One day, when she was a teenager, Casey Legler woke up with a hangover, then jumped into a pool and broke the Olympic freestyle swimming record. The year was 1996 and Legler was in Atlanta, a member of the French team, having a practice session as she awaited the Olympic finals the next day. Legler, at 6ft 2in, was built to swim. She had been groomed to be an Olympian from the age of 12. But when the finals came – the biggest day of her professional life – she bombed, coming 29th in the women’s 50m freestyle. She spent the next day drunk and dealing cocaine – to Olympic teammates and teenage members of other international teams.
That is perhaps the most troubling aspect of Legler’s new memoir, which charts her time as one of the fastest female swimmers in the world. This isn’t just the story of an alcoholic girl who, under the supposedly protective wing of coaches and doctors, was sexually abused and given performance-enhancing drugs. It’s how her experience was not unusual among her female peers. She remembers, for instance, a teenage member of the English Olympic team asking her to buy drugs. Alcohol and drug use, she says, were commonplace among top-level child athletes, not just in celebratory post-competition blow-outs but every night. From the age of 12, “I swam for every chance to get wasted,” she writes.
Today, Legler is 42 and sitting in a London cafe. She is tall, calm and engaging, with a crew cut and tattoos swirling down her arms and up her neck. She spent her early 20s in rehab, before studying architecture at Smith College, Massachusetts, on a scholarship for women who had missed out on their education. She is very striking and you can see why, in her mid-30s, Ford Models signed her up. She became the first woman to model a men’s collection, but, as hyped as it was then, it reads like a footnote in her life. She is now married to an international human rights expert.
One of the things that made adolescence particularly awful, she thinks, was not knowing she was gay until she was 21 (when her teammates found out during a lunch break, they moved, en masse, to another table in disgust). The other is that she has Asperger’s – she was diagnosed the day after she finished her book. To mitigate against sensory overload she might experience because of it, I have brought my dog to the interview. So, with a staffordshire bull terrier curled up against her on the banquette, she calmly shatters any illusions the public may have about what it is like to be a child sporting prodigy, especially if you are a girl.
She is, she says, surprised she is not dead. “I do know a couple of people who stopped drinking and taking drugs in their 20s and went on to have beautiful families,” she says, “but, for an athlete, that doesn’t seem to be the norm; that’s the exception. But I can only speak to what it was like for me.
“Working hard and drinking hard is just how we did it. Some of them were able to stop because they got to university and quit swimming, and some of them did not. Some of them died and some of them continue to struggle with drugs and alcohol.”
Legler was one of five children born to American parents. When she was a small child, the family lived in St Maxime, Cote D’Azur, then spent two years in Louisiana, before returning to France when Legler was 12. Her mother gave up working as an artist after having children. “Mom spent her time crying,” Legler writes, somewhat ambiguously. “We knew to pretend it wasn’t happening.”
Her father, a professional basketball player who became an architect, she describes as “a gorgeous, handsome, very smart, highly problematic patriarch. I was raised in a very patriarchal household where young girls were second class. It was very complicated for them to have such a high-functioning young person as a daughter. I was on the spectrum. I was a really complicated person.”
When she moved back to France, her mother took her to meet a swimming coach in Aix-en-Provence. There is an uncomfortable passage in her book describing this decisive encounter: “I see him understand that he’s hit the genetic jackpot with me. I am very skinny, and at 12, I am already just shy of 6ft tall – I am currency.”
The coach took her on and within two years she was taking part in international swimming meets around Europe, away from her parents but also unsupervised. Already her understanding of adults “was that they couldn’t give two fucks about kids, and the only time they cared was when it impacted them”. It is an attitude she came to see everywhere in her new life as a swimming prodigy. “Where were the adults? And if they were near, terrible things happened. In my book, I just wanted to lay into the normality of it. Hannah Arendt talks about the banality of evil. Not all the adults around us were perpetrators, but all of them looked the other way.”
The book spans her entire swimming career. “Between the ages of 12 and 20 – that’s very young, right? To have the discipline I had to develop, to have the responsibilities I had,” she says. “By the time you were 14, you were a professional athlete, you were put into a swimming programme of some sort. I took a correspondence course for my last years of high school. The only time you were around adults was at practice. That’s it.”
She has calculated that her training and competing regime meant she spent three and a half years in the water. Incredibly, during this time she did not enjoy swimming. The team was often on the road, away from parents or living in boarding facilities at France’s elite training institutes.
“I was one of 20 other girl swimmers at the hands of one coach. A one-to-20 ratio is not a good one,” she says. By the time she was 14, she says, when not in the pool “we were just left alone. I could do whatever I wanted. So, on training trips, there was this juxtaposition between being given absolute freedom to do what I liked by the adults who were meant to be taking care of me and the absolute control these same adults had of my body; from when I got up to what I ate, how I trained, when I practised.”
It wasn’t unusual for this control to tip into abuse. When she was 13, she was sexually assaulted by a physiotherapist during a treatment. She likens what he did to what Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics team doctor, was last year convicted of doing to hundreds of girls in his charge. “It was the same procedure: ‘Are you sure? Are you OK with this?’ It’s so classic. I think that’s the thing we have to understand. These are not accidents. These are routine.”
