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November 18, 2013

Skating for Justice

Bridie Farrell was a promising 15-year-old speedskater when she started training with Andy Gabel, one of the sport's most decorated athletes. Now, more than 15 years later, she's opening up about disturbing allegations of misconduct— and raising unsettling questions about whether Olympic officials are doing enough to protect athletes from abusive coaches and competitors.

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Monica May

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INSIDE THE UTAH OLYMPIC OVAL, an indoor speedskating arena just outside Salt Lake City, a few dozen of America's top speedskaters whip around a gleaming track, bent over at the waist, digging their blades into the ice for speed. Lap after lap, they are a blur of black, gray, red, white, and royal blue—the colors of current U.S. Speedskating Lycra uniforms. But one skater stands out in her weathered dark blue suit, a relic from the 2001 national team. The white USA letters running down Bridie Farrell's right leg are cracked, the Nike logo on her knee is worn and peeling.

At 31, Farrell is herself a relic. Though she has set American short-track records in the 3,000-meter relay, as well as the 1,500-meter and 3,000-meter individuals—the last of which she still holds more than a decade after she set it—she has never competed at the Olympics, having failed at attempts to qualify for spots on the 1998, 2002, and 2006 teams. After that last effort, she hung up her skates for good—that is, until the fall of 2012, when she decided to give it one more shot. (This time around, she's switched to long track, competing on a 400-meter oval versus a short track's 111-meter oval.) As Farrell finishes a lap, hands on hips and heaving for breath, she glides across the ice to where the coaches are huddled and asks about her time. Thirty-four seconds—a dramatic improvement from just two weeks ago but still two seconds slower than most of the other women on the ice this day. "If I were one of these other girls skating my lap times, I'd hang it up," she tells me later.

But Farrell isn't like the other girls. None of them are barreling up against the limits of age after six years away from the sport. And none of them are doing so wrapped in controversy. Though Farrell's return to speedskating was unexpected, nobody was quite prepared for the revelation that followed. During a radio interview with an NPR affiliate in February, Farrell alleged that her former mentor, Andy Gabel, one of speedskating's most acclaimed stars and once its most powerful official, had sexually abused her when she was 15. Her announcement stunned the speedskating world. Coaches, athletes—everyone knew or knew of Gabel. Up until this past September, a poster of him skating in his prime hung prominently in the window of the gift shop at the Utah Olympic Oval. Farrell passed it every day on her way to the rink.

Raised in Saratoga Springs, New York, Farrell began speedskating when she was 6. "I've always loved going fast," she says. As she got older, her commitment to the sport intensified. Her little sister, Colleen, remembers Farrell getting up at 5 a.m. to train. While Colleen watched TV after school, Farrell would keep her company while furiously pedaling on an exercise bike. At age 12, Farrell was the third-fastest short-track speedskater in the country for her age. By 15, she had real prospects for one day making the national team.

That summer, Andy Gabel, then 33, moved to town to train for the upcoming 1998 Olympic Trials. Gabel was the Michael Jordan of short-track speedskating. He'd already been on four Olympic teams, winning a silver at the 1994 games in Lillehammer, Norway. Though he'd coached in the past, Gabel was in Saratoga Springs strictly to prep for the upcoming trials. Farrell, about to start 10th grade, was starstruck. Gabel took a quick interest in her, offering to help with her skates. Despite the skates' outward simplicity—a low-cut boot bolted to a single blade—aligning and sharpening the blades is tricky, and Farrell was grateful for the help. She also needed a ride to the rink and Gabel was there, happy to pick her up at 5 in the morning. "We would go skating alone during the day. I remember just doing circles in the middle of the ice and Andy would tell me about my turns and help me. He would always ask me what I ate," Farrell recalls. Though she had her own coach, she describes Gabel as her "informal coach" during the time he spent in Saratoga Springs. "He even gave me my lap times during the 1998 Olympic Trials."

One day that summer, alone in the car with Farrell, Gabel drove down a dead-end street and stopped. She says he asked if he could kiss her. "I was just frozen. I knew if I said no, I'd have to get out of the car and walk home and my parents would ask, 'Why are you walking home?'"

According to Farrell, Gabel kissed her, and it went on from there. Soon, he was taking her out for lunches and dinners. He let her drive his Lexus. He gave her pricey Oakley sunglasses. They started going to his house together. Though they never had sex, he would put his fingers inside of her, Farrell says, while placing her hands on his genitals. He always told her not to tell anyone, she says.

 


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