KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Shenea Booth Stiletto, an acrobatic gymnast, was 15 years old when her 35-year-old coach first sexually assaulted her while his wife slept two rooms away.
Aly Raisman, a former Olympic gymnast, was first molested at the age of 15 by disgraced former U.S. national women’s gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar.
“It started off slowly with some touching and with some game-playing that was very sexualized,” Stiletto said.
It's a price Stiletto, Raisman and countless other athletes have paid while training and competing under the United States Olympics and Paralympics Committee, or USOPC, umbrella.
To combat the scourge of sexual assault, particularly of underage females within Olympic sports, Congress created the U.S. Center for SafeSport in 2017.
The center is tasked with investigating claims of sexual abuse and expelling predatory coaches and other staff members from its ranks.
Prior to the creation of SafeSport, the governing body for each individual sport was responsible for investigating sexual-abuse claims within their ranks, a system athletes said left too many of them vulnerable.
Unfortunately, Raisman, Stiletto and attorneys who represent other survivors who spoke with the KSHB 41 I-Team said little has changed to protect athletes in a substantive way since SafeSport was formed.
After conducting more than 40 interviews with athletes, coaches, attorneys and amateur sports officials, the KSHB 41 I-Team learned that many question SafeSport’s handling of abuse claims and the system meant to address the fallout after Nassar's arrest and sentencing.
Training, homework, sexual assault: Stiletto's story
When Stiletto was 14 years old, she moved away from the comforts of home in 2001 to train with her coach David Reiakvam.
“They were very prominent figures within the gymnastics community,” Stiletto said. “They produced some of the best athletes in America in acrobatic gymnastics.”
For the first six months, Stiletto said her life revolved around training at the gym and doing homework. Normal things.
But that quickly changed.
"I felt like I was at the mercy of someone who was showing up at my bedside every morning,” Stiletto said.
Still a child, Stiletto never told anyone. Reiakvam was her coach and mentor, so she trusted him.
“He would say things to me like, ‘If anyone finds out, you're gonna lose everything; I'm going to lose everything,’” Stiletto said.
It wasn't until 2012, when police contacted Stiletto after launching a criminal investigation into Reiakvam, that she revealed the details of her own abuse.
Stiletto’s testimony, along with that of another gymnast, led to Reiakvam's conviction. He eventually was sentenced to two years in prison.
Stiletto questions SafeSport's investigative process
SafeSport added Reiakvam to its public disciplinary database in 2018 and listed him as permanently ineligible to participate in Olympic sports.
She wanted the center to do the same for another coach, who Stiletto said invited Reiakvam to coach athletes in USA Gymnastics gyms and sanctioned events.
Stiletto showed the KSHB 41 I-Team multiple emails she sent to USA Gymnastics about the coach in question and Reiakvam’s apparent access to athletes.
Several months after SafeSport launched an investigation into the second coach, Stiletto received an email from SafeSport that said it was closing the case administratively.
Stiletto was disappointed with that outcome — noting that, to this day, she doesn't know how the investigation was handled or why the case was closed.
“When I read that email, there was an anger within me of which I never thought I could re-experience again,” Stiletto said. “I was so enraged, and I couldn't understand how after such a big case that was so important that we felt finally landed in the proper hands of SafeSport, especially in a post-Nassar world, and everything we know at this point — also, too, with the support of Congress — that there was nothing that was going to be done.”
Audit shows SafeSport closes most cases
A 2020 audit by the Government Accountability Office shows SafeSport closed 82% of its investigations through administrative or jurisdictional closures from July 2019 to June 2020.
Cases can be closed for a number of reasons — including a lack of evidence, lack of cooperation in the investigation or other factors as determined by the center, including jurisdiction. SafeSport only has jurisdiction over active participants in Olympic sports.
During a Senate hearing in September, Raisman took aim at SafeSport for its handling of cases.
“I do not like SafeSport,” said Raisman, a six-time Olympic medalist and three-time gold medalist. “I hear from many survivors that they report their abuse and it’s like playing hot potato, where somebody else kicks it over to somebody else and they don’t hear back for a really long time.”
Stiletto wants to know more about the outcomes of SafeSport’s investigations.
“Someone definitely needs to be looking into SafeSport — how they practice, what they practice, what they preach, what are the solid and tangible results?” Stiletto said.
How SafeSport works
Anyone can file a report of abuse to SafeSport via phone or through SafeSport’s website.
Staff at the center then determine if they have jurisdiction to investigate.
National governing bodies for individual Olympic sports also are required to report allegations of abuse to SafeSport.
Once the information is passed along, it’s left up to the center to determine how the investigation proceeds.
SafeSport’s response to the criticism
SafeSport declined multiple interview requests from the I-Team, but Dan Hill, a spokesperson for the center, responded to some questions via email.
In response to criticism from athletes, Hill pointed to the center’s accomplishments in recent years, including the formation of the Centralized Disciplinary Database.
The public database shows that SafeSport has sanctioned more than 1,600 people.
While athletes and attorneys have criticized the center for a lack of transparency when it comes to the investigative process, Hill said SafeSport cannot discuss any cases due to the sensitive nature of its investigations.
Hill said it was also the center’s idea to publicize the database.
“That decision was made so that the public at-large would be aware of these actions, so that other institutions might be able to utilize that information when screening and conducting background checks,” Hill wrote via email.
The Empowering Olympic, Paralympic, and Amateur Athletes Act of 2020 prohibits former employees of the USOPC or the national governing bodies for individual sports from working or volunteering at SafeSport for two years.
It also blocks those groups from interfering in or attempting to influence the outcome of the center’s investigations.
A 2021 GAO report found no violations of the law at SafeSport, where staffing has increased significantly in the five years since its founding.
Hill said the center has grown from four staff members when it started in 2017 to more than 100 with roughly half of those handling investigations.
The center also provides training and education materials designed to help people prevent, recognize and respond to abuse, according to its website.
Hill said almost 3 million people have utilized SafeSport’s training resources.
“That’s progress,” Hill said.
While the center doesn’t have the same powers as law enforcement, including the power to issue subpoenas or execute search warrants, it’s not bound by a statute of limitations either, which allows the center to investigate cases that date back several years.
The center’s authority is limited to active participants in Olympic sports.
Stiletto said it’s not enough and worries about other young athletes within the Olympic movement. She also wants more information to be available about SafeSport’s investigations.
Now 35, Stiletto wishes she could go back and tell her teenage self “that she is powerful and, if someone hurts her, it’s not her fault, that she has the power to protect herself, and that the people who’ve hurt her are the ones that should be held accountable and are the ones that should be punished.”
The KSHB 41 I-Team conduced a four-part investigation into Center for SafeSport. You can read our coverage at the links below:
Part 1 | Sexual-abuse survivors demand accountability for predators in Olympic sports
Part 2 | Survivors recount claims of abuse at hands of coaches
Part 3 | Missouri boxing coach goes rounds with SafeSport after incorrect addition to database
Part 4 | Protecting young athletes from predators in sports