Olympic swimmer Margaret Hoelzer reveals she was sexually abused
Margaret Hoelzer squirms in a chair and takes a deep breath, ready to reveal her secret — saying she was sexually abused as a child...
The Associated Press
HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — Margaret Hoelzer squirms in a chair and takes a deep breath, ready to reveal her secret — saying she was sexually abused as a child.
The swimmer who won three medals at the Beijing Olympics is ready to share her story and work to make sure what she says happened to her doesn't happen to other kids.
"It's nerve-racking," Hoelzer said in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press. "Some days I feel great about it, and I'm completely at peace with it, completely calm and ready to do this.
"Then, there are other days where I'm, like, 'Oh my God, do I really want to do this?' "
Hoelzer, 25, is an Alabama native who was a college standout at Auburn. She moved to Seattle in April and began training at King Aquatic Club in Federal Way — working with Sean Hutchison, the club's coach and chief executive officer — before the Olympics.
Hoelzer said she was 5 years old when the abuse by a friend's father started.
Although the timeline is a bit fuzzy, Hoelzer and her mother said they believe the abuse went on for at least two years, ending when the man and his family moved from Huntsville.
"I was going to their house on a regular basis," Hoelzer said. "I would spend the night at their house from time to time. ... It was definitely a situation where I was taught to trust that person."
She wasn't certain what was going on was wrong.
"I didn't connect the dots, other than feeling uncomfortable," Hoelzer said. "I think, on a subconscious level, I knew it. But consciously, I didn't."
After the abuse stopped, it took years for her to fully realize what happened.
In the fifth grade, Hoelzer was walking and talking with her best friend. Suddenly, the truth poured out.
"She was the one who was, like, 'Oh my God, you were molested. You need to tell your mom,' " Hoelzer said. "She was the one who actually put a name on it for me."
Heeding her friend's advice, Margaret went to her mother, Elizabeth.
"She was putting up a border in her bedroom," Hoelzer said. "Of course, I go in there and volunteer to help. She's probably wondering, why in the world does she want to help me do this? Luckily, it was a very thick border. It took forever to do."
All the while, a child told her story to a stunned parent.
"She was very quiet and listened," Hoelzer recalled. "I remember, from time to time, she would say things to kind of prod me along. I was very, very lucky because she 100 percent believed me. She never questioned it. Most importantly, she just let me talk. She didn't freak out."
That night, the local police were called. The family was directed to the National Child Advocacy Center, which lined up counseling for everyone and showed the family how to pursue legal action.
The alleged molester was arrested.
There was no real physical evidence because Hoelzer wasn't raped. Also, the passage of time and a child's still-developing memory raised doubts about whether a conviction could be reached in the harsh scrutiny of a courtroom. The case was taken to a grand jury, but no formal charges were brought.
"I was very angry for a long time that nothing happened and he got off scot-free," Hoelzer said. "In school, if you did something wrong you would get in trouble for it. You would go to detention or have your parents ground you. It was almost this mentality of, 'How can you do something like that and have nothing happen?' No community service. No fine. Nothing.
"Now that I'm older, I realize that's not how it is. A lack of evidence is just a lack of evidence."
She never had any more contact with that family and said she doesn't want to confront her molester.
"I haven't seen him in almost 20 years," Hoelzer said. "I don't even know if I'd recognize him at this point."
Hoelzer is eager to help others. She majored in psychology at Auburn, with a minor in criminology. She wanted to learn about the child-abuse issue from both sides: victims and perpetrators.
"In my own way, I was self-counseling in college," she said. "Every single paper I wrote in school was about kids who've been molested and sex offenders."
While steadfast in her decision to talk frankly about being abused, Hoelzer worries about reopening old wounds, especially within her family.
A tear runs down her cheek when she mentions the mother who still feels guilty about not recognizing what her daughter was going through. Older sister Martha believes she should have been there to protect little Margaret.
Hoelzer began swimming virtually year-round when she was 8, and quickly became one of the best in the city, then one of the best in Alabama and one of the best in the nation.
"I always felt like swimming was the one thing I could control," she said. "I can't control other people. I can't control whether or not I beat someone or how they swim. But I could control how good I was."
Hoelzer, in counseling for more than a year after telling her parents of being abused, decided in 2006 it was time to return to therapy.
"I was looking for a sense of peace within myself, and I was looking for a sense of confidence," Hoelzer said. "Since I've been back in counseling, the biggest thing I've learned is that what [sexual abuse] does. It undermines people's value. It undermines their self-confidence. I think that's what swimming was for me for so many years. I was thinking it was something I could control, but it was really a way for me to build confidence."
Hoelzer has not been able to lower her guard long enough to have any sort of meaningful romantic relationship, even as she reads the latest romance novel. She said she has not been on more than two dates with anyone.
"For me, it's just such a trust issue," she said. "I really have a hard time getting to know people, and letting people get to know me."
Only her family and closest friends knew what happened to her as a child. Hoelzer never told Olympic teammates she was abused.
"I think my biggest fear is letting my guard down," she said. "What if no one cares?"
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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