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May 22, 2024

How “Athlete A” Inspired Me to Speak Up About Sexual Harassment 

Late one night this past July, I turned on the documentary “Athlete A” on Netflix. I’d heard it was good, and being 3 months into the pandemic, I had watched almost everything else Netflix had to offer. I had no idea the impact that watching it would have on me or the months of my life following.

It’s a tough watch, if I’m being honest. My heart ached for the girls and women abused by Larry Nassar. But even more because certain parts of their story sounded more familiar to things that I had experienced than what I had realized. The women talked about how even though he sexually abused them, Nassar was the only person in USA Gymnastics who was nice to them and acted like he cared about them in other ways. He groomed them into thinking that his good outweighed his bad. They didn’t speak up about the sexual abuse because they didn’t want to lose his kindness. More and more, this was sounding like not just something I was watching, but something I had lived.

When I was in high school, one of my teachers sexually harassed women all the time. He did it in and out of the school setting; in classrooms, restaurants, in hotel rooms, and on school buses. He talked about waitresses, his wife, and even some of his students and their mothers in sexualized and degrading ways. He sexually harassed boys too, making fun of them in front of other students for their sexual life, or lack thereof. Honestly, that’s just a sample of his behavior. But he was also one of the “cool” teachers. He let students leave during his class to get snacks at the nearby gas station, be on their phones, or work on other homework during his class. He would have “heart-to-hearts” with students, talk to them about things going on in their life, and seemed to genuinely care about students if they were going through something difficult. He also wrote students glowing scholarship recommendations and helped provide them with lots of great opportunities. He even did a lot of this stuff for me. In some sense, he was very successful at his job. He coached and led many competitive teams to huge state victories and national competitions over his years of teaching and coaching.

It was one of these national competition trips that was the last straw for me, however. A lot of things happened on this trip. For starters, there were approximately 9 young women and 5 young men competing at the national competition, but 3 male chaperones and no female chaperones taking us across the country. Many sexual jokes were made along the drive that made me uncomfortable. But the true realization of how serious what was going on didn’t occur to me until he took a picture of me on Snapchat when I was not expecting it and proceeded to draw a penis in my mouth. On this particular occasion, he had ridden with me to my individual competition, so it was just the two of us sitting alone in an event center with no one else around. I was 17 years old and he was in his thirties. I knew that it was not okay and I asked him to delete the picture. I’m not sure if he did.

I did not compete well that afternoon, and I felt sick the remainder of the trip. I wanted to get home. On the drive back to my hometown, I told him that I wouldn’t compete for the remainder of my senior year, and he acted like I was joking. I got angry at him and he finally dropped it. When I got home from the trip, my mom could tell that something was not right with me. She wouldn’t leave me alone until I finally told her what had happened. She immediately wanted to go to the school board and report him, but I begged her not to. I didn’t want to be the person who got the cool teacher that everyone liked fired. I asked her to let me handle it, and against her better judgement, she did. I went to my teacher and I told him that if he ever did anything like that to me again, I would report him. He never did. I thought this was the end of the story. I thought I would be able to leave it in the past.

But the years went by. I couldn’t shake the feeling that what had happened to me was a bigger issue, even though he had stopped harassing me after I confronted him. Over the years after I graduated, I heard stories about parents who wouldn’t let their children take his classes or compete on his teams because they didn’t want their daughters around him. It hit home when someone close to me finally called me crying one day, telling me that they had dropped his class because they couldn’t deal with it anymore.

At first I felt shame. Shame that I hadn’t done anything sooner. I called friends and family and told them I was thinking of reporting him. People were supportive of me and believed me, but they echoed my own thoughts when I asked if they thought I should report him. “Nothing will change, I don’t think they will do anything about him, etc.”

But that night a few months later, watching “Athlete A,” I listened to woman after woman say variations of “I didn’t know he was doing this to anyone else,” and I realized that I didn’t want one more student to have to go through what I did. I didn’t want one more girl to miss an opportunity to compete and be successful, just because she couldn’t do it without fear of being sexually harassed. I wasn’t completely sure that I could stop it, but nevertheless that night I stayed up until 5 am writing my sexual harassment complaint, until it was perfect. I hesitated to send it though. I read it and reread it over the following days, until my anger was so intense that there was nothing left to do. When I hit that send button, it was one huge wave of relief and fear at once. I had no idea what would happen next.

Truthfully my hopes were high in the beginning. The complaint was handled quickly in its early stages, but things began to slow down after a few weeks. Pretty soon, I was calling the person I had been told was in charge of the case weekly – leaving messages and never hearing back. I thought to myself “Well you tried. Everyone knew this would happen.” I’d pretty much given up on any concrete results. That is until someone reached out to me saying they were told they should contact me about complaints of their own. They said that they had been talking to a close friend of mine about similar problems with this teacher, and my friend had told them about my letter (which only a handful of people even knew I had written). I sent them my letter to read over and they said they would write one of their own. I was so overjoyed to have an ally in this fight. All of a sudden, I had hope again.

We decided to start reaching out to others we thought might have complaints as well. This was one of the hardest parts of the journey. We had some people join us in our fight. But I also had others who were quick to turn the narrative on me, saying things like “why are you trying to ruin this man’s life 5 years later?” “Don’t you know he has a family to take care of?” And more. Feelings of guilt rushed in, making me wonder if I had made the wrong decision. I had to remind myself over and over and over again that I did not ruin his life, he ruined his own life.

Even my own mom, who wanted so badly to report him in the first place, had questions. “Why now?” she asked me. I knew she felt like a bad mom. I told her that I wasn’t ready then. I said that if I could go back and do it again, I would report him sooner. But that wasn’t a good reason to not go forward with it now. I can’t change the decision I made back then, but if I had learned anything it was that this abuse and harassment was still happening, and I could change things for young girls and students moving forward. This winter, that teacher resigned midway through the semester. It is a small victory.

I tell my story to highlight a few important truths about any form of abuse. The first is the lesson that abusers will groom and manipulate you into feeling guilty about protecting yourself and others. But you are not guilty, and you are not selfish. You may never know the number of people you help, but there’s a really good chance that you help more than just yourself when you speak up about abuse.

The second is that, as victims and survivors, we have to do things our way and on our own timeline. Looking back, part of me wishes I had spoken up sooner. But I was not ready to take that step in high school. If or when you are ready – you don’t have to do it alone.

The third, and maybe most important takeaway, is that abuse flourishes in our silence. Maybe you aren’t ready to tell the world about the abuse you are facing yet. I never wanted to go public with my story, and I have still withheld many details even in this account out of fear of backlash. But you need to tell someone. If I had never told my friend that I made my initial report, she could have never told her friends to get in touch with me. The journey was long, but I’m glad I did it. I know not every story ends like mine. I was lucky to have a lot of support, and others who were willing to speak up too – but not everyone has that. It’s ok if you don’t want to report to school officials or police. It’s okay if you don’t want to get a medical exam done after an assault. You don’t owe anyone anything. It’s your life and you know what is best for you. But don’t suffer alone and in silence. Take your power back, and tell someone. And if you aren’t sure who to tell? Tell us. We will listen, believe, and support you. Call 1.800.770.1650 or text “iowahelp” to 20121.

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