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Trish Kearney: 'I had no idea we were about to open a Pandora's box on swimming'

An unexpected letter from an old swimming friend brought childhood traumas into horrific focus, reveals Trish Kearney in this extract from her new book

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Trish Kearney, author of ‘Above Water’, in which she tells of the psychological damage caused by George Gibney’s abuse.  Picture by Clare Keogh

Trish Kearney, author of ‘Above Water’, in which she tells of the psychological damage caused by George Gibney’s abuse.  Picture by Clare Keogh

George Gibney, former swimming coach at the Trojan Swimming Club in  Dublin, is now believed to be living in the United States

George Gibney, former swimming coach at the Trojan Swimming Club in Dublin, is now believed to be living in the United States

'Above Water: A Survivor's Story' by Trish Kearney

'Above Water: A Survivor's Story' by Trish Kearney

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Trish Kearney, author of ‘Above Water’, in which she tells of the psychological damage caused by George Gibney’s abuse.  Picture by Clare Keogh

Trish Kearney was just 13 and a promising swimmer when George Gibney, the internationally recognised coach, began to abuse her. The process of control, entrapment and sexual abuse carried on for years. Finally, she escaped him and moved on, somehow managing to suppress the horrific memories deep inside. Until one day, a letter from a fellow swimmer brought those memories back to the surface. Here, she recalls that time.

It's 1979. I race home from school as usual, grab a quick bite to eat and am at the pool in time to gather with a few of my teammates before our five o'clock session at Trojan Swimming Club [in Dublin]. Compared to the mornings, when we are barely awake and say very little, the afternoon sessions are lively and fun as we chat between sets, splashing and joking. This afternoon's session is tough, and for the last 15 minutes, our coach George Gibney takes the breaststrokers to a side lane to do some work on their technique. I am among them.

Standing on the diving block at one end of the pool, my mind is focused on making the changes I've been working on. The others are now gathered at the far end and I am last to go. I take my marks and wait for Gibney's command to start... but it doesn't come. I stand up, wondering if he's forgotten about me. He is standing on the deck close by, looking at me.

"What?" I ask.

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George Gibney, former swimming coach at the Trojan Swimming Club in  Dublin, is now believed to be living in the United States

George Gibney, former swimming coach at the Trojan Swimming Club in Dublin, is now believed to be living in the United States

George Gibney, former swimming coach at the Trojan Swimming Club in Dublin, is now believed to be living in the United States

He walks towards me and stands beside the block I am standing on, his face almost touching my body, chest high. I feel uncomfortable, self-conscious, puzzled. Have I done something wrong?

"I'm going to bed with you this weekend," he says, and grins.

Before I have time to speak, he turns away, shouting, "Ready, Go."

I dive in, my mind racing, all thoughts of my stroke banished. What did he say? Go to bed with me?

I speak of it to no one, and as the days pass and he says nothing else, I begin to wonder if I've misheard him. Go to bed with me? What did that even mean?

Within a couple of weeks, I know exactly what it means. I am 13 years of age.

In the years that followed, Gibney orchestrated things at every turn to take me away from others, including my family. Walking with non-swimming friends, he would appear and offer me a lift, which I knew better than to refuse. He would insist I tell my parents not to come to galas, that he would bring me there and home. No one suspected it was all a ruse to drive me back to his empty office or to some lonely layby where he could assault me.

1992 - aged 26: By the time myself and my husband Eamonn were celebrating our daughter's first birthday, 13 years later, the flashbacks and memories of the abuse I had experienced were more frequent and becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Picking my baby up in her cot, changing her nappy or giving her a bath, I'd imagine I'd glimpsed George Gibney's face in the mirror or sensed him by my side.

It would only be the briefest of moments, never long enough to process, but enough to leave me feeling unsettled. At night in my dreams, I ran for my life, not knowing from what, or watched as an enormous wave crashed over my head, submerging me, before I woke, gasping for breath. I excused my nightmares, telling myself they were the result of a broken sleep, the perils of being the mother of a one-year-old, but a part of me knew; my walls were becoming weak, my secret was seeping out.

Furiously, by day I did my best to rebuild those walls, blotting out or dismissing the flashbacks and nightmares and never telling a soul.

Little did I know that such efforts would be in vain, as weeks after my daughter's first birthday the bombshell arrived in the form of a letter, carefully worded and written by my old friend and fellow swimmer Gary O'Toole. A letter that would spark a new set of nightmares.

"Dear Patricia,

I'm writing to you about things that might have happened to you whilst we were swimming together in Trojan [Swimming Club] and things that George Gibney might have done to you. If you know nothing about what I might be talking to you about, do NOT open the letter on the inside of this envelope, but if you know what I'm talking about, please open this letter."

In December 1990, Gary was on a plane to Australia with the Irish team, when Chalkie White, a coach on the trip, had the courage to speak out and tell him that he had been abused by Gibney as a young boy. It was a lot for 22-year-old Gary to take in, and over the next few months, as he processed what he had heard, he wondered about the teenage girls he had swum with whose friendships he had lost. Friendships such as mine. Over the next year, Gary left Trojan and began to further investigate Chalkie's allegation, wondering how best to proceed as his concerns fell on deaf ears.

Not willing to look away, but not wanting to intrude, in 1992 Gary wrote me that letter and sent it by registered post. For a moment I sat at the kitchen table scanning the envelope for clues as to what it might be, or who it might be from, never for a minute suspecting the life-changing effect its contents would have.

