(Last week we introduced you to Dani Bostick, a USA Swimming abuse survivor whose trauma coincided with Rick Curl’s abuse of another swimmer, Kelley Davies. Dani came forward as a result of the Curl revelations, which had been suppressed for decades. In this guest column for Concussion Inc., Dani goes on to talk about how she was vilified by her old club and swimming community after she brought her coach – the now imprisoned and banned Chris Huott – up on criminal charges. For more on Dani’s work, see http//danibostick.com.)
by Dani Bostick
While conversations about rape culture have led to increased awareness, prevention efforts, and policy changes, the problem is by no means limited to the media’s current hot spot: college campuses. The rape culture I experienced was as an age-group athlete on a United States Swimming team.
Many acceptable behaviors among coaches of the 1980s are now formally prohibited by USA Swimming, but a dangerous culture persists nonetheless. In fact, some of the most disturbing aspects of my story did not occur in the eighties while I was being abused, but rather after I reported my perpetrator.
Ah, the eighties: Huge foam goggles, Euro-cut suits for boys, backstroke turns that involved touching the wall and spinning, and mix tapes on Sony Walkmans for pre-race pep. Finding out how fast you went involved asking three timers who chose the time in the middle and got really excited if two of their three matched up. On-deck massages from coaches were commonplace. Also common were coaches providing transportation for swimmers to early morning workouts and traveling alone with athletes to meets.
Unfortunately, what for most coaches of the eighties was just poor boundaries, ended up camouflaging my perpetrator’s grooming behavior. He took advantage of his position of trust to abuse me for years. Much of what he did should have stood out. What should have been viewed as predatory and inappropriate was viewed – at worst – as quirky. At best, he seemed like another dedicated coach enjoying his profession.
I did not realize I was the victim of childhood sexual abuse until very recently. Traumatic memories are not stored the same way as regular memories, and many victims of extensive abuse keep painful memories in a metaphorical vault – or fail to form memories in the first place.
When the story of Rick Curl came out in the media in 2012, it upset me much more than any other news story had until that point. I was confused by my reaction and assumed it bothered me because Rick Curl was from Potomac Valley, the same LSC (local swim committee) as my team – which was known as the Silver Spring Swim Team through much of the eighties before its name changed to the Maryland Suburban Swim Club (MSCC).
A year after the Curl story broke, I realized that I, too, had been the victim of a predatory coach. I reported the crime to police, though I did not have any linear memories of felony-level crimes. During my visit to the family crimes unit in March 2014, I participated in a phone sting, calling my former coach and telling him the truth. Namely that I didn’t remember much about my childhood and wanted him to help fill in some pretty significant gaps. Help me he did, as he confessed to many types of felony sex abuse on a recorded line.
On April 24, 2014, my perpetrator was arrested, and there was media coverage of my story. At that point, a second nightmare began. I had ended up with PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder –suffering from flashbacks, suicidal thoughts, dissociative episodes, and intense fear, among many other distressing symptoms. Exacerbating my suffering were reactions to my case in the media. I was still an unnamed victim at that point, and the vast majority of people who heard the news reacted in disbelief. Why would anyone accuse an upstanding member of the community of such heinous crimes?
Dissociative amnesia and trauma are difficult to understand. So, to some extent, I get it that news of an arrest related to a just-reported, 30-year-old crime could be confusing. Reactions went well beyond that, however. The most distressing responses were from those affiliated with my perpetrator’s team.
Someone wrote in the comments section of one article: “My kids swam with Chris for many years and my wife and I did Masters Swim with Chris. We never saw him do anything improper with anyone. The mother of the complainant also swam in Chris’ Masters Swim program. This is a complaint about Chris as a baby sitter — not as a swim coach. Chris is socially awkward but he is a kind and patient coach. This is a case of overactive Montgomery [County] nuts railroading an honest and ethical person. This is not a ‘Rick Curl’ case. TV reporters created a weird environment at Fairland Aquatic Center on Thursday and are creating an environment where Chris cannot get a fair hearing. Chris lost his income source when Fairland was closed for over six months with no notice. So he cannot afford bond or a decent attorney.”
