Research for youth sexual abuse and sports has been gaining momentum and exposure in the media, linking the blame to coaches, instructors and teachers. Statistics show 8% of minor-age athletes are victims of sexual abuse with the largest portion being females. Sexually abused children in sports are often left with the residue of low self-esteem, a symptom 37-year-old championship speed skater Bridie Farrell knows oh too well. She recently shared her story with me, and the 10 years of silence that followed.
Me: Tell me about your childhood Bridie, where did you grow up and what were the dynamics in the household?
Bridie: I grew up in Saratoga Springs, NY, in a busy household with 5 other siblings. I am from a normal Catholic Irish family, all of us kids were always busy and we had neighbors and cousins that would visit often. We lived in a very happy household.
Me: When did you start speed skating?
Bridie: When I was 6 years old, my brother Patrick was watching Speed Skating on TV during the Olympics and a woman he saw skating was also from Saratoga Springs and she sat a few pews behind us in church. So my Mom asked the family how Patrick could get involved in speed skating and that’s how it all started.
Me: Walk me through your journey in skating.
Bridie: I didn’t start out with any grand plan, I wanted to play hockey and my mom said, “Hockey is not for girls.” So she put me in figure skating and then I segwayed into speed skating by grabbing a ride with my brother Patrick. In 1994 I competed in my first age group national championships in Saratoga Springs, and then in 1997 when I was 15 years old things took the biggest turn for me when the number one speed skater at that time Andy Gabel age 33 at the time, moved to Saratoga to train with our coach, we were both training for the 1998 winter Olympic trials which were to be held in Lake Placid, NY.
Mr. Gabel did a fine job of grooming my family, the community, and me; he was well respected. He would pick me up and take me to practice, which was very helpful to my mom who had 5 other kids to juggle. At the end of the Summer 1997, Andy was driving me home from practice; he would always drop off the other teammate first and one day when he backed out of her driveway in his Lexus with me in the front seat, instead of taking a right to drop me off, he took a left, drove a few streets down and turned onto a small dead end, he turned, looked at me, and asked if he could kiss me. Many people think flight or fight is your first response but if you’ve ever been in a situation like this you know that the first response is to freeze, in disbelief of what is taking place. I was only 15 and very confused. This was the beginning of a 6-month track of abuse.
I had never been told, educated, or made aware that such a situation could happen. I can still remember the feeling of the hot sticky leather seats on my thighs, I remember not moving, not feeling like I had an option; I was trapped. If I would have opened the door and walked home I would have to explain everything to my parents and I was fearful that I would lose my ride to the rink and my ability to train in skating. I was fearful if I spoke out that nobody would believe me, so I remained in silence.
The abuse started in a kind way that’s why my mind was confused. Things escalated to the point where I was getting rides from him every day and something would happen in the car each day. Escalating from there he would pick me up from High School, take me skating, help my techniques and then we would go back to his rented house where he molested me.
Me: What was going through your mind during all of this? Here you were skating for 9 years and training for the Olympics, which was an important goal for you, it was a confusing time and you were living in silence, how did you handle all of this?
Bridie: I didn’t come forward because of fear and the implications. I recognized that Mr. Gabel helped me with my technique, equipment, and transportation. I didn’t want to lose that and at 15 I knew I was in way over my head. It was October, I wanted to go to my homecoming dance and Mr. Gabel asked if I was going out afterwards. I responded, “I’m not sure.” The permission he gave me to attend came with a strict order to return home immediately after the dance where I was instructed to notify him upon my return. Coming home early wasn’t strange to my family because I was dedicated to the sport of speed skating; it was in alignment with my hunger to be a great athlete. I knew though that things weren’t right but I needed to follow his orders and keep secrets. I was frustrated as to how why I was left to sort this out.
Me: When did the abuse with Mr. Gabel come to an end?
Bridie: He was 34 and I was 16, it was January 1998, Mr. Gabel left Saratoga Springs and I was left trying to figure out my emotions. Two years later I was competing at the World Championships in Sheffield England and Mr. Gabel at that time was the Vice President of the U.S. speed skating Board of Directors. He came up to me at the banquet and asked me if I told anyone, I was dating someone on the team at the time and he asked if I told my date. It reinforced that same threat, that same choke hold he had over me with the homecoming dance. He was still threatening my silence.
In the years that followed I realized the lasting impact that the abuse had. Some may read my story and misjudge with their own perception but what I want people to realize is, an adult violated me as a minor, and you may not be able to understand the level of hurt it caused unless you’ve experienced a similar act as a teenager. Nobody in my town was able to see my pain. In the silence of extra time as I got older through reflection and connecting the dots of the past I fell into severe depression, so the residual pain that came from a non-violent sexual offense was at times difficult, I had low self-esteem and a low value; I didn’t feel I was deserving of more and there was a time where the depression was so bad for an entire month that if it wasn’t for my amazing tribe of friends who watched over me to make sure I woke up after a sleep each day, I don’t know how I would have made it. I have worked with numerous therapists and I am still working through my healing journey. There are things today that trigger me due to my subconscious coding and those layers of healing can take years to break free from.
Me: That’s right, if you’ve never experienced molestation, it’s hard to relate to the aftermath that follows.How did you remain in silence for 10 years and cope?
Bridie: I have had so many injuries from speed skating; 6 left ankle surgeries alone, I trained hard and was addicted to working out and over training. I created physical pain to distract from the emotional pain. I would train so hard I was exhausted at night to the point where I had no choice but to fall asleep. I distracted myself with my goals.
Me: What caused you to break your 10 years of silence?
