Speaking Up About Sexually Abusive Coaches

Mary Katherine Shull had a childhood full of energy, athleticism and bright promise. She was a state champion gymnast in Tennessee and won best "all-round" in several competitions across the Southeast, all under the guidance of her coach, Ted Hicks, whose apparent commitment to his family and to his faith made him a true mentor in her admiring eyes.

Shull, now 22 years old, said she enjoyed a close relationship with Hicks. "I wanted him to accept me and like me as a person, not only as a gymnast. We really had more of a father-daughter bond."

That was until the night that 40-year-old Hicks climbed into bed with the then-15-year-old Shull, and molested her.

"I was in a hotel room because we were at nationals. I opened my eyes to see Ted there and I'm horrified. I don't know what to do and I don't know where to go. I'm 16 hours from home, alone in a hotel room," she said.

On numerous occasions over the next few years, often during travels to gymnastics tournaments, Hicks would molest Shull. To keep her silent, he manipulated Shull into blaming herself for the abuse.

Shull said, "He told me it was my fault: 'God only gives you what you want' -- and I believed that wholeheartedly. I had so much respect for him."

Young athletes often idolize, even worship, their coaches, but a small minority of coaches exploit those feelings, sexually abusing minors entrusted to their care. It's become every parent's nightmare.

Abuse Getting More Attention

Dr. Robert J. Shoop, who has been chronicling the problem since the 1980s, says the incidents are getting more attention than they once did.

"I think many people feel that adults who abuse children are wearing trenchcoats and hiding in playgrounds. But the reality is the reason these people can molest children is because they're almost above suspicion," Shoop said.

An investigation by Maureen O'Hagan and Christine Willmsen of "The Seattle Times" revealed 159 coaches had been fired or reprimanded for sexual misconduct in Washington state alone over the past decade.

Click here to read the series of investigative reports on coaching and sexual abuse published in "The Seattle Times."

O'Hagan said coaches' desires to keep the abuse covered up coupled with girls' shame and embarrassment has left the problem largely unreported.

But some young women in Washington are willing to speak out. ABC News' 20/20 brought Shull to Seattle to meet young women who shared stories like her own: Abby Rice, Mollie Bryan and Natalie Duryea.

Duryea recalls how her relationship with her basketball coach, Tony Giles, changed from coaching to abuse. She said he began with compliments about her playing and gradually began to compliment her on her looks and personality.

Psychologists call this behavior "grooming."

Duryea said she and Giles had had sex by the time she was 13.

Bryan was 14 when her tae kwon do instructor, Jonathan Novy, stuck his hand down her shirt. Weeks later, Novy had sex with her in a stairwell.

"He said kissing was too personal," Bryan said, "but he was raping me by the time I was 14."

Rice was a soccer standout whose club coach, Dennis Jones, began grooming her at 15 and had unprotected intercourse with her at 16.

"He could have asked me to do anything and I probably would have done it. "As a 15-year-old ... you're infatuated with them," she said.

Out of fear and shame, each of these young women kept their abuse a secret for months, even years -- even as they saw their coaches start the grooming process with younger teammates.

Both Bryan and Shull said they continued to keep quiet and let their coaches abuse them, hoping that might keep their coaches from abusing other girls.

"That's probably the worst part," Shull said, "because I feel like it's my fault that I didn't say anything that this child also had to go through what I did."

Bryan was referring to a younger victim, who was the first to report Hicks' abuse.

Punishment Often Lenient for Abusers; Victims Say Scars Endure

How severely were their tormentors punished? Hicks pleaded guilty to abusing both Bryan and the younger victim, and was released after nine months for good behavior. Tony Giles was convicted of abusing a younger player, and is serving 20 months; Jonathan Novy got three years; Dennis Jones pleaded to an assault charge, but served only six days.

Light sentences can be the result of prosecutors' reluctance to make the victims relive their abuse on the stand in a courtroom, but some relive it everyday.

Rice said she's battled depression and sees dealing with the abuse as a "lifelong challenge."

Duryea said, "The publicity is just so important. ... I was convinced that I was the only person that this could possibly be happening to."

Despite the emotional obstacles, these women are looking to move on with their lives. Bryan and Rice are back in school. Duryea is a college graduate who still plays basketball.

Shull, meanwhile, is a grad student in exercise and sports science. The 22-year-old says she has not yet been able to have an intimate romantic relationship.

"I still never had a first boyfriend or a first real kiss," she said.

'I Wish I Hadn't Been His Favorite'

Fourteen-year-old Becca Robinson of Brentwood, Tenn., has always enjoyed being active. Her parents couldn't help but notice their daughter's gymnastic potential. So, in 2000, Becca, then 10 years old, began to work with a coach named Mark Schiefelbein, who been hired by the Let It Shine gym and its owner, Tim Richards.

Schiefelbein moved Becca into his group of top gymnasts and raved about her skills to her parents.

"He would tell us how well Becca was doing and how much potential he thought she had. It's the stroke of your ego. 'Your daughter is special. She's in this elite group that I want to train,' " Becca's mom, Jill Robinson, said.

"Looking back, it was a setup for us," her father, Ross, said.

Meanwhile, Schiefelbein's boss was seeing things in his coaching that disturbed him, especially during an exercise known as "the frog stretch."

