The Daily Telegraph - Business : 2020-07-22

Sport : 20 : 12


12 The Daily Telegraph Wednesday 22 July 2020 *** Sport Exclusive interview ‘I should be dead. One thing that saved my life was ability not to care’ By Oliver Brown chief sports writer around the wildness of her words, given that for much of her teenage years as an internatio­nal swimmer, Legler was physically abused. “I write it in the book in ‘surround sound’, so as to convey the confusion,” she explains. “That something not meant to be happening is happening, but without me fully comprehend­ing what it is.” Legler, now 43, was 13 when she was sexually assaulted by a physiother­apist during a treatment session. The man had been recommende­d to her by her coach, and her mother happily took her along to appointmen­ts. It was not until she was 22, on a visit to a holistic doctor for chronic back problems, that the full horrors of her adolescenc­e revealed themselves to her. “He had a beautiful examining room, and I took off all my clothes,” she says. “The doctor came in and said, ‘Woah, you can put your clothes back on’. It was in that moment that I understood I had not needed to take my clothes off as a child.” Hers is an experience that assumes grim resonance in the context of the scandals convulsing US gymnastics. Having spent two childhood years in Louisiana, moving subsequent­ly to Vermont, she has watched with mounting outrage as a parade of young female gymnasts, from Simone Biles to Aly Raisman, disclosed that they were victims of abuse at the hands of their doctor, the prolific sex offender Larry Nassar. “It was the sigh of recognitio­n,” she reflects. “The procedure that Nassar had said was required was the same one that this French doctor had spoken about. At that moment, it hit home in a profound way just how systematic this was. The violence and oppression we went through as children, we only now have words for as adults. It was just how normal it was. That was the horror of it.” In recent days, British gymnasts have also been sharing their own accounts of being beaten and starved, strengthen­ing Legler’s conviction that sport’s institutio­nal code of silence has to end. “The stories are telling us that we have to go further,” she argues. “It becomes a very important conversati­on when we’re asking young people to push themselves to physical extremes. Sport is classicall­y the thing that builds selfesteem, communicat­ion, camaraderi­e. At the elite level, we need to keep talking about how we can take better care of our athletes.” The bleakness that assailed Face of diversity: Casey Legler (right) was the first female signed to a men’s modelling agency, at the Mercedes Fashion Week in New York (below) and at the Olympic Games Casey Legler – Olympic swimmer, drug addict and sex abuse victim – has now told the story of her darkest days in a Telegraph award-winning book ‘I was one of the fastest swimmers in the world, and yet so deeply unpredicta­ble.” One day, Casey Legler might be tempted to make this her epitaph, although her story suggests it errs on the side of understate­ment. At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, the French-American broke the world record in the 50metres freestyle in practice, only to rank 29th quickest on the day of the heats. The next day, she was dealing drugs to her fellow athletes. What ensued was a tailspin of addiction and emotional anguish so acute that it is a wonder Legler has survived to conduct this interview at all. “I should be dead,” she admits. “Or at the very least incarcerat­ed.” But somehow, through the tumult, her life has become one of diverse joys. For a start, there was the distinctio­n of becoming the first female signed to a men’s modelling agency. Today, she lives according to the principle of “throwing a bunch of spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks”, juggling roles as writer, artist, mentor and advocate for the United Nations on women’s equality. She is desperate to write a crime novel, too, although her wife, Siri, a human-rights activist, is limiting her to two projects at any one time. The literary gift is selfeviden­t from her startlingl­y frank memoir, which has won Internatio­nal Autobiogra­phy of the Year at the Telegraph Sports Book Awards. No less an authority than Michael Stipe, former lead singer of REM, has described it as a “cut-to-the-bones blues song in chapter form”. The language is defiantly her own: fluid, sensual, visceral. One explanatio­n for this choice is her bilinguali­sm. Another is her lifelong grappling with identity: Legler is nonbinary. But a darker force swirls ‘Sport is not this super squeaky-clean thing. At least in my time, there was no one who was the epitome of mental health and well-being’ her youth was beyond all reasonable limits of endurance. While still a virgin, she was raped by two men. At 15, she was a raging alcoholic. By the time she reached Olympic competitio­n, she was not just taking drugs but supplying them, too. So rapid was her descent into the maelstrom, it would be decades before she could tell the unvarnishe­d truth. “This book could only have been written 20 years after the facts, so that I could deal with them, so that I could hold some of the sadness.” Legler, for all the torment of her past, radiates an earnest warmth, adamant that she wants her book to serve not just as a chronicle of mayhem but as reassuranc­e to those in similar distress that they can discover a better path. “At 13, I imagined I would kill myself,” she says, hand on heart. “But, at 22, someone told me, ‘Casey, you won’t always live your life with suicide as an option’. Now that emptiness on the inside has gone away. Godspeed,

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