Inside the envelope, I discovered two letters, one of which was in a second, sealed, envelope. As I read the cover letter, my heart ran cold, the words "George Gibney" jumping out at me from the page. As real as if I'd opened my door to him, he morphed in front of me, just a few feet from where I was standing, his dark eyes leering at me from behind his glasses, his teeth visible from within his beard as he grinned. His smirk stabbing a hot rod into my chest, puncturing my lungs. I struggled to breathe, the air around me filled with his sickly-sweet aftershave, as strong and odorous as if he were once more on top of me. I shook my head to blink him away, before reading Gary's letter once more.

"If you know what I'm talking about, please open this letter."

Shaking, I reached for the second envelope, reading it hurriedly. The words George Gibney... abuse... statements... guards... counsellor... sending a chill through my entire body.

I sank into a chair, put my face in my hands and closed my eyes. But I couldn't unsee the letter, its words dancing before me, his name in bold. Deep within my soul, a small voice began to scream, and in the silence of my kitchen those screams, from the child I'd once been, blended with the sobs of the young mother I'd become. Hysteria overwhelmed me and I began to shiver uncontrollably. My stomach heaved and I rushed to the sink, staring into the basin.

Breathe, I told myself. One long breath in... one longer breath out.

My past had found me, ready or not.

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The letters followed me, their words seeping out, surrounding me in memories as years of secrets, lies, fear and loneliness consumed me. The words were out, Gary shouting them, Eamonn questioning them, Gibney laughing at them. I did not want them in my house.

I hoped I could forget about the letters, but I knew it was not going to be that easy. Immediately I sensed a change in the house. My home no longer felt like the sanctuary it once was. Gibney was there, in every room, in every thought. I put the radio and television on, trying to drown him out, with little success.

Where once the monster had lived in darkness, so rarely glimpsed that I'd wondered if I'd imagined his appearance, now he roamed free, reminding me by day that he had not gone away and in the darkness of night hurting me all over again.

I realised what a good job I'd done of suppressing my abuse by Gibney. My daughter's birth had triggered flashbacks and memories that had been upsetting but not overwhelming, and I'd never felt the need to tell Eamonn or anyone my secret. Now, however, the letter was all I could think about. Fragments of memories, long forgotten, had begun to surface, but I was not willing to entertain them.

I read the letter again. Yes, there were other victims. I was not the only one! I sat for some time trying to get my head around it. There were others! I knew I should have felt something - rage, sadness, hurt - but I felt nothing.

For some time, I sat reading and rereading the letter before hiding it away in my bedside locker. Several times over the next couple of days I thought about showing it to Eamonn, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. What would I say to him? What would he think? That he might feel compassion for me never entered my mind.

As the days passed, more and more memories of what Gibney had done to me emerged, swamping me as I watched television, fed my baby or lay awake in the night. My initial numbness wore off and I grew increasingly angry, until finally, after a senseless burst of rage one evening, Eamonn asked me what was wrong. I broke down and went to fetch the letter.

"Here. Read that," I said, thrusting it into his hands without ceremony.

Prior to that moment, Eamonn would have presumed he knew me well, that he and I were soulmates. After five years and a baby together, he had no idea that the memories of my childhood and the past that I'd shared with him had been so highly edited. I left the room, and when I returned, my silence made it clear that I was not willing to answer any questions.

For days, it remained the elephant in the room between us as I ignored the letter's existence, expecting Eamonn to know and immediately understand all that had happened with Gibney and how I was feeling.

As is his way, Eamonn asked no questions and demanded no answers. Instead he stayed quietly watching from the sideline as I moved away, withdrawing to the island of my teenage years, unwilling to speak of the letter or what it contained.

This island of mine wasn't a sad place but rather somewhere safe, where I could hide and lick wounds no one could see. A sanctuary away from everyone, where I could be the person I knew I was, not what I thought others might believe me to be. Fragile, and afraid of what Eamonn might be thinking, I set about rebuilding my island walls and attacking him if he came too close, just wishing to be left alone.

However, this time my island was different to when I was a teenager. I was no longer alone, as no matter how far away I tried to go, my daughter followed, her baby giggles and adoring hugs chipping away at my walls before I had a chance to cement them in place. As they slowly crumbled, Eamonn patiently waited, his quiet strength and undemanding love ever ready to guide me over the rubble and back home, whenever I was ready.

Returning wasn't easy. The letter and its contents were all I could think of. With my emerging memories came feelings of deep shame and guilt. My secret was out. Gary knew. Eamonn knew.

Yet despite my world being flipped upside down, I couldn't ignore the letter. It spoke about more than what had happened to me. It told me it had happened to others, that Gibney was even more of a monster than I'd imagined. While my initial thoughts on its arrival had been consumed by horror and shame, as the weeks passed I began to feel a fury I could not articulate, a hatred so deep it ate away inside me.

How had Gibney found the time to ruin other lives when he was stalking and abusing me? How many years had he been doing this? And worst of all, was he still doing it? Was someone else now a victim because I had moved on?

"I'm going to the guards," I blurted out to Eamonn after dinner one evening, surprising even myself with my announcement.

I had no idea of the personal cost that decision would have on my life and that of my family, nor could I have dreamt that, by coming forward with other survivors, we were about to open a Pandora's box on Irish swimming that would spotlight many more stolen childhoods and uncover a further two paedophiles in the sport.

As I announced my decision, I immediately felt lighter. Bring it on, I thought, as Eamonn hugged me. I sensed his pride in my decision and was fortified. I will get that b**tard.

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'Above Water: A Survivor's Story' by Trish Kearney

'Above Water: A Survivor's Story' by Trish Kearney

'Above Water: A Survivor's Story' by Trish Kearney

This is an edited extract from 'Above Water: A Survivor's Story' by Trish Kearney published by Hachette Ireland in trade paperback, £14.99.

Read a review of the book, here


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