A champion's ghost

December 28, 2005
SALT LAKE CITY Among elite Olympians, Chris Witty is more Olympic than most. She has competed in both winter and summer Games: three as a speed skater and one as a cyclist.
She is a three-time medalist, winning gold at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City. But, she found, medals do not soothe a troubled mind, or erase a disturbing past. About a year ago, Witty publicly revealed a dark truth: She had been sexually abused for years as a child by a family friend in her hometown of West Allis, Wis. The abuse began when she was about 4 years old. It wasn’t until a couple of months before the 2002 Olympics that she finally told someone, a therapist. But it was still a secret. “I buried it a lot,” the 30-year-old Witty said in October. “The ironic thing is, if I look back at the ’98 press conference, after I won medals, and I look back at the 2002 press conference after I won medals? I was thinking, ‘I wish I could tell them what was really making me tick in life. I wish I could tell them what was really going on.’” Finally, she did. A year ago, Witty told a Salt Lake City newspaper about her past. Since then, she said she has found new life from an agonizing old one. Tuesday, the first day of the U.S. Long Track Championships and Olympic trials, Witty raced around the icy oval once again, virtually locking up a spot on the 2006 Olympic team that will compete in Turin, Italy, Feb. 10 to 26. The berth did not come easily. Witty, whose results have been medio- cre this season, finished fourth in the 500-meter race to snare the final Olympic berth at that distance. “It feels good,” she said, smiling broadly. “I didn’t know what was going to happen.” These days, going in circles has a different purpose. Now that she has spoken out about the abuse, Witty said she feels a calling — one higher, perhaps, than the top step of a medal podium. “It’s a motivating kind of story,” she said. “I just want to inspire people in a different way, not just athletically, but just to say, ‘Hey, look at me, a normal person — things happened to me that happen to a lot of people.’ The statistics are pretty outrageous.” She said she felt “sluggish” Tuesday, healing from a groin injury and needing a pep talk from coach Bart Schouten to get herself in the right frame of mind. But that comes from racing since she was 9 or 10. This is her fifth Olympic team, eighth Olympic trials. She said she might retire after the Olympics. Schouten said being able to help others might help Witty in Turin. “I think she needs to realize once she wins that medal she has a bigger platform to talk about the abuse and she can help more people to overcome it,” he said. “A weight’s off her shoulders. I think she’s happier, she’s more outgoing.” Witty said the abuser, a neighborhood man, “was the kind of family friend that didn’t even really knock.” Witty’s parents, who both worked, trusted him with the spare key. He still lives in the same house, Witty said, across the alley from her parents. She said he is in his 80s and requires round-the-clock care after a head injury. Fallout from the abuse, Witty said, included having trouble trusting people, “major fears” and a poor selfimage. She had a strong Olympian’s body, but she wore baggy clothes to hide it. “Obviously there’s a ghost that follows you around,” she said. Witty said she decided to go public because abuse leads to secrecy, and “that‘s why it continues.” “I just wanted to break the silence,” Witty said. “I just felt if I started talking about it, maybe other people will talk about it and it can be prevented. Or if it’s already happened, maybe then it can inspire somebody to go and help themselves.” CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0259 or merijo@gazette.com
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