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How swimming helped me recover from sexual assault

Caroline Kosciusko
Caroline Kosciusko Courtesy Caroline Kosciusko

Editor’s note: Caroline Kosciusko wrote this for Swimming World, where she is Social Media Director. Her boyfriend is Team USA Olympic Gold Medalist, Tyler Clary. Both now live and train in Charlotte and agreed to be identified to raise awareness about sexual assaults.

I’m assuming I’m not the only swimmer who was upset that every headline has to read “Swimmer” when talking about Brock Turner and what he’s done. Not only because it’s irrelevant, but because I love swimming. It was what helped me through my sexual assault.

I was 16 and I never once called it what it was. It wasn’t aggressive or forceful like they explained it in school. I didn’t need to fight. I didn’t go straight to the hospital because I was cut up and needed medical help. But I knew what had happened was wrong, and I was destroyed from it.

I was told I owed it to him. I planned a day with a group of friends... , but when the day arrived everyone bailed except one guy. While I tried to say we’d get together another time, he insisted on coming up anyway. He drove a long way to come up for the day, and from the moment he arrived, my gut was telling me something was wrong.

All day we hung out at the local lake club with all my friends, and all day I wished he wasn’t there. When the day was coming to an end, I drove him back to my house to get his car and finally send him on his way. When we got there, he told me he’d never been hiking before, and noticed the thick woods behind my house and the Appalachian Trail leading into them. He asked if we could go for a quick hike before his long drive home, because “I owed it to him” for driving all that way. My stomach felt like I had just gone over the hump on a roller coaster and was in my throat.

We barely made it far enough into the woods where I could no longer see my house when he asked if we could sit down and talk on a fallen tree next to the path. I purposely sat out of his reach, but he wasn’t getting the hint. He kept telling me how it was rude to make him come all this way to visit me and not send him home with a “proper gift”. He started touching me saying I owed it to him, he said that he didn’t bail on me like everyone else, so I owed him it. I did not want any of it, but I could not stop it.

I locked myself in my room for the week afterwards because I couldn’t face anyone. I felt so dirty and ashamed; exactly how Turner’s victim put it in her courtroom address to Turner: “I don’t want my body anymore…I wanted to take off my body like a jacket and leave it.”

My mom would try to come up and ask me what’s wrong, and I would bury my face into my pillow and just tell her I broke up with my boyfriend and didn’t want to talk about it. I would lie in bed all day and cry, until I fell back asleep. I was a terrible liar. I knew if my mom or dad saw my face, they’d know right away that I had done something very, very wrong. And I had no idea how to talk about it. I couldn’t tell my parents I had had sex, they would have been so upset with me. I couldn’t tell my friends, they would call me terrible names and I would get a bad reputation. So, I didn’t tell anyone for years and had to carry on like nothing ever happened.

At first, it wasn’t that hard. I would bombard the people around me with questions about themselves so I would never have to talk about myself. This way people always thought I was always happy and caring, because I would constantly ask about them and their lives. Little did any of them know it was all a mask and a wall so they couldn’t see what I was going through. It’s terrifying to think that a smile can hide so much.

I will never forget a particular swim practice soon after that incident when we did a lactate set: As many 200s as possible while still making the time interval, which dropped by :02 each 200. I swam the whole workout with my goggles full of tears, but that extremely painful set was the first time I could shed some of this pain.

“You’ve felt worse pain than this. Try harder,” I repeated to myself. I lasted six 200s longer than any of my female teammates, and even outlived a majority of the guys.

That day, I learned that the water was my outlet. This was the place where I still felt at home in my own skin. I could expel all of my built up anger and pain. I didn’t feel dirty here for some reason. I didn’t feel like I owed it to anyone. I was safe in the water. I was there, for myself, pushing out my pain in the healthiest and hardest way I possibly could.

I started to kill myself day in and day out in the pool. I started attending morning swim practices at 5 a.m., which were 45 minutes away, so I could get an extra release in before the day started. It was the only time I would ever feel happy and accomplished throughout my day, and the extra dopamine release wasn’t bad either.

