Olympic Medal Winner Shows the Power of Sharing Your Story

Panel discussion at the Charles E. Smith Center at GW was part of the Red Flag Campaign to raise awareness on how to recognize signs of an abusive relationship.

Olympic medal winner Kellie Wells-Brinkley (c) shares her personal story of abuse with GW student-athletes. (William Atkins/GW Today)
October 26, 2017

By Keith Harriston

Kellie Wells-Brinkley, who won a Bronze Medal in the 2012 London Olympics in the 100 meter hurdles, gave this advice to the student-athletes crowded into the Colonials Club at the Charles E. Smith Center Monday evening: “Just tell.”

Ms. Wells-Brinkley urged members of the audience to take that action—when ready—if they ever suspect that a friend or a stranger is in an abusive relationship.

“If you see a red flag,” Ms. Wells-Brinkley told the audience at the George Washington University, “say something. If it is you, tell. If it is a friend, tell. Never be shamed into thinking that something is your fault. Find someone you trust and tell them.”   

Ms. Wells-Brinkley and Neil Irvin, executive director of Men Can Stop Rape, were on a panel that was part of an awareness campaign to educate students about recognizing “red flags” in abusive relationships. The discussion, part of the Red Flag Campaign, was co-hosted by GW’s Global Women’s Institute and the Athletics and Recreation Department. The panel was moderated by GWI Director Mary Ellsberg. Co-sponsors of the event were GW’s Title IX Office, the Feminist Student Union, Voices for Choices, Club Sports Council, the Women’s Leadership Network and the Center for Student Engagement.

Ms. Wells-Brinkley shared her story of abuse, one she described as “a long one with a lot of twists.”

“I can understand why victims don’t say anything,” Ms. Wells-Brinkley said. “I was raped. To form those words took me years.”

The abuse started when her mother’s boyfriend began “touching [me] inappropriately like a man touches his wife,” she said. The man raped her in the home he shared with her and her mother when Ms. Wells-Brinkley was in the 10th grade, she said.

She said she told her mother, who reacted with silence. Her mother had been physically abused by her husband and was mentally and physically abused by her boyfriend. “I don’t look down on my mom at all,” she said. “Hers was so much worse.”

Running track provided an outlet for her, and more importantly, provided a way to stay away from home. She eventually moved in with her estranged father, but never shared with him or anyone else what happened to her, not even after her mother and the boyfriend were killed in an automobile accident caused by the boyfriend.


After the panel, audience members walked to Kogan Plaza and planted red flags as part of the Red Flag Campaign to raise awareness about recognizing signs of abusive relationships. (William Atkins/GW Today)

All of that happened in the late 1990s. It wasn’t until she suffered a serious hamstring injury in the 2008 Olympic Trials that she realized that keeping the secret was harmful to her mental health. The injury kept her out of the sport for a long period.

“I was anxious,” she recalled, “angry and over the top. I realized then that track had been my relief.”

She finally shared the story of her abuse with her pastor and his wife and later wrote about it in her blog in 2011.

“I shared when I was ready,” she said. “My friends and family had no idea.”

Mr. Irvin says stories such as Ms. Wells-Brinkley’s are too common. “It shows how we normalize violence,” he said. “You know something is not right, and you don’t say anything.

“This story is not unique, unfortunately,” Mr. Irvin said. “And it is not cultural. It’s happening all over the world. Something similar is happening just blocks or a few miles away from here.”

Dr. Ellsberg cited the ongoing revelations of sexual harassment and allegations of sexual abuse about Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein as an example of how frequently people misuse their power to harm others.

“How could so many people know about it, and no one said anything,” Dr. Ellsberg said.

She emphasized the importance of influential peers and how they can speak up as role models to end violence in their communities. “What has really worked best is talking to groups like you,” Dr. Ellsberg said.

In a question and answer session, one audience member asked Ms. Wells-Brinkley how friends or relatives should have approached her if they suspected that her mother’s boyfriend was abusing her.

“Just by asking me,” Ms. Wells-Brinkley answered. “Or taking me out of there to a safe environment or to a professional who I could share it with.”






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