#MeToo Hits Elite Sports : It's Been a Minute It's Tuesday: Sam talks to speed skater Bridie Farrell. Her mentor, former Olympian Andy Gabel, sexually abused her when she was a teenager. Sam also talks to journalist Alexandra Starr about the unique ways elite sports can groom children to be victims of abuse.

#MeToo Hits Elite Sports

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A warning to our listeners - this episode contains descriptions of sexual abuse of minors. It may not be good for kids to hear this one.


SANDERS: From NPR, I'm Sam Sanders. IT'S BEEN A MINUTE. Today on the show, we're talking #MeToo. We have discussed the #MeToo movement a lot on this show - #MeToo in politics, #MeToo in Hollywood, #MeToo in journalism, in NPR's newsroom, even. Now we're going to talk about #MeToo in sports and the dozens of stories you've been hearing for months of young, elite athletes being abused by their coaches and their doctors and their mentors - people they should be able to trust.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: An explosive new report says USA Swimming covered up hundreds of sexual abuse cases.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: Today the U.S. Center for SafeSport banned a former Olympic taekwondo coach from the sport. The organization found Jean Lopez guilty of sexual misconduct against athletes. In some cases, those athletes were minors.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Big shakeup at USA Gymnastics this morning. The CEO, Kerry Perry, is out after just nine months on that job. She was reportedly forced to resign as the organization continues to struggle to recover from the Larry Nassar sex abuse scandal.

SANDERS: And Larry Nassar, of course, he was the former sports doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. He was convicted of sexually assaulting numerous young women under his care. Nassar was recently sentenced to up to 175 years in prison. You can probably recall that trial. More than 150 victims confronted Nassar in public, including Olympic medalist Aly Raisman


ALY RAISMAN: The reality is you caused me a great deal of physical, mental and emotional pain. You never healed me. You took advantage of our passions and our dreams.

SANDERS: In the wake of Nassar's trial, there have been lots of other stories like that one in lots of other sports. Top officials have been forced out of their jobs for not dealing with reports of sexual assault. And others are under new scrutiny. Today I'm going to talk with one elite athlete about what it's like to come forward.

BRIDIE FARRELL: It has not been easy or fun the last 5 1/2 years of being public with this story. But if it's - honest to God, if it stops one person, it's worth it.

SANDERS: Bridie Farrell is a former speedskater. She was sexually abused by another skater when she was underage. Before we get to that conversation, I wanted to know what it is about elite sports and elite sports training that makes it all seem ripe for abuse. Alexandra Starr is a reporter who's been covering all of this for NPR and Harper's Magazine. And she says a lot of it has to do with the lack of a single governing body for the Olympic clubs and universities and private gyms that train these athletes.

ALEXANDRA STARR, BYLINE: The U.S. does not have a ministry of sport. In England, they have a ministry of sport. They kind of supervise - you know, there's like an entity...

SANDERS: In charge.

STARR: Exactly, and we don't have that. So what's weird - right? - is that if a kid goes to a school - a university that takes Title IX money - and everyone takes Title IX money...


STARR: ...They are required, you know, to report on sexual assault cases, to report when a coach has engaged in unethical behavior.


STARR: You know, there are, like, regulations on them.


STARR: That gym, you know, in Atlanta that is known to have, like, a good gymnastics coach, they really are unregulated.

SANDERS: Because they're not part of the U.S. Olympic Committee, and they're not a college that takes Title IX funding.

STARR: That's right. And it also - there was a time USA Gymnastics had a policy that even if - say a concerned coach said, hey, this guy who runs this gym in North Carolina, there's something going on here. Like, I heard him make inappropriate comments. There is correspondence back from USA Gymnastics saying sorry. Unless we get a complaint from a parent or an affected athlete, we can't do anything about this.


STARR: They made that decision, right?


STARR: Like, they - but (laughter)...

SANDERS: Yeah, that was a choice.

STARR: That was a choice. So, you know, now the rules on the books at USA Gymnastics are much tougher.

