“I think,” she said, “it’d be pretty cool to be a kid.” – Kayla Harrison, the New York Times.
If I knew her as a baby, with enough clairvoyance to know of her remarkable talent and drive, I would have made some assumptions about the path she’d take, for better or worse. I would have assumed she’d have a very different experience from most children, interacting less and less with them as she grew. I would have assumed confidently that, before adolescence, she would be at least partially separated from her family and entrusted with little oversight to a coach known for grooming champions. I would have assumed that the influence of that coach over her would be profound, and that she would have looked upon that person as an ultimate authority in many areas of her life.
And I would have been very frightened.
I’m in no way implying anything negative about the choices Kayla or her family made. Nor could I have been certain she would suffer any harm, much less the harm that found her. Some children gladly trade a “normal” childhood for the glories, rewards and growth that come with top levels of competition. Athletics aren’t the only activities that create these kinds of experiences; chess champions, musical prodigies and other unusually gifted children find themselves in similar situations. Whether a lifestyle of practice, pressure and endless drive is healthy depends in large measure on the child and the family dynamics involved. Some kids flourish, and the price exacted is balanced by the goals achieved.
What’s undeniable though is that the typical environment of a child at a global competitive level will be at least challenging and at most very dangerous. For many parents, when a child’s abilities swiftly surpass their ability to coach or instruct her, the obvious next step is to entrust her development to coaches who can both assess her potential and then nurture it forward. For most parents, the intention is not to abrogate parental duties or to in any way abandon their child. But at world-class levels of competition, the time, intensity and level of commitment that must be sustained mean that mentors in many cases become surrogate parents. Their relationship with the child involves close-quarters time alone for hours on end, often on travel. It involves emotional intensity and a high level of discipline and deference to the coach. The stakes grow higher as the child progresses.
Enter the predator.
As in all situations, it’s not because anything about the experience of working closely with a child or getting to know her somehow “warps” the coach into becoming predatory. Rather, predators go where victims are, where opportunities are, and where detection is least likely. The urge to harm a child and the ability to nurture one to glory are not at all necessarily joined. Most mentors, be they tough but benign or effective but cruel, are not predisposed to sexually abuse children. But as well, no link exists between professional ability and inherently decent character. For a predator who has the needed skills, child mentoring at the highest competitive levels is simply as good as it gets.
Kayla’s experience was atypical in that she was moved eventually to disclose, and her abuser was imprisoned. This is a just and often healing outcome, but hardly a common one. Most victims bear the abuse, fold it into their lives, and go on, more commonly so, I’d bet, at Olympic levels of competition. As we stand in awe of the grace, beauty, poise and skill of our competitors, we should also be aware of the pain and abuse- most of it grossly under-reported- that might have been borne by them during the process. We must assess whether our thirst for victory in our competitors is eclipsing our concern for their welfare.
Kayla is a champion in every possible respect, content not only with a gold medal but an angelic desire to pave a better world going forward. We honor her best by acknowledging a cruel but accurate fact: Kayla Harrison is anything but typical. But her experience as a world-class athlete is far more common than most will acknowledge. Or anyone should tolerate.