Bridie: I stopped skating when I was 24 and I went to Cornell and graduated when I was 26. I remember I was taking a class in Adolescent Development and I tried everything to not take that class but in the end it was required and I ‘m glad it was. At the end of the course I wrote a paper about how the course applied to my life; I wrote maybe my 15 year-old brain wasn’t developed enough and maybe the relationship with Mr. Gabel was wrong; of course it was, my professor confirmed that what happened was inappropriate and that I had been violated. After that I didn’t tell anyone else until I got back into speed skating at the age of 30, when I skated back out onto the rink it was all the same, I was skating laps and Andy Gabel’s name was on all the banners I was skating underneath. There was this little girl named Claire who was hungry to be an amazing skater and it was in that moment I thought, “If I don’t speak up who will?” My motivation was to try and tweak the culture within the sport of speed skating, I had to be a voice for Claire and the next generation, that’s when I spoke up and started sharing my story publicly.
Me: How has the sexual abuse affected your dating experiences?
Bridie: I attracted some companions that displayed a lack of respect towards me until one day I walked out on a relationship and said, “This is it, I deserve to be treated better.” That shift 3 years ago helped bring the right person into my life. I’m in a loving, caring relationship today with a man who heard me speak, he knew my entire story up front and accepted me for who I am and he treats me with the respect that I deserve.
Me: There are a lot of athletes out there striving to reach their goals, working and training hard, what advice would you supply to anyone that may be walking through what you’ve experienced?
Bridie: I would encourage any minor to find an adult and tell someone, speak out until someone believes and helps you. The most hurtful and lasting impact is the residue that follows the act. Find the strength to gain your voice, and if nothing else write your own thoughts down in a journal and listen to yourself, really listen. Look within yourself reflect and give yourself permission to admit that you were wronged.
Me: What are you doing today to positively make an impact in the world?
Bridie: I am co-founder of NY Loves Kids, a non-profit statewide movement to create a safer New York by speaking out about child sexual abuse. We are dedicated to ending child sexual abuse. NY Loves Kids educates children and adults on the topic and we believe together, as a united community that we can move forward to a better and safer tomorrow. Through our efforts, Governor Cuomo signed the historic New York Child Victims Act and the Real Housewives of NY teamed up with us for a fundraiser in NYC.
Me: What closing remarks would you like to leave your readers with?
Bridie: Recognize that pain is real but you’ve got to hold on. Although it was tough while I was in the midst of sifting through, I’m glad I’m here and I remained alive. So hold on because in time you will feel that way too.
Speaking out and releasing from the shame cycle is never easy especially when it involves the media. I am super proud of Bridie for gaining courage, stepping out, and speaking up. Together we can make a difference by sharing our stories and touching hearts one person at a time.
You can follow the success of the SHEROS on Facebook by clicking here.
The #SHEROproject will include stories of SHEROS from around the world. In an effort to support our thriving SHEROS, there is a panel that will be selecting the most inspirational story for the 2019 SHERO of the year award, which will be announced on 12/1/2019.
The SHERO of the year award winner will receive a 4-day/3-night retreat at 1440 Multiversity. An opportunity to explore their potential in an environment like no other; get away for rejuvenating downtime and immersion learning on their state-of-the-art campus in the redwoods of Scotts Valley, CA and experience the perfect blend of learning, vacation, and space for reflection.
1440 Multiversity is a place to experience time differently—exploring what matters, while surrounding yourself with fresh air, delicious food, many ways to unwind, and opportunities to connect with yourself and others. SHERO, during your stay, you can look forward to daily 1440 specialty classes such as yoga, meditation, qi gong and Pilates. Or enjoy hiking in the 75 acres of redwood forest surrounding the campus and finish off your day with a soak in their signature infinity tub.
The creation of 1440 Multiversity stemmed from a desire to establish a beautiful and nurturing physical location where people of all walks of life could come together in community—to explore, learn, reflect, connect, and reenergize.
Also, each SHERO featured will receive a relaxing mix of Nectar Bath Treats’ most popular bath and body treats. Nectar Bath Treats is a cruelty free bath & body company that creates bakery inspired treats for deliciously smooth skin. Their delightful handmade treats range from adorable cupcake soaps and milkshake inspired coconut milk bath soaks to stress blasting bath bombs, all natural sugar body scrubs, ice cream shaped bubble bath scoops and so much more. If you need to relax after a long day or give yourself smoother more kissable skin, Nectar Bath Treats has you covered head to toe. Each treat is handmade with love by their team of professional soap artisans and skin care specialists for skin so soft and smooth you’ll swear you just left a luxury spa treatment.
Each featured SHERO will also receive a Rustic Cuff representing Joy & Courage. Celebrities such as Miranda Lambert, Giuliana Rancic, Kristin Chenoweth and Gayle King to name a few, wear founder Jill Donovan’s designs. Her bracelets have been featured on a multitude of national talk shows and in magazines including Elle, People, In Style, etc. For Jill it’s all about the inspired connection that is made between two people.
The SHEROs will also receive a candle by Sugarboo and Co…Dealers in Whimsy, reminding them that they are a light in the world. Sugarboo believes in putting good out into the world whenever possible. Their hope is that each Sugarboo piece sent out into the world will add a little good! Rebecca Puig’s (artist and owner) inspirations are family, nature, animals, old things, children’s art and folk art. She loves juxtaposing old and new, light and dark, serious subject matter with fluff and anything with a message! Sugarboo’s Motto is “Put Good Things into the World”!
Each featured SHERO will receive a private invitation to The B.E. A S.H.E.R.O. Foundation annual Gala in Las Vegas 2/8/2020 where they will be interviewed on the red carpet. B.E. A S.H.E.R.O. foundation’s mission is to provide resources needed to support, sustain and empower young girls and women under the age of 25 who have been abused, abandoned, and exploited. We intend to accomplish this mission by bringing other agencies with similar missions together and being a resource center for these organizations.