The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Her Olympic dream was derailed by abuse. Decades later, she’s suing under a law she fought to pass.

Bridie Farrell, a former competitive speedskater, fought for a law in New York that allowed victims of sexual abuse to file civil lawsuits years later. On Thursday she filed such a suit in New York Supreme Court against her alleged abuser, US Speedskating and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

At the time, Bridie Farrell said nothing.

She was a teenager then, with dreams of competing at the Winter Olympics, when one of short-track speedskating’s biggest stars — a man more than twice her age — began sexually abusing her, she says. The first time was in a car, Farrell says, and for more than seven months, the abuse continued in hotel rooms, bedrooms and an Olympic training center.

For years, Farrell kept quiet. When she finally told her story in 2013, she was upset that her sport’s stakeholders didn’t take action. She was also shocked to learn, she says, that many had knowledge of previous sexual abuse complaints.

In the years since, Farrell has worked to fix a broken system that she says allows sexual offenders to prey on underage athletes. And on Thursday morning, Farrell, now 38, filed a lawsuit in New York State Supreme Court against the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, US Speedskating and her alleged abuser, four-time Olympian Andy Gabel.

Farrell was able to file the case more than two decades later thanks to a 2019 state law for which Farrell had advocated. The law created a one-year “look-back” window during which victims of past sexual abuse can file civil suits even if the statute of limitations has expired.

“I mean, when it was happening, I was 15, and the farther away from 15 that I get, the more perspective I have,” she said in an interview with The Washington Post. “I mean, I couldn’t drive. I’d have to ask permission to go to the movies. I had a neighborhood lawn-mowing business. I was a kid. So the notion of coming forward against the very people and organizations that held the keys to my dream, I mean, it just doesn’t make sense why anyone would do that. And to me, it seems that the same system is still in place.”

The 33-page complaint alleges that Farrell was subject to “serial grooming and sexual abuse” that began in 1997, when she was a 15-year-old Olympic hopeful and Gabel was 33. The complaint calls the short-track speedskating star “a wolf in sheep’s clothing around under-aged female speedskaters.” It details instances of kissing, groping, digital penetration and emotional abuse.

Gabel could not be reached to comment Thursday; his attorney did not respond to a request for comment. But shortly after Farrell first went public with her accusations in 2013, he apologized, saying in a statement to the Chicago Tribune that he "displayed poor judgment in a brief, inappropriate relationship with a female teammate. It did not include sex, however I know what happened was wrong, and I make no excuses for my behavior.”

Farrell’s suit also focuses on the USOPC and US Speedskating officials who she says enabled Gabel for years. The complaint mentions five other underage victims, claiming that Olympic and speedskating officials “chose to turn a blind eye toward Defendant Gabel’s conduct and consistently rewarded, promoted, and protected Gabel, placing their desire for Olympic success before their obligation to protect [Farrell] and other young competitive athletes.”

“In fact, prior to his abuse of Bridie Farrell, [US Speedskating] installed Gabel as one of several USS athlete representatives, to whom complaints were to be reported about sexual molestation and abuse,” the complaint states, “the very type of predatory behavior in which Gabel himself was engaged.”

USOPC and US Speedskating officials did not immediately return requests for comment.

The lawsuit accuses Gabel and the Olympic organizations of negligence, assault and battery, and it claims officials received complaints about Gabel’s behavior as early as 1989. It points to a lengthy investigative report from Northern Michigan University, home of the U.S. Olympic Education Center, a training ground for many Olympic hopefuls. The 1990 report, which was reviewed by The Post, did not recommend criminal charges against Gabel but did detail allegations and rumors involving Gabel and two underage athletes.

“At the time I lived in the dorms, I felt it was common knowledge that Mr. Gabel was having sex with minors," one witness told investigators. “On one occasion someone put a note on his door which read: ’15 will get you 20.’ ” Said another: “I believe I’ve become somewhat calloused about the whole situation. I’ve mentioned to Andy that it is not normal to be with such young girls, and so have his friends at home, but he took no action to change.”

Farrell first shared her story with a Milwaukee radio station in 2013, and Gabel promptly resigned from his positions with the International Skating Union and US Speedskating.

Soon after, Nikki Meyer, a two-time Olympian, publicly accused Gabel of raping her when she was 15 years old, calling him a “child molester,” a “rapist,” and a “pedophile.” Gabel denied the accusations at the time, saying, “I never forced myself on any individual, and any allegations of that nature are absolutely false. Any relationship I had was consensual.”

US Speedskating announced an investigation into Gabel that year, but it has never disclosed any findings or issued any sort of sanction. In 2015, Gabel forfeited his US Speedskating membership. He is still a member of the organization’s Hall of Fame.

The lawsuit alleges that US Speedskating and the USOPC failed to take any action against Gabel. According to the complaint, Farrell traveled to Colorado Springs in the summer of 2013 and met with Scott Blackmun, the USOPC’s chief executive, asking that Gabel be barred from the sport.

“Blackmun’s response to Bridie Farrell, after she shared her story, was to chuckle, look down, and say, ‘Oh Gabes,’ ” the complaint states.

Blackmun was recovering from surgery for prostate cancer when he resigned in February 2018, in the wake of the gymnastics sexual abuse scandal. That same year, a USOPC spokesman told The Post, “Scott has a very different recollection of his conversation with Ms. Farrell, but she deserves our support, not our disagreement.”

For Farrell, the toll from the decades-old abuse is still felt today. The complaint states that she developed eating disorders and has struggled with “depression, fear, and anxiety including periodic suicidal thoughts.”

“It’s like the ultimate human test. It’s an extreme amount of pain and betrayal and deceit, and you have to learn how to grapple and cope with that,” she told The Post, “to be able to continue living. What he did will be with me forever.”

As abuse allegations have roiled many corners of the Olympic world and national governing bodies in the United States, Farrell has emerged as an outspoken advocate, including through the nonprofit she founded called America Loves Kids. She testified before the Senate Commerce subcommittee in April 2018, telling Capitol Hill lawmakers, “The idea that we’ve just started speaking up isn’t true. We’ve been yelling for years, but no one’s been listening.”

Farrell also fought for legislation in New York and Arizona that allowed victims to sue years after statutes of limitations had expired. A similar law in California allowed six former athletes to sue USA Swimming last month in three separate civil lawsuits.

Despite her experiences, Farrell says she’s not completely disillusioned with Olympic sports. She still loves speedskating and would encourage kids to lace up a pair of skates. That’s why, she says, she feels a sense of responsibility to challenge a system that she feels failed her.

“And because I believe that in my bones, that’s why I’m willing to fight to fix the system and not just throw it all away,” she said. “In all of those moments when adults could have done something — in 1990 in Michigan or in 1997 with me or all through the 2000s with Larry Nassar — they didn’t. They took the coward’s way out and did nothing.”