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This essay involves stories of sexual abuse. If you’ve been a victim of abuse, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline or access these additional resources.
For many people triathlon is a goal. Something they train to complete; a race to something, being able to proudly call themselves a triathlete. For me, triathlon has been that, but it’s also been a way to swim, bike, and run away from something unspeakable until now: The abuse I endured while a child.
For many years, I was solely a runner. When I was 30, I jumped right in and set my sights on a marathon. I struggled through the Maui Marathon, learned from it and finished the Baltimore Marathon, and almost knew what I was doing when I crossed the finish line at the New York City Marathon. But one day, after another long run that felt like the just last one, I decided I needed a lot more variety. At least that’s what I told people around me. The truth was that I took up distance running because it calmed my mind. It kept me in the moment. It kept my past from intruding on my present.
When I was growing up I was in the Boy Scouts. I attended summer camp and it was there that the director of a camp sexually abused me repeatedly. The details aren’t important. It was brutal, and for decades after I did what most victims do, I buried it. I told no one. I became a master at pushing it back where it came from, and thinking about and doing something else. I obsessively focused on school and work and anything else that would keep my demons from reminding me what the abuse felt like as if it were yesterday. So, running became one of those things that kept my nightmares at bay. Until that didn’t work anymore. It happened one day in the middle of a run just like any other run. Only this time my mind didn’t stay in the moment. It was bored and let all those thoughts I had buried come rushing back. I stopped; my legs grew weak. I knew it was time for something new.
A triathlon store had opened locally and having always been a swimmer I figured, “How hard could biking be?!” With lots of encouragement from the store owner and a nice discount I purchased my first tri bike as a 40th birthday present to myself, and quickly realized just how hard biking could be as I dove into training. What I discovered was that the variety of triathlon gave my mental health the boost it desperately needed. It wasn’t just the three disciplines and training for each. It was the equipment. It was race logistics and strategy. It was the community of triathletes at races and the support I felt from day one.
That was 20 years ago. In that time there have been setbacks and success. I’ve come back from knee surgery more than once and found myself crying after a finish so happy I persevered. I’ve gone from back of the pack to earning a spot at 70.3 Worlds. I’ve completed three full Ironman distance races with smiles on my face and crossed finish lines doubled-over in cramps. I’ve had almost perfect races and I’ve swam to buoys wondering why everyone was going the wrong way until I realized it was me heading off course! But in all of those races it’s never been about the finish. It’s been about those beautiful moments in training and races when it’s just me and the pool, or track, or road, or indoor trainer and I have nothing to do but finish what’s ahead of me. Those moments when I can block out all those thoughts that might keep me from succeeding that day. It’s knowing that minute, hour, mile, race are the only things I have to do. Finishing means what happened to me long ago, and the man who did it, can’t hold me back or hurt me any longer. It has become a salvation.
Recently, this all took on new importance. It’s common for men who were abused as children to lose the ability to keep it bottled up once they get into their 50s. That was the case for me and within the span of a few years I had to share my secret with the most wonderful wife I could ever dream of, children who made me so proud of how they reacted, and the world when I filed lawsuit against my abuser. Throughout it all, those tri workouts were my time of solitude, my time to reset and focus on the moment.
Today, after hitting 60, triathlon is more important than ever. I was recently selected by the U.S. Justice Department to serve with just eight other men on a volunteer committee representing over 70,000 other victims who have filed claims in the Boy Scouts bankruptcy. We’ve met over 300 times during the past 18 months and we’ll be at this for many more months. The lessons that tri has taught me have served me well as one of this committee’s chairs. It’s been long and tough and has reminded me of my toughest races. The beginning required patience the same way the swim does. Go out too fast and with the wrong expectations and you’ll blow up. When hearings and meetings dragged on for months it was like the bike. You need to get into your pace and trust it. Don’t think you’re done too soon or the last few miles will seem like forever and leave you ill-prepared for what comes next. Now that we know we’re closer to the end of this legal mess than we are to the beginning it’s like the run. Time to find your pace and decide how hard you can go and for how long. As our committee pushes hard for what every victim deserves, we take strength from each other and from every victim who has thanked us or shared their story. It’s that same kind of strength I’ve felt in races when a complete stranger has become my running partner as we feed off of each other’s energy.
My journey from considering myself a victim of abuse to calling myself a survivor is still mid-race. But, I can see the finish. Every workout when the memories don’t pop up is a step closer. Every race I finish is another step. Seeing my wife smiling at the finish line, and the calls from my sons, is another step as I’m reminded how lucky I am to have my own support crew that day and every other one. Some of us have been victims. Some of us call ourselves survivors. But for those of us who are also lucky to be triathletes each and every day we can have those moments of peace, and challenge, and satisfaction. And most of all we can have the smiling faces of other triathletes and the ones we love; and both of those understand just who we are.
Dr. Doug Kennedy is a professor in the Department of Sport and Recreation Professions at Virginia Wesleyan University and member of the Tort Claimant Committee in the Boy Scouts Bankruptcy proceedings. He can be found running slowly, biking a bit faster, and swimming respectfully in Virginia Beach, Virginia.