U.S. Speedskating began an investigation Friday into the report of a female skater accusing former Olympian and organization president Andy Gabel of sexual abuse in the 1990s.
Bridie Farrell told public radio station WUWM in Milwaukee that she had sexual contact with Gabel repeatedly over several months in 1997 and 1998 while both were training in New York and Michigan. When the alleged abuse began, she was 15 and Gabel was 33.
Gabel competed in short track at three Winter Games and won a silver medal in the relay at Lillehammer in 1994. He also served a term as president of U.S. Speedskating and is currently chairman of the short track committee for the International Skating Union.
The national governing body said it was not previously aware of any allegations against Gabel.
“Our current understanding is that it was not reported to anyone at U.S. Speedskating or the authorities at that time,” the organization said in a statement. “We intend to look into this matter immediately to determine what action should be taken.”
There was no immediate comment from Gabel. The Associated Press left a message on his cellphone.
Farrell’s lawyer, Jon Little, said the abuse began when Farrell and Gabel were training at the same club in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
According to Little, Gabel began paying a lot of attention to Farrell. He would let her drive his car, for instance, and he also sharpened her skates.
“She’s starstruck” Little said, describing her state of mind at the time.
There was no immediate comment from the ISU. But International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams said, “Clearly, any allegations of such a serious nature need to be fully investigated.”
In any event, they represent another setback to a powerhouse U.S. Olympic sport, coming after a sexual abuse scandal in swimming.
Dozens of coaches have been accused of abusing underage swimmers, including a former national team director, prompting USA Swimming to adopt a “safe sport” program and go public with a list of everyone who has received a lifetime ban from the organization.
Farrell’s allegations are somewhat different in that the abuse allegedly began while she and Gabel were both still competing. But Little said it follows much the same pattern of what happened in swimming: a mentor-like figure taking advantage of a young athlete.
The statute of limitations for a lawsuit has expired, Little said, so there are no plans to pursue legal action. He said Farrell decided to come forward because she wants to change the culture of Olympic sports in the U.S., something he described as a “good old boys network.”
“They see their coaches sleeping with girls,” Little said. “When they become a coach. … (they) get access to sexual relationships with young, fit teenage girls — and it’s just part of the culture. Everybody thinks that’s OK.”
In her interview with WUWM, Farrell said she knew from the beginning that her relationship with Gabel was inappropriate.
“I knew that because he made it be a secret,” she said. “But I will say that the 15-year-old thought it was exciting.”
Farrell said she didn’t tell anyone what had happened for years.
“The first five to seven years after it happened, I was scared,” she told the radio station. “I was petrified, because I was young and in speedskating, and I was knocking on the door to the junior national team, then the senior national team, and I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize that.”
“Then,” she added, “there was a period of my life when I didn’t say anything because I realized I was hurt, and I was broken. And it took a long time and a lot of work and some pretty dark times to come to grips with it and put myself together.”
Farrell recently returned to speedskating after a six-year absence and is making a long-shot bid for a spot on the U.S. team that will compete at the Sochi Games next year. She failed in three previous bids to qualify for the Olympics.
“I wanted to be close and real with friends in skating, but there was this big secret and there was this big part I wasn’t disclosing,” she said. “And in order for me to be honest and truly be friends with these people, I needed to be able to say, ‘This is a huge thing I’m battling.'”
Farrell said her biggest regret is waiting so long to come forward.
“I wish I had said something the day that it happened,” she said. “And if that person didn’t believe me, that I told somebody else, and somebody else, until someone listened.”