Any swimmer will tell you about the black line on the bottom of every pool . . . the line that we follow day after day. We develop a relationship with that line; it holds our hopes and our dreams, but it also holds our fears. If only that black line could talk, it would tell you of my nightmare.
To those in the swimming community, if you've heard the rumors about me, you may have been wondering if and when I’d find the courage to speak my truth.
This is the truth.
I recently came across a quote by Thich Naht Hahn that said, “People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.” This quote is ironic, because I can still picture Hahn’s books lying on his bedside table.
I grew up in a family of 5 just outside of Seattle. I was the middle sister of 3 girls, the Kukors Sisters, as we were often referred to. When I was little we used to take our family boat out in the Puget Sound and many of my first memories are of water. The water has always felt natural to me. My older sister, Emily, joined a swim team when she was nine. I was five and eager to follow in her footsteps. That was when my swimming career began, and all three of us girls, my Mom’s mermaids, fell in love with the sport. In 2008, the three of us competed at the US Olympic Swim Trials, a moment in time I will never forget. I trained with my sisters, dreamed with them, won and lost with them. Before each race, we would always tell each other the same message: “I’m sending you my strength”.
I poured everything into my training. I had talent at a young age and progressed quickly with the help of extraordinary age group coaches; coaches who supported, developed, and challenged me in all the right ways. When I was 13, just on the cusp of making the USA National Team, I was handed off to a new coach, Sean Hutchison.
Sean was an up and coming coach with a great reputation and we were excited to have him at King Aquatic Club. He was personable, well-liked, charismatic, and an incredibly convincing leader. We hung onto every word he said.
The grooming started immediately. Each of us had to shake his hand after every practice. A simple handshake, but it was a first step; contact.
Sean made sure we craved his attention and always had a strong hold over his female swimmers; we would do anything for him and he knew it. Before long, we were waking up early to pick up coffee and a scone for him before morning practice. He made everyone feel special. He’d ask about our lives, how we were feeling, what we were up to that night. He’d stay on the pool deck and talk to us after practice.
I got a cellphone when I was 15 and we began texting. He made me feel special; the chosen one in some ways, both in and out of the water. And I was swimming better than ever.
Sean made his move in the Mt. Rainier Pool parking lot, a hole in the wall complex just outside of Seattle. I was standing by his car talking after practice wearing baggy gray sweatpants with TROJANS, my high school mascot, written down the side in green. I was 15.
He asked me if I was wearing underwear.
I said no.
I’ll never forget the look on his face, it was almost mischievous as he was trying to gauge my response.
From that point on, everything was different.
I’d like to tell you it only happened a few times, but that was just the beginning of an extensive, abusive, and incredibly manipulative relationship that spanned the better part of the next decade of my life.
We talked all the time. Post-race hugs that lasted just a little too long, coffee meetings outside of practice, and constant texting were the ways he made sure I relied on him for everything. He began by having me sit on his lap when we were alone, then progressed to kissing me in elevators, and touching me over my clothes. He once put a paper ring on my ring finger that read, “My beautiful Ari,” and told me he wanted to spend his life with me. He was 34. I was 16.
That was the year the relationship turned sexual. I’d never been physical with anyone before but I now found myself alone with him, engaging in sexual acts and trying to hide my embarrassment when he sat in the women’s locker room and watched me shower. But he said he loved me, and I thought he held the keys to my future - not just to my swimming career, but to my whole life.
In the summer of 2006, I had just turned 17 and qualified for my first travel trip with Team USA to the Pan Pacific Games in Victoria, Canada. I won a silver medal in the 400-meter individual medley but the increasingly sexual nature of our relationship was beginning to overshadow anything that I accomplished in the pool.
I began my senior year of high school as one of the top recruits in the country, which meant I had my pick of schools from which to choose. I took recruiting trips to USC, University of Arizona, and University of Georgia, but Sean was not amused. He told me if I went off to college, I should kiss my dreams of becoming an Olympian goodbye. But he had a solution; I could go to the University of Washington down the street, and continue to train with him. I just had to sign my letter of intent.
