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Olympian alum Nancy Hogshead-Makar takes on sexual harassment, assault

As a sophomore at Duke, Nancy Hogshead-Makar went for a run between East and West Campus, an activity that many students do on a weekly basis. 

The difference is that, one evening, Hogshead-Makar was pulled into the woods and raped. 

In the 30 years since, the former Olympic swimmer has turned her hardships into motivation to fight for equality in sports and to stand up for those who have been sexually abused by their coaches. As the #MeToo movement continues to gain traction, more and more instances of sexual misconduct in athletics are coming to light. 

“The #MeToo movement let people know how frequently women are sexually abused and harassed, that this is a normal part of a woman’s life,” Hogshead-Makar said. 

The work to combat sexual harassment—whether in the boardroom, the classroom or the swimming pool—is far from over, and since her time on campus, Hogshead-Makar has been one of the strong figures leading the charge. 

Duke origins 

Even before she enrolled in college in 1980, Hogshead-Makar was a world-class athlete, the number one swimmer in the country at senior nationals as a 12-year-old. 

With a scholarship to Duke, she was on the path to the Olympics until that fateful day during her sophomore year. 

“It really threw a curveball in my life,” she said. “I really thought my swimming career was over. I couldn’t be alone with my own thoughts.”

Although she continued to excel academically, she couldn’t sleep and never felt safe no matter what she did, suffering from what she now knows was PTSD.

However, she said that the support she received at Duke helped her recover. Sue Wasiolek, associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students, was especially crucial in helping her continue her courses. 

“I got what I think every rape victim should get—people believed that it happened,” Hogshead-Makar said. “The right people believed in the depth of how painful this was and how difficult it was to recover.”

Wasiolek said that though she doesn't recall the exact steps Duke took to help, she does remember how Hogshead-Makar handled the situation. 

“I remember her strength and her courage and her resilience,” Wasiolek said. “I still jog along Campus Drive, and I don’t pass that spot without thinking of her.” 

Hogshead-Makar noted that Wasiolek helped her move into a new dorm on West Campus so that she wouldn’t have to walk through the woods.  

When she went to pay multiple parking tickets—from parking illegally so she wouldn't have to walk by herself—the transportation department gave her a permit allowing her to park closer. 

Her swimming coach Bob Thompson also encouraged her to take time off. 

“He said, ‘Nancy, you’re just going to take a break, and you are going to win at 1984 Olympics,” Hogshead-Makar noted. “I thought, this guy is crazy. There was no model for anyone taking a break at all.”

During her time away from the pool, she spent time with her sisters in Pi Beta Phi sorority and got introduced to the Women’s Studies department. Professor Jean O’Barr was particularly influential in inspiring her later work as an activist. 

Slowly, she began to heal and returned to swimming in 1983. Her coach said all she had to do to keep her scholarship was show up to the meets. 

“The first meet I was so out of shape, I could barely warm up, but I won. Then [I] went to [the] next meet and swam even faster,” Hogshead-Makar said. “All it did was it gave me the hunger back again.”

She continued the work and made it to the 1984 Olympics, where she won three gold medals and one silver medal. But she didn’t forget about Duke, returning after three semesters of Olympic training to graduate with a degree in political science in 1986. 

At the Olympics, she realized that she could do something with the fame that swimming had brought her. She decided she wanted to help women and that law was the best way to do this. 

“I understood there was this thing called sexism that affected women, but I thought I could achieve out of it because I was smart and hardworking and talented,” Hogshead-Makar said. “I thought I could bypass sexism, but I learned it didn’t matter how hard I worked.” 

Advocacy work

After graduating from Georgetown Law School, Hogshead-Makar worked with the Women’s Sports Foundation, which aims to increase girls’ access to sports. She moved up the ranks during her 30 years there, as a board member, then vice president and president. She also served as a legal adviser from 2003 to 2010 and as the senior director of advocacy from 2010 to 2014. Issues that she worked on included athlete abuse by coaches and Title IX enforcement.

She has also assisted colleges in addressing sexual violence on campus. For instance, after Lisa Simpson was sexually assaulted by University of Colorado football players in 2001, the school hired Hogshead-Makar to help them make changes to their procedures. 

“I came in and made sure that those changes stuck and that the athletic department didn’t get away from the rest of the school, and to make sure the processes were fair to everybody,” she said. 

Hogshead-Makar explained that her own experiences at Duke after her rape helped her understand what colleges should be doing to help victims. 

“I was an expert witness in cases where the school did the exact opposite of what the dean’s office did for me,” she said. “It was a recipe for disaster.”

In addition, she’s worked extensively to combat sexual abuse in the Olympic realm, noting that previously there was no safety net for victims.   

In 2012, Hogshead-Makar helped pressure the U.S. Olympic Committee to pass a resolution that requires all national sports governing bodies to outlaw romantic and sexual relationships between coaches and athletes. 

“It’s a new world order for coaches to understand they can’t look at the track as a bar, as someplace to look for romance,” she said. 

She also helped with efforts to ban her former U.S. Olympic team coach Mitch Ivey who sexually harassed her and her teammates. He eventually received a lifetime ban from USA Swimming in 2013. 

“I witnessed firsthand a lot of lying, and saying one thing and doing another,” she said. “All because Mitch Ivey was very popular.” 

In 2014, she started the organization Champion Women, which leads targeted efforts to address sexual abuse in sports and to promote sports access and equality.

Hogshead-Makar noted that she enjoys having a board who is fully supportive of everything the organization does. She also likes working with the two to five research assistants throughout the school year, who are law school students. 

One of the group’s recent successes is the passage of the Safe Sports Act in 2017, which states that all youth sports organizations must report sexual abuse to law enforcement within 24 hours. In addition, the act extends the statute of limitations for reporting and says that victims of sexual abuse are to be compensated with a mandatory minimum of $150,000.

“A lot of these efforts require years and years of sustained pressure and effort to make them happen,” she said. “Some people think all the things we’ve done have to do with Larry Nassar, but if we hadn’t laid the groundwork for the whole thing, [I'm] not sure it would’ve made the kind of change it did."

She indicated that the Larry Nassar case exemplifies how much power coaches have over athletes.

The former USA Gymnastics national team doctor and osteopathic physician at Michigan State University was accused of molesting at least 250 female athletes and was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison earlier this year.

“Under the rest of society, when one person has a lot of power over another person, you have very bright lines in terms of boundaries,” she said. “There are prohibitions on romantic and sexual relationships. For some reason, sports got [left] out of that completely.”

For years, many sports organizations did nothing to protect children or give them a reporting mechanism, she said. 

However, with new laws being passed and the #MeToo movement in full swing, there is hope on the horizon, though work still needs to be done. 

“It affects all women,” Hogshead-Makar said. “#MeToo was a way of saying to the world, this is not an isolated example.”

Wasiolek said that she thinks Hogshead-Makar is the perfect person to advocate for women’s rights because she is level-headed, well-spoken and knows how to bring people together. 

“She is so highly regarded, and when she speaks, people truly do listen,” Wasiolek said. “I couldn’t be more pleased and delighted that she has taken on this as her life mission.” 

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