VOICE OF A CHAMPION:
Lauren Kuntz​

LaurenKuntz_Headshot

Lauren Kuntz forges new paths wherever she goes: as a double decathlete—an event in which she won the world championship in August—climate researcher, and survivor.

A SafeSport Athlete Advisory Team member, Lauren spoke with us about her experiences within and beyond sport, and her athlete safety ideas and ambitions. (Interview edited for length and clarity.)

safesport interview

WE ASKED LAUREN:

WHAT INSPIRED YOUR PATH AS A POLE VAULTER AND DECATHLETE?

Kuntz: I was 5 when the Magnificent Seven were in the Olympics [1996], and I originally planned to do gymnastics in college at MIT. Unfortunately, MIT cut the team. So I emailed every coach, saying, “I’ve never done your sport, but want to try and would do anything to walk on.” The track & field coach responded, “We’ve had success transforming gymnasts into pole vaulters, so we’ll give you a shot.” 

I’m in love with that sport. I was a volunteer coach after graduation and continued to train people during grad school. During that time, I started coaching decathlon and wanted to get involved in the other events. So I’ve expanded beyond pole vault. It’s fun to keep learning. 

 

YOU GAVE A TED TALK IN 2009 ON EQUITY IN SPORT, REFERENCING THE INEQUITY OF THE DECATHLON [AN OLYMPIC SPORT FOR MEN BUT NOT WOMEN]. YOU TALKED ABOUT BEING A SURVIVOR OF ABUSE. TELL US ANYTHING YOU MIGHT WANT READERS TO KNOW ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE.

Kuntz: It was a long process for me to get to where I could, one, even identify as a survivor, and two, talk about it.

I was abused by a coach in my track and field experience, and it took me over eight years to really acknowledge the abuse that occurred.

One thing that triggered it: While I was volunteer coaching, I noticed an assistant with behavior patterns and red flags similar to the coach that had abused me. Athletes were bringing this to my attention: there was emotional abuse occurring, concerns about physical abuse as well.

I spent a year trying to work with athletes to get this addressed, with very little change from university administration. Seeing these young athletes in a situation similar to what I’d been in, I said, “I cannot just sit back and see what I went through happen to others.” That helped me decide I needed to speak up about this.

Initially, it was easier for me to speak up about what I saw happen to others. But during that process, I realized I couldn’t continue to be quiet about what happened to myself, that I deserved to speak up on my own behalf, just as these girls had somebody speak up on their behalf.

So I went through a process of talking about my own experience, saying “I’ve been there too. I know what it’s like.” It helped their healing process, while at the same time healing myself.

Ultimately, this paired well with my desire for decathlon. When we view women as too weak and incapable of doing decathlon … it’s easier for people to say, “Well, these young girls don’t know what they’re talking about when they’re speaking out about abuse from a coach.” My view is: If we don’t view one another on equal footing on the field, how the hell do we expect to view one another on equal footing off the field?

So it’s been two parallel tracks. Strive for equity in what I do, become a female decathlete to grow the sport and show young girls, “You can do this.” And also, share my story and tell people: “Understand you’re not alone.”  

 

THANK YOU FOR YOUR BRAVERY IN SHARING YOUR STORY. IN YOUR TALK, YOU TOUCHED UPON POWER IMBALANCE AS A FACTOR OF ABUSE OF MISCONDUCT. WHAT ARE YOUR PERSPECTIVES ON THAT TOPIC?

Kuntz: I wish people understood that when power imbalance exists, it’s basically impossible to give true consent.

Survivors get pushback: “Well, why didn’t you say no? Why didn’t you push back more?” But it’s very easy for retaliation and retribution to occur in a dynamic in which one person can say, “You don’t get playing time,” or impact whether you get a college scholarship. That can lend itself easily to abuse of power.

I think that’s why it becomes so hard for people, especially in athletics, to get at the root of abuse. You put a ton of your life into this, and it becomes easy for an abuser to manipulate how much you’ve poured yourself into it and take advantage of you.

 

TELL US HOW YOU GOT INVOLVED IN THE SAFESPORT ATHLETE ADVISORY TEAM AND YOUR PRIORITIES WITH THE GROUP?

Kuntz: I learned about SafeSport initially through an investigation, when I got called to speak of various coaches’ behavior. I was intrigued by this idea of a centralized body, independent of U.S. sporting associations, whose entire role is to promote healthy environments in sports, and to investigate cases of abuse and handle those appropriately.