"His spotting techniques in stretch time we were very uncomfortable with," Richards said. "The girl would be down in a split and he would put his hands down her bottom and up underneath her legs and try to push down," he said.

When Schiefelbein ignored Richards' instructions to change his techniques and to follow the gym's rules, he fired him. Soon after, Schiefelbein set up his own gym, Esprit Gymnastics, and Becca followed him there.

Like Shull and the other young women, Schiefelbein "groomed" Becca with extra attention and compliments. Becca said, "He told me, 'You're my favorite.' ... Then he started treating me differently than all the other girls. He would bring me candy bars. And he'd be like, 'Don't show anybody this, it's your candy bar.' "

There was a steady stream of gifts for Becca, but with the gifts came the sexual abuse.

"I just wish I wasn't exactly the favorite, 'cause then maybe that bad stuff wouldn't have happened to me," she said.

"At first," Becca said, "his hands would accidentally slip under my leotard and I'd be like, 'Mark, don't put your fingers there.' And he would bring his fingers out, then they'd just slip back under again."

Becca said Schiefelbein began to touch her when she wasn't stretching and she would tell him to stop. But, she said, he'd bribe her into letting him do it by manipulating her -- promising her he wouldn't do it again if she let him do it just this time. "I'd say no, but he'd end up doing it anyway," Becca said.

Becca says she even let Schiefelbein videotape her, when he claimed that he would stop his abuse.

"I let him do it so he wouldn't have to ever touch me again. Then, he was like, 'Oh, I looked at it last night and it wasn't good enough so we're gonna have to do it today.' "

Becca said she was afraid to tell her parents about the abuse, because she was scared of what Schiefelbein would do. "He told me that I would be in trouble and he would be in trouble and that the people at the gym would not like me," she said.

Even as Schiefelbein was abusing Becca, he was hanging out at the Robinsons' home, ingratiating himself with Becca's parents. He became a part of their family life, joining them at church and for Sunday dinners. All the while, Schiefelbein continued to abuse their little girl.

'I Trusted Him Completely'

The Robinsons said their first indication that something may be wrong came when Becca decided to quit the gym. They say Schiefelbein's reaction struck them as excessive and strange. He cried and begged Becca to change her mind.

"A 37-year-old man should not be crying because a 12-year-old girl is quitting gymnastics," Becca's father said, adding, "I said, something's not right here. This is not normal behavior."

Not long after, Jill Robinson asked Becca if Schiefelbein had been touching her inappropriately.

"I don't know how it came to my mind, because I'd never really thought that he could hurt her that way. I trusted him completely," she said.

Becca said she was relieved to finally be able to confide in someone. "I was like, 'yes, mom, he is, and I'm so glad I could tell you. I was so scared that I was gonna get in trouble,' " she said.

The Robinsons contacted the police and Becca told her story to Brentwood Detective Adrian Breedlove.

Breedlove later arranged a phone call between Becca and Schiefelbein, in which Becca told Schiefelbein that she wanted to come back to the gym on the condition that he wouldn't touch her any more.

Breedlove obtained search warrants of Schiefelbein's home and gym, and authorities discovered a hidden video camera in the Esprit Gym bathroom. At Schiefelbein's home they found tapes he had taken during his coaching sessions in which he had zoomed in on the pelvic regions of young female gymnasts -- 248 times.

Gymnastics Group Had Investigated Coach

Even more shocking, however, was Breedlove's discovery that Schiefelbein had been cited for similar problems in past coaching stints in California, Illinois and Utah.

"There was one incident in California, where he was fired for having an inappropriate relationship with a 15-year-old. He had also been warned about inappropriate activities with children," Breedlove said.

Breedlove also discovered that USA Gymnastics, the group that governs U.S. gymnastics, had investigated Schiefelbein back in the mid-1990s.

According to USA-G's current president, Bob Colarossi, USA-G put Schiefelbein on probation after discovering his inappropriate behavior with students.

"The appropriate measure was to put him on probation for a year and monitor him closely," Colarossi said.

But the group did not make Schiefelbein's probation public. So other gym owners had no idea that Schiefelbein posed a threat to their students.

Asked why the USA-G didn't disclose their findings about Schiefelbein, Colarossi said, "That's just not what our policy is as it relates to misconduct at that level."

And when Breedlove sought details about Schiefelbein's past from the group, he said, "They would not release any information to me without a subpoena."

Had Jill and Ross Robinson known about Schiefelbein's past, they say, they never would have allowed him near Becca.

Spotting the Warning Signs

So it fell to their 13-year-old girl to tell the truth about Schiefelbein. In July 2003, he was convicted of seven counts of aggravated sexual battery and one count of especially aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor. He was given a 96-year sentence. He has since filed a motion for a new trial, however.

Becca's parents still wonder how they could have missed the warning signs.

"When I sat and listened during the sentencing hearing, and heard the psychologist talk about the red flags and the cycle of grooming. It just made me sick because it was like a blueprint of what happened to us."

Experts say parents can spot that blueprint by watching for some warning signs.

A few of the red flags may be:

-- rides home alone with a coach

-- gifts or cards from a coach

-- sleepovers at the coach's house

-- a coach who's worked in many different places

-- a child who suddenly wants to quit her sport

And Becca has her own advice for any kids out there who may be going through what she endured.

"I'd tell them to tell their parents right now. And I know it's really hard for them to talk about it. But in the long run it's so much better."