Former Olympic swimmer Katherine Starr starts Safe4Athletes to help fellow abuse victims

NY Daily News: Katherine Starr was at a crossroads last April, professionally and personally, when she says she began brainstorming: as a previous victim of sexual abuse in sports, how could she help make a positive impact on addressing the issue?

This was months before the names Jerry Sandusky, Bernie Fine and other coaching/sports figures were strewn across the headlines, before the tidal wave of media coverage about horrific cases of alleged sexual abuse at Penn State, Syracuse and other iconic sports programs.

“I was barely coaching,” says Starr, a former member of the British Olympic swimming team for the 1984 and ’88 Summer Games. “But I had a strong sense that nothing had changed.”

Starr, 44, was decades removed from her own traumatic experiences of being sexually abused, but the physical and psychological scars continued to exact a toll. She battled alcohol abuse – although she has been sober now for over 13 years; had a fractured relationship with her late father due to the dark secrets she kept to herself; to this day, Starr admits to having “commitment issues.”

She ultimately changed her birth name, Annabelle Cripps, to Katherine Starr so she could “wake up in the morning and feel free.”

When Sandusky was charged in November of over 50 counts of sexual abuse of at least 10 boys, and later when Fine’s name and other sports figures were linked to abuse cases, Starr says she was engulfed by her painful past, a torrent of emotion swirling in her head. She says the feelings of sadness, anger and frustration motivated her to start the non-profit organization, Safe4Athletes, with a mission to become a major advocate for athletes’ welfare.

“I needed to put my time into something more valuable. I asked myself, ‘What do I want to do?’ After seeing all of these reports about Sandusky, the other cases, I said, ‘This needs to be addressed. Nobody is addressing this in sports,” says Starr, who lives in Santa Monica, Calif. “I felt like I could bring my world of awareness to the table.”

Born in Madison, Wis., to her British immigrant parents, Annabelle Cripps returned to England when she was 11 to follow her athletic dreams, which included trying “to become the next Sharron Davies,” a reference to the British swimmer who was an Olympic medalist in the 1980 Moscow Games. Cripps began training under renowned coach Paul Hickson when she was a teenager, and says he began sexually abusing her almost immediately.

“I was the only girl with five other (male swimmers). What I found out, (Hickson) purposely kept me as the only girl,” says Starr now. “I don’t think I had the words to say, ‘He was raping me.’ Every time I resisted, he would retaliate, or he would punish me. I would tell him openly on the pool deck, ‘Get away from me.’ Nobody heard my cries, but people knew what was going on. That’s the sad part. There are so many other athletes in the same situation with their coach.”

Hickson, who was the British swimming coach at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, was sentenced to 17 years in prison in 1995, after being convicted of 15 of 17 charges that stemmed from rape to indecent assault. Starr was not one of the 13 complaintants who came forward to accuse Hickson.

But Starr found little solace in seeing her longtime abuser behind bars. She abused alcohol into her early 30s. She was estranged from her father for years after her competitive swimming days, too fearful to reveal the real reason why she did everything possible to avoid training under Hickson. Starr toyed with writing a memoir as a catharsis, then suffered a near fatal automobile accident in 2005 while driving from her parents’ Colorado home.

“I hit a sheet of black ice, rolled my car completely,” says Starr. “People who attended to me at the accident scene said, ‘You never should have survived.’ There was another accident at the same site, involving a FedEx truck, and the driver died. It was like, ‘Why not me?’

“That was the reason I changed my name,” Starr continues. “It was too hard to be Annabelle. I couldn’t be me anymore. There was so much hurt and pain.”

When she hatched the idea for Safe4Athletes, the first thing Starr did was reach out to people she was confident would both see her vision, and who could provide valuable insight into how to launch such an endeavor.

Donna Lopiano, the former CEO of Women’s Sports Foundation, and Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a former Olympic medalist in swimming and a law professor at Florida Coastal University, have been instrumental in shaping the business and legal framework for Safe4Athletes.

“Out of the clear blue, Katherine called me and said, ‘Will you help me start a non-profit?'” says Lopiano, now the president of Sports Management Resources, a consulting firm. Lopiano was also the athletic director for women’s sports at the University of Texas when Starr was a student/athlete there. “It’s been fun working on a new advocacy project. And the timing couldn’t be better. This is as large as the gender/equity issue. The NCAA is starting to address (sexual abuse) some, but the governing bodies (in sports) are not tackling this issue well. And in amateur sports, it’s just scary.”

Hogshead-Makar says that educating parents of athletes is a critical part of the policy for Safe4Athletes. But she says that an equally important step toward eradicating sexual abuse from sports is helping empower victims.

“We need to be sensitive to these people, and not perpetuate the ‘blame the victim’ theory because a team wants a coach,” says Hogshead-Makar. “You have these coaches who are often talented, producing winners, but there’s a troubled kid who doesn’t feel he or she has anywhere safe to go.”

Safe4Athletes is hoping to partner with national athletic governing bodies to sports organizations and local clubs, and among the many policy initiatives are: counseling for abuse victims, educational programs and recommendations on how to contact proper authorities to report abuse and initiate criminal investigations.

Jennifer Sey, a former gymnast who is a Safe4Athletes board of directors chair, says that in competitive athletics, “abusive behavior becomes normalized” in competitive athletics.

“Parents often brush suspicions under the rug because they want their kid to make the team,” says Sey, who witnessed abuse of one of her gymnastic teammates at the hands of former Olympic coach Don Peters. “What’s hard for people outside to understand is why the children participating are not able to stand up for themselves. But that world is incredibly skewed. Things that people outside would find unacceptable, become normalized. This foundation is about creating guidelines around appropriate behaviors. We don’t have that in sport.”

Starr says that Safe4Athletes is getting funding through donations and corporate relationships, and that volunteers will help spread the word from state to state, at all sports levels.

“I think our policies are thorough. There needs to be a social and cultural change among parents and athletes,” says Starr. “What would it look like if I had to do that part of my life all over? Having a safe environment. This foundation gives me some sort of peace with my experience.”