I could also scream underwater. I’ll never forget one morning during a long warm up, my coach, Pat, was wandering around the pool deck looking for something. When we got to the wall, he asked if that was me? I didn’t know what he was talking about. He said he could hear a high pitched, almost humming sound and it was weirdly at the same time as each of my streamlines off the walls. I told him I tend to make a noise when I push off the walls and exhale from my turns. Little did he know those were cries.

Along the way, swimming became my happy place again. I developed a whole new love for the sport. It was a safe place where I could work hard and not think about the incident so much.

I went on to swim at Springfield College, a small NCAA DIII School in Massachusetts. I was lucky that my school had an amazing New Student Orientation (NSO) program for incoming students. It was a three-day orientation with lots of fun programs and activities. Within that we had a program called “Diversity Skit”. It’s where NSO Leaders, who were upperclassman at the school, stand up and share their personal stories about traumatic life experiences– eating Disorders, genetic diseases, abusive parents, stories that maybe you weren’t exposed to growing up.

They would share these stories as an example to the new students that this is a new world with new people; be sensitive and aware of those around you. One girl stood up and shared her story of sexual assault, and that was the first time I had heard my feelings from my incident put into words. Her story was where I learned what had happened to me had a label. I had been sexually assaulted.

I joined NSO later that year because it was such a wonderful group of people in the program, and I wanted to share my story. My coach hated that I did because he said it would take time away from swimming, but I felt a cohesiveness with this group of people that I hadn’t felt before. It was also the first time I had ever written down what had happened to me. I wrote down what I wanted to tell the incoming freshman who had also experienced sexual assault. I wanted them to know that they are not alone. It wasn’t their fault and nor were they to feel closed off because of it. I wanted them to know they’re not worthless or owe the world their dignity. I wanted to help others realize what it was so they could start to find peace.

But I never shared it. I never got the courage to do it. Why? Because I was terrified of how the world would then perceive me.

I had always been known as the happy-go-lucky, chatty, optimistic swimmer who loved to make people smile. I maintained this through everything, and no one ever knew when I was struggling with something so dark. I didn’t want those who knew me to suddenly see me as a victim and to start treating me differently. I didn’t want people to look at me with pity instead of joy. I wasn’t ready for that, but now I am ready to face this full on and admit the truth.

When I was reading Brock Turner’s victim’s statement the other day, it sent me right back into the emotional stoop that comes on in waves when I hear stories like this.

It almost debilitates me. I need a day to process my emotions. I’m angry; no, furious, which makes me anxious and depressed during the day. Getting out of bed becomes a feat. Especially this time around, because she didn’t have the chance to keep quiet and hide like I did. She was so exposed. She had to come forward and address all of this in court, in the most invasive way possible. She was attacked, berated, and belittled in front of her family, loved ones, and him. And after it was all over, the boy still doesn’t see his acts as wrong. He never offers her an apology. The judge takes his side.

That is why I kept quiet. That is why I never spoke of the disturbing things that happened to me. I would much rather bottle everything up than have someone make me feel like I deserved this. That this was my fault and I should have fought harder. But it’s time for me to make the harder choice, the right choice, and be a voice for so many.

I don’t want people to look at me and treat me like a victim. My happiness and enthusiasm is pure and real, and I have worked so hard to maintain that. As I wrote that sentence Coach David Marsh walked by me and said, “You’re over here typing a novel and you look up and can give me a huge, bright smile. You’re living life the way it should be lived.” Then he gives me a high five. And this is so true! This incident has shown me that life is worth living, and that all I can do is make the best of what I have now and all that I have learned. I realized that I am stronger than this incident, and I am going to show the world that.

I know I am very fortunate. My life could have taken a very different turn like it does for most victims, but swimming saved me. Swimming gave me a safe release for all of my pain, and introduced me to a new sort of goal to strive for. I am grateful that I had swimming as my escape. I am grateful that it led me to becoming an All-American. I am grateful that swimming led me to life-changing experiences I wouldn’t have otherwise had– experiences like going to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs for the summer of 2011 to train with the modern pentathlon team. That trip to the O.T.C. introduced me to my long-time boyfriend – the man I plan on spending the rest of my life with – Tyler Clary.

