WASHINGTON – Former Arizona State University swimmer Jancy Thompson said the sexual abuse she suffered for five years at the hands of her coach for USA Swimming “lives in my bones” to this day.
That pain brought Thompson to Washington, where she joined 12 other former athletes who survived sexual abuse. They shared their stories Wednesday and called on Congress to enact stronger protections for young athletes.
They spoke in advance of a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing that called officials from U.S. national teams overseeing swimming, weightlifting, figure skating, taekwondo and bobsledding.
Those officials said their organizations are doing everything in their power to protect their athletes, including external review of charges against coaches and trainers, programs to encourage athletes to report and rules for suspending or banning abusers.
“USA Swimming is committed to the continued development of its own abuse prevention and response program,” said Tim Hinchey III, the president and CEO of USA Swimming.
“I have said before, I say today, and I will say forever, providing a safe and healthy environment to our children, athletes and members is my and the organization’s top priority,” Hinchey said in his prepared testimony.
But the group of athletes, all women, wants Congress to change the statute of limitations in the Olympic and Amateur Sports Act so that survivors can report their abuse at any time, even if they wait until they are older to come forward.
They also want the act to require that coaches who commit sexual assault against their athletes be banned from the organization – an issue that came up in the hearing.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, asked Hinchey whether Thompson’s USA Swimming coach is on the list of banned members.
“One of the individuals whom he sexually abused, Jancy Thompson, is in the audience today,” Blumenthal said.
“I’m not familiar with that case prior to my arrival to USA Swimming, but I know that he’s not a member of USA Swimming,” Hinchey said. But when asked if the coach had been banned, Hinchey replied, “Not to my knowledge.”
Thompson said the only way she could escape her coach – who was not an ASU coach – was to leave her sport behind, so she quit swimming and gave up an athletic scholarship during her second year as a Sun Devil.
“I lost everything, I lost who I was,” she said. “It was gone, and he took that with him.”
Thompson said the abuse began when she was 15 and continued until she walked away from the sport at age 20. She accused her coach of various horrific abuses, carried out both in private and in public.
“By the time I was 15 he began sexually abusing me in private and humiliating me in public,” Thompson said. “He even went as far as putting a dog collar around my neck, forcing me to swim while he walked down the pool deck beside me holding the leash.”
She said that, even though she hasn’t seen her abuser in years, the pain she felt as a teenager still “lives in my bones.”
“It affects you as a parent, it affects you as a friend, as a wife – relationships, friendships are all affected,” Thompson said. “The relational trust that most people establish over time is just broken and shattered forever and it’s so hard to get back to a healthy, good spot in life.”
Gaby Joslin, a former athlete with USA Taekwondo, said training under a former U.S. Olympic coach was “cultish,” with sexualization subtly pushed on the athletes from a young age.
“It’s a rule of secrecy that the younger boys and girls start mimicking the older boys and girls, and by the time that we’re fully developed young adults, there’s already a cultishness that is – I want to be able to say that it’s difficult to let go,” Joslin said. “The truth is, I think it’s impossible to let go.”
Joslin has a fifth-degree black belt, but said she has not been able to let her young daughter move past a yellow belt. Motherhood has forced her to assess the sexual assault she suffered in a different light, and it motivated her to step out and advocate for other young athletes.
“Now I’m a mom and I have an amazing little girl who wants more than anything to be like Mommy and to do taekwondo,” she said. “And I love the sport, the sport itself is beautiful, but I cannot go near it.”
Joslin said that despite the trauma that she endured, she still has one memory of what drove her to pursue an athletic career in the first place, and why it’s worth fighting for.
“In the 2003 World University Olympics, it’s the chant of walking in through the stadium, wearing USA on my back, hearing, ‘USA! USA!’ and that roar still is something that resonates deep, deep, deep in my heart,” she said. “So I know there is a hope, but things have to change.”