Throughout my senior year, our sexual activity continued to become more and more frequent. Every meet we went to - meets that shaped not only my swimming career, but the trauma that I now carry with me everywhere I go - was marred with acts that still haunt me to this day.
We did “everything but”.
He was saving that until I was 18.
Shortly after my 18th birthday, we had traveled out-of-state for one of the summer’s swim meets. Sean snuck me into his room to finally give me my “gift”; I’ll spare you the details, but the memory of that night will always haunt me. The parent chaperone knocked on Sean’s door, telling him I wasn’t in my room. Sean sent him on a wild goose chase, while smuggling me into the stairwell as I pretended to be on the phone with my Mom.
A liar. That’s what I had become.
I signed with the University of Washington and tried my best to find a normal life as a student-athlete. I made great friends and teammates, won a handful of Pac-10 Championships, even beating my big sis at NCAA’s. . . but I was waking up and living a lie every single day.
Swimming was, and always will be, the beacon of light that calls me home. Unfortunately, because of the success I was having in the pool, it only made my attachment to Sean stronger and he convinced me that I could only swim fast for him.
And so I stayed.
It was Summer 2009, and I had just broken the World Record to win my first World Championship. I quickly found out that success often had a dark side, and for me it meant an increasingly louder flurry of whispers about my relationship with Sean.
When the opportunity to move to a training program in California came about, I jumped on it. I needed a fresh start and Sean was telling me we were in love and could be more of a “couple” there, even though he would still be coaching me. We couldn’t tell anyone in the swimming community, but we could stay at each other’s apartments like a “real couple”. This was an enticing thought as I craved some kind of normalcy in the lie I was living.
I think back on those times now, tearfully asking why no one helped me . . . why no one stepped in to save me from this monster. It’s still hard to comprehend, but Sean had perfected the art of grooming; I wasn’t even aware I needed saving. And as long as I swam fast, it seemed easy enough for the organizations that have masterfully buried these tragedies for years, to once again brush off the rumors.
Days turned into weeks, weeks into months, and months turned into years. Before I knew it, I was a grown adult - or so my age would tell you. People continued to whisper; they suspected what was going on behind closed doors. A star swimmer craving attention and love? Of course I’d turn to the man who had groomed me from the age of 13. In addition, he had a longtime girlfriend. He told me she was his alibi, in case someone suspected us. I now know he told her something entirely different.
Looking back, I don’t even recognize the young girl Sean so meticulously controlled and manipulated. I was lying to everyone around me… My parents. My sisters. My teammates. My friends. I began to distance myself from all of them, in fear that they would find out my secret. When asked about the rumors, I didn’t even bat an eye when I replied that they simply weren’t true. Even now, when my sisters ask me why I hadn’t confided in them, it’s hard to explain. He told me that we were in love, and while our relationship had to remain a secret, he promised that one day it would be out in the open and we could live as a true couple.
The truth was not an option, or so I believed. So I carried my web of lies with me, like a coat of armor.
I decided to go forward with the decision to move and train in California with Sean and for 15 months it seemed like I was living a relatively normal life. I enrolled in a local university to complete my college education, I found a great apartment, and could frequently be found studying on the beach or trying new restaurants with the handful of friends I had made. Sean and I stayed at each other’s apartment several times a week and would drive out of town, often down to San Clemente, to get brunch on the weekends.
My world came crashing down in late December of 2010, thanks to an article in the Washington Post. I had just finished Christmas with my family in Seattle and I was secretly flying out to meet Sean in Georgia. While I was boarding my plane, the article hit the press. I didn’t know what to do, but he told me to come anyway. It was an emotionally charged day that Sean later recounted in an email sent to me on May 22, 2015.
I remember the day (identity redacted) called me to ask me ‘what was going on?’ I was in the car, just having left lunch with (identities redacted). The Washington Post was calling. You were on your way to join me in Savannah, and we were going to Florida. Such a violent day, emotionally, and even physically – the guy on your plane who stabbed the person next to him, in the neck of all places. You landed. We were unsure of what to do and found a hotel in Hilton Head. The Westin. We drove over there. We had a Tahoe. We much preferred the Buick SUV we found a year or so later, our ‘family’ car. We checked in. I had a couple more phone calls. You sat patiently, supportively, lovingly. We ate and had a couple drinks or more in that dream of a bar in the restaurant between the pool and the beach. Such upheaval, but a beautiful night. I love that night.
