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updated: 2/10/2012 10:39 PM

Safe4Athletes a response to unspeakable pain

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Just about every high school girls swimming record in the state of Wisconsin belongs to Katherine Starr.

Her name can't be found anywhere in the record books, though.

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Back then, the 44-year-old Starr used to be known as Annabelle Cripps, a prodigy from Madison who wound up swimming in the 1984 and 1988 Olympics for the British national team. She changed her name about six years ago because as good as it once was to be known as Annabelle Cripps, Starr got to the point where she could no longer stomach even the sound of that name.

After all, it was Annabelle Cripps who was raped and repeatedly sexually abused by her Olympic swim coach.

"The pain was so strong that I couldn't wake up in the morning and be that person anymore," said Starr, who was able to swim for Britain because both of her parents are from Britain and she has dual citizenship. "Having a different name gives me the strength to do what I need to do."

And Starr is doing what she wishes had been done for athletes a long time ago.

She has founded Safe4Athletes, the first nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping athletes protected, particularly from predatory coaches and support staffers. Safe4Athletes, which launched last month in the midst of the explosive sexual abuse cases at Penn State and Syracuse that made national headlines, promotes athlete welfare in which every athlete is provided a safe and positive environment free of sexual abuses, bullying and harassment.

Initially, the goal for Safe4Athletes is to work with independent sports groups that aren't necessarily governed by school district rules or NCAA and Title IX mandates, such as independent club programs or travel teams. A high school or college program, for instance, should have procedures and protocol in place that govern exactly how to deal with sexual harassment incidents. According to Starr, federal funding could even be put in jeopardy if those procedures aren't followed.

But club and travel teams are much more loosely regulated. Starr says that her organization wants to track the behavior of coaches at that level through mandatory background checks. Safe4Athletes also wants to arm parents with more information about the adults to whom they are entrusting their children, and wants to provide third-party advocates who can serve as a voice for their athletes.

"We want to get people involved: volunteers, parents, third-party people the kids in that organization know are safe people to talk to," Starr said. "Part of the reason young kids take, on average, two-and-a-half years to report abuse is that they're afraid or embarrassed to come forward. And with athletes, when a coach has so much power over them, they're afraid of that person. They're afraid of anyone who has anything to do with the team or the organization, so they don't report. We need to change the pathway for reporting. Because the way things are now, most athletes feel like they can't do or say anything because it could jeopardize their position on the team."

That's what was paralyzing Starr.

She made the British national team when she was just 13 years old. It was her dream, and she didn't want that dream to end. So she endured being raped, abused and sexually harassed by former head coach Paul Hickson for the next two years.

"We'd be in an elevator and he'd stop it and start kissing me," Starr said. "He'd always be touching me. All the time. Even on the pool deck. He never responded to me saying no, so I just started making up excuses to get away from him. But he'd follow me, even to the bathroom."

Starr was too afraid to speak up.

"I was 13 and 14 years old, so part of the problem is that I don't think I even had the words to say that he raped me," Starr said. "And all I knew is that he had the power to prevent me from being on the national teams."

So Starr suffered in silence. She did so for years and years and still gets emotional when talking about it, even though the details of the abuse are now out in the open.

"Most of the people who know me, they think I'm happy and pretty normal," Starr said. "But (the abuse) changed the entire course of my life. It's affected my ability to have relationships, my ability to function. There's a deep, deep sorrow I've carried with me my entire life. It's just in me, it's in my core.

"I finally realized that the only way I could make sense of it all was to turn it into something good. That's why I wanted to start Safe4Athletes. I don't want anyone, not one person, to have to go through what I went through."

Unfortunately, Starr wasn't the only one to experience abuse at the hands of Hickson. He was convicted in 1995 of 15 charges of sexual attacks on girls ranging from ages 13 to 20. A total of 13 girls associated with the swim team came forward to give evidence that Hickson assaulted them. He was sentenced to 17 years in jail, and has since died.

"Even though I've done so much therapy over the years, I don't know if my problems with this will ever go away," Starr said. "There's this can of wrath that will always be there but what I'm trying to do now is fill it up on the other side with good, with something positive. If I can do that, then I'm happy with that."

pbabcock@dailyherald.com

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