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November 18, 2013

Skating for Justice


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Bridie Farrell

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Ten women have sued USA Swimming in the past five years, claiming that the organization knew about their harassment and abuse by coaches but failed to do anything about it, according to California attorney Robert Allard, who represents a number of the alleged victims. As a result, they say, coaches operated with impunity, moving from town to town, swim club to swim club, preying on their unsuspecting young charges. Among them: Andy King, a top juniors swim coach for numerous clubs along the West Coast, who was sentenced to 40 years in prison in January 2010 after authorities uncovered decades of sexual abuse involving more than a dozen girls. In fact, USA Swimming has banned 64 members, including coaches, officials, and athletes, for sexual misconduct between 1999 and 2012. In a statement to Marie Claire about the matter, Linhart wrote, "USA Swimming has no tolerance for violations of our code of conduct, and we are committed to investigating claims and ridding our sport of abusers."

Since Bridie Farrell went public with her story, another alleged victim of Andy Gabel's has come forward. Nikki Meyer, a silver and bronze medalist from the 1992 and 1994 Olympics who competed using her maiden name, Ziegelmeyer, was 15 when she met the then-26-year-old Gabel in 1991. She had recently arrived at the U.S. Olympic Education Center (USOEC), based at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, where she was enrolled in its prestigious speedskating program. It was the Missouri native's first time living away from home, and she was much younger than anyone else in the program. When she had trouble with her skates, her coach advised her to see Gabel, who was then the coordinator of the USOEC's short-track speedskating program. (He was a coach and administrator as well as a competitor.) The skaters and coaches lived in the same dorm, so Meyer went to Gabel's dorm room. After he invited her in, she says he threw her on the bed and raped her, an allegation first reported by The Associated Press. "If you tell anyone, they will not believe you," she says he told her afterward.

Still, Meyer immediately told teammates that she'd been assaulted—nearly everyone thought she was making it up. Her roommate at the time, Lexie Bonitatibus, kept a journal in which she detailed conversations with Meyer during this period. A page of that journal was shared with Marie Claire and another publication. "Nikki and I had a very serious discussion about some very horrible things that Andy is doing to her," Bonitatibus wrote. "He is playing with her mind and messing with her body without her permission … Poor Nikki, she is really scared and she cries a lot."

Meyer says she fended off continued advances by Gabel for months, but "he eventually broke me," she says. They had an ongoing sexual relationship until she was 18. It was so well-known, she says, that when she was 17 and Gabel was 29, they were assigned a room together for the 1993 World Championships in China. "When I read Bridie's story [in the newspapers], it was textbook to what had happened to me," Meyer says.

In a written statement to the Chicago Tribune in March, Gabel has acknowledged having "inappropriate" relationships with young athletes. "I never forced myself on any individual, and any allegations of that nature are absolutely false," he wrote. "Looking back on it now, I understand that my conduct nearly 20 years ago, and longer, was still inappropriate. I've apologized publicly for that, and I am sorry for crossing that line." Gabel refused to comment for this story, though his attorney, Donald Campbell, sent a letter to Marie Claire in which he said, "The events are alleged to have taken place over fifteen years ago … Ms. Farrell's recently minted allegation of 'molestation' only emerged when she sought publicity for her efforts to renew her career in speedskating."

Did U.S. Speedskating know about Gabel's conduct? That's unclear—U.S. Speedskating won't respond to requests from Marie Claire regarding Gabel until an outside law firm completes its own investigation. (U.S. Speedskating won't say when that will be.)

But there were certainly questions about Gabel's relationships with young athletes. In the spring of 1990, about a year before Meyer says she was raped and seven years before Gabel met Farrell, a boxing coordinator at Northern Michigan University contacted Roger Counsil, who then oversaw the USOEC program at the university, raising concerns about Gabel's relationship with a young skater. According to the university's investigation, the boxing coordinator said he'd seen a "rather young girl" leaving Gabel's room at around 2 a.m., carrying a blanket and crying. On another occasion, he saw Gabel giving the girl a back rub. Also according to the report, when the team traveled to Italy for a competition, Gabel's roommate told another skater that the girl came into their room one night and was "rustling" under the covers with Gabel for an unusually long period of time. (In his statement, that roommate wrote that while the girl often visited their room to take naps and give massages, he never actually saw them engage in any sexual activity.) The report also notes that Gabel was said to have bragged about receiving oral sex from a 14-year-old girl, and that someone had taped a note to Gabel's door reading "15 gets you 20"—meaning sex with a 15-year-old gets you 20 years in prison.

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