I knew when I was eight years old I was going to be an Olympian. I saw it; I felt it; I became it. As a young promising elite athlete I was naturally focused and could rise to almost any challenge in practice and competition.
But as those moments of triumph became louder, the little voice inside of me—the one that told me when something wasn’t right—gradually shut down and became silent.
At the age of 13, I found out that the silence was not only in me, but in everyone else. During an interview for a national newscast about making the national team for the first time, my coach was rubbing my thigh in a sexual way the entire time. The reporter ignored it and carried right on with the interview. I could feel my soul start to seep out of my body like a car being crushed for its parts. All this happened in plain sight and aired on national television.
No one said a thing after the interview, and so I learned that it wasn’t safe to talk about what my coach was doing to me. I became a machine, an object; my value was contained entirely in my talent. That moment taught me that my passion for greatness would leave me exposed to unchecked dangers over the next near-decade, during which I was repeatedly sexually abused and harassed by my Olympic coach.
Sexual violence is prevalent across all industries. We have all been reminded of this in recent weeks, with heinous allegations of sexual abuse leveled against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein from the many brave actresses that have come forward. This ignited the hashtag #MeToo, and gave Olympic gold medalist McKayla Maroney a platform to feel safe enough to break her own painful silence about her abuse at the hands of doctor Larry Nassar.
We have to ask: How did this sexual abuse go for so long, unchecked? All Maroney did was pursue the highest and best version of herself. By every measure she embodied what the Olympics are about: “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” But while Maroney lived up to those ideals, those who could have protected her did not.
I could easily blame the people who saw my national interview for not speaking up. And we can all condemn the many people in Olympic sports or in Hollywood who knew about rampant sexual abuse of young girls and said nothing. But the reality is that most of us look away from this behavior because we think we don’t have the power to stop it.
Only the gatekeepers in film, sports, and other fields have the knowledge and ability to put an end to sexual abuse. The problem is that many of them don’t see themselves as gatekeepers. They don’t want to ruffle feathers and take responsibility for what they know to be true. They live off of denial as a defense.
But pretending they didn’t know isn’t going to cut it anymore. Gatekeepers need to embrace their roles not just as managers or decision makers, but as protectors of the young girls they employ and from whom they profit. Their leadership roles are not just professional—they are moral. And if they refuse to take on this responsibility, they are complicit in the crimes they ignore.
It’s time to make sports, Hollywood, and all professional spheres safe for young girls to excel and freely express their passion. None of us are completely powerless. We can demand our leaders open their eyes to what is going on and take action against it. We need to. The talented, passionate girls of the future are counting on us.
Katherine Starr is the president of Safe4Athletes.