SANDERS: Gotcha. You wrote about the U.S. Olympic Committee, the governing bodies that oversee the sports and the club teams and the gyms - this whole system, this whole elite athletic system. You compared it to the Catholic Church, and said that patterns in this system resemble those that covered up abuse in the Catholic Church. Explain.

STARR: So the Catholic Church - I would also include in that some elite private high schools. These are not institutions that are under, like, a Title IX mandate, right? They didn't have to report.


STARR: They could do internal investigations. And what we have seen over and over again is that those institutions prioritize their reputation over the safety of young people. It's very sad to say that.


STARR: But that is the pattern we see.

SANDERS: As with the Catholic Church, too.

STARR: That's right. Yes.


STARR: And it's also - in sports, there has been such an effort to cover up. And I'm sure that there are a lot of reasons for that, but I'm sure part of it is this whole marketing element, right? Like, if you kind of see your role as raising money, then this is the last kind of message you want to get out or the last kind of stigma, you know, that...

SANDERS: Oh, yeah - because you want the next Simone Biles to come to the gym.

STARR: Yeah, and you want kids to be, you know, super excited about paying their dues to USA Gymnastics. You want those feel-good stories, right? This is not - this is the opposite of a feel-good story.


STARR: So that is a pattern that has emerged.

SANDERS: Yeah. You know, reading up on your writing on this issue in advance of this interview, I started to think a lot about the coaches that I had in my life as a kid. And I say coaches. I was a band nerd. I was not an athlete. So my coaches were band directors. And I tried to conceptualize my relationship with those band directors. It was inherently different than a relationship between a kid and a coach. Is there something weird or - I don't know - unique about the relationship that coaches have with young athletes that can lead to this certain type of behavior? You know what I'm saying?

STARR: Absolutely.

SANDERS: There's something about coaching...



STARR: Well, and I think particularly in the United States - right? - as a coach - you know, this person who sees something in you that you don't see in yourself and making you the best version of whom - who you can be...


STARR: ...Which is just incredibly alluring, right? I think these guys - oftentimes, they don't want to talk to me. But people who...

SANDERS: I can see why.

STARR: You wonder, right?


STARR: But people in their ambit describe - oftentimes they'll talk about a cult-like feeling. And what oftentimes they'll say is, if you have blind faith in me and you do as I tell you to do, I will make your dreams come true. And I think particularly, because of the allure of the Olympics...

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

STARR: ...Yeah, it's sort of like, all right, then tell me what to do and I'll do it.

SANDERS: There was this line in your Harper's piece. You wrote, (reading) girls are conditioned to think that their bodies belong not to themselves but to the people who promised to lead them to evermore impressive accomplishments. Wow.

STARR: It's so true, though. And, you know, the way oftentimes this starts is - they don't pull the girl into a closet and violently rape her.


STARR: You know, it's...

SANDERS: They groom.

STARR: That's right, and it's gradual.

SANDERS: And they groom the families, too.

STARR: Oh, my God, do they groom the families. And yeah, I mean, I heard stories of - one speedskater, Andy Gabel, who won a silver medal, and he targeted a woman. Her name is Bridie Farrell, and she's now one of - a big advocate on behalf of victims in New York. He made her father his personal doctor.


STARR: And he took piano lessons from her mom.


STARR: Yes, yes. I mean, these guys - like, it really is a mindset.

SANDERS: So then as someone who has observed these patterns - I'm guessing that there are going to be some listeners to this episode who have kids that might be wanting to be athletes, maybe even gymnasts or swimmers or in taekwondo. Did you pick up on any patterns that, like, parents should definitely keep an eye out for, like a thing that they all do that you can see?

STARR: Yes. So...

SANDERS: What is it?

STARR: ...One thing is if someone comes to you and says, oh, my God, your child is so talented. And they're going to have to start going to the rink at 5:30 in the morning. But you know what? That's going to be really tough for you. I'll pick her up.

SANDERS: Red flag.

STARR: I'll pick her up. Oh, yes. Oh, yes. And then you actually have to be that hovering parent. I mean, it sounds...

SANDERS: You're supposed to be the helicopter parent if you have kids.