That night, as scared as I was, and I was terrified, for what I later understood to be for all the wrong reasons, as upset as I was, as uncertain as I was, I knew one thing more than anything. There was not another person I would stand next to together through that difficulty. There was not another person I would willingly go through that for, just for the opportunity to be with her forever. No one. And, that I would be OK as long as you were with me. I knew how lucky I was. How you were willing to stand next to me. How strong you were, even though you were scared too. How much I appreciated you. How you looked at me wishing you could help more without realizing you were doing everything I needed. How lucky we were. You made me believe in soul mates.
I was 21 years old at the time the article hit the news, and Sean had been my swim coach for 8 years.
In January of 2011, USA Swimming investigated the claims made against Sean and myself. The extent of my part in the investigation was me spending a few minutes on the phone with a private investigator. 19 questions I counted. I was scared. I lied. I had never felt more alone in all my life.
Several weeks later, USA Swimming aggressively closed the book on the investigation, putting out a public statement saying they had found no wrongdoing, and calling rumors about Sean “malicious lies.”
Well that shut me up real quick. But I think they knew. I think everyone knew. No one flew out to meet me. No one seemed to care what happened to me in all this.
But my world was beginning to turn upside down and I was convinced I was being followed to the point where I was sleeping with my dining room table pushed in front of my door. I also had to endure Sean's verbal abuse, which began escalating from the moment he left the team and set off to start a new company, Ikkos.
I returned to the pool because it was all I knew and I still had a year left of my college education. He told me I was selfish for choosing to swim, and that I should choose him. He said he was tired of waiting for me, and was constantly belittling and controlling me.
On June 28th, 2012, I achieved my career-long dream of making the Olympic Team. In 2008, I missed the Beijing Team by 0.08 of a second - 3rd place… so you’d think I would be elated, and in some ways I was. I had worked my butt off, and with the support of so many, I was able to reach the pinnacle of my sport. But I was petrified of the way Sean would react, as his jealousy and control over me had reached a new level of unbearable. Below is an excerpt from an email Sean sent to me on July 7th, 2012, while I was at the Olympic Training Camp:
i'm hurting right now. i will be fine. Some dumbass stuff I didn't want to say on the way to the airport that seems trite and you will just probably throw out, which is up to you.
you're an olympic model on nbc. i saw a couple days ago. your pictures are beautiful. please be aware that because of that you will get more attention from photographers. please be mindful of what you're wearing and suits and adjusting suits. someone will be watching. i know. i'm sorry to say it.
people get bored on this trip. i know you aren't dumb. but please don't be naive. get mad at me if you want. but if any guy sits with you somewhere more than once in the same or concurrent days, he is thinking something, no matter how nice he is.
i am here. it's painful being here. remember that when you talk to me. you need to tell me what's going on, yes. but, please be aware that i'm at a disadvantage every time we talk. if i'm quiet, assume the best.
Please don't be stubborn. This is not easy. Don't judge me. If you do, we will have problems.
That was my Olympic Dream.
Checking in with him constantly, sending him naked pictures every single day as he required of me, and trying not to have too much fun, for fear of him yelling at me. After 8 days, the swimming portion of the Olympics concluded and Sean made sure I was on the first flight home the following day, less than halfway through the Games. There would be no closing ceremony for me and certainly no further bonding with my Olympic teammates. In Sean’s eyes, I had been selfish enough, and it was time to come home.
When I returned home from London, it wasn’t an option of whether or not I would continue swimming; my career was over. I packed up my house and joined him in Seattle where he locked me away on the 21st floor. He wouldn’t let my name be on the lease even though oftentimes I was the one maxing out credit cards to pay rent. He had the one and only key and I was allowed to come and go only as he pleased. All of this because he was still paranoid about the rumors.
This was September of 2012.
