In recognition of April as National Youth Sports Safety Month, MomsTeam asked our friends in the medical, health, fitness, nutrition and athletic training communities to write blogs answering two questions: first, how or why did they get into their field, and second, how have they made a difference in the life of a youth athlete in the past year.
Today, as the month draws to a close, we hear from Katherine Starr, a former two-time Olympic swimmer and founder of Safe4Athletes, an advocacy and educational non-profit fighting to keep athletes safe from sexual abuse, harassment and bullying.
How did I get into my field?
The idea for Safe4Athletes came in 2011, during a time when I briefly had a job coaching swimming. I realized that my sport had changed very little over the decades, and was still doing little to protect young athletes from sexual abuse. As a victim of sexual abuse by my coach who has had to live for decades suffering from the tragic effects of such abuse, I wanted to do something that would change the sports environment to an "athletes first" focus, and create resources and an infrastructure that would provide a safe and positive environment for every athlete, free of abuse, bullying and harassment.
I reached out to my former Athletic Director at the University of Texas, Donna LoPiano, and asked her to help me found an organization to address the vulnerabilities of young athletes pursuing their dreams and goals, and to help other athletes who have experienced the same destructive abuse of power in the coach athlete relationship. Safe4Athletes' mission is to advocate for athletes that have been abused, bullied or harassed by their more powerful coach or teammate.
How have I made a difference in a young athlete's life in the past year?
In my role as an advocate for athletes involving coach-athlete sexual abuse, athlete-on-athlete sexual abuse, athlete cyber-bullying, athlete sexual hazing as well as many forms of athletic abuse in general, much of the work I do with Safe4Athletes tends to be less with the athletes than with parents of young athletes who have been abused, bullied or harassed.
On a daily basis, I guide parents through the process of getting the help and resources they need to address the egregious abuse their child has suffered. Every concerned parent is looking for trust, empathy, compassion and understanding, as well as a solution to address their child's unique circumstances so they don't suffer any more pain. While every athlete's story is painful, the knowledge and understanding that I have been able to impart to parents has been invaluable for both of us. It has been gratifying to see young athletes go from lifelessness and deep depression to thriving in life. It is especially rewarding when a child-athlete is brave beyond their years in standing up to the power dynamic that is inherent in sports. To be able to witness this transformation first hand and play a small part in the process makes the challenges of running Safe4Athletes that much more meaningful.
Katherine Starr is a two-time Olympic swimmer for Great Britain (1984 and 1988). In 1986 she won two silver medals at the Commonwealth Gamesl, and was a 14-time All-American swimmer at the University of Texas, where she swam on three NCAA championship teams for the Lady Longhorns.
Since she first began speaking out about abuse in sports, Katherine has earned a reputation for her expertise and eloquence on coach athlete sexual abuse, as witnessed by the increased traditional and social media attention Safe4Athletes has received, including features with NBC Sports Radio, the New York Times, NPR's "The Takeaway," CBS Sports Radio, Take Part Five (PIVOT Channel), Aljazeera America as well other nationally recognized media outlets in sports.
Katherine oversees Safe4Athletes and actively pressures National Governing Bodies to adopt stronger polices for all athletic clubs and programs. She champions legislation to implement stronger policy to give athletes rights at all levels of sports.
Through her work, Katherine educates lawyers/media/NGBs on the unique aspects of the power dynamic that exists in the coach athlete relationship. Katherine has also written several articles on the topic including "Breaking Down Sexual Abuse in Sports". She speaks openly about the failed representations in educational material on sexual abuse in sports and how those materials fall short in properly addressing the truth of the issue in competitive sports.