Girls Speak Up: Swimmers Advocate Against Athlete Abuse

By Contributor Josephina Wang

Josephina Wang is a rising sophomore at the Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, Maryland. She swims for Rockville Montgomery Swim Club and is a member of the Potomac Valley Safe Sport Committee.

Athlete abuse. Whether the problem is verbal harassment, bullying, or sexual abuse, many athletes, male and female, have suffered from some form of that trauma. It looms over us and has become a prominent issue in many sports. Swimming is no stranger to such incidents- over 800 cases of abuse have been reported to USA Swimming each year. As a swimmer, I have seen scandals in the news, heard personal stories of other athletes, and it’s pushed me to do something about it. So I created Girls Speak Up.

Girls Speak Up is a nonprofit organization based in Maryland, with a mission to educate and empower female athletes to prevent athlete abuse. Ambassadors host meetings where girls learn about what abuse is, how to identify abuse, and how to handle an abusive situation. The girls at the meetings are ages 11-18, so parental consent and coach’s permission are essential. Meetings have been all on Zoom since the pandemic. We use PowerPoint slides, go through many case scenarios, play a fun Kahoot game, and have discussion time. The girls reflect and find their voices – the mindset to recognize something is not right and the courage to speak up –  a valuable skill set to apply for the rest of their lives. No female athlete should ever feel uncomfortable while swimming or be unable to perform to the best of her ability. I have been fortunate enough to receive guidance from USA Swimming Safe Sport staff members, who have helped me create effective and appropriate meeting materials.

Our style of teaching is unique because it is athlete to athlete, girl to girl. The swimmers are learning from their peers, someone who is their own age, and this creates a more cozy atmosphere at meetings. It is common for adults to be teaching kids, but may not be the most effective method on this topic. Adults may be perceived as authoritative, unrelatable, or the athletes may not feel they can be open and talk the way they could with friends. My vision is to create communities where the girls can come together to support one another and be supported by their fellow swimmers.

This grassroots organization would not be possible without our ambassadors. With over 20 girls and 8 states represented, they are advocate leaders and host meetings with swimmers in their clubs and high school teams. From California to New Jersey to the DMV area, our goal is to spread awareness on abuse and reach out to as many girls as we can. I meet with the new ambassadors to train and go through the meeting materials, and they learn how to teach effectively and how to create a safe and open environment. From there, the ambassadors host their own meetings with girls on their teams. We hope those girls at the meeting will go on to advocate for athlete abuse. So even if I cannot personally attend all the meetings, the torch is being carried on and igniting more athletes with knowledge and awareness. My first in-person meeting took place in January, Girls Speak Up’s first zoom meeting led by an ambassador was in April.  Since then, 22 (and counting!) Girls Speak Up meetings have been held, reaching out to over one hundred swimmers. In August, the senior manager of USA Swimming Safe Sport will meet with our ambassadors to host a training on how to be better ambassadors..

One ambassador says, “I have had the opportunity to not only learn more about Safe Sport myself but to also educate others on the topic. Before becoming an ambassador, I was not entirely aware of the importance Safe Sport holds in the USA Swimming community. Girls Speak Up has opened my eyes to the abuse that unknowingly occurs all around us. But instead of living in fear of these situations, I have been prepared with the tools necessary to handle them if they were ever to occur. I now use my newfound knowledge of Safe Sport to educate and empower my fellow female athletes.”

Girls Speak Up doesn’t only host educational meetings; we also host special events. In early July, we hosted a public, virtual screening of the Netflix documentary Athlete A, where boys joined too. It is an incredibly well made film about athlete abuse and corruption in USA Gymnastics. I used discussion questions provided to me by the Athlete A Screening Team. The questions were thought provoking and led to very impactful reflection. I love being able to experience these moments with others, and after watching the film four times, I’m still shocked and disgusted. (Read my blog on Athlete A ) I plan to host more special events so I can reach out and impact more people. Athlete abuse is still real in our society, especially in youth sports. By finding our voices at a young age, we will become stronger self advocates as we grow older. 

Girls Speak Up aims to decrease the stigma that surrounds athlete abuse by having open conversations. Join us in our journey to bring awareness and protect our young swimmers! To learn more about Girls Speak Up, visit our website at or go to our Instagram page @girlsspeakuporg.

6 thoughts on “Girls Speak Up: Swimmers Advocate Against Athlete Abuse

  • Jul 24, 2020 at 5:36 pm

    I’ve been following the progress of GSU, and I’m really impressed with how you’re so young and managing things so well!

  • Jul 26, 2020 at 4:16 pm

    Great job, very impressive!

  • Jul 27, 2020 at 7:00 am

    Great job !

    Here is my question

    “The girls at the meetings are ages 11-18, so parental consent and coach’s permission are essential.”

    I can see parental consent for youngsters to participate as it might be a legal requirement. Why does it need coach’s permission ? As a parent, I would not like the idea that coach can control my swimmer’s activity outside the pool.

    • Jul 27, 2020 at 8:14 pm

      Hi Ying, that’s a good question! The reason why coach’s support is important to us is so that the coach is aware of these meetings and we aren’t going behind their backs. Coaches also send information to parents of the swimmers to keep the parent’s emails private. The relationship between coach and athlete should also be open and respectful. Hope this helped!

      • Jul 28, 2020 at 7:38 am

        Hi GSU,

        Thanks for your explanation. I guess coach’s permission really means coach’s notification in a courteous way.

        Again, thanks for your great work !


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