- The Washington Times - Monday, February 20, 2006

TURIN, Italy — These Winter Olympics were a success for Chris Witty even before the competition began.

The long track skater was named the U.S. flag bearer for the opening ceremony, an honor she admitted she wanted badly.

“Just to be part of the team is an honor, but to lead them is amazing,” she said after receiving the news.

That Witty was selected by her peers was no surprise. She is well-liked by the public, beloved by her teammates. This is Witty’s fifth Olympics — she has participated in the Winter Games since 1994 and was in the 2000 Summer Games as a cyclist.

Put all that aside and she still might have been the choice. Witty, who finished a distant 27th in the 1,000 meters yesterday at the Oval Lingotto, already has achieved a level of accomplishment, satisfaction and inner peace most athletes never will approach.

Most of that has little to do with sport, although she did win a gold medal and set the existing world record in the 1,000 meters in 2002.

Her biggest victory came on a deeper and more personal level, one first made public in 2004. She talked about her fight against sexual abuse — she is a spokesperson for awareness and prevention programs — and how she was a victim herself, from age 4 through 11, while growing up in suburban Milwaukee.

It was a neighbor in his late 60s. There was nothing to suspect about him, except maybe that he had no kids but kept a dollhouse in his basement. It started there. It was the trap, the lure. Go along and you get to play with it. She said she can still recall, more than 25 years later, the smell of the place.

The abuse ended after Witty saw a video on the subject and thought, “That’s enough.”

But the memories, the flashbacks and nightmares continued long after. Despite her athletic success — she won the only two U.S. speedskating medals at the 1998 Games in Nagano — so did the guilt and periodic bouts of depression.

Nearly 10 years ago, Witty freaked out when she learned the man had done prison time for assaulting a girl Witty used to baby-sit. But back then, she couldn’t bring herself to talk about it.

But just before the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, Witty learned the man was no longer under house arrest and was free from the ankle bracelet police used to track his whereabouts. Not only that, he had moved back into his old neighborhood, near where her parents still lived.

That jolted her to talk to a U.S. Olympic Committee psychologist. “He lifted a huge weight off my shoulders,” she said. Unburdened, she went on to win the gold and set the record. Then she sought regular therapy to help fix the bigger part of her life.

Late in 2004, Witty went public by telling her story to a Salt Lake City newspaper. She has been telling it ever since, loudly and without shame, as a means of drawing attention to a problem to which she devotes much of her off-ice time.

“I have nothing to be ashamed of,” she said. “It wasn’t my fault, and I’m just happy to share my story and help other people. The ripple effect was incredible. I could not believe how many stories I got in return.

“I’m able to enjoy life again. I’m not depressed all the time. I’m not worried about anything. Now I just feel so much more comfortable in my skin because I feel like I’m able to really tell everybody who I am and where I’m coming from and why I am the way I am. I’m just a different person today than I was even four years ago.”

But she is also a different skater, as well. Throughout the race, posted on the giant scoreboard was her record time, a reminder of just how good she was. She said she looks at 20-something athletes and thinks, “Man, how did I ever do that?”

“I knew how I felt coming into this,” she said. “My friends’ way of encouraging me was, ‘Nobody can take the gold medal away you. They could break the world record or whatever, but you’ll always have the gold medal.’”

Witty, 30, also came up empty in the 500 meters last week and was scheduled to race one more time, in the 1,500 on Wednesday. But she said yesterday she might back out and give a younger skater, Margaret Crowley, a chance. Crowley, 19, is a first-time Olympian.

“I’m not physically where I want to be,” she said.

But don’t worry about Witty, who has hinted strongly she will retire. The sting of losing fades, injuries heal. Real pain, the kind Witty has felt, lingers. Too many things in life hurt a lot more than sliding around a track less swiftly than opponents.

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