As a young girl, Karen Leach dreamed of representing Ireland on the Olympic Swim team. Instead, she suffered years of sexual abuse from the ages of 10-17 at the hands of her Irish swimming coach, Derry O’Rourke, crushing her spirit and her will to live. Now, at 48, Karen finally feels free.
She is now a qualified psychotherapist and counsellor, using her strength and knowledge to help others who are struggling in silence.
Karen spoke at Play the Game’s 10th conference in Eindhoven on Sunday. This is her incredible story of survival, and how she has managed to gain her freedom once again, after 37 years trapped in “a prison.”
The sound of idle chatter and flashes of cameras are palpable. Cameramen hover, as they wait for guests to file into the conference room. Amidst this chaos, I spot her – a woman who has gone through the unimaginable. She sits in solitude in the front row, waiting patiently.
She is invited to the podium. She rises from her chair, with an air quite unlike anyone I have ever seen before. She walks to the podium with the greatest strength, with vigour. She is valiant.
“I am Karen,” she begins. “This, is my life.”
The hall is silent throughout her testimony… No one moves.
Karen is honest in saying that “unless abuse comes to your door, you will never know the true pain it can cause.” She does not sanitise her experiences. They are graphic, and they are shocking.
Her abuser told her that what he was doing to her was to track her physical development as a swimmer. After practise, she would beg the other girls to “please, wait for me” but “they couldn’t, because they were running too.” She recalls rushing to her Dad’s car still wet from the pool water because she did not have time to dry herself.
“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.”
She was unable to speak about her abuse until she turned 30, until after O’Rourke was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment. He only served 9. It was then that she finally told her mother, who 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.”
Her mother was unable to live with the fact that her daughter had suffered. Karen received a call shortly after this, that her mother’s body had been pulled out of the canal by a fireman.
Karen also lost her father from a stroke. Before he died, she told him he was “the best dad ever” and he responded, “Karen, I don’t know about that” and that she knew exactly what he had meant.
For years, sexual abuse has remained a taboo. With more cases being reported and with survivor’s testimony, the sporting world is now pressured. Now, more than ever, they need to ensure that children are safe. “Every child has a right to be saved in their childhood,” Karen asserts, “Children are sports’ future”.
Her testimony ends. There is a poignant silence. Suddenly, there is an eruption of claps.
Despite all her hardships, she survived numerous suicide attempts. She has conquered her life.
She is inundated with people, as if she is magnetic. I wait for her, until suddenly, it is just us and the employees who are packing up the conference room. I am greeted with a plethora of warmth.
I ask about the most rewarding part of being a psychotherapist and counsellor. She says she takes her patients “from the darkest places of their life until they find the light. I see people grow and change over time, the most rewarding part is when I’m finishing up with someone, they’re leaving and going out the door and they’re saying, “Karen, I’m good now, and I just say go get your life, go get the world.”
Karen attributes her recovery to “the people I met along the way – kindness, people listening to me” as well as psychotherapy, counseling, spending years in a psychiatric hospital and homeopathy. She wants others to know that recovery is possible and that she tried many times to love herself, that she “failed many times, and this year succeeded” at loving herself.
“I want there to be the right support, awareness, and education. I want children to have the awareness and the support. I want them to be able to know that there is someone there that they can go to talk to, there’s someone there that will listen to them, that will believe them, and that their dreams can come true, and that they’re safe.”
She tells me about her son. “He has just turned 11 and he loves swimming. He’s a great little swimmer.”
She is leaving for Ireland in the morning, as her son needs his mum.
Photo: Thomas Søndergaard/Play the Game