Olympic Showjumper Anne Kursinski Shared Abuse Story to Save the Children

—Sarah Hickner

Anne Kursinski Tells Her #MeToo Story

Foreword By Natalie Mayrath:

Even before Simone Biles pulled out of the Olympic Gymnastics Team Event in Tokyo, the reporter originally responsible for blowing open the Larry Nassar scandal published a headline that said: USA Gymnastics May Never Recover From Larry Nassar. 

The New York Times reported that USA Gymnastics is “still struggling to recover.” That’s the understatement of the century!

As compounding allegations unraveled the USA Gymnastics image of pure dynasty, it became clear that a systemic failure to consider claims or alert authorities about repeated allegations of abuse had been, as one abused gymnast put it, rotting the organization from the inside. The initial Indianapolis Star report that opened the floodgates described an internal policy that “enabled predators to abuse gymnasts long after USA Gymnastics had received warnings.” 

The warnings went unheeded.  If you can stomach watching Nassar’s victims making their statements at his sentencing, you’ll hear each woman, one by one, repeat eerily similar stories, and you’ll notice the devastatingly common theme: The adults — who ran the organizations which many of these girls devoted their lives to — refused repeatedly to listen. It is crushing hearing many of them say they were silenced, dismissed, even belittled. 

Molding top athletes for competition was the biggest priority. And so the vibrance of The Gold Medal Machine took precedence over the well-being of the children who served it, for decades.

Similarly, Anne Kursinski grew up riding in an equestrian dynasty environment at Flintridge. It was a who’s who of top riders, top horses, and the related social scene. There, she was bred to be a champion, which she absolutely is. But if you wanted to reach the elite level, you had to submit to the God-like trainer.  And so it goes, for decades, the abuse was rampant. And Anne is also a horsewoman, a mentor, a survivor.

The bold stand against rampant sexual misconduct in organizations carried over into the equestrian world via Anne Kursinski. Anne dealt with her abuse privately through therapy for many years, until she decided that she must speak out to save the children in her sport and beyond. What stuns me about all of this is how difficult the hierarchies around these women made it for them to even be heard, and how tight-lipped the organizations remained, going to pathetic lengths to deny or dismiss repeated rumblings. And that Olympic medalists like Anne, or gymnast Jamie Dantzscher, thought they were the only ones.

Until Anne connected with her own sister and found out “he got her, too,” as described in her full remarks to StreamHorseTV below. Until Danzscher, years after her Olympic appearance of 2000, pulled fellow USA gymnasts aside during an anniversary event and asked them if Nassar had done to them what he did to her. 

These women in many cases were made to believe they should just keep going, and in these examples, they did exactly that. They kept riding, kept tumbling, kept competing, occasionally won Olympic medals, as the organizations enabled the poisonous abusive culture so that their elite trainers — not their elite minors — were protected.  How could predators be protected over children for so long?! 

We honor and respect those who have boldly spoken out, for they are paving a path of safety for those who come after them, by demonstrating the power of voicing the truth.  We can only hope that the enablers of sexual abuse can own up to their mishaps, honestly communicate, and take action toward change.

Equestrians across the US are cheering on Team USA in the Tokyo Olympics. We watch in a new world;  a lot has changed in the world of sports since the London Olympics in 2012. The US Gymnastics world imploded with sexual assault allegations, amidst the #metoo movement. 

In the midst of it all, the equestrian world saw its own share of trainers falling from grace when riders began to come forward, sharing their own harrowing stories of assault. Trainers like Jimmy Williams who seemed untouchable, who shaped the world of show jumping in the United States as we know it, have had their names removed from the record books as if they never existed. Anne Kursinski, five-time Olympian and two-time silver Olympic medalist in Show Jumping was instrumental in uncovering the truth about Williams, and she shared her story on StreamHorseTV’s Trailblazing Horsewomen

“It got to the part where part of therapy was saying it out loud, talking about it, sharing it with somebody. So I share it [her sexual assault story from her horse trainer when she was a minor] with my sister. Oh my god, he got her too, and of course, we never knew, and that’s what made me crazy. I had lived with it. I had dealt with it.” 

