Here I was, a strong-willed young athlete. There he was, a charismatic pillar of the community. But I’m the one who, all these many years later, at the age of 68, no matter how happy and together I may be, continues to deal with the rage and the shame that comes with being silenced.
My particular case mirrors countless others. I was 14. A naïve 14, in 1964. I don’t think I could have given you a definition of intercourse.
My swimming coach was in many ways the father I had always yearned for. I met him when I was 10, and those first four years were marked by a strong mentor-student bond. He repeatedly told me I had all the talents to one day rock the world. I worshiped my coach. His word was The Word. I built a pedestal for him and gazed up at the center of my universe.
That summer, our school hosted the state championships. It was a big deal, and I was a star in the middle of it all. In between the afternoon preliminaries and the night finals, bursting with confidence, I went over to Coach’s house for a nap. This was normal: Coach’s house, his family, his kids were all part of the swim team’s daily milieu.
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I was dead asleep in the master bedroom when it happened. Out of nowhere, he was on top of me. He yanked my suit down. He grabbed at and drooled onto my breasts. He hyperventilated and moaned. I didn’t breathe for perhaps two full minutes, my body locked in an impenetrable flex. My arms trembled, pinned to my sides. He pleaded with me to open my legs, but they were pressed hard together. If breath gives us force, that day I could feel the strength in my body from the polar opposite — from not breathing. He ejaculated on my stomach, my athletic torso I was so proud of now suddenly violated with this strange and foul stuff.
As he slinked out of the room, I gasped for air, as if I had just been held underwater for those two minutes. I vomited onto the floor.
That night I was not of this world. Teammates had to prompt me to get onto the blocks. I hadn’t heard the announcer’s voice. In the end, we won the team title, but while the team was cheering and laughing, I plunged down to the floor of the diving well. My young world had just been capsized and I was very much alone in my confusion and fear. And I screamed into the abyss of dark water: “This is not going to ruin my life!”
I might have defied ruin, but my young life changed dramatically that day. That first savage episode signaled the beginning of years of covert molestation. Throughout the rest of high school I was a loner, not a natural role for me. No longer did I hold the unofficial title of “most disciplined” on the team, the first to practice each dawn. I couldn’t chance being alone with Coach again. I sat through classes, distracted by an image of hacking my breasts off with a razor blade. Overnight, I began going through life a solitary soldier. I didn’t need anybody, for anything.
Mine is an age-old scenario. Coaches and priests and doctors and scout leaders and stepfathers and, yes, movie producers, have been preying on those they are supposedly mentoring for far too long. And this isn’t the first time I’ve told my story. I first gave voice to the details of the years of humiliation when I was 21; the sense of power it gave me was immediate.
For me, being silenced was a punishment equal to the molestation. Legal prosecution proved time and time again to be futile, but I could at least regain my own dignity each time I uttered my truth. I’ve been speaking out, loud and strong, for nearly five decades now. It has been crucial to my own health. It has energized others to speak out, too. And I will continue to tell my story until all girls and women find their own voice.
I didn’t suffer the Holocaust. I’ve never been through the horrors of war. I don’t paint my youth as tragic, yet I spent every day of my high school years terrified that it would be yet another day that he would summon me after practice, for a humiliating ride in his car or a disgusting hour in the motel down the street. I wasn’t studying with my friends. I wasn’t home with my family. I was clenching my teeth, squeezing my legs tightly together, waiting to breathe again. And I was silent. Always silent. He assured me that what we shared was something special, that my life would collapse if anybody else knew, that this was magic between us. Our special secret.
One spring day, the elite of our team had a light practice, preparing to leave the next day for the nationals in Oklahoma. We were scheduled to spend a few minutes each in private consultation with Coach in his office, to talk over strategies for our races.
When I headed in for my session, I had zero fear of a molestation episode. We were on campus. The other swimmers were chatting right outside.
No sooner had I begun expressing my worry about not having tapered enough, when he flew from behind his desk to behind my chair. He ripped my suit down and grabbed my breasts. He swiftly dragged me into a little bathroom in his office and pushed me up against a single mattress that was propped up in the shower stall. My body knew its response; I went rigid. He pleaded with me to open up, but my survival system was gripped with fear. His eyes glazed with pleasure as he called me his “little bitch.” I recoil at the word to this day. He bucked, panted, drooled and, once again, ejaculated onto my stomach. My breath was short, in my throat, as he bounced back into the office and called out for the next swimmer to come in. Mortified as I exited past that kid, I aimlessly walked out to nowhere. The self-hatred, the welling shame, was all-consuming. I wasn’t an elite athlete of my school, heading off to the United States Nationals the next day. I was inconsequential. Utterly inconsequential.
