‘I didn’t know it was wrong. I only knew I was angry’

In the wake of the revelations about child sexual abuse suffered by British male footballers, Sue Mott talks to a former swimmer who was raped as a young girl by her coach

There is no trace of Katherine Starr in the British Swimming record books, although she represented Great Britain at two Olympic Games. She was a double silver medallist at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh in 1986, yet no word of Katherine Starr survives among that roll of honour either. That’s because she didn’t exist. Not in the sense she does today.

Back then she was a different woman. Different girl, to be exact. One who was abused by her swimming coach at the age of 14 and eventually changed her name to help survive the on-going trauma. Annabelle Cripps became Katherine Starr “to wake up in the morning and feel free”.

Speaking about this time, now decades ago, is almost unbearably painful. She does so because she wishes to support the ever-growing number of retired British professional footballers who have found the courage to speak about the abuse they suffered themselves as teenagers at the hands of youth coaches. The revelations have provoked profound reactions: shock, compassion, horror among them. Katherine is not shocked. “I anticipate there will be hundreds,” she said

“I think the whole of society inherently does not want to see any of this. Adults, for their own selfish reasons, look the other way. It’s too difficult to deal with. And yet this happens in plain sight.”

The daughter of British parents, she moved from Wisconsin to Britain in the 1980s when she was 11 years old to train with one of swimming’s leading coaches, Paul Hickson. Unbeknown, Hickson was a covert sexual predator whose crimes the judge characterised as “beastly” when he sentenced him in 1995 to 17 years in jail for a string of sexual offences from rape to indecent assault.

“The sport in those days was sexually promiscuous,” says Starr. “For a child to make the differential between a coach violating you and general promiscuousness … well, the lines were very blurred. I didn’t understand this was not OK and it was something the sport didn’t want to bring to light.

“I didn’t know it was wrong. I only knew I was angry. I would say ‘no’. And the ‘nos’ led to suffering and not being on the team. The dynamic between a coach and his athlete is all about control. It’s about ownership. They own everything. I had qualified for the 1982 Commonwealth Games in several events, yet I didn’t get put on the team. The coach didn’t pick me because I was ‘an unruly American’. That’s because I told him ‘no’ in an aggressive way. I was ignoring him.

“I missed the World Championships, knowing it was because I wasn’t allowing him to touch me in the way he wanted to. The European Championships were next – I wasn’t on the team. Not until a journalist asked British Swimming, ‘Hey, why isn’t that person on the team?’ I was included two minutes later. There was no follow-up within the sport.

“My dual nationality wasn’t the issue. I have a British passport. My parents were British. My father swam for Britain. I’m related to Sir Stafford Cripps [former Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer]. I have blue blood in Great Britain. It was because I was character-assassinated by the coach, which is all part of the grooming process. I still didn’t report him. I wouldn’t have known how to do that.”

As she put it so memorably once, having set up her non-profit organisation in the States – Safe4Athletes – to help fellow survivors of abuse: “I don’t think I had the words to say, “He was raping me’.”

So the unsayable went unsaid. “No one would have believed me. A 14-year-old doesn’t have the structure of a moral and ethical system to know how life is meant to be. You just have the fear.”

She competed at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and Seoul four years later by which time Hickson had been elevated to Britain’s chief swimming coach. She did not win a medal. She did not speak out. Then.

“There has to be an incentive for individuals who have been abused to speak out,” she says. “These can be the most broken people. Often they don’t have financial resources to pursue help. They may have been character-assassinated so badly. The weight on them as individuals can be too heavy.

“You can be under threat from the minute you whistle-blow. I think the British footballers telling their stories now are so courageous. They have found the strength and imagine the people now lining up behind them. Their bravery is way more than mine. I applaud them. I’m their biggest advocate. I’m cheering for them on the sidelines.

“In a way, I think it’s much harder for men to speak out. There’s a whole extra level of complexity. These are men. Their masculinity is threatened. If it had come out at the time they may have been shamed and bullied, their sexual identify attacked. They were in a very masculine sport. The fans are bullies. There is a lack of empathy.

“My concern now is that they get the help they need to find healing. A Pandora’s Box has been opened. We need to rewrite the policies for the sports and create a system in favour of athletes instead. There needs to be a social and cultural change.”

If you ask Katherine about her own healing process, she answers obliquely: “I’ve been sober for 18 years.”

Explaining, she says: “I drank, shut down, had food issues. Most survivors go through something similar.”

FOOTNOTE: At his trial, Hickson denied the charges. He told the court that nothing improper had happened, and that women “had fantasised about him”.


Sue Mott is an award-winning sport journalist who has worked on radio, TV and the written press. Sue’s latest articles

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