At this point, my whole family (except my Dad) knew about Sean. It was difficult for them to wrap their minds around our relationship, as they too had been hearing the rumors for years. Time and time again, I had vehemently denied the rumors, telling them that they simply were not true. But now I convinced them that I loved him, that it started when I was an adult, and they all just needed to accept it. Try as they might, it shook our tight knit family to its core.
In May of 2013, my younger sister, Mattie, had graduated from college and was looking for a job in the city. I convinced Sean to let her move in with us and for the next few months I was able to see through her eyes just how messed up my life and my relationship really were.
Sean was yelling at me every day, stressed about the progress of Ikkos, and continually blaming everything on me. I was suffering and felt like a hostage in my own home while trying to get my own corporate career off the ground in Seattle. I was reaching my breaking point . . . but when I brought up the idea of a taking a break or ending the relationship, he said that we had a great love story, one of sacrifice, and that we belonged together.
I believed him.
Until the end of summer in 2013.
He was traveling, and I needed a break; I was emotionally drained. I packed up all my things and moved out. When he returned from his travels, I told him I was leaving him. After a lot of screaming and crying, he begged me to take him back, and said he would change. I refused. He allowed me to take a “break” from him, all the while contacting me about how much he was changing and growing for my sake.
Around this time, I met a guy while getting drinks with a girlfriend at a bar in Bellevue, WA. He was attractive, successful, and showed me that I was worthy of affection. In his eyes, I was not the damaged goods that Sean had ingrained in me. Throughout the next few months that I was dating this man, Sean was messaging and calling me constantly, but I didn’t listen or entertain him, because I had someone else, even if it was just for a short time. Looking back on it now, I will forever be grateful of the role that man played in saving me from Sean.
Over the next few years, Sean had slowly found a way to stay in somewhat regular contact with me. Some days I wanted to run as far from my past - and my life - as I could. Other days I wondered if I had made a mistake by leaving him and blamed myself for his heartbreak. I finally worked up the courage to move away from Seattle, so I packed up my car and drove down to Manhattan Beach.
About 6 months into life in Los Angeles, a new roommate moved in - Matthew Smith. A Texas-born accountant with the sweetest manners, his own business, and a knack for making sure you knew he was listening. It took us 6 months to build a friendship before enough friends and family convinced us we would be perfect as a couple. I fell in love with Matt on our first date – sushi, then a backyard barbecue with great friends. I knew we would move quickly, so shortly after, in July of 2015, I burst into tears and told him why he shouldn’t want me.
I had finally reached my breaking point.
I told him of the abuse, the lies, and the truth. I told him that Sean and I were still in contact, and that I was damaged beyond belief. I asked him not to want me; I wasn’t worthy of such a good man. Matt wiped away my tears and held me while I cried. And rather than step back, he stepped up. When things are the most painful and I am showing him the ugliest parts of myself and my past, he loves me harder.
He has shown me the strength of a true partner, and a great man.
I wish I could tell you that I have no bad days, but that would be a lie, and I am no longer a liar. Some days I feel like “me”. Other days I feel broken and unsure. But each day I am trying, with the support of so many who hold onto my truth and my heart when I feel like my world is collapsing.
Friends that I thought were lost forever have opened their hearts and shown me more compassion and forgiveness than I ever could have imagined. Their love and support gives me strength and hope that together we can build a better future.
I never thought I would share my story, because in so many ways, just surviving was enough. I was able to leave a horrible monster, and build a life I could have never imagined for myself. But in time, I’ve realized that stories like my own are too important to go unwritten. Not for the sake of you knowing my story, but for the sake of the little girls and boys whose lives and futures hang in the grasp of a horribly powerful and manipulative person. That they may not have to go through the same pain, trauma, horror, and abuse. That their parents, mentors, and guardians are better able to spot the signs of grooming and realize its tragic consequences before it’s too late.
Because the time for change is now. It’s time to change the way we talk about sexual abuse, the way we respond to sexual abuse, and the way the system understands and prevents sexual abuse. And with all my heart, I hope that each and every abuse victim knows their story matters, it is important, and their voice will be heard whenever and however they choose to use it.