SoCal Olympic swimmer travels to London to combat athlete abuse

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A Southern California woman who swam in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics traveled to this year's London games to throw a spotlight on an issue close to her heart: the abuse of athletes by coaches, a problem she has been fighting through Safe4Athletes, a nonprofit organization she founded last year.

Katherine Starr, who represented Great Britain in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, said that she knows sexual abuse firsthand: She was the victim of abuse at the hands of her Olympic coach.

“I was 16 at the '84 Olympics," she said. "It actually started, the first time, when I actually was living with my coach because my mother was traveling. It was a complete set up. Everything about it was a set up. [He] gives me alcohol and proceeds to rape me and then he tried to continue to do that,” she said.

In 1995, her coach, Paul Hickson, was sentenced in England to 17 years in prison after 13 young women accused him of rape and other sexual abuse. Starr didn’t testify. Hickson died four years ago.

Starr’s trauma led to alcoholism and therapy in an effort to heal. And she changed her name.

“I was formerly Annabelle Cripps, that’s the name that I was born and trained under. After, it was just too painful to wake up in the morning and be that person,” she said.

She founded Safe4Athletes last year to better protect amateur athletes from abuse by coaches.

Overcoming abuse

Now, Starr can share stories of athletes who have overcome abuse.

She takes out her Blackberry phone to show off the highlight from her London Olympics trip. It isn’t a picture from the swimming finals or the beach volleyball match she attended.

It’s a snapshot of Starr standing next to U.S. judo team gold medalist Kayla Harrison at the Olympic Park. Both women have wide smiles. Harrison holds up her bright, golden, pancake-size medal.

Starr’s a fan because Harrison recently talked about being sexually abused by her first judo coach from the age of 13 to 16.

“Kayla, who rose above every ounce of pain and hurt that exists with sexual abuse to win a gold medal, is beyond bravery, is beyond comprehension that any of us can possibly understand,” Starr said.

Starr's own story of abuse started early. Her father was a champion swimmer Great Britain. So at the age of 11 she was shipped from her native Wisconsin to England to be trained by the best British swimming coaches. She soon found some of them didn’t care much about athletes’ feelings.

“They’d throw chairs at you in the pool or they’d throw hot coffee on you in the pool. I mean it was, like, stuff that, like, it’s ridiculous that it was accepted as just abusing a young athlete in the name of, like, I’m trying to get you to be a better swimmer,” she said.

Support from other athletes

Southland gymnast Doe Yamashiro, who competed on the US National Team in the late 1980s, has endorsed the group’s efforts.

In a series of Orange County Register stories last year, Yamashiro decribed how her Huntington Beach gymnastics center coach fondled her and raped her when she was 16 and 17 years old.

That coach, Don Peters, had led the U.S. Women’s gymnastics team to eight medals in the 1984 Olympics.

Last year USA Gymnastics banned Peters from the sport and removed him from its hall of fame. Peters has declined to talk about the allegations. His lawyer challenged the ban.

Starr recommends the creation of a national athlete advocate to monitor coach on athlete sexual abuse and misconduct, a ban on romantic relationships between coaches and athletes, and help for abused athletes. Safe4Athletes has compiled a list of licensed therapists who know the athletic culture. One of them is Megan Neyer.

“Once upon a time in a land far away, I was a world-class spring board and platform diver. I was an Olympian, a world champion and many times national champion,” Neyer said.

Neyer says the power of an amateur sports coach, those outside schools, goes largely unchecked by governing bodies or other people around.

“Your coaches often hold your dreams in their hands and so there’s a tremendous amount of power that a coach has and the other part of that, particularly with women, boys as well. They want to please the coach,” she said.

The U.S. Olympic Committee and the organizations that oversee amateur swimming and gymnastics have enacted new policies in recent years to prevent coach abuse of athletes. They include maintaining a list of banned coaches.

Olympic swimmer Katherine Starr said more needs to be done. To that end, she plans for her group to help abused athletes get counseling and legal advice. And she wants sports organizations to adopt Safe4Athletes’ coach-athlete welfare and safety policies.

The need is urgent, she said, based on what she heard in London from Olympians and coaches from around the world.

“You know, it’s been 20 years since I was a training athlete, 20-plus, and to still hear that the issues are in existence today, it saddens me that this has been going on and nobody has actually taken a stand and you know, let’s give a voice to these athletes and advocate for athletes’ rights,” Starr said.

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