained. “Because they’ll never trust you again. They’ll tell the other gymnasts.”
Nassar had access to hundreds of girls. “Honestly, the man had an evil kind of brilliance,” Howard said. In 2015, he was fired by U.S.A. Gymnastics, and today Howard is one of more than a hundred of his former patients who have joined lawsuits against him. Nassar has already pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography and will go on trial for criminal sexual conduct in Michigan this December. One of Nassar’s attorneys, Matt Newburg, declined to comment because of a gag order on the case; he has previously said that Nassar’s techniques are “medically accepted and appropriate.”
Lawsuits have also been filed against Michigan State University, which employed Nassar, and U.S.A. Gymnastics, naming the Károlyis as defendants. “The national training camps are not a ‘mother’s day out’ program” a lawyer for the Károlyis wrote in an email, adding that “the Károlyis vehemently deny the existence of a ‘toxic’ environment.” The lawyer also stated that the Károlyis had no knowledge of the medical procedures described in the Nassar litigation. Recently, they left the ranch, and have tried — so far unsuccessfully — to sell their gymnastics facilities.
There’s also been fallout within the national governing body: Steve Penny, the CEO, was forced to resign as a consequence of his hesitation in responding to the allegations. When reached for comment, a spokesperson replied, “U.S.A. Gymnastics is deeply sorry that anyone has been harmed during his or her gymnastics career.” Pfohl told me that because the case began before the creation of SafeSport, her office would not get involved in the investigation or demand sanctions.
Howard said that one reason she became part of the lawsuit was that she saw the case as a real opportunity to change the gymnastics organization. She used to love how rhythmic gymnastics combined grace and athleticism, as well as the discipline fostered by its demands. Now she would never recommend that a child participate at an elite level, and she wonders what she could have made of her life with a more formal education. “When I reflected back with my mom on this, it was a hard conversation,” she said. “Because I wish more than anything that I had never stepped foot in a gym.”
Decades passed between the time Nassar allegedly found his first victims and the dawning of any legal consequences. In March, after speaking with some of his accusers, Dianne Feinstein, a Democratic senator from California, introduced legislation that would require coaches and officials at the national governing bodies to report instances of assault to the police. “It was really disturbing,” she told me of the meeting. “There has been denial among coaches and the governing bodies about the responsibility to keep young athletes safe.” Her bill, the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse Act, would also compel the governing bodies to better communicate with the clubs under their purview. As of September, it had twenty-eight sponsors from across the political spectrum — Elizabeth Warren and Ted Cruz both signed on. I asked Feinstein about her outlook for its passage, given the chaos of the current political moment. Even in quieter times, sexual assault often ranks as less urgent than other concerns. “This isn’t a partisan issue,” she replied. “No one in the U.S. Congress wants young women to be abused.” She told me that it would become law, but she couldn’t say when there might be a vote.
Victims can already, of course, turn to the legal system to try to hold attackers accountable. But according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, only about a third of sexual assaults are reported to law enforcement. A preexisting relationship can make it all the more difficult for those who have been violated to identify the abuse for what it is, or to find the will to turn their assailant in.
Among those who do go public, most tend not to report until they are adults. Although thirty-seven states do not have a statute of limitations for child rape, much abuse falls short of that act. And even where the statute of limitations has been lifted, new laws are not retroactive, which means that survivors in their thirties or older cannot bring criminal cases.
In the past fifteen years, eight states have created “window provisions,” which allow people a set period of time — generally between one and four years, starting from the day the law is enacted — to bring civil suits against their abuser, the institution that created conditions enabling the abuse, or both. These cases do not result in jail time but do allow victims to reap compensatory damages and, sometimes, to negotiate systemic changes to keep other children safe. (For example, requiring that a recreation center not allow swimmers and coaches to be alone in a private place.) Payouts vary by state; a survivor commonly receives around $500,000. In 2002, California passed a window provision bill that forced the Catholic Church to hand over more than $1 billion to plaintiffs. The diocese of San Diego soon declared bankruptcy, and in 2013, when the state legislature passed another yearlong window period, U.S.A. Swimming joined with the church, successfully lobbying Governor Jerry Brown to veto.
