WAKEFIELD, Mass. — Too often, an Olympic dream for glory brings instead sexual abuse.
In the case of Middletown’s Kayla Harrison, the No. 2 judo athlete in the world in her 78-kilo (172-pound) weight class, it will have brought both should she win gold — as she’s favored to do — at the London Olympic Games.
Now 22 and living and training in Wakefield, Mass., Harrison was sexually abused from the time she was 13 to 16 by Daniel Doyle, her Centerville judo coach. Doyle is now serving a 10-year sentence in a federal prison.
“When you’re in a situation like I was — training at a high level — you do have to be close to your coaches. And from the time I was 8 years old until 16, Daniel was my sun,” Harrison said of Doyle, who was 16 years her senior. “My world revolved around him, and I wanted to do nothing but please him."
Her case is the latest high-profile example of a young athlete seeking world-class training but instead becoming the victim of an abusive coach.
Young, elite athletes can be the most vulnerable, often leaving home to live and train with coaches who control the youngsters’ lives.
Olga Korbut, the universally embraced Russian gymnast who won three gold medals at the 1972 Munich Olympics, told a Russian daily newspaper she was the “sex slave” of her coach when she was a teenager.
Don Peters, the head coach of the U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics team in 1984 — a squad of American darlings that won eight medals — resigned eight months ago from his California gym amid allegations he abused two of his athletes during the 1980s.
Both of those athletes have spoken out about the sexual liberties he allegedly took. Though the statute of limitations has expired, Peters has been banned from USA Gymnastics for life and kicked out of the federation’s hall of fame.
ABC News’ “20/20” reported in April 2010 that over the past 10 years, USA Swimming had disciplined 36 coaches for sexual misconduct. A decade earlier, a study by an Australian Institute of Sport psychologist found that one-third of the country’s female swimmers — and one-fifth of the male swimmers — said they were sexually abused.
Graham Jones, a well-known and respected Canadian junior hockey coach — Hockey News once named him its “Man of the Year,” — pleaded guilty in 1997 to 350 charges of sexual abuse of young hockey players. Among his victims was NHL star Theo Fluery.
“Abuse is rampant in sports,” said Sabrina Mar, the all-around gymnastics champ at the 1987 Pan American Games, who, this past March claimed she was physically abused by U.S. national gymnastics coach Doug Boger when she was a youngster in his charge.
Mar’s allegations, made on CNN and repeated often since, were supported by six other former gymnasts who came forward and said they were sexually and physically abused and even tortured by Boger when they were young.
One of the athletes — now in her 50s and asking not to be named — told CNN Boger impregnated her when she was 15 and she had an abortion.
Boger had been under investigation before — in 1982 he was acquitted of charges he physically abused athletes, but he eventually was banned from USA Gymnastics. He still found coaching jobs, though, and was working with youngsters at a Colorado gymnastics club when the latest claims surfaced.
Katherine Starr knows how that trust between coach and athlete can be manipulated.
Before changing her name in 2006, she was Annabelle Cripps, an 11-time All-American swimmer at the University of Texas who, although Wisconsin-born, was a member of Great Britain’s Olympic teams in 1984 and 1988.
Sent as a youngster to a British boarding school to train, she said she was sexually abused by Paul Hickson, the nation’s head swim coach, from the time she was 14 to age 21. Although she remained silent at the time, 13 other girls eventually came forward and said Hickson sexually abused them. He was sentenced to 17 years in prison and died there in 2008.
This past January, Starr launched Safe4Athletes, a nonprofit advocacy and watchdog group that provides young, abused athletes with assistance getting counseling to reaching legal authorities.
“I started being groomed by him when I was 13,” Starr said by phone from Los Angeles.
“When you’re a young girl and an elite athlete, there is so much going on,” Starr said. “You are budding into sexuality. There are boys. There’s fame. Everybody at school knows you are a good athlete. You get to travel and you get special privileges, and you have a sense of accomplishment. It’s like a drug. And you spend more and more time with the coach who controls all.
“And the thing is, adults are taken in by that, too. Later on when I coached, I saw how parents trusted me with their kids just because I had a whistle and some Olympic credentials, and that bothered me. They dropped their kid off with someone they barely knew — something they wouldn’t do in another context — but because it was under the guise of sport, it became OK. They wanted me to make their child an Olympian, too.”