STARR: That's right, and they will try to shame you for it, right? It'll be like, oh, really? So unnecessary. They definitely have patterns of behavior.

FARRELL: So he helped drive my teammate and I to and from practice, which both of our families really appreciated. And so Andy would almost pick me up every day, and we'd frequently go to the rink and skate. But, you know, sometimes we went other places. But even if we did go to the rink and skate, then there was molestation that happened before and after, I mean, in the rink parking lots, my high school parking lot.

SANDERS: That's Bridie Farrell. You heard Alexandra start talking about Bridie just a bit ago. After the break, Bridie shares her story with us. We'll be right back.


SANDERS: We're back. You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. Earlier, we talked with reporter Alexandra Starr about the #MeToo movement in sports. And now we're going to hear from elite speedskater Bridie Farrell. Bridie was 15 years old and training to be an Olympic speedskater in New York State. That was when a 33-year-old Olympic medalist named Andy Gabel entered her life. He was a skating God. And he quickly became Bridie's mentor and helped the family out.

FARRELL: As I said, he used to drive my friend and I home from practice in the summer. And he'd always drop her off first. Then - I mean, I can picture it clear as day. Back out of her driveway, go to the end of the street, stop sign, take a right and you go to my house. And it was like that every time. And then one time at that same stop sign, he took a left. And he went to the - a few streets over. And there was a dead end, which in hindsight it's interesting that he knew that there was a dead end there. There was a dead end. He pulled the car over, took off his seat belt. And he turned to me. And he said, can I kiss you? And...

SANDERS: What did you think in that moment?

FARRELL: I said nothing. I just sat there. I will sit here and honestly say, I did not say no. I did not open the door. I did not run away. But I was frozen.


FARRELL: I mean, people say there's fight or flight, but there's freeze. And that's what happened. And I remember after that, when we put our seat belts on and turned the car around, I remember just being like a fog or a - I mean, now we have an expression. I was like W-T-F (laughter).


FARRELL: You know, and, like...

SANDERS: You were in shock probably.

FARRELL: A hundred percent. And I mean, how would I tell anyone? Who would believe me? What proof do I have? Why would anyone believe that he would do - you know, I mean, just...


FARRELL: And it wasn't violent in what we think of as traditional violence.


FARRELL: So he wasn't a stranger. It wasn't a windowless van, you know, all that that we pretend to make these people be, so, yeah, that - I mean, honest to God, that is the day my life changed. It was after practice in the summer. I remember just being - sticking to his leather seats. He had a Lexus. Some memories you just can't get out of your brain, and that's certainly one of them.

SANDERS: Yeah. He would keep doing this. And did the contact become more intense - the physical contact?

FARRELL: Yeah, so a lot of people say, you know, like, what is - what do I mean when I say molested? So to answer that awkward question, Andy and I never had sex in the traditional definition of sex. But basically, the legal terms is digital penetration. And he would put my hand on himself when he was erect, and he would touch and fondle me. And I was 15, and he was 33.

SANDERS: While Andy is taking advantage of you, is he also, like, getting close to your family at the same time?

FARRELL: Yeah, very much so. So he had a groin issue with skating, and so he saw my father for his doctor for that. And my mom - he came over to the house a couple times and took piano lessons from my mom.

SANDERS: Oh, my goodness.


SANDERS: So he'd be in your house...


SANDERS: ...For a piano lesson from your mother. You knew what he was doing to you; she did not.




SANDERS: How did that feel?

FARRELL: I don't even know. I mean, I think it was such a time of confusion. And I was so dedicated to wanting to skate that I didn't have any other currency, you know? I didn't have anything to barter. I didn't have money. I didn't have anything. The only thing that he wanted from me was my prepubescent, flat body. And - but it was so confusing because, like I said, he wasn't violent with me.


FARRELL: And he took care of my skates, which is very, very, very time consuming. Your blades - they're not flat, so there's a slight rock to them. Nothing like hockey skates, but there's something. They're not straight. They're bent to go left, and they're offset. And so as - especially as a kid like myself gets better and better and better - I mean, the improvement curve...


