It takes an incredible amount of courage to speak openly about abuse. But that is exactly what former Olympic swimmer Margaret Hoelzer did shortly after breaking a world record in the 200 meter backstroke and winning three medals at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
The Huntsville, Ala., native started swimming at 5, initially competing with the Jones Valley Recreation Association summer league. Hoelzer started swimming for Space City Swim Team two years later. She loved the water and was a natural in the sport.
Hoelzer continued her passion for swimming at Huntsville High School, where she became an eight-time state champion and a Scholastic All-American in 1999. She then swam for Auburn University, succeeding as a six-time NCAA champion, an SEC and NCAA record holder, and a 22-time All-American.
In 2002, Hoelzer won gold in the 200 back at the Pan Pacific Championships, and soon after earned silver at the 2003 and 2005 World Championships. She competed in the 2004 Olympics, followed by obtaining gold at the 2007 World Championships and broke her first American record. Hoelzer then claimed two silvers and one bronze in the 2008 Olympics, also breaking the World Record at the Olympic Trials in the 200 back.
But her journey had some turbulence along the way.
When she was 7, Hoelzer was sexually abused by a close friend of the family. Like many victims, she feared what would happen if she reported the individual, so she waited four years before telling her parents about the incident.
At age 11, Hoelzer went with her parents to the National Children’s Advocacy Center and to the police to file a report about the abuse. However, her abuser was not convicted.
In addition to receiving counseling, Hoelzer put more effort into swimming, and it became a natural means for her to deal with her emotional suffering. “I had a place where I could take some of that emotion. When I was going through all that, I already had a natural outlet that was built in. And especially what was nice, nobody had to see it. I could cry into my goggles if I wanted to.”
She continued, “It was a very safe place for me to get rid of anxiety and emotion and stress in a very [physically] healthy way. I think all sports, regardless of what they are, have the ability to help kids through any type of trauma or any type of difficulties in life.”
Although Hoelzer was physically at her best, she still struggled emotionally. She sought therapy again in 2006 and considered going public about the abuse. She carried her past trauma internally through both the 2004 and 2008 Olympics. Then, in 2008 soon after the Olympic Games in Beijing, Hoelzer broke the news to the world to further her process of recovery while also trying to help other victims.
In 2010, Hoelzer joined the Committee for Safe Sport under USA Swimming and was an integral part of the program for seven years. She wanted to promote an environment of safety for all athletes. Hoelzer continues to work with USA Swimming on athlete abuse prevention and says an important part of her recovery was giving back to the sport of swimming in this area.
“Becoming a representative for Safe Sport was kind of a marriage of both of my worlds. I cared a lot about swimming, I cared a lot about prevention and education with sexual abuse awareness, so it was really a natural fit,” Hoelzer said.
She spoke regarding opening up about abuse, and the importance of seeking a psychologist or counselor to start mending emotionally, physically and mentally.
“The first step in the healing process is disclosing and getting professional help. I tell people all the time, ‘I did not get to the Olympics by myself. It starts with your family, friends, your coaches, and your teammates. And then at the Olympics you have the National Team staff, doctors, trainers, massage therapists…and so many people who get you there. If it takes an army of people to get someone to the Olympics, or the NBA or whatever, why in the world would someone think that you can get over something like sexual abuse by yourself?”
Hoelzer continued, “There is a percentage of people who are overachievers, and I fell into that category. I overachieved out the nines. I had to become an Olympian. I had to be a world record holder. I had to have a 4.0 in school. I did all those things because I didn’t feel like I had value, and I didn’t feel good about myself. I kept throwing accomplishments down this “pit of despair,” because I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror and see someone that I felt mattered.
“On the outside, you look like this normal person and people look at you and say, ‘You’re life is perfect,’ or ‘You have a silver spoon in your mouth.’ But then it’s like, why does this person have the need to succeed to the amount that they are overachieving?
“It’s not that working hard is bad, but there are a lot of Olympians that are not doing it for healthy reasons. I certainly fell into that category.”
After many years of trying to deal with her abuse alone, Hoelzer realized that in order to heal, she needed to seek therapy and work through her problems.
She added, “Unfortunately, a lot of people’s experience is that they disclose, and the first person they tell doesn’t believe them. So, if you’re in that situation, keep telling. If you have to tell 85 people, tell 85 people. But somebody will believe you and get you the proper help.”
Hoelzer mentioned that athletic coaches are often the trusted adults that abused children turn to.
“It’s important to create a safe space where the child knows that they can go to that coach and have that conversation.”
Children, parents and coaches have many resources that they can seek to report abuse, including the U.S. Center for SafeSport, USA Swimming’s Safe Sport program, the National Children’s Advocacy Center, RAINN, and any advocacy center and rape crisis clinic in the local area. Even if there is no proof, parents, coaches and counselors need to always believe the child that has disclosed, and trust their instincts if abuse is suspected.
“If you’ve got that feeling in your gut that something is not right, call it in. Because you might just save someone’s life,” she said.
“The effects of the abuse are a lifelong thing,” Hoelzer said. “People who have been abused just need to know that it’s a journey, not a destination. There’s going to be ups and downs, and there’s going to be harder days and easier days. I definitely think it gets easier with time, like with anything. There’s going to be triggers and reminders. But you need to give yourself the grace to know that and forgive yourself when something does upset you.
“I’m very hard on myself when that happens. I have that athlete mentality of, ‘I should just be able to conquer anything and get over it.’ Sometimes I just need to forgive myself and allow myself to have the emotion, and then move on from there.”
“The flip side is I am a true believer that you can work hard and achieve anything you want to have happen. Whatever [bad things] happen in life, the word “survivor” is such a powerful word, but it has to be earned. It’s something you decide that you want, but it’s an ongoing process. I think what makes it so powerful is the process of saying “no,” I’m not going to let this define me. And I am going to overcome this.”
To report suspected abuse within the athletic community, contact local law enforcement and the U.S. Center for SafeSport at 720-531-0340 or go to www.uscenterforsafesport.org.
For more information on USA Swimming Safe Sport resources, visit www.usaswimming.org/protect.
The National Children’s Advocacy Center can be reached at 256-533-KIDS (5437) or https://www.nationalcac.org/.
RAINN can be reached at 1-800-HOPE (4673) or www.rainn.org