More than 20 years later, her conviction burns.
A survivor of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse as a teenager — at the hands of a former Canadian national ski team coach — Allison Forsyth is determined to convey an important message. Especially to parents.
“…sport is an incredible place to raise children, I will always believe that,” says the two-time Olympic alpine skier. “But we need to be smart, and we need to be educated, we need to be clear on what that organization is doing to protect our children.”
During an interview with Lianne Castelino of Where Parents Talk, Forsyth, a mother of three young children, discusses the years of trauma she suffered, what empowered her to be the ‘whistleblower’ and her current mission as a partner at Independent Third Party (ITP) Sport — to educate parents, athletes, and others — about safely reporting mistreatment in sport and how to keep sport safe for everyone.
Here are excerpts from the Q&A with Allison Forsyth:
Why do you believe it’s important for parents to hear and understand your story all these years later? And especially today?
Yes, thank you for asking that. I would like to say it’s probably pretty obvious why parents should really know what happens in the sports world. I think we could also imagine that this could cross into different places that your children are, so we want to maintain that relative conversation. The reality is that it is complicated and complex. And I am a parent of three, three lovely little athletes as well. And I know firsthand, from my experience with sexual abuse in the sport system, as an athlete, and also now as a parent, the pressure I feel that parents feel to just ‘hand your child over’ to other adults.
So whether that’s an art club or ski club or a hockey rink, you know, we as parents are put into this position of surrendering some sort of control to a system of sport and in that we need to be very mindful that sport is an incredible place to raise children, I will always believe that, but we need to be smart, and we need to be educated, we need to be clear on what that organization is doing to protect our children. And we also need to be clear on what we can be looking for as parents to help protect the children.
When did you first decide to report the abuse that you were suffering as a teenage athlete, and what was done about it?
I was what you would consider the whistleblower. And in our case, at that particular time, we had a very male-dominated team of coaches and people of authority. So, it wasn’t until a female physical therapist showed up on the on the road with us — we were in Europe — where I just broke down and I couldn’t take it anymore. And on the massage table, I just shared everything with her. She mentioned to me that just the day before another girl had come and told her the same thing. So it happened very, very quickly. And the head of the organization came over to Europe.
What also happened very, very quickly is the message that started to be relayed to myself and to others, that if we were to pursue something in this regard, then we would lose our sponsorships. And that was quite literally what was told to me. So, I was silenced very quickly. I was actually in a room with my sexual abuser and the head of the National Team at the time, both of which were, in my opinion now sort of working together, unfortunately, and kind of disgustingly to be honest, to keep this quiet for fear of reprisal from sponsors, for fear of losing a team. And that’s what was told to me is that we just can’t say anything.
After that he had had his coaching license taken away. What we subsequently found out years later, when he was finally arrested was his coaching license was never taken away. He was allowed to resign, there was no investigation, and why organizations do this is so that they can obviously keep it quiet and have no paper trail that something has occurred within their organization. So, he was able to just go on and live his life for all those years with zero, zero punishment for what he had done to multiple victims. Until he resurfaced coaching young athletes again. And as terrifying as that is, he resurfaced, and one of his victims actually saw him coaching. She was also a coach. And she marched into the RCMP office and while Mont-Tremblant, Quebec, in the dispatch there, and within 24 hours, he was arrested.
So it just goes to show that it’s quite easy, unfortunately, for organizations to cover these things up. And we’ve seen a lot of this in the news lately.
And the last thing I’ll say about this is athletes don’t report and I’ll use that as like a blanket statement. If you were to ask, why athletes fearful to report abuse, there’s a few main reasons. One is they don’t trust the organization, because of cover-ups that they’ve heard up in the past. Two is a fear of reprisal, they fear retribution, they fear that, their career will be in jeopardy, their trajectory to the NHL, their trajectory to getting to the Olympics, gymnastics, whatever that may be. There’s a fear, you sort of weigh the pros and the cons, as crazy as that sounds. And then the third reason — which I had a lot of — is ostracization from the rest of the team. When you’re the whistleblower, and you’re the person that’s willing to stand up and say something really wrong is happening here, unfortunately, human nature of other people is why would we have to rock the boat? Why can’t we just maintain status quo.
