Beauty for Ashes
An Olympic Swimmer’s Long Journey to Freedom
By Kim Rhodenbaugh Lewallen
It was the Opening Ceremonies for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Since we were the host country, the United States was the last team to march out. The crowd was pumped! As we entered the tunnel of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, we could hear them chanting, “USA, USA.” As we got closer to the opening, the cheering got louder and louder. When we entered the coliseum, the crowd went wild as they continued to chant, “USA, USA, USA” over and over while waving American flags. I will never forget that moment of hearing 90,000 screaming fans there to support us. The feeling of pride for my country and all my accomplishments was overwhelming. I’m so glad I was able to bask in that moment. I had made it! I had fulfilled my lifelong dream to make the Olympic Swim Team, a dream I had since I was ten. But that would be the only happy memory I would have from the Olympics. On the outside I looked like a happy and confident person, but tragically, inside I was dying. I had a dark secret that I had been living with, and it was killing me.
I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio in a powerhouse, competitive swimming family and was the seventh of eight children. My mom’s license plate read “8FISH” and my dad’s, “SWIMIN”; put them together and you get, “8FISH SWIMIN.” It was a family sport. We loved, encouraged and motivated each other. As an adult I found out I had ADD and a vision impairment called Vertical Phoria. It was no wonder I had such a difficult time in school growing up. Swimming became my salvation. I could dive into the water and drown out all the sounds that drove me crazy. It was something I excelled at and in which I built my confidence. I loved everything about swimming − the feel of the water, the practice of setting goals and the joy of achieving them, the competitiveness, and the incredible friendships. I was very coachable, extremely hard-working, and intensely determined. Life was beautiful then, full of joy, success and certainty. Little did I know that all of that was about to be stripped away.
The sport of swimming is filled with remarkable people and I was blessed to work with many incredible coaches and teammates. But as life goes, there are always some bad apples in the bunch. I’ve read so many articles in the last few years about coaches abusing their athletes. But there are very few articles about athletes who have sexually assaulted other athletes. Unfortunately, this is what happened to me. My intent is not to divulge names but to expose the ugly truth that sexual abuse amongst other athletes happens and is probably more prevalent than we all realize.
In 1980 I had just made my first U.S team at the age of fourteen. My dream of one day making the Olympic Team was on course, and I was thrilled to represent my country. We were swimming at an international meet in Honolulu and were staying in the dorms at the University of Hawaii. One day I was taking a nap in my dorm room when all of a sudden, I was awakened by someone fondling me. To my horror, I looked, and it was one of the older male swimmers from the U.S. team who I barely knew. All I remember was shoving his hand away from me. With a sick smile on his face he left my room not saying a word. I felt very confused, fearful and ashamed. My self-defense mechanism kicked in, detaching me from what had just happened. But the damage had been done. I became a master at putting on a happy mask, but inside I was fearful and distrusting. My once confident self became fixated on all my insecurities and obsessed over my weaknesses. The joy I once had turned to despair. This particular guy was just one of three swimmers who eventually sexually assaulted me. I’ve told people I felt like I had an antenna on my head so the abusers could find me. It’s like they have a sick sense of the ones who have already been abused or who they can control and manipulate.
In 1982, I was at the top of my swimming career. I had made the World Games Team and ended up getting two silver medals in the 100 breaststroke and the 4 x 100 medley relay. After the meet, I joined a few swimmers for a party in one of the hotel rooms to celebrate. I realized at some point it was just me and one of the other male swimmers. I had a crush on him and so I didn’t mind him kissing me, but he wanted more. I was a virgin at this point and didn’t feel ready to have sex. So, when I saw things going in that direction, I told him to stop, but he didn’t. I remember feeling him overpower me and telling him no, but he didn’t listen. I was paralyzed with fear and felt like I was drowning in a turbulent ocean with no rescue boat in sight. From that moment on, my drinking became more and more excessive and I started smoking pot. I just wanted to forget the horrific memory. Fortunately, this same swimmer, a year later, owned up to what he had done and apologized to me. But it was too late. The seeds of self-loathing, shame, and fear were even further deeply rooted. I had thoughts of suicide, many times wanting to run my car off the road. Like the other assault that had happened to me, I told no one. My parents, who have always been so incredibly supportive, have asked me why I never told them back then. I didn’t really have an answer, other than I simply couldn’t. I think the shame of it all had me believing the lie that I was to blame for the abuse. My mind deceived me into thinking that keeping my secrets was protecting me when, in reality, not telling anyone kept me in darkness. It was an unbearable heaviness that stayed with me for more than thirty years.
