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How Swimming Helped Me Recover From Sexual Assault

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I’m assuming I’m not the only swimmer who is upset that every headline has to read “swimmer” when talking about Brock Turner, a member of Stanford University's swim team who was recently sentenced to six months in jail after being found guilty of three sexual assault counts in March. Not only because it’s irrelevant, but because I love swimming. It was what helped me through my sexual assault.

I was 16 when it happened, but I never once called "the incident" 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 it destroyed me.

My assaulter told me I owed it to him. I had planned a day with a group of friends I had met at a leadership conference, but when the day arrived everyone bailed except one guy. I tried to say we’d get together another time; he insisted on coming up. All day we hung out at the local lake club with all my friends, and 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.

We had barely made it to a point in 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 because he didn’t bail on me like everyone else. 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.” 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 tried to carry on like nothing ever happened.

Soon after "the incident", I found an outlet for my pain. It was at swim practice—we did a lactate set, which means swimming as many 200-meter sets as possible while still making the time interval, which dropped by two seconds each set. 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 my pain.

“You’ve felt worse pain than this. Try harder,” I repeated to myself throughout. I lasted six sets longer than any of my female teammates, and even outlasted a majority of the guys. That day, I learned that the water was the one place where I still felt at home in my own skin. I could expel all of my built-up anger and pain there. I didn’t feel dirty there. 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 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, and within it, we had a program called Diversity Skit, where NSO leaders, who were upperclassmen at the school, would 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 how I learned what had happened to me had a label. I, Caroline Kosciusko, had been sexually assaulted.

I joined NSO later that year because it was such a wonderful group of people, and I wanted to share my story. My swim coach hated that I joined 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, not even in the pool. It was also the first time I had ever written down what had happened to me—I wanted to tell the incoming freshman who had also experienced sexual assault. I wanted them to know that they are not alone, that it wasn’t their fault. I wanted them to know they’re not worthless. I wanted to help others start to find peace.

But I never shared 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. I didn’t want people to look at me with pity instead of joy. I wasn’t ready for that, but I am now.

Victims of sexual assault should know that the hardest part is finally talking about it. You cannot predict how people will react, and the reactions you get are not anything 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.

When I was reading Brock Turner’s victim's statement the other day, it sent me right back on to the emotional roller coaster I ride when I hear stories like this. I get angry; no, furious, which makes me anxious and depressed during the day. Getting out of bed becomes a feat. This story, especially, affected me, because Turner's victim didn’t have the chance to 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 her attacker. And after it was all over, the boy still didn't see what he did as wrong. He never offered her an apology. The judge took his side.

That is exactly 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. But it’s time for me to make the harder choice, the right choice, and be a voice for those who are still scared to speak up. 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 greatly 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 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 the term “Olympic hopeful swimmer" means to her. I hate that swimming was ruined for her. Because it’s what saved me.

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