Marci Hamilton — the head of Child U.S.A., an organization that works to prevent child abuse and neglect — travels the country drafting legislation and testifying in statehouses on behalf of sexual assault survivors. She told me that, beyond money for therapy, window provisions help provide victims with recognition from the state that a wrong has occurred. “It is validating,” she said. “It can quiet the voices in their heads telling them they were somehow at fault.” For others reticent to come forward, watching people publicly hold their perpetrator accountable is key.
Hamilton has observed that child abuse at the Catholic Church has generated the most attention, but she finds youth athletics to be no less hazardous. “We have reports of abuse in every possible sports organization — whether peewee or little league or high school,” she said. “The extreme power imbalance between a coach and an athlete — not just an adult and child but a coach and an athlete — creates conditions for keeping secrets. And so long as secrets are kept, the perpetrators are protected.” Lawsuits, she added, “are the only way to force these institutions to disclose what’s in their files.” When SafeSport launched, she wrote that “the U.S.O.C. has moved at a glacial pace,” grappling with allegations of assault over the past fifteen years; “its actions have more often protected problematic coaches than children.” She told me, “What always comes out in the end is that the institution knew more about abuse than just about anybody else. They are also the ones most dedicated to silence.”
Thus far, SafeSport’s highest-profile case concerns two of the most prominent members of the “first family of taekwondo,” the brothers Jean and Steven Lopez. Jean served as an Olympic coach; Steven is a gold-medal winner twice over. Two other siblings, Diana and Mark, also practice taekwondo, and in 2008 three Lopezes competed in the Olympic Games.
In recent years, however, women have begun to report that they have suffered abuse by Jean and Steven. Jean has been accused of assaulting two taekwondo practitioners he coached. Steven has been accused of raping two teammates, as well as another woman he dated. Early this year, an attorney hired by U.S.A. Taekwondo delivered the case to SafeSport.
Pfohl’s investigators have now been in touch with at least three former athletes who have testified to being assaulted by the Lopez brothers. One of them is Heidi Gilbert, now thirty-five, who was at one point the sixth-best heavyweight fighter in the world. She trained with Jean in Sugar Land, Texas, in the early 2000s. She told me that on two separate occasions, he sexually assaulted her.
The first time, she alleged, was in Quito, Ecuador, during the 2002 Pan American Championships. Gilbert won a gold medal in her weight division, as did Diana Lopez. The two young women were ebullient and went to Jean’s room to celebrate. (Diana said that this, and what followed, never happened.) According to Gilbert, Diana left, and Jean shut the door. Gilbert wasn’t alarmed, even after he threw her on the bed. “I thought at first that we were play-wrestling,” she recalled. But soon he was behind her, ejaculating into his sweatpants.
Gilbert was shaken, and upon returning to the United States she retreated to her mother’s home to consider her options. Like most athletes, taekwondo practitioners tend to peak in their twenties, and by that metric, the 2004 Olympics would be her moment. “I thought, I’m getting older, and I have to put the pedal to the metal.” She trained in Korea for a few months, but in America the Lopezes’ gym was the obvious choice. Some athletes she knew there pleaded with her to come, and finally, she relented.
At first, Jean did nothing out of the ordinary. But, Gilbert said, at a party after the 2003 World Championships in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, he offered her a strange drink. Within an hour, she felt woozy. By the time he hustled her into a cab, she was only vaguely conscious. Back at the hotel, Gilbert told SafeSport, he penetrated her with his finger, performed oral sex on her, and rubbed his penis against her legs. Gilbert was wearing tight jeans and tall boots; she told me that she suspects the only reason he didn’t rape her is that he couldn’t pull her pants off.
Gilbert left the Lopez gym permanently. She didn’t put in a formal complaint with U.S.A. Taekwondo because she believed that it would mean the death of her career. “It was going to be either me or Jean,” she said. “And I knew it would be Jean.” Gilbert did not qualify for the Olympics, but she saw him once more, at the 2005 Taekwondo Nationals; he stood on the floor during her matches. “It was like he was trying to intimidate me,” she recalled. Shortly after, Gilbert left professional sports.
