by Irvin Muchnick
Heading toward the 1968 Winter Olympics in France, it appeared that Southern California would be contributing at least two major female medal hopefuls on skates. One of them, Peggy Fleming, would take the figure skating gold, and go on to become the glamour girl of the Ice Capades and international television specials and commercials.
The other, a driven blonde speed skater from Sun Valley in the San Fernando Valley, never even made it to Grenoble. Vickie Swanson’s life was shattered by what she says were eight harrowing months of sexual abuse, from summer 1965 to spring 1966, at the hands of her uncle and coach, Richard Howard Hunt, a 1960 and 1964 Olympic speed skater, later a cross-country skiing athlete and coach.
Today, former teen speed skating champion Vickie Swanson — now 67-year-old Vickie Willis — tells her story to Concussion Inc. I got in touch with Vickie through mutual friend Eva Rodansky, former speed skater and current athletes’ rights activist.
In a phone interview and a series of emails, Vickie and I pored over a virtual scrapbook of photos and newspaper clippings about a young woman whose entire identity was wrapped up in the thrill of athletic quest and accomplishment. See her here, bangs blowing, aerodynamics low, banking into a turn. See her there, flying to a North American record one minute, 47.3 seconds at 1,000 meters. Another time, her bid at a competition in Minnesota plummeted, along with her front side, when the tip of her skate clipped a frozen divot. But she laughed it off and promised to do better next time.
Sport imbued Vickie with all its best attributes: determination, resilience, mastery of a targeted skill, a need to succeed. It also buried her soul in its worst psychological horror show: sexual molestation at the hands of an authority figure. She bore the secret, virtually without support, for half a century.
In April of ’66, Vickie was supposed to start intensive pre-Olympics training with Coach-Uncle Dick. It never happened. “Just the thought of having to be with him again caused me to have a nervous breakdown,” she remembered. “I quit skating and I never told anyone why.”
Vickie Swanson competed for the old Pickwick Speed Skating Club out of the rink in Burbank. She was 14 by the time she got serious under former Olympian Chuck Aedo. But the sport was in her blood.
“I was born into a family of ice skaters. I began skating at about the same time I learned to walk,” Vickie said. “My great grandfather was an Olympic skater, in addition to my uncle, and I wanted to be just like them. My aunt taught figure skating and my cousins skated with the Ice Follies. Chuck Aedo was an awesome coach.”
Vickie was a two-time state champion when the family determined that Aedo didn’t have the time to travel with her as extensively as she needed for world-class seasoning. Her new coach would be Dick Hunt.
Only in retrospect did Vickie process something from a year before that — an incident that clearly foreshadowed her own fate. Hunt was visiting the family with a very young, too young, woman, whom he identified as his girlfriend. The woman, clearly disturbed, started acting inappropriately. Dick grabbed her by the ponytail and dragged her into the next room.
The first time Hunt drove Vickie home from the Burbank rink, she noticed that he went right past her street. “I know,” he said when she pointed out the missed turn. “This is where your real training starts.”
He drove to the top of a secluded hill and raped her in the car, she recalled.
Vickie had never been with a boy before; she was too focused on skating. At the rink, Hunt kept her apart from male contemporaries.
“He told me not to tell anyone what he was doing. He told me it was our secret and if I did tell anyone, I would be thrown out of the Southern California Speed Skating Association and would never go to the Olympics. He assured me that people would believe him and not me because he was already a well known Olympic skater and I was not. I believed him. He also told me that when I was of age I would have to marry him. I had nightmares thinking of that.”
That summer, 1965, Vickie said she was continually abused by Hunt at his beach house. The molestations carried over to trips in February 1966 to St. Louis, for the Nationals, and March to Saskatoon, for the North American Championships. At the former, she won the indoor championship. At the Canada meet, in addition to placing first overall, she had her record 1,000-meter skate.
Returning home from her travels, she told her parents about the abuse. Vickie’s mother chose not to believe the allegations regarding Hunt, her brother. Vickie’s father “became furious, but his way of dealing with things was to storm out and go drinking. When he came back three days later, he did nothing about the problem, and we never spoke of it again.”
As a trained would-be Olympic athlete, Vickie was healthy and strong. Soon, though, she was anorexic, bulimic, and a heavy drinker. “I did anything to deaden the pain,” she said.
At 19, Vickie moved back home. When Dick Hunt visited, she hid in a closet.
Dick Hunt, now 80, has a company in Bend, Oregon, that sells bicycle tours of Europe. In an email, he said: “You need to know that I had a conversation with her mother a few years ago about this very subject when Vickie had apparently been having some mental problems and had somehow conjured up some idea that something may have happened between her and I in a period of time when I was helping her with her skating. I don’t know just what she is claiming but sexual abuse is false. I can’t remember the things she had put together and sent to me but I handed it over to Barbara Bell, her mother at that time which was approximately 3-4 years ago. Barbara, my sister as we were close, took what Vickie had mailed to me and told me to ignore it, as she was not well. My sister unfortunately died this year. Apparently Vickie has had some sort of breakdown/(s) in the past and has alienated others with accusations of things. I suggest you do further research on this.”
Pressed regarding the details in this story, Hunt said, “I honestly don’t know how to respond to you and such untrue allegations.”
Here’s the last word from Vickie Swanson Willis:
“I am still, at age 67, seeing a psychiatrist for medication and a psychotherapist for healing. I am sure my uncle abused young girls other than myself.
“In sharing my story, I hope other young girls who have experienced this kind of abuse will gain the confidence to speak up unafraid. My faith is the glue that has held me together all these years. Without it, I would not be here.
“I am grateful to Eva Rodansky. She is the first person over all these years who has made me feel validated.”