2 skiers abused by former coach as teens tell their story in Winnipeg
Elite athletes part of cross-country campaign to speak out about abuse in sport
Amélie-Frédérique Gagnon says she was 14 when her ski coach in Quebec started inappropriately touching her. Over the next two years, it escalated into full blown sex.
"I didn't tell anyone. I was too afraid, too ashamed. I was afraid how people would react and it would hurt my family. I was very scared and didn't know how to handle it," said Gagnon in an interview with CBC News, her voice trembling.
Gagnon is part of a group of women who are having the publication ban on their names lifted so that they can tell their stories in public and advocate for change in Canadian sport. Gagnon talks about how her life was forever altered by the actions of former ski coach Bertrand Charest.
Charest is serving a 12-year sentence after being convicted in June 2017 on 37 charges, including sexual assault and sexual exploitation for offences dating back to the 1990s, involving nine victims.
The victims, between the ages of 12 and 19 at the time of the offences, were all competitive skiers Charest coached.
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'Why did he protect the predator and not me?'
Gagnon has spent the last 25 years trying to forget a time in her youth that should have been filled with dreams. She was one of 11 skiers who suffered the same abuse from the same predator.
Gagnon confided in the assistant coach. But she says nothing was done.
"I ask myself, why did he protect the predator and not me?"
To this day, she doesn't know why she didn't tell anyone in her family. Charest knew her parents and coached her brother. She kept the trauma and humiliation of what happened to her to herself.
Amélie-Frédérique Gagnon talks about how the abuse affected her life:
"I lost a lot of confidence myself," Gagnon said, her voice breaking. "Every day is a battle. There are so many feelings that come to the surface: guilt, the embarrassment, the doubt of myself.
"Why did I fall for that? I always go back and ask myself how could I have done things differently?"
It's a question Geneviève Simard, another former competitive alpine skier, knows all too well. Her abuse at the hands of Charest started when she was 12. It picked up again when she was 15 and continued for two more years.
"It advanced to full sexual relations," Simard said.
"And for me, there was a huge part of verbal abuse, manipulation, [and] he was controlling what I was eating — what I looked like physically. When I resisted his coaching, he would stop coaching me. I had to fight for his attention."
As a teen elite athlete, Simard's dream was to be an Olympian. She thought when she graduated to the Canadian team she would leave her predator behind. To her horror, that didn't happen.
Geneviève Simard explains the moment she decided to go to the police:
"As I graduated and realized a childhood dream, he also graduated as a coach. So it was really bittersweet — that my predator was coming with me on the national team. I couldn't get rid of him," Simard said.
Then she found out Charest was abusing other girls on the team. When the whole scandal came out in France in 1998, Simard says she still didn't have the courage to speak out. She kept it a secret for 20 years. That was until 2014, when she found out Charest was back in Quebec coaching a local ski club.
Contacted police after sighting in 2014
"I saw him in a sports store and saw the back of his head," Simard said. "I went and hid behind the stairs, shaking my hands, sweating. I was 34 years old. That physical reaction I had, and the thought of him doing it to someone else, I knew I had to do and say something."
She went to the police, which started a three-year legal ordeal.
"I had a lot of anger issues, anger outbursts," Simard said. "I would run away when he was being really mean to me as a coach. I would run away in France and hide in the forest. I built an igloo and would sleep in the igloo to run away from him because that is where I felt safe."
Now 41 and the parent of two children, ages 11 and 13, who are involved in elite sports, Gagnon says the whole experience has made her extremely protective. She never lets them go anywhere alone. She has educated her kids how to be safe. Part of that education has been telling them what happened to her.
Call for independent safety officers
Charest's victims have joined forces to publicly demand change in Canadian sport. Both Gagnon and Simard are promoting a safety plan in sport and are calling for funding for an accredited program that would include training, new policies and procedures and the hiring of specially trained safety officers.
They want to see the federal government make safety programs a requirement for any sports federations receiving government funding. They also want the so-called rule of two implemented across the board, which would make sure no young athlete is alone with an adult in a coaching, sport psychology or administrative role.
Simard says what happened has put a black cloud over her sporting career — something that should have never happened.
"I feel in order to have the greatest impact, we have to tell our story and show our faces," she said. "To create as much awareness as we can. And we need the government to step up and help us make sure sport is free of abuse. This has to stop. This has happened way too much over years and years and years."