So athletes or anyone that is thinking about reporting abuse or maltreatment, it’s very challenging, not to mention you have to admit, you have to have that courage to walk into a room and say, I’ve been sexually abused that in itself is, a very courageous thing to do.
What does safe reporting look like to you?
My company specializes in safe reporting proudly. That’s why I got into this work was my own firsthand experience. What safe report reporting looks like, and this is something every parent should be mindful of with their organizations, is if an athlete, and I’m using athletes, because I’m an athlete, has either witnessed or experienced maltreatment, they have a phone number and an email to go to that’s not the organization.
If the organization gets the phone call or the email, they need to hand it immediately over to the third-party agency. What happens in the safe reporting circumstance, is we intake the complaint at that point, we triage it. If it’s a minor, immediately child services is called, the RCMP or the police in that jurisdiction are called. Otherwise, we keep it completely outside of the organization. We work with the complainant, we work with what we call the respondent, which is the person who the complaint has been laid against. We look at all the policies and we trigger what’s called a third-party investigation.
There are two things that need to be completely independent. One is what we do, which is managing the cases and taking the complaints in around maltreatment. And the second thing is an independent investigation as to what has actually occurred.
You hear in the news now that the NHL is an example. They talk about the third-party investigation, but the critical piece that’s missing is that athletes should never or parents or anyone that has witnessed, or experienced abuse should not have to actually tell the organization. They [the organization] is inherently biased, whether good or bad.
The whole notion of abusive behaviour is often normalized. You’ve got a coach who’s hard-nosed, and they’re known for being that way. They’re often celebrated for their tough style. So how does a young athlete and their parent and family for that matter differentiate? Is this maltreatment, is this disrespectful or should I accept this?
It can be complicated, and I respect that. The term that we use is cultural conditioning. And the way that I would explain it to parents is well, first and foremost I want everyone to understand that your brain will lie to you. And by that, I mean, it’ll find reasons to think well, I didn’t see what I thought. I don’t want to hurt someone. Maybe I’m wrong. And you start to question yourself, your instincts, especially as a parent. Just your intuition is what you need to listen to.
When you when you see something, you hear something you just feel it is wrong — it’s that age-old expression — where there’s smoke, there’s fire. So that’s the first thing — just trust your gut.
When it comes to coaching, we were all conditioned also. I’m 43 years old. When I was a child growing up in my sport, it was very common for a coach to yell at me. It was also very common for coaches, male coaches that were only eight to 10 years older than me to be taking me on trips. So, we have evolved as a sport culture.
The best way that I can explain how you would look at this is to think about what is and what is not permitted in our school system. Sport is the only sector in society that doesn’t have a legislatively mandated safeguarding of children, which is asinine. That’s what we’re here to change. So, if you look at how your child will be treated in school, you need to ask yourself, if a teacher is not allowed to stand on a desk and scream and, and spit in the face of a child and demean them around their math homework, then why is that, for some reason, still, in some places, considered culturally appropriate in sport? There’s a difference between assertive coaching and abusive coaching.
Another way I would put that would be the difference between demanding coaching and demeaning coaching. What you want to look for and to think about is — is this coach coaching my child from the perspective of a skill that they need to improve, and are they using positive reinforcement? Are they saying to my child, great job out there, and here’s what I saw that you can improve upon — what do you think of that? Sometimes it can be more assertive than that. And it could look like, ‘Hey, what happened out there, you were supposed to move the puck behind the net, and you took it all the way to the end, what happened?’ That is not abusive, as far as the code of conduct that we work with. However, if you were to name-call children, if you’re attacking them as people, as little humans and you’re screaming and yelling, obviously physical abuse is more obvious, but you need to be just mindful of that, where you just feel like this coach is attacking my child in a way that’s not skill-based, and it’s not assertive, and it’s not positive reinforcement.
During her interview with Where Parents Talk, Allison Forsyth also discusses:
- The victim mindset
- Common signs and warning signals of potential mistreatment or abuse of children in sport
- Behaviours parents should watch for in their children and coaches
- Checklist for parents