These molestations were the cornerstone of my teenage life. I studied. I had friends. I won awards. On the outside, I was a bold, overly confident, swaggering success. But the veneer was thin. On the inside, I lived the perpetual trauma of being held down, called misogynist names and ordered to be quiet. I wanted to be anywhere but here, anybody but me.
I was 21 when I told someone the whole horrid saga for the first time. I took a weekend trip to Michigan to celebrate the birthday of my best friend from high school, and every heinous detail, every recounted word, came spewing forth. The relief was palpable. I wept. My friend cried with me, hugged me, took a long pause and said, “Well, Diana, hold on to your hat because the same thing happened to me.” The same coach. The precise same words. The mattress in the office shower stall. The same covert manipulation. The same special secret. And we soon learned that it wasn’t just the two of us. It never is.
When we confronted Coach, in front of our high school principal and the school’s lawyer, he knelt at my feet and whimpered. He said he couldn’t understand why I would falsely malign him this way. The next day he was fired. The principal told me that he had had suspicions, even reports from witnesses over the years, but that he had never caught him in the act.
At the end of all the proceedings, the principal asked me and my friend point blank whether Coach’s being fired from the school would be enough punishment for us. I took a minute to think — and said it would. Little did we know that he would jump right down to the next town and quickly be installed as head coach of a major university. Had I known this man would continue to harm more girls, had I had an inkling as to how deep the imprint of this man’s actions would run through the course of my life, I would have immediately pursued a criminal case.
Up until his death in 2014, Coach was celebrated by the coaching community, his town, his church. He made it into halls of fame and to the top of the coaching pyramid, the Olympic Games. And so is woven the fabric of the epidemic. These often charming individuals are lauded, presented with trophies for their leadership, from the piggish Weinsteins of Hollywood to the unscrupulous parental figures scattered throughout our suburbs. Statistics bear out the astonishing number of sexual abusers among us.
And therein lies the call for our speaking up. We need to construct an accurate archive of these abuses. And we need to prepare coming generations to speak up in the moment, rather than be coerced into years of mute helplessness.
Those who have found a platform to speak, and to be heard, within recent weeks have most likely forged unexpected connections as a result. Whenever I mention my case in front of a live audience, invariably women come up to me afterward and let me know that they too are survivors. They immediately command my full attention with a particularly steady gaze and they say, “The same thing happened to me — my stepfather.” Or “I’m a survivor, too.” Then we hug, long and hard. And we often find tears for each other. We connect. It’s our version of #MeToo.
One afternoon, after an appearance I made in Hilton Head, S.C., an elderly woman came toward me. Gingerly, she took both of my hands into hers, looked at me knowingly and, without saying a word, gave me a folded note. I slid it into my pocket, to read it later. Back in my hotel room, I read the note and called the number she had left me. She came to my room a couple of hours later.
This woman told me a story that I’ve heard many times before. Her father began molesting her when she was 3. Three. How can we begin to wrap our minds around that? He continued throughout her teenage years, using the familiar threat of shaming her and even hurting her if she told anybody. This was their special secret, he told her. Those words chilled me to the bone: their special secret.
Our conversation in my hotel room was the first time that she ever told anyone what had happened to her. She shed bitter tears, and I held her frail body, crying also for all these long years she had lived with the burden of these unspeakable events. There’s the irony. These events we have suffered are at once unspeakable and yet need to be spoken.
An interviewer once asked me, as many do, “Where did your confidence, your iron will come from?” That person didn’t know that just hours earlier the same day, I’d flown into an uncontrollable self-rage. Approaching my door, clutching several bags of groceries, I’d fumbled with the keys, lost hold of the bags and started a self-destructive rant as apples rolled down the driveway. The same words the coach had used while molesting me came screaming out at me, from my own mouth. “You little bitch!” “You worthless little …” That wounded young person inside believes, on some cellular level, that these words sum up exactly who I am at the core.
These self-loathing rages aren’t frequent anymore. Each year, as the events of my youth recede further and further, my current life carries more emotional significance than that long-ago era. I bounce out of bed every day, thrilled to greet the sunrise. I live my life with great gusto. I tell people that I can look back at each stage of my life with no regrets because, win or lose, I throw my best self at everything I try. I walk down the street as though I own it. All the while, the trauma has lodged in an obscure corner of my soul. I refuse to believe it’s a lifelong imprint, yet, with age 70 in clear view, I admit to wondering whether I will ever entirely heal that young girl who was pinned down.
Tell your story. Let us never again be silenced.
Diana Nyad is the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida and the author, most recently, of the memoir “Find a Way.”
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