The third swimmer who sexually assaulted me hit me the hardest. It was my senior year in high school and Olympic year—a year that should have been one of the happiest years of my life. At the beginning of that year, our Cincinnati Marlins team was on a bus headed to a swim meet. I was sitting next to one of the older male swimmers who was like a brother to me. At some point I dozed off. I woke up to this same brother figure with his hands down my shorts. Panicked, I shoved his hand away and sat paralyzed with shock. This was someone I had known since I was a little girl and trusted! I was gripped with deep anguish and could no longer be silent. I told one girlfriend, which was something I had never done. Unfortunately, she betrayed my trust by telling my abuser’s girlfriend and my boyfriend about the incident and she made it look like I had instigated everything. I learned to never tell anyone about my abuse ever again. Right after that, I developed an eating disorder. I felt so out of control that I thought, Here’s something I can control. But, this added shame caused me to very quickly spiral totally out of control. I was gripped with intense hunger pains, horrible intestinal discomfort, dehydration, fatigue and headaches on top of all the emotional trauma. Most days we trained up to six hours, and I was doing that with hardly any nourishment. I would either binge and throw up, or I wouldn’t eat. This began a ten-year battle with bulimia and anorexia. I drank or smoked pot to escape the “hell” I was in. I put everything I had into every practice, but never felt like I had done enough, so I would come home only to do more sit-ups and push-ups. And every day, I had to see this same brother figure who had sexually assaulted me.
I don’t know how I made the Olympic Team other than by God’s grace. By the time I got to the Olympic Trials my body was in shutdown mode. I should have won an Oscar for my acting! I was pretending like everything was okay when, in reality, I was anything but okay. On the outside I looked confident, happy and capable; but, inside I was broken, fearful and deeply depressed. I had agonizing physical and emotional pain and was very weak. With nothing short of a miracle, I ended up making the team in the 200 Breaststroke, which is a grueling event. As aforementioned, the opening ceremonies were a great memory, but the rest of my Olympic experience was horrible. Two of the guys who had assaulted me were also on the team. The overwhelming stress of seeing my abusers on a daily basis was unbearable. I was consumed with crazy thoughts. I literally felt like I was going insane, and yet another miracle happened—I made the finals. My best time would have medaled, but that night I didn’t even think I was going to be able to finish the race. Every muscle locked up on me, and I felt like I was swimming through mud. It was excruciating! My Olympic experience ended with an eighth-place finish and feelings of disappointment and unworthiness. All I wanted to do was forget what happened to me and move on, but I couldn’t move past the memories of abuse. The only thing I knew to do was to put on a smiley face and go on like nothing had ever happened. This was the decision that led to many years of alcohol and drug abuse, shame, depression, and suicide attempts.
In the Fall after the Olympics I went on to swim for the University of Texas. For a while, I felt better. I tried making a new start by putting behind me the pain of my past. I was a double NCAA champion my freshman year which helped to bring back the confidence I had lost. But at the beginning of my sophomore year I suffered an injury and felt my regained confidence slip back to despair. I lost myself in a downward spiral of addiction and deep self-hatred, and during my last two years of college I endured three more nightmarish rapes. After that I lost all hope that I would ever be normal again or free from my bondage. I was at the end of my rope. But one day I decided to peel back a little piece of my mask and tell my roommate about my eating disorder that was literally killing me. She encouraged me to tell my parents, who then got me into an outpatient program. It was a small step but began a long road of healing.
In 1990 I started going to church again after a six-year hiatus. That summer I committed my life to Christ, and for a little while felt some reprieve from my emotional trauma. But because I didn’t love myself, it was very hard to receive God’s love. In 1992 I was newly married and while being intimate with my husband one night, something triggered me, and all the memories of abuse I had tried so desperately to forget came flooding back. At that moment I also remembered being abused as a young girl by a teenager in our neighborhood who liked to play doctor on me; something I had totally blocked out for 20 years. I ran out of the bedroom screaming and collapsed in a fetal position on the kitchen floor. It was obvious to my new husband that something was seriously wrong. So, I finally broke my silence. I began to share with him all I had gone through. After this, I began a long road of counseling. Unfortunately, I couldn’t handle the deeply disturbing memories, so I continued to numb my pain with alcohol.
It would take a book to bridge the gap between then and now. The effects of my abuse followed me into marriage, motherhood, work, relationships and ministry. Deep self-loathing kept me from ever feeling like I was enough. Drinking kept me numb and prevented me from healing. The combination of addiction and depression was deadly. In 1999, for the first time, I tried to end my life to escape from the nightmare I was in. For the next 15 years I continued my counseling but came home every night to the bottle to drown out my frightful memories. It didn’t help that I was in a very tumultuous marriage. Even though I loved and adored my three beautiful children, I couldn’t escape the crippling low self-worth and deep misplaced shame I felt. I felt utterly alone, inadequate and weak. Many times, I sat on my bed with a loaded gun to my head or wanted to drive off a cliff. I had lost all hope that I would ever be free. I convinced myself that I just wanted to go home to be with the Lord and believed the lie that everyone would be much better off without me.
It would take over thirty years until I was finally able to really begin my healing from sexual abuse. In January 2014, I was in the depths of depression and alcoholism. For the second time I tried to take my life. I spent the next 72 days in rehab. While I was there, memories came flooding back, some of which I had completely blocked out. I was gripped with shame from all that had happened to me. But now I was sober and could finally start the journey of healing that I am still on. For so long I had believed alcohol was protecting me from the horrific memories, when in reality it was keeping me from freedom from those memories. God helped me forgive everyone for what they had done to me. I know this may sound ridiculous to some of you, but it was imperative that I do this for myself. Someone once told me that unforgiveness is a poison you drink thinking it will poison the other person. Well, I was done drinking the poison and wanted to be free of the hell I had been in for so long.