In the years since, other reports of sexual assault began to emerge — about the Lopez brothers and other taekwondo coaches. In September, Keith Ferguson, the executive director of the national governing body, resigned as evidence mounted that he had mishandled allegations. Jean and Steven Lopez both deny having acted inappropriately with any athlete; Jean refuted Gilbert’s story. Neither man has been charged with a crime. “It’s unfortunate that Heidi is politicizing the very serious issue of people who have been victimized to push an agenda,” Jean said. “Our hearts go out to the victims who have suffered these things, and we want the protections to be in place.”
It is in part to protect people from seeing their abuser at meets that SafeSport has the authority to ban an athlete or a coach accused of assault. But in June, with the case still pending, Steven Lopez competed in the Taekwondo World Championships; Jean was free to attend. Pfohl declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.
Ronda Sweet, a former director of U.S.A. Taekwondo who has long advocated for a tougher stance on sexual violence, told me that she was frustrated — suspending Jean and Steven during the investigation should have been a no-brainer, she said, given that several people have reported being assaulted by them. “This isn’t a secret,” she explained. She also questioned what SafeSport could do that would effectively stop the Lopez brothers from abusing anyone else — Pfohl can’t prevent them from giving seminars to young athletes, establishing a new taekwondo school, or representing a foreign country in international competitions. “So even if U.S. SafeSport decides the Lopez brothers have been bad boys, what real consequences are there?” Sweet wondered. SafeSport, she said, is a “toothless tiger.”
One afternoon, near her office in downtown Manhattan, I met a woman I’ll call Judy, a former elite gymnast who now works in education. She is middle-aged, with a warm smile and a rapid-fire way of talking. “I’m the kind of person who finishes what she starts,” she said. Judy told me a story from the beginning of her gymnastics career, when she was six years old. One day, she was on a high balance beam, in her leotard and short socks, frozen in place. Her coach had asked her to attempt a back handspring, the first step a gymnast performs before unleashing the tumbling moves that stun Olympic spectators. The high balance beam looms four feet off the ground and is just four inches wide. Judy was frightened. Her feet stuck to the beam.
Her panic became her punishment. The coach declared that if she could not bring herself to jump, for the remainder of practice, she would just have to stand there. “Don’t even think of getting off,” he yelled as he supervised the uneven bars on the other side of the room. His severity sent a message. “You had better believe I did that handspring the next time I walked into the gym,” Judy told me.
The heights of athletic performance are achieved, a child learns, by tolerating pain, becoming hardened, developing mental toughness. Girls like Judy are conditioned to think that their bodies belong not to themselves but to the people who promise to lead them to ever more impressive accomplishments. An older man may be a supportive mentor who guides a protégé to greatness, even as he abuses her after practice. The line can be crossed with the smallest step. That, ultimately, was what happened to Judy. When she was sixteen, she said, a new coach at a different gym coerced her into a sexual relationship.
Judy didn’t tell anyone about it until college, when she confided in a friend. Soon after, Judy brought the man to court. He was acquitted in the criminal case, so she brought a civil suit; in a settlement, with no admission of liability, he agreed to pay monetary damages, go to counseling, and never coach again. U.S.A. Gymnastics, however, did not put him on its banned list.
Judy still believes that gymnastics is a meaningful activity for young people. She credits her training with helping her learn to confront fear: once, she was told to visualize her fears being piped into a hot air balloon that disappears into the sky. “I still use that imagery if I’m feeling anxious about something,” she said. Yet Judy sees a direct connection between the way she was humiliated as a child and sexually exploited a decade later, as if she’d been preconditioned. “It’s hard not to look back and think, ‘Is that the moment when it all began?’ ” Perhaps her first coach thought that he was teaching her a valuable lesson. What she took away, though, was a mantra that might make any child vulnerable: “I will always do what my coach says.”