You may not know that I am quite the enthusiast of the Winter Olympics and have been watching as much as I can since it started two weeks ago. My ideal lifestyle is living in the snowy mountains, getting up early and doing my sunrise salutations, then hitting the slopes until the sun goes down. Naturally, I’d top it off with an après ski drink, a soak in the hot tub and a bottle of Veuve Clicquot champagne by the fireplace! I envy the women who get to spend their lives surrounded by the beauty of snow and ice.
But there is a dark side that many of these female athletes face, and I was inspired to write about it after seeing the Oscar nominated film, I, Tonya.
I went into I, Tonya, thinking it was going to be funny. Why would I have thought that? Because everybody from friends to film critics described it as a “dark” comedy. As I watched the portrayal of the incredibly devoted and talented figure skater, Tonya Harding, endure the emotional and physical abuse her mother and husband inflicted upon her, I was holding back the tears, wondering where the humor was. Yes, the people on-screen came across as laughable, but knowing the story is told through Harding’s own words, there was a realization that I wasn’t watching movie characters created to be comical, I was witnessing an authentic depiction of her actual life.
Tonya Harding was an outcast pushed to her limits by her abusers. “He hit me, but she hit me, but they loved me,” Harding says in the 2014 documentary, The Price of Gold. Nevertheless, she persisted and her resiliency ultimately got her through everything to reach her goal of getting to the Olympics.
I, Tonya comes at an important time in history. The Winter Olympics in Pyeong Chang are wrapping up. Dr. Lawrence Nassar, has been sentenced for his sexual abuse crimes and the #metoo movement is creating a foundation of trust so that a woman can break her silence and find much needed support. Before I saw this film, I had no idea that Harding had been abused. Rather than letting the takeaway for the viewer be whether she did or didn’t know about the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, Harding is giving us a chance to see what her life was really like. Once judged so harshly by the public, she’s suddenly more credible surrounded by the other events happening in this moment.
And Harding’s story is not unlike many other female athletes who were once silent for fear of jeopardizing her reputation and career. Dr. Nassar, the physician who previously worked with the American gymnastics team, probably wished he could silence the more than 150 women who joined together and one after the other, faced their abuser and told the world, ‘me too’. The former must-see doctor was directly addressed in court in January, where his victims recounted the abuse they endured under his care. Did you know it takes seven days for this many women to have her say?
Among the harrowing stories unleashed that week, gymnast and Olympic medalist Jordyn Wieber revealed, “I thought that training for the Olympics would be the hardest thing that I would ever have to do. But, in fact, the hardest thing I would ever have to do is process that I am a victim of Larry Nassar.”
“I was attacked on social media. … People didn’t believe me, even people I thought were my friends. They called me a liar, a whore, and even accused me of making all of this up just to get attention.” Despite all that, gymnast Jamie Dantzscher, persisted and she too became an Olympic medalist.
The Nassar trial is not the first time an Olympic athlete has had an opportunity to publicly disclose her abuse. In 2012, Kayla Harrison, overcame the abuse from her coach and went on to win Olympic gold in Judo. In her post win interview, when she should have been recounting the hard work she put in to get to this moment, she instead exposed the horror she endured in the hands of her pig.
And the abuse is not limited to gymnastics and judo. USA Swimming recently released a once secret list of 150 coaches banned for life for sexual misconduct with swimmers. In February, former Olympic swimmer Ariana Kukors described in new detail the decade of sexual abuse her coach inflicted as he “groomed” her for success. “It’s not appropriate for a coach to be alone in a hotel room behind closed doors with their athlete. If I save one person who’s currently being groomed. If I have a dialogue with one parent about something that they think is alarming with their child and their coach… this is worth it — as painful as it is,” Kukors said through tears. Kukors was able to persist, but how many young girls didn’t and had her whole athletic career taken away by the fear and shame these predators inflicted?
Thankfully, this epidemic is finally being recognized on the world stage. In January at the World Cup races in Italy, elite women skiers showed their support for all victims by donning race bibs featuring in red capital letters — “STOP VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN AND GIRLS”.
Olympic champion skier Lindsey Vonn, who wore the protest bib, remarked, ”This is the time for women to stand up and this is an opportunity for us to change our system and how women are treated in the world — not just the workplace.”
There are so many stories coming out of the 2018 Winter Olympics, and it’s a relief to focus on the positive experiences so many female athletes have. Maame Biney and Erin Jackson are the first black speed skaters on the women’s US short and long track teams. Snowboarder, Chloe Kim, the youngest gold medal winner in women’s halfpipe, has a close relationship with her father who warmed our hearts with his sweet homemade “Go Cloe” sign. Downhill skier, Mikaela Shiffrin who is crushing it as World Cup leader and winner of Olympic gold and silver medals, tweeted after coming in fourth in slalom, “I wouldn’t change that for the world. For me the Olympics is about showing heart and passion as much as it is about medals.”
So, as our hearts swell alternately with sorrow and adoration, I want to say thank you to all the female athletes who have persisted in following her dreams all the way to the world stage. Watching you is an inspiration and we are here for you.
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