In the last five years it took not only God’s army to pull me up from a victim to a victor but also an earthly army − my supportive and loving husband, kids, mom, dad, brothers, sisters, friends, AA sponsor and community, and counselors. It has taken a lot of hard work to claw my way out of the dark pit I had been in. But my renewed faith and revived competitive spirit helped me rise from the abyss of fear and shame. God has supernaturally healed my deeply wounded heart and soul. I’ve learned that I am worthy of His love. I’ve also learned my identity is not defined by what happened to me but by a great God who loves and adores me. I am no longer a victim but a warrior and overcomer! God has replaced the lies like “I’ll never be enough” and “I’m worthless” with His truth that I AM ENOUGH AND WORTHY. After my 24 years of marriage ended in divorce in 2014, God brought an amazing man into my life who truly loves and cherishes me. My heart can now fully love and receive that love. Nolan and I married in 2016, and I couldn’t imagine a better soulmate.
Something needs to change, especially in sports where both men and women train and travel together. Strong bonds of false trust develop when people spend that much time together, which makes it easier for abusers to gain and exert their control. Coaches who sexually abuse their athletes don’t just wake up one day and become sexual abusers. Many of them were once athletes themselves who already had these urges and acted them out on other athletes! I lived with a lot of guilt thinking maybe some of these swimmers who assaulted me went on to continue to hurt other girls and that maybe I could have stopped them if I had shared what they had done to me. But like so many people who are abused, shame kept me from being able to tell anyone. I was so shut down and detached from what happened to me. I’m so tired of people saying, “Why didn’t they tell someone?” Or in worse cases, “Well they shouldn’t have put themselves in that position,” shaming the ones who have been so deeply wounded. I recently had enough when someone basically said, “Well what did you expect?” because I had been drinking during some of the assaults and put myself in that position. I finally had the courage to speak my truth, one that I’m not proud of, but is truth. I said, “There were plenty of times I had drunk sex, but these times were drunk rape; there’s a big difference!”
The statistics are horrifying. Approximately 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday. And this is based on the cases they know about. Many children are simply too ashamed or detached to tell anyone − just like I was. Those numbers are probably much higher. Teams and parents need to have conversations about how to set strong boundaries with the opposite sex and how to stay safe. Teams need to implement programs to help coaches and athletes know how to confront the issues of all forms of abuse. We can’t just expect kids to know how to protect themselves; we MUST teach them! I was totally ill-equipped. These were things that weren’t talked about when I was growing up, and I’m finding out in many cases that it’s still not being talked about until something happens. Children and teens need to be educated and equipped to know what to look for and what they will do if they are put in certain situations. We’ve got to talk about appropriate touch and some of the strategies people use to abuse other people. Children also need to have approachable people in whom they can confide. Something has to change! Having these conversations empowers children and teens and helps them stay safe.
I’m so thankful for my dear swimming friend and teammate at the 1984 Olympic Games Nancy Hogshead-Maker who has been so influential and fearless in addressing issues of abuse in sports. She is a civil rights lawyer who has fought tirelessly for those who have been sexually abused by coaches and other athletes. In 2014, she started Champion Women, a non-profit providing legal advocacy for girls and women in sports. My friend led an eight-year effort to protect athletes from sexual abuse in club and Olympic sports. Most recently, she galvanized the sport, child protection, and civil rights communities in support of a new federal statute, the SafeSport Act, signed into law in February, 2018. She advices clubs, coaches, athletes and families regularly on SafeSport protections. Nancy is also the one who encouraged me to write this article, believing it would help others to hear my story. To learn more about Champion Women as well as how teams can implement policies and procedures that address all forms of abuse please visit www.ChampionWomen.org.
I’m sharing my story because I want to give others a voice who have also gone through sexual abuse. Please don’t stay silent like I did. I know it’s terrifying, but staying silent keeps you in a prison of fear and shame. And if you’re also battling addiction like I was and are using it to escape the pain, please learn from my story and know that your addiction is keeping you from the freedom God has for you. Addiction is a self-diagnosed illness. Each person has to be honest with themselves and take the necessary steps to break the cycle. I’m not going to lie, the road to freedom can be long and hard. But having been on both sides of freedom, I can honestly tell you that the pain of staying in darkness is much more agonizing. There is no healing in darkness; but when brought out into the light, there is healing. Heart wounds, like flesh wounds, need to be properly cared for. They take time to heal. The hardest step is the first step, stepping out of the darkness into the light.
My story is one of “beauty for ashes” (Isaiah 61:3). My only hope is that it can help others know they’re not alone, and that they too can find freedom from their abuse. I pray the lyrics of this Lauren Daigle song can become their anthem, as it has become mine:
You say I am loved when I can’t
feel a thing
You say I am strong when I think
I am weak
You say I am held when I am
When I don’t belong, oh You say
that I am Yours
And I believe (I), oh I believe (I)
What You say of me (I)
I believe*Daigle, Lauren. “You Say.” Look Up Child. Centricity Music, 2018.