Monday 23 September 2019

'Mam took her own life because she felt she didn’t look after me as a little girl'- Swimmer Karen Leach on being abused by Olympic coach

Karen Leech Photo: Screengrab from Ray D'Arcy show on RTE
Karen Leech Photo: Screengrab from Ray D'Arcy show on RTE

Aoife Kelly and Catherine Devine

A former swimmer has spoken out about being mentally and sexually abused by her swim coach when she was just a young girl.

Karen Leech (37) spoke to Ray D'Arcy on RTE about her harrowing experience at the hands of former Irish Olympic coach Derry O'Rourke.

O'Rourke was a notorious swim coach paedophile, who was jailed for 12 years in 1998 for sexual assault, indecent assault and statutory rape of children.

"I swam from the age of about 10 to 17 years of age. When I was a little girl I had a dream and my dream was to swim for Ireland at the Olympics. Around the age of 10 I was swimming in the local community games and Derry O’Rourke was there, he was sitting on the bank, and he was the Irish Olympic coach at the time."

Karen said that O'Rourke asked her parents if she could join his swimming club based in Palmerstown in Dublin.

"He said he would make my dreams come true."

Even from a young age, Karen knew that O'Rourke was "powerful".

"He was the news. He was God. He was called God. What Derry O’Rourke said went. What Derry O’Rourke wanted he got.  No one answered Derry O’Rourke back.

"Just by looking at him you could tell he had that presence, he was given the power by everybody and he took that power to abuse me and many other swimmers, my friends in that swimming club."

Karen said that O'Rourke promised her that she "would go far".

"He said he saw great potential in me and that I would go far. Remember he’s an Irish Olympic swimming coach. This is my dream as a little girl. I’d watched the Olympics over the years and I thought I’d like to walk out under the Irish flag."

She followed a rigorous training regime that involved getting up every morning at 5am so she could swim before school.

"Dad would drive to swimming and he would sleep in the car while I trained in the pool every morning. Dad would wait until I’d come out. I’d go back swimming for two hours in the afternoon – 2 hours in the morning – Monday to Friday and training on Saturday and more weekend competitions.  My whole life became around swimming and everything was swimming."

Karen said that she believed O'Rourke was the "best coach in Ireland" and that she trusted him.

"He knew what he could do to me the very first time he saw me. He had his plan in place for me the very first day he saw me.

"As time went on when I was there my body started to stop so instead of getting better I was getting worse. I would be many mornings, many an afternoon swimming up and down the pool and I’d be crying into my goggles. I don’t remember a time it was never there [the abuse].  I don’t remember the first time. It was just always there."

Karen said that she would be abused in store rooms and in the changing room.

"There was a board room at the end of the swimming pool where we kept our boards or paddlesin... If you went in and he came in after you – it was very dark, there was just one light – he’d put his foot against the door and jam you in, or stand with his back against the door and you were locked in and you couldn’t get out and you’d have to stay there until he was finished, as he’d say ‘checking’ you. 

"The changing rooms in the mornings, I used to run into the changing rooms in the mornings and I’d ask the girls to wait for me but they couldn’t because they were running too. There was a chair in the foot pool of the showers and I would hear the chair creak and I would hear footsteps through the shower and I’d see the handle of the door open and the door would open and I’d see a shoe and I’d see a knee and I’d see a belly with a Speedo t-shirt or the familiar jumper and the next thing he’d be standing there, and he’d shut the door and I’d be suck there.

"I’d be frozen and he would be there again and I’d do what he wanted me to do until he would finish ‘checking’ me and I’d run out to my dad’s car. My dad was asleep in his car on the other side of that wall of that changing room when that was happening. Corridors, hotel rooms when we slept away on competitions, anywhere."

Karen said that she stayed at the club because she wanted to pursue her Olympic dreams.

"It took every single thing that was important to me as a little girl away from me, so many things. When I left at 17 where he left off I took up, how I valued myself, what I thought about myself, how I treated myself, how I let other people treat me over the years was horrendous. I buried it very very very deep until after he went to prison. And I didn’t tell anybody.  I told nobody till he was in prison. I was too scared to tell anybody."

When she turned 30, she said she told her mum.

"I was heartbroken. I told my mam and I didn’t tell my dad. I asked mam to tell dad because I couldn’t tell dad. I suppose 16 years ago after the court case, I remember when it was in the newspaper, even before my court case, mam was sitting in the kitchen and she looked at me and she said, ‘Karen, I’m reading the newspaper today, today I’m reading about my little girl. This is my child I’m reading about and it’s you.’

After the court case in 2001 on a Thursday my mam told me that she was sorry that she didn’t look after me as a little girl, that she hadn’t taken care of me. On the bank holiday Monday my mam was taken out of the canal by a fireman and my mam was gone. My mam was dead, so I lost my mam.

"Dad died 5 years ago. He had a massive stroke and he was in hospital and I was feeding him and I said to him, ‘Dad I love you.  You’re the best dad ever.’ And I wanted him to know that because he was and he said, ‘Karen, I don’t know about that.’ And I knew exactly what he meant. Shortly after that he died."

Karen said that she "couldn't believe the leniency of Tom Humphries' sentence.

"When I heard on Tuesday that Tom Humphries had got two and a half years I just couldn’t believe it. I went into a bit of shock. I was devastated for the young woman because I’ve been through that system. It’s horrendous. It really is. You’re grilled, you’re putting your whole heart, your whole life, everything on the line to tell somebody what happened to you.  When I heard what she had gone through and that he only got two and a half years I was devastated for her and then it turned to anger because I just thought no way, this is wrong.  I couldn’t believe it.

"All week it’s been about Tom Humphries. I say to hell with Tom Humprhies. What about that young woman? I knew what Tuesday was like for her. I know what it’s like when you come out of the courtroom after hearing the sentence, and I really hope she’s okay because she’s a very very brave young woman. 

"All this week should have been about her and the courage she had because Tom Humphries wouldn’t be in prison and many other paedophiles wouldn’t be in prison if she hadn’t have come forward, if I hadn’t come forward, if my friends the swimmers didn’t, if anybody who has been abused in this country hadn’t come forward to tell our story there’d be no case. There is no case without us and no one can tell the story the way we can. We know it, we’ve lived it."

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