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November 18, 2013

Skating for Justice


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Bridie Farrell

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In the ensuing weeks and months, Gabel became controlling and demanding. Farrell recalls he told her she was fat and scolded her for eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at school instead of drinking vegetable juice. When she wanted to go to the homecoming dance with another student, she first cleared it with Gabel, who allowed it, provided she came home early. "My mom and dad thought, Oh, she wants to get up and train the next morning," Farrell says. "Even my friends thought it was for training. No one knew the leash that I was on."

After he'd qualified for the 1998 Olympic team headed to Nagano, Japan, Gabel left Saratoga Springs for good. Nagano was a bust for him, and he retired not long after. Still, having racked up more than 75 medals in international competitions over the course of his nearly 20-year career, Gabel was a speedskating legend. He became vice president of U.S. Speedskating, the governing body of the sport, and then its president from 2002 until 2006. In 2003, he was inducted into the National Speedskating Museum and Hall of Fame in Milwaukee. He sat on the board of directors of U.S. Speedskating until 2010 and was the chairman of the short-track technical committee with the International Skating Union. In 2010, NBC hired him as a short-track speedskating commentator for the Vancouver games.

Farrell's career proved far less illustrious. Though she went on to race for the national team, she fell short at the trials for the 2002 Olympic team. In the years that followed, she was plagued by injuries. By the time the trials for the 2006 Olympics rolled around, Farrell was all but hobbled. She didn't even bother to find out how she placed, just that she didn't make the team. After that, she retired from speedskating and headed to Cornell University, where she graduated with a degree in applied economics in 2008. Later she moved to New York City and tried to start over.

But without speedskating, Farrell felt unmoored and fell into a deep depression. She thought of suicide constantly, of jumping out of her apartment window or throwing herself in front of a train. It went on like that until September 2012, when a despondent Farrell arrived in Saratoga Springs for a visit. Her mother, desperate to help, asked her what she could do. "Just kill me," Farrell told her.

THE TRAJECTORY of an Olympian is legendary, thanks to the seemingly endless loop of tear-jerking profiles broadcast on network television during the games: the countless predawn hustles to practice; weekends and holidays logging time at the gym; every meal, every rest, every injury a metric in the careful calculus of victory. For much of their training, Olympic contenders lead cloistered lives, usually surrounded by other athletes and coaches in a competitive hothouse designed to draw the best performances from them, day in and day out. Under such intense conditions, with coaches and competitors spending inordinate amounts of time together—eating together, traveling together, even living together—is it any wonder that elite athletes are so vulnerable to abuse?

While actual data on athlete abuse is scant, a 2002 Australian study found that 31 percent of that country's female athletes had been sexually abused—the more accomplished they were, the more likely they were to have been victimized by someone linked to their sport.

In fact, there are numerous cases of athlete abuse in a wide cross section of sports. Rick Curl, one of the nation's top swim coaches, who has trained many Olympians, including 1996 and 2000 Olympic gold medalist Tom Dolan, was this year sentenced to seven years in prison for child sexual abuse. Kelley Davies Currin, a former top swimmer, accused him of sexually abusing her for several years, beginning when she was 13. (Curl is appealing his sentence.) Currin says her relationship with Curl was an open secret in swim circles and that USA Swimming's executive director, Chuck Wielgus, knew about the abuse and did nothing. (USA Swimming spokesperson Karen Linhart denies that Wielgus knew of Currin's abuse, and says that Currin circumvented the group to reach a settlement with Curl.)

In 2011, Kayla Harrison, America's sole gold medalist in judo, revealed that she'd been sexually abused by her coach, Daniel Doyle, for three years, starting when she was 13. Her testimony ultimately helped convict Doyle, who is currently serving out a 10-year prison sentence.

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