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Breathing again after swimming dream turned into a nightmare

Above Water

Trish Kearney

Hachette Books Ireland, €14.99

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Trish Kearney, author of Above Water. Picture: Clare Keogh

Trish Kearney, author of Above Water. Picture: Clare Keogh

'Above Water' by Trish Kearney

'Above Water' by Trish Kearney

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Trish Kearney, author of Above Water. Picture: Clare Keogh

Trish Kearney was nine when she first dreamed of being an Olympic swimmer. Haphazard and laid-back at school, she sought perfection in the pool. And she was good. Very good. She competed, won medals, and was so committed to training that she kept quiet about colds, sore throats, coughs, in case she wasn't allowed to swim. When she was 12 she joined a swimming club to further her dreams. There, she was coached by George Gibney, already a force in Irish swimming; a go-getter whose methods were getting results.

By then, Trish was training twice a day - at 5.15am and again in the evening - every day except Sundays, and was part of a talented group that included the later Olympic swimmer Gary O'Toole.

For about a year, Gibney encouraged Trish, working with her on perfecting her stroke and talking to her about the Junior European Championships. And then, one day, as she stood alone on the diving block, waiting for the command to dive in, Gibney walked over to her. "'I'm going to bed with you this weekend', he says, and grins," she writes in her devastating memoir Above Water.

Trish was 13. "What did that even mean?" she wondered. She soon found out. That year, "was the year I stopped laughing." From then until she was 19, she was repeatedly abused by Gibney, who worked his way into every area of her life. He cut her off, isolated and bullied her, gradually emptying her life until he occupied most of it. She babysat his children and worked in a job he got for her. She was forced to take lifts to and from the pool with him. He had a system whereby he would ring the family house phone, day or night - one ring, then hang up - and she would have to get straight to the phone and ring him back. He watched her and followed her, and destroyed her friendships, particularly with boys, specifically with Gary O'Toole, who had been a close friend.

This wasn't so much a monster hiding in plain sight as a monster standing centre-stage, manipulating everything around him in order to get exactly what he wanted.

Over the years of the abuse, Trish went from being lively, outgoing, confident, a leader, to someone described in her Sixth Year school reference as "a quiet, shy individual who appears to struggle to mix with fellow students". Gibney took all that from her. He abused, bullied and terrified her into shedding the bright plumage of her emerging personality, so that even towards the end of those years, when she had finished school and was a student nurse, she was frightened to say yes to a trip away to Cyprus with friends. Somehow, she found the courage to go. Within a week Gibney had tracked her down and had sent her a bouquet of flowers with a card: "Don't enjoy your holiday too much."

Somehow, through all of it, she kept within her a small kernel of resistance, a piece of the self she was before Gibney entered her life. This she attributes to the love of her parents, who she clearly adored, and her brothers and sisters. To the happy home life she had at "number 108", as she calls it. This was greatly dented by Gibney's abuse - and by the reactions of the very few people she told, including a priest at a religious retreat when she was 16, who raged at her that she was committing a mortal sin - but somehow was strong enough to give her what she needed to survive, and ultimately triumph. She writes about "a conscious choice [made] early on that my life would not be defined by abuse. It is a choice I make every day."

On that holiday to Cyprus, Trish met Corkman Eamonn, the man she later married, with whom she now has four children. The time at last was right for her to put Gibney out of her life. One last time, he drove her out into the mountains, locked the car doors, and "something inside me flipped… suddenly I felt enraged". Trish fought back. That was the last time Gibney abused her, although the legacy of what he did continued to affect her life in many ways.

Above Water is less the story of the abuse Trish suffered - very deliberately, she does not go into details, although neither does she shirk the reality of the violence Gibney did to her - than it is the story of the effect of that abuse, and how she found the courage to speak out and look for justice. When she did, her route was far from easy. Not everyone wanted to hear what she had to say. "There is no right time to tell, only wrong times," she writes. Trish's father was dead by the time she spoke out, but her mother, Agnes, found the truth of what Gibney had done very difficult, and theirs was a strained relationship for six years, mercifully mended before Agnes died.

Gibney's reckoning finally began in 1990 when Gary O'Toole, on a flight with the Irish swim team, heard from one of the other coaches, Chalkie White, that he had been abused by Gibney. That conversation sparked something in O'Toole - including a recollection of his youthful friendship with Trish, and how that had ended - and sent him down a road of investigation which led to Trish and other victims making statements to the Garda. In 1993 Gibney was charged with 27 counts of indecency against young swimmers and of carnal knowledge of girls under the age of 15. But he never stood trial - he walked free on a point of law, and left Ireland. For a time he coached in Scotland, then later moved to America.

He may not have stood trial, but thanks to Trish and a few brave others, Gibney was exposed, first in the Irish media, more recently via an excellent BBC podcast Where Is George Gibney? Since that aired, 18 more alleged victims have come forward, and there is a possibility now that Gibney could be tried on new charges. It is to be hoped that happens. Whether it does or not, Trish Kearney's memoir is proof that the powerless and betrayed can survive and triumph, as she herself has survived, to "search for the happy in every day".

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