For decades, American swimmer Nancy Hogshead-Makar did not talk publicly about the traumatic events that occurred in the autumn of 1981 when she was 19. While out jogging outside the campus of Duke University in North Carolina, she was raped by a stranger. With help and support from loved ones, friends and coaches, she rebuilt her life but kept the attack private.
Three years after the trauma of being raped by a stranger while jogging outside a university campus, Nancy Hogshead-Makar lit up the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles by winning three gold medals and a silver.
Today, the 57-year-old lawyer, mother and activist devotes her life towards the fight for gender equality and the battle against sexual abuse in sport.
In an interview with AFP ahead of International Women’s Day on March 8, Hogshead-Makar says she remains “unrealistically optimistic” about her work and life in general. “I guess you have to be in order to try to win in the Olympics and try to address sexual abuse in sports,” Hogshead-Makar said.
She suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. She felt profoundly broken and forsaken by God. She was scared all the time. “I thought that I could overcome it by willing it away.” Hogshead-Makar said.
Campaigning for Gender Equality and Sexual Abuse
- After retiring from swimming, she channelled her energy into helping others.
- After becoming a lawyer, she focused on campaigning for gender equality and combating sexual abuse in sport.
She benefited from two things that many sexual assault victims don’t receive
- Number one, everybody around me believed that it happened.
- Number two, people believed in the depth of my emotional harm.
Nobody told me, ‘Just get over it'”
“I trained almost exclusively with guys. I was accustomed to having things be fair. We swam lap-for-lap and we lifted weight-for-weight.” There have however been cases of questionable behavior. One of Hogshead-Makar’s former coaches, Mitch Ivey, was suspended from the sport for life in 2013 after evidence emerged of improper sexual relationships with multiple swimmers he had coached. “The boundaries are just not well spelled out the way they are for counselors, religious leaders or lawyers or teachers,” says Hogshead-Makar, who has founded the advocacy group Champion Women.
To raise awareness on the issue, Hogshead-Makar is working on a social media campaign with Child USA, a non-profit which works to end child abuse and neglect in the United States. She was also heavily involved in the effort to launch the US Center for SafeSport, the first independent organization to combat sexual and physical violence in Olympic sports, which launched in 2017.