She continued, “Then I shared it with some other people. Several girls came forward from the riding club that Jimmy Williams had abused.” From a legal standpoint, she says, “Statute of Limitations… We couldn’t do anything.”

Anne Kursinski at the Winter Equestrian Festival.
Anne competing at the Winter Equestrian Festival. (Photo credit HorseBuff.com)

A Culture Of Power Imbalance

It seems in the middle of the competitive world of top athletes, villains have crept in taking advantage of the competitor’s desire to be at the top of the game, and exercising a power imbalance outlined by Beth Rasin in her Editor’s Letter for The Chronicle Of The Horse.

Rasin states, “There’s no reason to look the other way because of “reputation” any more than there was for Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Bill Cosby, or the many others whose misconduct has come to light in the last few years. In fact, Williams’ fame most likely prevented many from questioning him sooner, and the situation highlights the power imbalance inherent between a student, especially a minor, and a trainer.”

A Little Voice Inside Her Head

For Kursinski, her case was pretty much closed. Then a little voice inside her head kept telling her she needed to do something. “When it came out with the gymnasts and everything I thought somebody’s got to do something to save the kids.  I love my sport and I love my horses. Thank god for the horses.” 

“It’s got to stop,” she continued. “It just can’t happen.”

Kursinski got together with DiAnn Lang, the USEF Youth director to support and advocate for the US Center for SafeSport.  The number of riders coming forward, many over events that happened decades ago, increased when this organization was created to help protect minors from sexual and non-sexual misconduct by adults within the sport.

Lang, who publicly shared her own story of sexual assault by her riding instructor, says that the program is “encouraging and necessary, because it gives victims an independent path to report abuse, but it’s not a silver bullet. We as parents, coaches, and equestrians must be vigilant to protect our most vulnerable and ostracize predators, not the victims. And we all must work to create a culture where abused individuals feel safe enough to come forward to stop the cycle and start to heal.”

Anne Kursinski teaching one of her showjumping students.
Anne teaching one of her students. (Photo courtesy of StreamhorseTV)

Moving Onward, Doing Better

As we move forward to a new year of being glued to the tv, cheering for our favorite athletes representing our country, I believe it’s up to all of us to take care of the kids. It’s hard to watch and not feel defeated and disgusted by all the dirty secrets that have been exposed to the world, but now that they are out, we understand what’s at stake. 

Kursinski highly recommends therapy for anybody who might be going through something, and says therapy got her through, she achieved forgiveness and even got an apology (which she says was “wild”).  She ultimately credits the horses for stewarding her through her toughest moments.

“I’m just so thankful that I’ve had a great career… the horses were my savior,” she said.

As parents, we need to be aware of what’s going on and listen to our kids—ask questions and be in tune with what’s happening in their lives as much as possible. As coaches, we protect the kids, building them up. As peers, we keep our eyes and ears open, willing to listen and call each other out if needed. 

In this beautiful world of horses, it’s time to stand up and move forward together. #WeRideTogether

Read more about the U.S. Center of Safesport here.
For more about Anne Kursinski, visit annekursinski.com.
Learn more about #WeRideTogether here.

About the Author:

Sarah Hickner, creator of LiveRideLearn, has been hungry for everything horse-related for as long as she can remember. Her love of horses has taken her from the barrel pattern to the racetrack, to polo fields, and now facing down large obstacles with her off the track Thoroughbred Silas. When Sarah’s not at the barn, she’s usually trying to corral her two kids, or staying up way past bedtime to get all her adventures written down. 

You can follow author Sarah Hickner’s adventures at www.LiveRideLearn.com.

This article was brought to you by StreamhorseTV in partnership with EQuine AMerica Magazine.

About StreamhorseTV: StreamhorseTV, where horse enthusiasts join to expand their horizons, is the premier centralized live stream, replay, entertainment, and education community for all international equestrian disciplines, sports, and breeds. Learn more at www.Streamhorse.TV and follow them on InstagramFacebook,  Twitter, and YouTube