Sarah Hirshland is a devoted golfer. She’s also CEO of the shaken but still standing United States Olympic Committee.
That leaves little time for golf. Since taking control of the USOC in September, Hirshland has enjoyed only 27 holes in America and a four-round vacation in Mexico.
“I hope to play a little more golf,” she says from her corner office in downtown Colorado Springs.
Good luck with that one, Sarah. We know you face immense, time-gobbling troubles.
Hirshland talks freely and comfortably about the USOC’s struggles. She won’t dodge questions about an organization battered by the scandal of Larry Nassar, a doctor who sexually abused dozens of gymnasts and polluted the American Olympic movement.
She’s an optimistic realist. She understands the troubles but is convinced the movement has learned harsh yet valuable lessons.
Here are excerpts from our 45-minute conversation:
When you took over the USOC, you said it was your “absolute dream come true.” Is the immensity of the challenge part of that “absolute dream” description?
I think I would frame it a little bit differently, but the answer … is yes. That’s part of it, not because you love running into walls but because you love an opportunity to contribute, and I’m no different than anyone. If there’s a puzzle to solve, it’s an incredibly rewarding thing if you can help solve it.
For me, that was a big part of the opportunity. But more importantly, I adore sport and the role of sport in society. I feel very, very strongly about it as an institution breaking barriers and driving human performance and confidence and about what it does for us as individuals and what it does for us … in societies and communities. So this is the top of that pyramid, and to be able to work at the top of that pyramid is pretty exciting. …
This is an opportunity to come in at a moment and time where crisis gives us permission, if not a mandate, to make change. So there is a natural permission/mandate that you have coming into a role like I did at a time like I did that is a bit of gift.
Do Olympic athletes need more of a voice in the USOC? Do you understand the discontent of Olympic athletes?
One hundred percent, yes. I understand it, and I agree. In order for us to be successful, we have to have a significant community of athletes who want to have a point of view on the administrative side of what we do and who want to understand procedures more. … We exist to serve the athlete community, and we have to understand their needs. And if they’re not participating actively in that process and we’re not hearing them, then we cannot possibly be successful.
Nassar still hovers over the movement. How do you lessen his future impact?
Fortunately, the bad guy is in jail, and he’s going to be there for a very long time. I also look at it and say there is a hugely substantive set of conversations happening all over the movement as a result of the realization that he was enabled and allowed to exist in this community for as long as he did. That has sparked conversations at every level, from individual gyms to the global Olympic and Paralympic movements about culture, about standards of care from a medical perspective, about grooming and the behaviors around sexual misconduct and assault and about broadly a culture of abuse that includes emotional and physical abuse. The level of awareness today is off the charts relative to what it was two years ago.
You can describe that as Larry Nassar and a dark cloud over the movement, or you can look at it as progress. I choose to look at it as progress because the conversations need to happen if we’re going to work our way through it. …
I hope it’s sooner rather than later when we get to the day when a parent says, ‘I’m going to put my son or daughter into a youth program,’ and a natural part of their knowing how to do that is to say, ‘Do I know who is coaching my children and … have I looked them up in the data base and … are they properly certified and … are these folks who we believe are good folks and then, by the way, do I know and does my child know how to search out behaviors where you see something that doesn’t feel quite right?
We just need to get there as a society. I believe in many ways that we are at the head of the curve …
To be clear, Larry Nassar was the worst kind of bad guy, but he’s not the only one out there. I take great comfort in knowing that he’s in jail and he’s going to be there for a very long time, but I don’t take comfort in thinking that we solved the problem because he’s gone. There are bad actors out there and there will continue to be. … It will require an entire community of people in sport working together to say: We just don’t tolerate that.
What are the concrete reasons for optimism about America’s Olympic movement?
I’m optimistic, partially because I choose to be, because I have to get out of bed every morning and take a step forward in improving the situation.I see progress. So while we have a long way to go, and I would be the first to admit that there is hard work yet to do and a long road ahead, there is progress and there is real change and there are conversations happening today that weren’t happening before. We’re in a different place and we’re a different community now than where we were. Even from when I joined eight months ago, we’re a different community, and that’s progress.
But I’d be the first to tell you: There are hard days and there will be hard days ahead. No doubt about it. I came into this role knowing there would be some really hard days. I had to step into this role and say, ‘I inherit the burdens of this organization, and I make that choice.’ … And that’s going to make for some bad days. At the same time, I haven’t come across people yet who don’t want to make progress. There are very few individuals out there who aren’t swimming in the same lane. … This community has unbelievable love and respect for athletes and wants to do everything they can to give them the tools and safe environment to do their best.
Are you confident the USOC can face lawsuits associated with the Nassar scandal and emerge financially viable?
I’m extremely confident. I have no concerns about the long-term financial viability of the organization. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have some work to do to get through the process. If there is one thing that I am least excited about, it is the practical realities of that process and the time it will take. We would all like to move through that at a brisk pace. We want nothing more than to have resolution in all of those instances.
First and foremost, so we can begin to rebuild relationships with the athlete community. Now, we’re simply sitting at opposite sides of the table with a big brick wall between us. That’s a very uncomfortable place for me to be particularly, because there is no one in the community that I want to hear from more and want to rebuild trust with more than that group (of athletes). And that can’t start until we get through this process. So there’s urgency in my mind on that.
That said, as you know, the legal process is complex. These things can take quite a bit of time, and so we have to be patient. We will do everything we can to cooperate … and also to try to get through to a resolution that everyone is happy with.
At the end of the day, people have said, ‘Are you guys to blame?’ And I think the answer is: Morally and ethically, we feel terribly. It is very clear that this community failed the athletes and we are part of that. What the legal liability looks like is for the courts to decide, and we need to let that process play out