Yet this was not the only abuse she faced. “It’s very common to be raped by someone you know,” she says. She was still a virgin when two men raped her on a messy night out. Yet despite the scrutiny of her body, she says, physical signs of the assault were ignored by those around her. “I walked on to the pool deck after being raped, with bruises on the inside of my thighs.”
It was the same attitude when anyone was injured, she says. “We would show up in the training room with injuries: tendonitis in the shoulders – cortisone shots. ‘In you go.’ Ice patch, ice bath. ‘Get back in the water.’ It was a continual Band-Aid.”
Then there was the time a doctor handed her a bag of unlabelled powder: “The next day – I’d never swum so fast in my life.” She puts what she calls “the normalisation of neglect” down to the fact that “the cost of looking would have required a person of great character, which simply … they were not around”.
Instead, she was left to deal with “this incessant violence, the incessant darkness that launched into my world over and over and over again” in any way she could, whether that be “irreverence, drugs and alcohol, breaking rules”. And all around her, she saw peers doing the same. “We knew this was happening to everyone.”
Legler’s hard drinking began at 15. She says her fast teenage metabolism allowed her to be both an alcoholic and an Olympic-level athlete. And she says the numbing effects of both swimming and alcohol, as toxic as they were to her, “saved my life”.
She was also smoking cannabis (something she tested positive for twice, resulting in just two therapy sessions). And alongside all this drinking and drugs was a kind of hooliganism. In the book, she describes an initiation ceremony among the young swimming team: “We make all the freshmen drink 100 shots of vodka that night for hazing and all the girls shave their vaginas and with their mouths pick cherries hanging off the dicks of the freshman guys. The vodka winner has a bucket next to her to throw up in as she keeps drinking shot after shot after shot.”
The French swim team, she says, “were quite proud of the reputation that we had as being the ones that partied the hardest” at international meets – whether it was the Olympics or the European championships.
“I think that pride came from a place of absolute irreverence and disdain for the institution that we were representing. We took power back where we could and in typical adolescent fashion, by breaking all of the rules given to us by, in most cases, adults who we didn’t respect at all because we knew what they were doing behind closed doors.
“Growing up with them, you know the swimmers that are insane partiers and that was very much the reputation I had by the time the French team got to the Olympics. It was no accident people asked me to score drugs.”
In 1996, Legler showed up at the Olympics with a shaved head. If anyone had bothered to ask her about it, they would have discovered it was a protest against the expectations that she felt the girls in the team faced. “The coaches wanted the girls to be beautiful and thin,” she says. “It was the 90s, you had heroin chic coupled with the French ideas about fashion and beauty.” Many of the girls, Legler says, including herself, had eating disorders.
After Atlanta, Legler went off the rails altogether. “My life became darker as I got to 19 and 20 and I got more involved with gangs and drug dealing. That teenage irreverence and spikiness turned into total intimidation, with me using my height and my body to keep myself safe and, in other instances, to make other people afraid,” she writes.
“I became more and more violent the more I drank. In the end, that was a known fact about me that I was very, very in touch with – how to wield cruelty or fear. I was a dangerous person.”
On 23 April 1998, three days before her 21st birthday, she went to rehab for the second time. “And I’ve been clean ever since. Knock on wood. I never used again. And I stopped swimming the year after. Even in that year, I felt like I was tearing my skin off. Everything came out – the cutting came back, the eating disorder. That first year was very painful. Then I got my first job bagging groceries in a supermarket. On a good day it was humbling, but on a bad day it was deeply humiliating because I hadn’t understood how I had gotten there.”
For years, she says, she could not talk about her life as an athlete. “I had such a specific experience of torment and failure and in my heart, deep shame. It took many years afterwards to even tell anyone that I had been at the Olympics, and that I had broken the record the day before, then totally bombed and the day after had organised myself to deal drugs to my fellow athletes. It was so much not the story people wanted to hear.”
She began to re-evaluate her experiences after the therapist she was seeing told her: “‘You are walking around as an adult with rancour and fear in your heart. You can do something about that. With it you will help ease the misery of others.’ And it’s like a super power.”
Now she wants her book to be a comfort to children and adults who have shared similar experiences. The paedophile physiotherapist is dead, so she won’t be taking him to court, but she can influence whether other girls and women will be molested like she was. The good news, she says, “is that people are on to it. The bad news is that that means bad things are still happening to young people.”
Alongside making sure girls are not left alone, as she was, with male doctors and coaches, she thinks the age that young athletes turn professional should be raised. “As an adolescent athlete, I was not showing any of the normal signs of someone who doesn’t enjoy something. I was still swimming extraordinarily fast, I was still very much performing well at school – the best in my class. But just because someone is at the top of their game does not indicate they are happy.
“I want us to be talking more about what it might mean to be a young girl, to be very, very good at what you’re doing and to come up within the system which is the patriarchy. At its mildest, it considers you disposable, in a way that it certainly doesn’t consider young men and boys.”
She is optimistic things can change. “We can start talking about this in a way that is constructive and takes care of our young and they can have long, happy careers.”
Legler has started swimming again and, along with her advocacy work, including with the UN (she is moderating a panel about women’s equality and empowerment next week), modelling and work as an artist, she has spent the past decade mentoring formerly incarcerated children. “One of them asked me: ‘Is it hard being soft?’ And I was able to tell her it was the best thing that had happened to me.”
Godspeed by Casey Legler is published by Scribe (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.