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 , 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.