Jimmy Pedro, a four-time U.S. Olympic judo athlete, two-time bronze medalist and now a world-class coach of sterling reputation who trains Harrison, echoed some of Starr’s thoughts.
“Consider this. You’d never loan your car to someone you don’t know even though it’s insured,” he said. “You don’t know them well enough, so you wouldn’t trust them with your car keys. And yet you trust them with your 10-year-old.”
That unwavering trust is a tool pedophiles maneuver to their advantage, Starr said:
“Pedophiles are generally very charismatic people. They mimic good behavior. And isn’t it much easier to listen to and embrace a charismatic person than a teenager who is 'acting out?’ ”
And that’s often the way abuse victims manifest what is happening to them.
“In hindsight I’ve said, 'How did I not see it?’ and I beat myself up over it for a long time, but when it was happening with Kayla we just thought, 'This is a 13-year-old going through some nasty, nasty stuff,’ ” said Harrison’s mom, Jeannie Yazell, a Middletown nurse. “I just thought, 'Holy cow, she’s having some major hormonal swings.’ ”
“Kayla and her (step) dad were really close — she was a real daddy’s girl — but all of a sudden it was, 'No, I’m not going to do anything you say.’
“The thing is (Doyle) was completely controlling her mind. Guys like that get your child’s confidence and make them feel loved. Then it starts to go further: 'I’m the only one who will ever love you,’ and then it’s: 'You can’t trust anyone else.’ It’s brainwashing, and pretty soon it’s: 'You’re not gonna listen to your parents. I know better.’ ”
As Pedro cautioned: “Predators exist in every facet of life. Look at what happened in the Catholic Church and the Penn State program. There are pedophiles in so many situations, and it becomes a matter of identifying them and being aware of situations that don’t seem normal. Basically you don’t trust your kids with anybody unless you truly know them ... and sometimes not even then.”
When abuse starts
Starr said a lot of times when abuse starts with young athletes, they feel they can’t tell their parents and they don’t know any other way to get out of the situation.
“It’s not just the shame, there’s also the fear that all the good things — the special privileges that come with being an elite athlete, the whole dream — will be taken from you.
“We can’t expect a 14-year-old to figure this all out and have the wherewithal, the emotional intelligence to call USA Gymnastics or swimming or whoever it is and get help. Frankly, many young athletes see it as almost the most defeating thing to do. So instead they just suffer.”
And that suffering can last for years, decades, a lifetime, she said.
Although she managed to keep some stability in her professional life and remained a business consultant for Fortune 500 companies, Starr said her personal life was on a downward spiral. She overate and became an alcoholic, until she said friends intervened and got her to stop drinking.
She eventually realized the root of her self-destruction was that abuse she had kept hidden. After 13 years of sobriety, she finally decided to do everything she could to prevent others from going through what she did and — with the help of some other noted Olympians — she started Safe4Athletes.
“A young athlete being abused has to know how to get that abuse stopped,” she said. “We wanted to provide them with a voice.”
Her organization features an Internet base — www.safe4 athletes.org — where athletes coaches and teams can find all matters of information and help when it comes to sexual abuse. The group can also be reached by phone at (855) 723-3422.
Safe4Athletes also is working on partnering with various governing bodies of amateur sports to institute a standard code of coaching conduct. And when abuse is reported to those groups, Starr plans to make sure there is follow through. She also publishes a list of coaches banned for sexual misconduct.
Last year after allegations of impropriety surfaced about several coaches, the United States Olympic Committee updated its rules on screening and sexual conduct of coaches, and the procedures for reporting abuse.
But Starr thinks the American Olympic movement still isn’t properly addressing the issue. She believes it’s not been made the high priority it should be.
She said the sexual abuse of young athletes is terrorism against children. And she believes the same scrutiny and diligence used at airports to keep planes and passengers safe should be used in sports to keep young athletes unharmed.
To bring the issue to center stage during the 2012 Summer Olympics, her group is having a gala dinner and fundraiser at the Tower of London — the crown jewels will be on display — on Friday, the same night as the Olympic Games opening ceremonies.
“Certainly there are people who don’t want to talk about this issue and don’t want to think about it,” she said. “They don’t want to know about the elite athlete who is in so much pain. Olympians are supposed to be like Disney actors. They’re supposed to be the happiest athletes on earth. Too often that’s just not the case.
“We want to change that. We don’t want any child to have to sit and suffer. We think no young athlete should ever have to make a decision between abuse and an Olympic dream.”