Hope Floats

As I begin to stir from my Olympics stupor, I couldn’t let the week go by without highlighting the story of  Nancy Hogshead-Makar, three-time gold medalist, and silver medalist, at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Years ago, when I began my career in intercollegiate athletics, I came across her name frequently. In fact, it was often spoken in the same breath as a vaunted few who were long considered the leads on Title IX matters. I knew that Nancy had been a champion swimmer, one of the first women to earn an athletic scholarship, and active in advocacy efforts surrounding women in sport. But, just this week, I learned about an aspect of her past that makes me feel more like her than any of the previous things I’ve mentioned. (And it ties into a broader initiative I’ll be working on in the very near future.)

A dear friend passed along a link to an article in Nancy’s own words at the sports website Deadspin.com.  The site runs a series whereby athletic greats share first-person accounts of their journeys in sport. Nancy’s is seemingly normal, marked by her own realizations about how good she was and could be, and the limitations society had on female athletes at the time. Still, her story follows a predictable path, right until the sickening part where she is attacked while jogging one day at Duke University, dragged into some trees and raped for more than two hours after an exhausting, hand-to-hand battle with her attacker for 40 minutes. Her words paint a chilling and gripping portrait of what she experienced and my mind has been unable to shake it all day for how it manages to tap into my most primal terror – that this fate possibly awaits me some day (No, I don’t delude myself that I am somehow granted immunity from future attacks).

As the article continues, Nancy shares the immediate and long-term effects of the assault, some of which I find simply astounding due to their similarities to my own experience, especially the “I can’t believe this happened to me” refrain that fell from my lips for many weeks and months after.

To illustrate this, I have pasted below several sections from the article in chronological order and linked within them to previous posts I have made here at afightbackwoman.com. I hope you’ll see what I mean.

“Right away, I was thinking that the police were not going to believe me. There is something about rape that is different from other … If I had been just, if somebody had taken my purse, and they had done it in a violent way, I doubt that I would’ve thought, Oh, they’re not going to believe me. But I absolutely was thinking, You know, I better buck up and I better not cry. I need to sound credible and act credible and get myself together. I’m sure I didn’t do a very good job, but the police were bend-over-backwards nice to me. I mean, I was really beaten up. My lips were so big I couldn’t put them inside my mouth, and I had one eye that was closed. I just was a mess.

And so at the hospital I told myself that this was just going to be a very bad event that I was going to put behind me, and I was not going to let it get in the way of my life. I was going to be determined to still get good grades, be the best athlete in the world. Now, I would look back and self-diagnose myself and say that I had PTSD. But I just felt very out of control of my life.

***

I thought I would be able to get back in the water once I was physically OK, but when I tried it wasn’t physically, it was mentally. I tried to keep very strict control over my brain, because if I let it wander it would go back into the woods.

I didn’t want to tell anybody that I felt that way, because I was so embarrassed about feeling that way. I mean, people were really ready to throw arms open and help me, but like I just didn’t want to be a rape victim. I didn’t want to have been raped. Me, a victim? Are you kidding me? A victim? Give me a break. I mean, it just was not who I’d constructed myself to be.

“The rape changed my life. It turned me into a much more empathetic person. I’m very comfortable around somebody else’s great pain, whether it’s alcoholism, or losing a child, or grief, or tremendous anger, or a divorce, whatever it is. Just being around pain, I can do it because I’ve been through it myself. Today, I don’t want to be somebody who wasn’t raped. I absolutely think that it moved me in ways I can’t imagine I would’ve been moved had that not happened. The rape absolutely made me a better person.

Interestingly enough, it made me much, much closer to God. I mean, I was in such a needy place. I could not stay in a victim place. That had to move. I was not going to stay there. And this natural ability of the soul to heal, I mean, I worked really hard at it, and at the same time it was doing it all by itself.” (The sentiments in these two paragraphs comprised much of my speech at The Clinton School in February 2011).

I am going to send Nancy a note and thank her for sharing this information. As a victim, it is particularly meaningful, and given the timing of it and all we have learned about the remarkable female athletes who represented our country, won medals and survived assaults, it is quite possibly part of a momentum shift toward changing who we “think” victims are and what their lives can be. The more people see success stories such as Nancy’s, the more hope they might have for their own circumstances.

In my next post, I will share some exciting steps – BIG steps – I am taking to serve victims and to represent female athletes who are assaulted.

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