Two days after his arrest, MSSC posted this:
“Christopher Huott has voluntarily relinquished any ownership interest in and stepped down from any active participation with the Maryland Suburban Swim Club and he will no longer be affiliated with the Maryland Suburban Swim Club in any capacity.
MSSC has provided the local community with high quality instructional and competitive swimming programs for over two decades and will continue to do so without interruption. Please refer to our website for all program information. We at MSSC look forward to continuing to serve you with excellent programming and instruction well into the future.”
That same day, the Potomac Valley LSC issued this statement: “PVS would like everyone to know that despite the alleged actions by coach Huott, we are committed to helping the athletes and coaches of the MSSC swim club thru this crisis. Please do not let the alleged actions of Coach Huott negatively influence your opinion towards the athletes or remaining coaches of the MSSC Swim club. They had nothing to do with this situation and we encourage them to continue to hold their heads high and be proud of their club and their individual accomplishments this season. Potomac Valley hopes that the club’s athletes and coaches will get thru this situation and remain with the club and continue to do business as usual.”
Meanwhile, I heard from several friends and acquaintances who separately told me – not knowing I was the victim – that the team’s new owner had assured them there was no need for concern, that the victim was having some sort of midlife crisis, was mentally unstable, and looking for a scapegoat for her problems.
Shaming and slandering a victim did not seem like behavior worthy of “holding their heads high.” Though the spokesman for the Maryland State’s Attorney’s office indicated there was evidence beyond my word (the near two-hour phone sting, plus some incriminating statements during the arrest), the story perpetuated by MSSC was that I was some sort of mentally ill slanderer with an axe to grind and that my perpetrator and their team were the real victims.
Eventually, I called USA Swimming and expressed dismay that the club was marketing itself and attempting to retain athletes by impugning the sanity of the victim (me). It seemed USA Swimming did not have jurisdiction over the marketing decisions of local teams. And at that time I was in a near-literal fog of PTSD. My main goal was to function, not address societal injustices.
My perpetrator pleaded guilty in July. Two months later, I attended his sentencing, where I articulated the impact his years of abuse have had on my life. During this same hearing – after he had already admitted to committing sex crimes against an eight-year-old – the new owner of his team called him “a man of impeccable character.” Equally alarming was that a swim team parent also praised my perpetrator’s character, citing his offer several weeks earlier of reducing his swim team tuition due to family financial problems. This same man said, “He taught me what it means to be a Christian.”After the judge sentenced Huott to 10 years, saying he wished he could have sentenced him to even more time, this parent told a reporter that he would not hesitate to allow Chris to continue to coach his children, even knowing about the crimes he had committed.
Though the focus of the hearing was for the judge to deliver a sentence, I did have enough wherewithal to put two and two together and realize that, though Chris Huott was banned from USA Swimming, and though the club claimed he was not affiliated with the program in “any capacity,” he had enough access to offer tuition discounts to families. In other words, he continued behind-the-scenes involvement with the team after his ban based on the sworn testimony of one of his team’s customers. While this is disturbing to me, more disturbing is that an owner of a USA Swimming club can stand up in open court and call a man who raped a child for five years a person of “impeccable character.”
What people reading this story need to understand is that this is no “subtle” or remotely debatable perpetuation of rape culture. It is overt and it is insidious. People who structure their lives to groom and prey on trusting children – and their families – are not people of impeccable character. This mentality enables rape culture and is far more dangerous than the old days of lap-sitting and back rubs.
I appreciate the work Safe Sport is doing to provide guidelines and accountability for LSCs and individual clubs. There is a very long way to go, though, if there is a place in the organization for a team whose definition of “impeccable character” is broad enough to include child rape.
In my case, there was a child victim, a recorded admission, and a guilty plea. The fact that victim-blaming and perpetrator-deification occurred, despite all this, tells me that this cultural problem extends far beyond a small swim team in Maryland and youth sports organization. It is a societal scourge that perpetuates a culture of victim shame and silence. Silence imprisons victims and emboldens perpetrators, creating an environment where life-ruining crimes are easy to commit and get away with.