Keep Our Child Athletes Safe

Having been an Olympic swimmer who endured sexual abuse during the entire course of my 10-year career, with no resources available to help me, I decided I would found an independent organization to keep athletes safe.
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The Olympics are fast approaching. Who doesn't love watching these glorious athletes defy the laws of gravity, overcome adversity, and battle staunch competition to soar beyond our imaginations? Who isn't swept up watching Shawn Johnson win the gold medal on balance beam, or Usain Bolt dash across the finish line, or Michael Phelps cut through the water to break every record many times over? We love our athletes. They inspire us, they make us believe the impossible is possible, and, truthfully, they ignite our belief in our own humanity. That's a tall order, but these athletes, many of them children, do this for us time and time again.

And yet, we provide them no protection in terms of their own safety. They begin training as young children. Many are blessed to have kind and generous coaches who teach them the required mix of skills and discipline that will make the talented few into champions. But some are not so lucky. They have coaches who bully and domineer, who abuse them sexually and emotionally. And these kids have no recourse within their sport. Yes, there are laws that criminalize sexual and physical abuse, but often, these coaches hold such power and sway, not to mention the keys to a bright, gold-medal-filled future, that the kids are intimidated into silence. They prioritize their own future Olympic team berth over emotional and physical health.

These sports and teams have failed to govern themselves, as evidenced by the recent Penn State and Syracuse happenings. This is why it is time for an objective, third-party organization to step in and protect the athletes we love to watch so much. It is time for a change. It is time to protect our children and support the sports that give our children the opportunity to learn a sense of mastery, to compete, to build healthy bodies and minds, and, yes, to win, to become champions. It is time to advocate for athlete welfare so that every young competitor is provided an environment that is safe from sexual abuse, bullying, and harassment.

Coaches spend more time every day with their athletes than teachers do. Coaches, unlike child health care workers, travel with their athletes. Teachers and child health care workers are held to stringent standards -- as they should be -- in regard to their behavior around children. Many schools require that doors be kept open when teachers counsel students, and parents are present for medical exams in most practices. Any suspicion of abuse is required by law to be reported. And yet there are no guidelines or laws that dictate appropriate behavior when it comes to coaches and athletes.

An independent group needs to step in to establish policies and procedures that prevent coach misconduct, provide counsel to sports organizations facing issues of harassment or other inappropriate behavior, and will partner with local and national sports governing bodies to mandate member coaches' adoption of strong and enforceable policies regarding these issues. In fact, it is long past time for an organization such as this, one that works across sports, with athletes, coaches, administrators, and parents to protect the athletes who inspire us with their courage and agility and pure audacity.

Having been an Olympic swimmer who endured sexual abuse during the entire course of my 10-year career, with no resources available to help me, I decided I would found an independent organization to keep athletes safe. I want to do something to ensure that athletes following in my footsteps would not have to repeat my experience. So I pulled together a diverse board of directors and advisory councils comprised of world-class athletes from all sports, sports psychologists, the Women's Sports Foundation, and youth advocates, creating Safe4Athletes, the first nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring a safe and positive environment for young athletes in all sports, free from sexual abuse, bullying, hazing, and harassment. My goal is to have all athletes know that safe equals strong.

It's time we all watched the Olympics with the profound certainty that while these athletes worked hard, beyond what most of us can imagine, to achieve their dreams, they were kept safe from undue harm all the while. Injuries happen. Sexual abuse and bullying must not.