Swimming legend Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and the International Olympic Committee’s 2014 Woman of the Year, is living, breathing proof that personal tragedy – no matter the magnitude – can be overcome.
52-year-old Hogshead-Makar, who last month was honored by the IOC as it’s Woman of the Year for the Americas, was raped while in college at Duke University in the early 1980s, and her attacker was never found. The assault affected her both physically and emotionally, and led to her calling it quits on her then-burgeoning swimming career. At first she thought her dreams were shattered, and that what had happened would come to define her.
“I didn’t have a vision that I would ever feel safe,” she said during a recent Monday evening phone call. “I thought I would always feel sad, angry and anxious.”
But, with the help of coaches, family and friends, she fought that negativity, winning three gold medals in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles less than three years after her attack. The gold medals didn’t end her inner turmoil, but they were proof that life is never completely terrible or completely incredible. Instead, life is one long journey, she said, featuring ups, downs, and a ton of lessons.
“The rape didn’t change me as a person,” Hogshead-Makar said. “Rape is considered to be so shameful. But it doesn’t change the fundamental part of the person. It doesn’t change who that person is. In some ways it’s emotionally the same as recovering from death, wars, etc.”
Hogshead-Makar hasn’t forgotten her past. In fact, she uses what she went through, and the lessons it taught her, to try and help others. She’s a civil rights lawyer who formerly practiced at Holland & Knight LLP, and last year she founded Champion Women, a nonprofit organization focused on advocating for equality, accountability and transparency with regards to some of the world’s most powerful and influential educational and athletic institutions.
She has also been acting as a consultant to the legal team that represents the victim who accused Florida State University Quarterback Jameis Winston of rape. That case, of course, has been extremely public – which, according to Hogshead-Makar, is a sign of progress.
“New media is making all the difference in the world,” she said. “Before, victims went into their dorm rooms and lived in shame. Social media has given victims the ability to empower themselves.”
While the criminal case in the Winston situation is over, the results of which have been hotly contested, a civil case is still ongoing.
Hogshead-Makar indicated that the massive publicity being given to cases like the Winston one are leading to an eventual shedding of the stigma attached to the discussion of rape. It’s no longer something that is only talked about in whispers…and that can only lead to positive change.
“Victims are standing up and demanding more from society,” she said. “The shame and blame needs to be appropriately shifted to the perpetrator. Students are expecting schools to handle these situations correctly and businesses are expected to do so as well. So are institutions like the NFL or NBA.”
Today, more than three decades after her own personal tragedy threatened to tear her world apart, Hogshead-Makar finds herself happy and fulfilled…AND she believes she deserves to feel that way. She’s married and has three children, all of whom swim more than she does nowadays.
It wasn’t easy to overcome her own tragedy, but Hogshead-Makar said she is determined to leave a legacy that can help others, that shows the pain doesn’t have to be forever.
“Back then I thought it was really going to affect my future,” she said. “It was a slow process of starting to feel safe again. But you have to have a vision for what the future is going to be like. And frankly, my life is great now.”
Ben Horney covers all sports for New York Sportscene and can be contacted on twitter @BenHorney.