When Turner’s victim (I’m referring to her as this because her name has not been released) mentions that she only feels safe when her boyfriend is around or lying next to her in bed, there is so much more behind this than anyone knows about. When I watch a movie with a scene of someone being sexually assaulted, Tyler knows to hold me tight. He knows that I will have a hard time sleeping after scenes like that.

When Ty’s traveling, I can’t describe the anxiety and panic that’s constantly running through me. I’m not afraid of getting hurt or attacked, but I just feel so much safer and calm when he’s around. I am always on the go when he’s gone so I don’t think about it. I often go all day until I cannot stay awake any longer (hence why I am at his swim practice writing this piece because I couldn’t bear writing this while I was sitting alone at home).

And he probably has the biggest role in all of this. I have only told very few people in my entire life about this, and I never told any of them until my sophomore year of college. When I told Ty in our first months of dating, he told me I needed to talk to a professional and get help with processing this. He wanted me to get help for the sake of our relationship. He listened to me tell my very detailed story numerous times and helped me work through all my conflicting emotions and beliefs. He’s also been extremely patient with the physical impacts that this has left on me.

I hate that Brock Turner has “Swimmer” attached to his name in every article. I hate what he did. I hate that his victim will probably never be able to watch the Olympics again with pride for her country because of what an “Olympic hopeful” swimmer has done to her. I hate that swimming was ruined for her. Because it’s what saved me.

To other victims out there:

I’m going to tell you what no one ever told me. The hardest part is finally talking about it. You cannot predict how people will react, and the reactions you get are not something you can prepare for. But I will tell you this: It only takes 30 seconds of pure, raw courage to change your life for the better.

When I first told someone, it wasn’t the reaction I anticipated, but it still felt good knowing I wasn’t the only one who knew. I regretted it at first, and probably because it wasn’t the right person to tell and I didn’t do it under ideal timing. But when I told the second person (my best friend, Josh, during my senior year of college), I had grown and learned a lot. This was someone I wanted to tell. And once I did, he told me exactly what I needed to hear. He held me, he told me he loved me, and that he was proud of me for telling him and handling this the way I did. My life long best friend, Kimberlie, had the same reaction, but she wished I had told her sooner. She understood why I didn’t though, and she held my hand for the remainder of our long car ride. It was the perfect peace I needed.

Each person I told after that got easier and easier, but I think it was important that I waited until I was ready. It was also easier to tell my friends than my family. I don’t drink much anymore because that’s when I can’t control my thoughts and that’s where my mind tends to wander. A couple years ago, I had too much to drink one night. I called my mom and told her everything. She said she wished she knew, but she saw that I was OK. We hadn’t talked about it again until this past week, when I called to ask how I should address this with my father.

My father, Skipper Kosciusko, is the strongest and toughest human being I know. He is a volunteer EMT and firefighter, and he used to be an ER nurse. He has thrown himself off cliffs to save lives. He has overcome a narcotics addiction and has remained sober for 26 years now. But he also gets extremely depressed and surrenders to his emotions at times, especially when he loses a child on an ambulance call. For weeks he will be in a slump. For all of these years, when he would get down, I’d relate to his depression so deeply, and he had no idea of the secret I held. He often calls me to talk when he is down, and he often says “Glad I talked to you, Peach”. The hardest part about breaking my silence is knowing that this news will break my father’s heart. But the wonderful part in sharing this is knowing that my father will be able to provide help now whenever I need it.

For the first time in my life, I feel like I am ready. I am ready to face the world with this head on, strapped to my name and my smile, and be a voice for the girls who haven’t found their voices yet. This is something that has made me who I am, but it has not broken me. I am the tough, happy, cheerful, relentless, driven, passionate woman I am today mostly because of this battle I have been fighting alone. But I am ready for this to no longer be just my fight, and I am ready to help other victims fight. I am ready to lift them up and carry them through the process of breaking their silence. I want to help girls who might not even realize they need help; girls who feel as alone as I did.

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