'A victor, not a victim' – Karen Leach on how her childhood was shattered by her abusive swim coach

As a young girl, Karen Leach had big dreams, but the pursuit of those dreams turned into a nightmare.

“I swam from the age of about 10 to 17,” she says. “When I was a little girl, I had a dream to swim for Ireland at the Olympics. Around the age of 10 I was swimming in the local community games and Derry O’Rourke was there, he was sitting on the bank, and he was the Irish Olympic coach at the time.”

Shortly afterwards, O’Rourke asked her parents if Karen could join his swimming club based in Palmerstown in Dublin. It seemed to her that she was on the path to greatness.

“He said he would make my dreams come true. He was God. What Derry O’Rourke said, went. What Derry O’Rourke wanted, he got. No one answered Derry O’Rourke back.

“Just by looking at him you could tell he had that presence, he was given the power by everybody and he took that power to abuse me and many other swimmers, my friends in that swimming club.”

Initially Karen only saw the charming side of her coach.

“He said he saw great potential in me and that I would go far. I’d watched the Olympics over the years and I thought I’d like to walk out under the Irish flag.”

Karen willingly accepted all the sacrifices that O’Rourke demanded of her. She adhered to a rigorous training regime that involved getting up every morning at 5am so she could swim before school.

“Dad would drive to swimming and he would sleep in the car while I trained in the pool every morning. I’d go back swimming for two hours in the afternoon – two hours in the morning – Monday to Friday and training on Saturday and more weekend competitions. My whole life became around swimming.”

At the outset, Karen had complete faith in her coach.

“He knew what he could do to me the very first time he saw me. He had his plan in place for me the very first day he saw me.

“As time went on when I was there, my body started to stop so instead of getting better, I was getting worse. I would be many mornings, many an afternoon, swimming up and down the pool and I’d be crying into my goggles. I don’t remember a time the abuse was never there. I don’t remember the first time. It was just always there.

“There was a room at the end of the swimming pool where we kept our boards or paddles in… If you went in and he came in after you – it was very dark, there was just one light – he’d put his foot against the door and jam you in, or stand with his back against the door and you were locked in and you couldn’t get out and you’d have to stay there until he was finished, as he’d say, ‘checking’ you.

“I used to run into the changing rooms in the mornings and I’d ask the girls to wait for me but they couldn’t because they were running, too. There was a chair in the foot pool of the showers and I would hear the chair creak and I would hear footsteps through the shower and I’d see the handle of the door open and the door would open and I’d see a shoe and I’d see a knee and I’d see a belly with a Speedo T-shirt or the familiar jumper and the next thing he’d be standing there, and he’d shut the door and I’d be stuck there.

“I’d be frozen and he would be there again and I’d do what he wanted me to do until he would finish ‘checking’ me and I’d run out to my Dad’s car. My Dad was asleep in his car on the other side of that wall of that changing room when that was happening. Corridors, hotel rooms when we slept away on competitions, anywhere.”

Only unwavering ambition to pursue her Olympic dreams sustained Karen at this time.

“It took every single thing that was important to me as a little girl away from me. How I valued myself, what I thought about myself, how I treated myself, how I let other people treat me over the years was horrendous. I buried it very, very deep until after he went to prison. I told nobody till he was in prison. I was too scared to tell anybody.”

Finally when she was 30, Karen confided in her mother.

“I was heartbroken. I told my Mam and I didn’t tell my Dad. I asked Mam to tell Dad because I couldn’t tell Dad. I suppose 16 years ago after the court case, I remember when it was in the newspaper, even before my court case, Mam was sitting in the kitchen and she looked at me and she said, ‘Karen, I’m reading the newspaper today, today I’m reading about my little girl. This is my child I’m reading about and it’s you’.

“After the court case in 2000 on a Thursday, my Mam told me that she was sorry that she didn’t look after me as a little girl, that she hadn’t taken care of me. On a bank holiday Monday in 2001, my Mam was taken out of the canal by a fireman and my Mam was gone.”

The knowledge of what had happened to his precious daughter was a wound that would never heal for her father.

“Dad died six years ago. He had a massive stroke and he was in hospital and I was feeding him, and I said to him, ‘Dad, I love you. You’re the best dad ever.’ And I wanted him to know that because he was and he said, ‘Karen, I don’t know about that’. And I knew exactly what he meant. Shortly after that he died.”

Today Karen has turned her life around. She is now a trained counsellor and has become a prominent international child protection advocate. She describes herself as “a victor not a victim”.

Karen Leach is the keynote speaker today at a Trinity College Interdisciplinary Conference on Ethics and Sport. Derry O’Rourke was a high-profile swim coach who was jailed for 12 years in 1998 for sexual assault, indecent assault and statutory rape of children

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