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Ex-swimmer Karen Leach on the abuse she suffered from coach Derry O’Rourke

by ZwemZa on August 8th, 2018

Karen Leach (BBC)

Between the age of 10 and 17, Karen Leach was abused by former Irish Olympic swimming coach Derry O’Rourke. Now 49, she is an advocate for child protection and works as a psychotherapist and counsellor. O’Rourke was jailed for abusing some of the swimmers he coached between the 1970s and 1990s.

Here, Karen tells BBC Sport her story, which comes as researchers call for gender-based violence in sport to be given “urgent attention” by worldwide sporting organisations.

Warning: this article contains content which you may find upsetting

How Karen got into swimming

For me, from the first moment I got in the swimming pool, I just loved being in the water.

As a little girl at home, mum and dad would have the Olympics on, it would be the opening ceremony and the Ireland team would be walking out.

There, my dream started. I wanted to swim for Ireland at the Olympics.

Derry O’Rourke, who was the Irish Olympic coach at the time, saw me swim at the Community Games. I swam very well that day and I had beaten some of his swimmers.

Shortly after that, he contacted my dad and he headhunted me to come and swim in his club. I say his club because that’s exactly what it was.

He told me that my dream would come true, because he was the best coach in Ireland. He told my mum and dad that he would make my dream come true. I believed him, and my mum and dad believed him.

Instead he took my life, my childhood and everything and he destroyed my life and my family’s life.

The abuse

Everywhere I went while I was at swimming, I wasn’t safe. I was always running, I was always on high alert, and watching where he was.

Anywhere I went – the changing rooms, the board room, the toilets, his office, on training camps, trips away, competitions – if he called me, I knew it was coming.

If he got me in a room on my own, he would either lock the door or jam the door, but I wasn’t able to get out.

He would do what he wanted to do to me until he was finished, as he would say, “checking my body”. He said it was all to do with the progression of my swimming and I was stuck there until he would tell me to leave.

He just had total control over my whole life. Everything he said went and you did it, because if you didn’t, you knew you were gone, you were out.

If he did that to me, my swimming was over and my dream of going to the Olympics was over. I didn’t want that to happen, so I just kept swimming.

I went to his swimming club as a very good swimmer, I was a young girl with great potential, and it turned out that I got worse.

I couldn’t move and all the times I would get in the pool and try to swim up and down and go faster, I couldn’t get my body to move. It had stopped, I had stopped. I had died.

I didn’t like what he was doing to me, he was hurting me, but I just kept going. I didn’t tell anybody because I wanted to go to the Olympics to swim for Ireland.

‘What he said went’

I was in the Kings Hospital Swimming Club from around 10 years of age and I left at 17.

I didn’t understand what he was doing. I knew I didn’t like it, he was hurting me, but I just thought it was part of what I had to do.

O’Rourke was the Irish Olympic coach, he was the best coach and he would quite openly say that.

Everybody did what he said. He got what he wanted, what he said went. I was only a little girl so I was going to do what he told me to do. I didn’t know any different.

Sitting here as a woman, I can say yes it was wrong, but as a little girl, I didn’t know.

‘I can’t do this anymore, I’m leaving’

I was swimming very badly from about the age of 14 and a half. Instead of getting better, I got worse and I was struggling desperately to stay on that team.

He started playing a more dangerous game with me, because he knew I still wanted to swim and be part of that team. It was my life, my friends were there and I didn’t want to lose that.

He knew I wanted to go to the Olympics so there was more bullying, more control, more verbal abuse, more non-verbal abuse, and each time I got in the swimming pool I wasn’t swimming faster.

At my last ever nationals, I swam terribly. I actually turned and came up in the lane next to me. After seven years of swimming and in a national championship, you don’t do that.

After that, I just thought “I can’t do this anymore, I’m leaving”.

When I told him I wasn’t coming back for the next season, he turned his head, just looked at me and said four words, “you will be back”, and turned his head again. He had just given me an order.

I remember walking away from him that time thinking there was no way I was coming back.

My dad had moved to London at that time, there was a recession in Ireland, so I got on a plane with my mum and three brothers to go on holiday to see him. I got on that plane and I knew I was never coming back, and I didn’t. I stayed, I got a job.

My mum and dad were worried, they didn’t know what was wrong with me because I was all over the place. I was a very unhappy little girl. I know now I was deeply depressed and I was in severe pain.

I thought I could leave it behind, but that wasn’t the case, because the damage was done and the pain was very deep.

The way I treated myself, how I let other people treat me, and the path my life took, was just horrendous. I’ve paid a huge price for what he did to me and I’ve lost so much in my life.

It broke my mum and dad’s hearts. After the court case in 2000/01, my mum said to me on the Thursday that she loved me and that she was sorry she didn’t look after me as a little girl. On the Monday morning, I got a phone call to say they had just pulled a body out of the canal, and it was my mum. She was gone, my mum was dead.

That devastated and broke my whole family, and my dad never recovered from that. Only a few years ago, my dad died. He used to say to me “Karen I took you there, and mum’s dead”.

I spent 10 years in psychiatric care, two years of that time in the hospital. I have had to be locked up in psychiatric wards to keep me alive because of the many suicide attempts I have had because I just couldn’t live with the pain and the hurt of it any more.

I have struggled throughout all my life, really up until last year. Thank God, I’m doing well, I’m getting stronger.

How did Karen tell her story?

It had been in the newspapers, and it was only after O’Rourke was sent to prison that I told anybody. I was still too scared until then.

It was all in the papers in Ireland, and my mum and dad had asked me. I had said no, made up a story to try and make them feel ok and so they would believe me.

I wasn’t a happy young lady, I was miserable and I was in pain. I would lose the power in my legs many, many times.

I would have drank high levels of alcohol to try and numb the pain, I would have smoked a lot, so they wondered.

They didn’t actually know until after he went to prison. Telling them was the hardest thing I have done in my life.

‘Adults need to be aware and look out for it’

I was silenced as a little girl, I was silenced after that through illness, depression, pain, eating disorder, but I’ve got my voice back.

With my voice, I will speak for every child and every young person that doesn’t have a voice, and I will constantly keep speaking about this because I really feel people need to know the truth, be aware, they need to know the damage this does to someone’s life. It’s still happening, it hasn’t gone away.

Awareness and communication. We need all the policies, all the procedures, the guidelines and audits – all of that we need. But it’s about how that is communicated down.

Children don’t know, and it’s not up to them. It is up to all of us as adults to know, be aware, and be looking out for it.

Parents don’t understand the depths of abuse, they don’t even know the policies of the clubs, because it isn’t communicated enough.

When people think of abuse, they automatically think sexual abuse. I was sexually, mentally, physically and emotionally abused. It is a much bigger picture, and many people aren’t aware of that.

It’s never going to stop, but it is about making it so hard to get near and hurt a child.

What would Karen say to others going through this?

I would say you have a right to speak your truth. It’s your voice and you have a right to be free. You have a right to tell somebody what happened to you. You did nothing wrong.

Starting to tell your story is going to hurt, it’s not easy, but step by step, slowly, it will get a little bit better.

You have a right to tell your story. It’s not about the winning, I didn’t get to the Olympics, I got worse, not better. But just because I didn’t become an Olympian or a professional, it doesn’t mean I don’t have a right to share my story and use my voice.

Please go tell someone, get help. Don’t carry this around with you, you deserve to be free.

If you have been affected by the issues raised in this article you can find the details of organisations offering support via Action Line

Karen Leach was speaking to BBC Sport’s Katie Falkingham

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