Thirty years later, Starr is determined that young athletes who have been sexually or physically abused by their coaches and other sports officials will finally be heard.
By starting Safe4Athletes (safe4athletes.org), a nonprofit athlete advocacy and watchdog group, Starr, 44, has not only created a place where abuse victims and their families can turn but an organization that promises to shine a light on the problem of sexual and physical abuse and what the group describes as the failure of the American Olympic movement to adequately address the issue.
In only a few months, Safe4Athletes has gained national and global attention, emerging as a force for change in an environment, especially at the elite Olympic sport level, that for decades has enabled a culture of sexual and physical abuse. Safe4Athletes' momentum is in part due to the support Starr has received from Yamashiro and a group of former national-level gymnasts who came forward last fall to describe the sexual and physical abuse they suffered 20 years ago at the hands of Peters and former U.S. national gymnastics team coach Doug Boger.
"All this is the ripple effect of the article that (the Orange County Register) wrote in the fall," Starr said.
The Register stories exposed a culture of exploitation inside USA Gymnastics. Signs of sexual or physical abuse of young athletes were often ignored. Even when coaches were investigated and banned by USA Gymnastics, some continued to coach children in non-member gyms.
Shortly after Yamashiro's story appeared in the Register last fall, Starr reached out to her and the two women struck up an immediate friendship.
"There's this hugely unspoken ..." Starr said recently, her voice trailing off. "We just know. ... We have empathy without it being spoken. It's been actually incredibly healing."
The sexual and physical abuse of young athletes is a global problem, Starr said. The scars of sexual and physical abuse are not only borne by Orange County gymnasts, but former National Hockey League players, swimmers in Great Britain, figure skaters in the Midwest and female soccer players in Brazil and Nigeria.
At least 36 swim coaches and officials were disciplined by USA Swimming between 2000 and 2010 for sexual misconduct. American figure skating and track and field have also had coaching sex scandals. Former Canadian junior hockey coach Graham James, once named Man of the Year by The Hockey News, pleaded guilty to 350 charges of sexual abuse in 1997 after former NHL player Sheldon Kennedy and an unnamed player said they were sexually abused by James. In recent years, another former NHL star, Theo Fleury, came forward and said he was also abused by James.
Yamashiro and the other former gymnasts who told their stories to the Register said they believe Safe4Athletes will not only facilitate the healing process for young victims and their families but will also be instrumental in changing that culture not only within gymnastics but all sports, especially at the elite/Olympic level.
"Abuse is rampant in sports and it doesn't discriminate," said Sabrina Mar, a former U.S. and Pan American Games all-around champion who told the Register last year that she was physically abused by Boger.
"Organizations like Safe4Athletes are needed because children deserve to have an advocate for their welfare. Sports are such an invaluable tool for teaching our children strategies for being successful. They deserve every opportunity to do so in an environment that is safe and free from abuse. Safe4Athletes, and organizations like it, are essential not only for protecting our children, but also for increasing public awareness, and providing a resource for victims of abuse and their loved ones.
"So many times, victims are silenced and abuse is swept under the rug. When these children are finally able to speak up, oftentimes several years later, they are often criticized for waiting so long and their stories and motives are often questioned. Our society is one that shames the victim for being silent, yet refuses to believe when they finally come forward."
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