FARRELL: ...Is pretty steep as a kid. And so as you're getting better, all of those metrics have to change. And for the 1998 Olympic Trials, Saratoga Winter Club had a lot of athletes competing. I mean, we sent more people to the Olympic Trials than the national training program sent to the Olympic Trials.

So our coach, who also was volunteer, had a full-time job and a family. And he took care of my blades. And I mean, our coach Andy and other top skaters were a higher priority, so he helped me out in a lot of ways. My mother said, if you want to go to skating, find a ride to the rink. And Andy was my ride.

SANDERS: Do you think he ever thought that he was your boyfriend? Did you think at 15 that he was like something approaching a boyfriend?

FARRELL: I definitely did because I didn't know what else it could be...

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

FARRELL: ...Because he was kind to me and gave me things, you know, bought me things, bought me gifts, brought me out to dinner. I mean, so things that seem silly and trivial to someone - like, just stop for a second. I didn't have a driver's license.


FARRELL: I couldn't go anywhere. I was mowing lawns in the summer.

SANDERS: Oh, wow.

FARRELL: That's how I had enough money to offset my skating. My parents put up a lot of money, and I had to contribute. It's not inappropriate for kids to kiss and fool around...


FARRELL: ...And experiment...


FARRELL: ...When they're 15 with other 15-year-old kids.




FARRELL: But - so that's what was so confusing about it all. Also took - was part of the reason it took me so long to come forward and talk about it because for so long it was - and it still is - it's gray. Look at - sex - a grown man with a teenager, I knew that was wrong. I don't know if I knew it was mostly the age or the Catholic guilt or what. But, like, that I knew. But it didn't go there. So was I just making this all up? Two things - one, so again, I was in the 10th grade. And that was when we had homecoming dance.


FARRELL: And I wanted to go with - actually, my date lived down the street from Andy, one block away.


FARRELL: And he said that I could, quote, "go." He'd let me go...


FARRELL: ...So long as as soon as I came home, I called him. I couldn't go to an after party. I couldn't go to anything. I had to come directly home. And so I told the group of friends I was going with and my date and everyone - I said, you know, I have practice in the morning, so I'm just - after the dance, I'm going to go home. And everyone was like, yeah, that's cool. Yeah, we figured that. That's fine.

SANDERS: But it was because he was controlling you.

FARRELL: Yeah. When I told my parents - Mom, will you pick me up? You know, the station wagon rolled into the high school parking lot to pick me up and brought me home. And no one thought anything of it. And I have one of those memories in my brain of being in my bedroom. I had twin beds in my bedroom and this yellow bedside table between the two of them. And this phone was there. And I remember being kind of under the covers so no one could hear me, picking up the phone and dialing his phone number and being like, hi, I'm home.


SANDERS: One more break right here. When we come back, Bridie tells us what she thinks needs to change in sports.


SANDERS: For years, Bridie kept the abuse a secret. She says that led to eating disorders and depression and thoughts of suicide. In her 30s, Bridie finally came forward. And after she did that, Andy Gabel acknowledged an inappropriate relationship with an unnamed, underage female teammate. In talking about what happened, Bridie says she was shocked at how unsurprised people were.

FARRELL: When I sat down with Scott Blackmun, the former CEO of the United States Olympic Committee, and I said, you know, it was Andy Gabel, he said, (laughter) oh, Gabes.

SANDERS: As in, like, he knew.

FARRELL: Yeah. Like, he just kind of laughed and called him his nickname. And it just says a few things. One, that's how well he knew the man who molested me a hundred times.


FARRELL: That's also - his reaction of not being surprised is such an example and it highlights how much adults, at the time, were willing to turn...

SANDERS: Turn a blind eye.

FARRELL: ...A blind eye. I mean, you know, something I've never shared publicly is - so my - like I have said many times, that my father was his doctor and he had this groin injury. Well, I can remember being in the Saratoga Springs Ice Rink and a few of the athletes being like, oh, so it's not only Dr. Farrell that touches Andy's groin. So that means those guys in the locker room...

