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By the time Anna Strzempko was in middle school in Western Massachusetts, she had the makings of a star swimmer. At 12, as a distance freestyler, she was the youngest on the national team. In eighth grade, college recruiters started calling.
But when she was 13, as the medals and ribbons began to pile up, Anna’s relationship with her coach at the local YMCA took a dark turn. Anna’s mother Monica Strzempko says the he not only raped and anally raped her daughter, but that he hit her too.
“People ask me, ‘Why didn’t you scream? Why didn’t you yell, kick? Why didn’t you go tell your mom?’” Anna said. “Because… I hated it. I hated what was happening to me and it was terrifying and ugly and disgusting and it was horrible. But I loved him.”
“I didn’t think he was my boyfriend,” Anna added. “I just thought that he was the most important person in the world.”
For the first time, Monica Strzempko is speaking out about the coach she says raped her daughter for years. She wants to warn other elite young athletes, a group she believes is particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse, for their safety, and to help protect their Olympic dreams.
“Right now, as we’re speaking, I am sure a wide-eyed 12-year-old Olympic wannabe is being abused,” Strzempko told America Tonight. “This situation sets itself up and on every club team in every state in this country.”
Looking back, Anna’s mother admits she should have seen the warning signs.
“Once she said to me, ‘It’s like cocaine,’” Monica Strzempko said. “She said, ‘He yells at me, but it’s like cocaine. I keep going back.’ And I’ll never forget those words."
As sexual abuse experts so often say, the rapes weren’t about sex. Even Anna says the sexual violence was another way for the coach to control her. She remembers times when he would scream at her in front of other people’s parents. He would also praise her though, which made her feel “amazing.”
At the time, Anna said she didn’t understand that what was happening to her was rape.
“I didn't even know that if I told somebody they would say that it was wrong,” she said.
The strain, however, began to show. Anna was diagnosed with anorexia. Night after night, she crawled into her parents’ bed. She considered suicide. Anna finally confessed to a friend, who called her parents to alert them. For Anna, her parent’s discovery was the most crushing thing of all.
“It’s unimaginable,” Anna said. “It hurts more than anything I think ever will again is to see them try to shoulder the guilt.”
It wasn’t as if Anna’s mother wasn’t paying attention; she was with her youngest daughter at every practice and every meet.
“I was the helicopter parent on the other side of the door,” she said. “While he was raping her, I was working out in the gym.”
Once she reported it, Anna’s mother thought the response would be swift and severe. The family filed a police report at a local station, but said that since they had no evidence, the case went nowhere. They reported the coach to the YMCA and he was put on leave and eventually forced out.
But the Strzempkos say other team families ostracized them, blaming them for “causing trouble.”
“Parents don’t want any changes when their kids are swimming fast,” Monica Strzempko said. “Also, sexual abuse is a nasty, dirty business and nobody wants to admit that it happened in their backyard.”
It’s a huge epidemic across sports and across Olympic sports and elite sports, whether it’s in rowing or it’s Tae Kwon Do, or wrestling or volleyball.
Former Olympic hopeful
She says she got even less support from USA Swimming, the sport’s governing body within the U.S. Olympic Committee. Already facing the stunning disclosure that Rick Curl, one of the top swim coaches in the country, had sexually abused one of his star swimmers for years and was sent to prison for it, Monica Strzempko expected USA Swimming to act quickly in her daughter’s case.
“I thought, ‘This will be easy, he’s not a big coach nationally,’” Monica said of her daughter’s coach. “They’ve got a firsthand statement from a young girl who was raped by this guy. This should be easy. They can ban him.”
Except, they didn’t. Now, if Anna’s former coach decided to get back into coaching, he could do so and face no consequences.
Former Olympic hopeful Bridie Farrell says it’s a painfully familiar story, and not just in elite swimming.
“It’s a huge epidemic across sports and across Olympic sports and elite sports, whether it’s in rowing or it’s Tae Kwon Do, or wrestling or volleyball,” Farrell said. “It’s across all sports.”
An Olympic speedskating hopeful, Farrell was a high school sophomore when four-time Olympian and silver medalist Andy Gabel allegedly abused her. She was 15 and he was 33. Gabel, later president of U.S. Speedskating and honored in its Hall of Fame, did not respond to America Tonight’s requests for an interview, but eventually admitted an “inappropriate” relationship with a female teammate.
“Andy makes the point that we didn’t have ‘sex,’” Farrell said. “But you’re not allowed to touch 15-year-old girls, you’re not allowed to put your fingers in 15-year-old girls, you’re not allowed to kiss 15-year-old girls. It does not matter. That’s not a justification for what he did.”
Gabel was never prosecuted; by the time Farrell came forward, the statute of limitations had run out. Gabel was investigated by US Speedskating, but a report on the investigation wasn’t made public. As far as Farrell knows, no action was taken against her alleged abuser.
No Title IX
Unlike colleges, athletic bodies are under no federal mandate to investigate claims of abuse, because the Olympic committees and subsidiaries of the national governing bodies are not educational institutions and so don’t have to go by Title IX.
The U.S. Olympic Committee, USA Swimming and US Speedskating all declined America Tonight’s repeated requests for interviews about Safe Sport, their sex abuse prevention program. But some outside experts say the governing bodies are stuck between a rock and a hard place, because they aren’t equipped to conduct full investigations and there’s often no clear proof of abuse.
Mike Saltzstein knows intimately how these governing bodies work, as the former USA Swimming vice president, who also served on swimming’s insurance board. He said in cases of alleged sexual abuse the initial reaction of everyone he knew was to “attack the victim.”
Saltzstein later wrote a proposal with guidelines to protect swimmers from possible sexual abuse. He suggested banning one-on-one contact between coaches and young athletes and solo travel involving a coach and an athlete of the opposite gender. He also advised that headquarters staff should be disciplined if they didn’t act on an allegation of abuse in a timely way.
These suggestions made him a pariah in the swimming community, he said.
“Initially, I was called and told by one of the ranking folks that I had made a huge, grave mistake,” Saltzstein said. “That I should not have written it, that I should not have published it.”
Many sports programs eventually adopted his guidelines, but victims say the organizations still do not investigate aggressively and that the onus is ultimately on victims to prove abuse.
No longer swimming competitively, Anna Strzempko mourns what she could have accomplished if not for the repeated sexual abuse.
“I loved swimming. I was good at it,” she said. “I wanted to swim Division-I. I wanted to go to the Olympic trails… those were realistic things for me.”
Farrell is continuing her campaign to get her former coach out of US Speedskating and remove him from the Hall of Fame.
“My sole purpose in coming forward is to help change the culture of sport and make it safer,” Farrell said. “In doing nothing, in taking no action against the perpetrators, it’s creating culture where athletes are not going to speak up.”
Athletes may not speak up, but strong mothers like Monica Strzempko, will continue their push for the truth.
“People ask me, ‘Don’t kids lie?’” she said. “And I say, ‘Well, kids lie. but adults lie a lot more.’”