When the Center formed the Team, a friend who knows my survivor story said to me, “You should apply.” I figured, “Why not?” This felt like an amazing opportunity with a new organization trying to combat issues I’m really passionate about, to bring what I’ve seen and experienced, and turn those negatives into a positive.

I hope to impact two areas at SafeSport. One relates to communication. These issues are really hard to talk about. I wish we had a better vernacular to discuss what normal and abnormal behaviors are, what red flags to look for, why certain things are inappropriate, what dangers arise when abuse happens.

Looking back at my own story, so much could have been prevented if I had language to describe what behaviors were, and were not, appropriate. I want us to create dialogue on how to recognize, deal with, and ideally prevent abuse.

The second area is to help the Center increase transparency in investigation processes. I think the biggest risk SafeSport faces is people start to view it as a “cover” for all Olympic organizations. There have been so many high-profile cases, and there’s been broken trust in the system.

SafeSport has a big challenge not only in communicating the importance of these issues, but also in rebuilding trust in the athletic community. Increasing transparency, saying, “We’re striving for these markers of improvement. Here’s where we’re falling short. Here’s how we’re going to improve…”: that is essential for the Center.

Looking back at my own story, so much could have been prevented if I had language to describe what behaviors were, and were not, appropriate. I want us to create dialogue on how to recognize, deal with, and ideally prevent abuse.

Lauren Kuntz

It’s great to have the SafeSport Athlete Advisory team and athletes like you to point us the way and best direct us toward our goals. Another way we’ve heard from athletes has been through the Athlete Culture & Climate Survey [released in July 2021]. 

WHAT ARE YOUR INITIAL IMPRESSIONS OF FINDINGS?

Kuntz: The findings verified what people know as a problem: how prevalent abuse is, and how not prevalent reporting abuse is. That was clear by how few survey respondents who said they were abused that knew the pathway for reporting that abuse.

Another big finding: There’s a disconnect between what people consider abuse to be, and what they recognize as abuse. Another that is disappointing is the intersectionality of minorities and those with disabilities experiencing these issues at a deeper level.  

Unfortunately, we normalize a lot of these abusive behaviors. It makes our job now a lot harder. When I was a gymnast, my coach would tell me, “When I say jump, don’t say, ‘Why?’… Just ask, ‘How high?’” In many ways, it set me up for abuse I later experienced in track & field, because I was taught, “Don’t question what the coach says: just do it, and trust that they have best intentions in mind.”

We have work to do to change what we view as normal. We can’t keep viewing “tough coaching,” yelling and screaming, as acceptable behavior.

 

HAVE YOU SEEN MUCH EVIDENCE OF SPORT CULTURE EVOLVING IN POSITIVE WAYS?

Kuntz: A big one is that while SafeSport still may not have the name recognition it needs, it’s growing and improving.

At USA Gymnastics trials, there were SafeSport information packets for every participant. That’s a huge step in the right direction. It’s nice to see SafeSport posters and information at meets, building recognition. When I was coming up in the sport, that wasn’t a thing. Cultural waves, including the #MeToo movement, have helped increase dialogue as well.   

It’s easier to talk about sexual misconduct. There’s still uncertainty as to what emotional misconduct entails, but at least those words are entering people’s vernaculars.

 

YOU HAVE A PHD FROM HARVARD IN CLIMATE SCIENCE AND ARE CEO OF A STARTUP: WORK THAT SEEMS PRETTY IMMERSIVE. ARE YOU STILL INVOLVED IN SPORT AS AN ATHLETE?  

Kuntz: I’m still training and competing at the regional level, and I’m actively training for a double decathlon—20 events over two days [soon after this interview, Lauren won the 29th annual Icosathlon World Championship in Epinal, France]. I hope to continue doing decathlons as long as my body will allow.

 

ANY OTHER THINGS YOU’D WANT READERS TO KNOW?

Kuntz: A hope of mine for the Athlete Advisory Board is to be an avenue for athletes to feel comfortable talking to SafeSport and raising issues. Since the Center is here to serve athletes, athletes need to step up and help guide the Center on what needs to be done, what they can do better, and how they can better serve athletes.

I hope the survey will empower athletes to know, “The Center wants to hear from you. The Center wants to do better: it just needs your guidance, it needs you to be an engaged stakeholder in this process.”

The easiest way to earn trust and understanding is for people to go through the Center’s process and say, “Wow, that helped me heal as a survivor. And I’d recommend other survivors go through it, because it was a huge stepping-stone in coming to terms with what happened, and ensuring that sport is safer moving forward.” The best way for the Center to communicate those issues is have those positive advocates.