SANDERS: They knew.

FARRELL: If they didn't know, they were suspecting. And nobody did anything.

SANDERS: In 2017, the U.S. Olympic Committee opened the U.S. Center for SafeSport. SafeSport describes itself as a nonprofit committed to ending all forms of abuse in sport. It investigates claims of abuse in elite sports and sports training, and the group keeps a database of known abusers. But Bridie doesn't think that SafeSport can ever really work.

FARRELL: So the Center for SafeSport, I think it's a good effort. But I think it's misdirected resources, honestly.

SANDERS: How so?

FARRELL: That - in my opinion, the Olympic Committee is about sports...


FARRELL: ...And about building athletes to be champions in their sport.


FARRELL: Now, that does take the physical strength, which they're good at building. But it also takes the character...


FARRELL: ...Which they could use some work on.


FARRELL: But they're not - the Olympic Committee shouldn't be the judge and jury. And so I think...

SANDERS: Of abuse allegations.

FARRELL: Yeah, of sexual abuse allegations. Correct. So I think that for true crimes - like these are crimes in our criminal law.


FARRELL: So like blood doping, right? I honestly don't know if that's a criminal law, a crime in the criminal sense but it is within sport.


FARRELL: So we have to self-regulate that.


FARRELL: Raping children, molesting children, these kind of things - it's, like, a crime.

SANDERS: The legal code...

FARRELL: Yeah, exactly.

SANDERS: ...Outside of sports.

FARRELL: Right? Like, this is just...

SANDERS: It governs us. Yeah.

FARRELL: Yeah. And so we need to stop having sport trying to govern that and the Catholic Church trying to govern that and Penn State trying to govern that. But why don't the money and the resources that's going into SafeSport, how come that can't go into meaningful lobbying to change the laws across this country and extend the statute of limitation that is protecting pedophiles?

SANDERS: Statutes of limitations basically say there's only a certain amount of time after a crime or offense occurs to initiate legal proceedings. There are statutes of limitations surrounding sex crimes. Bridie is actively engaged in lobbying to change those laws. She wants to see statutes of limitations expanded for victims of child sexual abuse so that people like her, who were abused in childhood but don't come forward until adulthood, they can still seek legal remedies.

I asked Bridie if she thinks this current #MeToo moment in sports represents a sea change. She told me it's remarkable to see just how many people have come forward. But she also says there are still a lot of stories out there, and we still need to hear those.

FARRELL: If someone sits down and starts to tell you something, just listen. If someone starts to tell you how they're hurting themselves, listen, how they're overtraining, listen. None of us asked for this to happen. And anyone who survived this has no - in my opinion has no responsibility or duty to be forward in public like this. That's every individual's choice.

But you do have the right, and I almost think the need, to get it out. And you can do that by letting someone listen. And like I said, if you're scared to talk to someone else, then just - to write it to yourself. It's - you know, when Andy left town, I bought a journal. And the first page is, I don't know what to do. There's no one I can talk to...


FARRELL: ...So I bought this journal. People need to know that there is a place where you can go and share your story because the collection of our stories is what's going to...

SANDERS: To make change.

FARRELL: ...Change these laws.


FARRELL: So that it's - honest to God, so that it's safer for the kid tomorrow, so...

SANDERS: For the next one.



SANDERS: That was speed skater Bridie Farrell. She has a nonprofit that's fighting to change New York state's statute of limitations for survivors of child sexual abuse. It's called NY Loves Kids. Earlier in the show, you heard from investigative journalist Alexandra Starr. She has an article out from a few months ago in Harper's Magazine. It is a very good explainer of how the U.S. Olympic Committee is trying to clean up its act. It's called "Pushing The Limit."

This week, the show was edited by Jordana Hochman and produced by Kumari Devarajan and Anjuli Sastry. Listeners, we always want to hear from you. Email the show to talk about this episode or pitch us some ideas for other ones. We're at samsanders@npr.org. We're at samsanders@npr.org. As always, thank you for listening, talk soon.

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