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Becoming a Survivor by Margaret Hoelzer

My name is Margaret Hoelzer. I am a two-time Olympic swimmer and a three-time Olympic medalist. But, more importantly, I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Those are two sentences you don’t hear together very often, or at least you don’t think of belonging together, but they do. My story of survival is the same story that got me to the Olympics. It’s a story of strength, of overcoming, and ultimately learning to believe in myself.
I am from Huntsville, Alabama. I was abused from the ages of 5-7 years old by the father of a friend of mine. My abuse was fairly typical. My abuser was someone I knew and trusted, someone my family knew and trusted. This man gained access to me via his own child. Like so many victims, I didn’t tell anyone because this man asked me not to. He was someone I trusted, and he was asking me to keep a secret; that was a good thing, right? I felt special. An adult was trusting me, so I did what he said. I didn’t tell anyone until years later, when I was eleven.
In 1994, we had sexual abuse education in our school system in Alabama. Little did I know how rare or how important sexual abuse education was and what a role it would play in my life. After watching a series of videos and having some class discussions, I decided to tell my best friend at the time what had happened to me. I wasn’t sure if it was abuse, if it was what I had seen in the videos, but I felt compelled to tell her. My eleven-year-old friend knew exactly what to do. She looked right at me and said, “Margaret, I think you were molested.” ‘Molested,’ now that is not a word you hear in your average 11-year-old’s vocabulary. My friend then did the only thing she could have, which was the exact right thing to do. She said, “You need to tell your parents.”
My mom’s first clue that something was up should have been that it was a gorgeous day outside, she was about to put this border up around her bedroom wall, and I volunteered to help. Helping with chores when I could be playing outside? Yeah, something was definitely up. For the next hour or so, I told my mom everything that had happened to me, and she listened. Just that, she listened. She didn’t panic, yell, scream, cry or freak out. She listened and told me she believed me when I was done. We went and got ice cream afterward because she wanted me to know that I hadn’t done anything wrong and that it would all be ok.
My mom called the police after that. What else was she supposed to do? She had no idea, and she wasn’t prepared for this, but she knew she had to do something. She had to be there for me and show me that she believed me. The police ultimately sent us to the National Children’s Advocacy Center in my hometown, the first advocacy center in the entire country, an organization meant to help abused kids like me. The hardest part was walking in the front door. After that, it was all downhill. I got counseling, and my mom got counseling. We ultimately prosecuted my abuser (although the case was thrown out of court for lack of evidence which is all too common), and I started the healing journey.
I was tall for my age, and at 11years old, I was also just beginning to get good at swimming. All the emotions, the fear, anxiety, sadness, anger, confusion, all of it, I poured into the pool. I didn’t start swimming because of my abuse, but I was lucky I had a natural outlet for all of the emotions I had no idea what to do with. I continued to rise through the ranks of the swimming world. I ultimately went to Auburn University on a swimming scholarship. Auburn was right down the road, a four-hour drive from Huntsville, but it had one of the best swimming programs in the country, and I found a place where I belonged.
In 2004 at 21 years of age, I made my first Olympic team. In 2008 at 25 years old, I made my second Olympic team and medaled three times, two silvers and a bronze. It was a dream come true, but there was more I wanted to accomplish. At 11-years old, I had decided I wanted to help other kids like me, that I wanted to be involved in the sexual abuse prevention world somehow. I just had to figure out what that would look like. In 2008 several things came together. I had been thinking about telling my story publicly for a while but had this image of a white picket fence and 2.5 kids while doing it, in essence, the perfect life. I finally realized in 2008 that it was always going to be hard and that I didn’t need the perfect life to tell my story. My story was worth telling all on its own, for no other reason than because it was mine.
In 2008 a month after the Olympic games, I went public to the world that I had been sexually abused. The outpouring of love and support was unlike anything I had dreamed possible. I became the spokesperson for the National Children’s Advocacy Center. I continue that today as a speaker on the topic of sexual abuse awareness and prevention. My journey isn’t over; it is still ongoing. I am still striving every day, working to be a survivor. It’s a continuing process, and some days are easier than others. Just like my journey to the Olympics, being a survivor is powerful, but you have to work at it; that’s where the power comes from. The first step is making that decision, deciding that you choose yourself and that you want to heal, and you want to reclaim your life. There will always be triggers, memories, and setbacks. That is life, but it’s the journey forward that makes us strong. I sincerely believe every victim out there can become a survivor; in fact, I know they can, I believe in you. ◙

About Margaret Hoelzer

Margaret Hoelzer is a Double Olympian and three-time Olympic Medalist in Swimming, and a former World Record holder. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, she was awarded Silver medals in the 200m Backstroke and the 400m Medley Relay. She also holds a Bronze medal in the 100m Backstroke. Originally from Huntsville, Alabama, Margaret attended Auburn University, where she was a 22-time All- American and a 6-time National Champion.

Since retiring in 2010, Margaret has been happily residing in the Pacific Northwest. She teaches private swim lessons and frequently travels for swim clinics and motivational speaking. Margaret is an accomplished public speaker and vocal advocate for victims of sexual abuse, having given speeches on Tedx and at various conferences and fundraisers around the country. In her speeches, Margaret shares her personal experience as a survivor of sexual abuse. She focuses on lighting the path toward healing for other victims, their families, and friends.

Margaret is currently the National Spokesperson for the National Children’s Advocacy Center and a featured survivor in the training video ‘Stewards of Children’ by Darkness to Light. She has also been involved with USA Swimming’s Safe Sport program since its inception in 2010. She has also worked with the US Olympic Committee in forming their Safe Sport Program. To book Margaret, contact

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