My Story

Dedication: To everyone suffering in silence.

My Story
by John-Michael Lander

At fourteen, my life seemed poised for greatness. My name graced the national spotlight when I secured eighth place at the Junior Olympics in diving, earning qualifications for me to compete in Denmark, Norway, and Canada. The future looked bright, but beneath the surface, a darker narrative began to unfold.

It all started when a local newspaper article caught the attention of a lawyer. He reached out to my mother, promising a golden opportunity. Over several meetings, he convinced her that a group of successful businessmen could sponsor my diving career. They would cover expenses and support our family’s medical needs. The only requirement? My mother had to agree to their terms and ensure I met with these professionals at specified times.

Once my mother consented and signed a contract, I met the lawyer privately. He painted a tantalizing picture of my future, telling me that the only path to achieving my Olympic dream was through him and the support of the professionals based in Columbus, Ohio. He excitedly mentioned that I could train with the university team and have the esteemed varsity teams’ doctor as my primary physician.

He was clear: talent alone wasn’t enough. To truly succeed, I needed their backing. But there was a catch—absolute secrecy. He assured me that no one else on the team would receive such an offer. I just had to keep my grades up, perform well in competitions, and not disappoint his professional friends. The promise of easing my parents’ financial burdens was a compelling incentive, so I agreed and signed the contract.

I did not know anything about male sexual exploitation. Society taught me that males could not be sexually abused or raped. It merely passed as hazing, initiation, or rite of passage. While still developing mentally, emotionally, and physically, I was prime prey for a predator’s fantasy and the perfect candidate to be groomed into the world of silence, shame, and secrets.

My mother would get a call to schedule a day and time for when I was to be picked up. She made sure I was dressed and waiting by the door. A car would appear at our farmhouse, and Mom would usher me out. It was under the guise of going to dinner, a movie, or a play. Although these outings sometimes happened, they always ended the same way: at a travel lodge, hotel, or one of the professional’s homes. My first experience was with a sixty-year-old doctor at a Motel 6.

After each arrangement, I would come home, sit on the edge of my parents’ bed, and tell my mother what I had for dinner. This became a grim ritual, one that I followed with a sense of detachment, hoping it would somehow shield me from the reality of what was happening.

Years passed in this cycle of forced compliance and silent suffering. Then, one night, I broke. I refused to go to the awaiting car. My mother, frustrated and insistent, tried to force my coat on me. I stood stiff, my body betraying a resolve I had never felt before. She told me it wasn’t nice to keep someone waiting, especially since he had come all this way to pick me up. But something inside me refused to budge. Anger welled up until I blurted out, “He touches me.”

For a moment, I felt relief, hoping this admission would end the nightmare. My mother looked at me, confusion clouding her eyes. “What do you mean?” she asked. “He touches me,” I repeated, my voice trembling. “Where?” she demanded. I looked down, unable to meet her gaze, and whispered, “Down here.”

Her face softened briefly, then hardened into an expression I will never forget. She slapped me across the face, her voice icy as she said, “It’s not nice to make up lies about people. He is a respected person in the community; it must have been your fault if anything happened. Now you get out there, smile, and be kind to him.” I realized that no one would ever believe me if my mother did not.

I attended parties the professionals hosted, where other young college men and I stood in a line. Since I was still in high school and the youngest, I was always put at the end. The host would have us dressed in suggestive costumes. The guests would arrive and look us over, go to another room, and make silent bids on which boy they wanted. After bidding, the highest bidder would claim the chosen boy, escort him to another room in the house, or out on the town. The host rewarded the boy who earned the highest night’s bid with extra cash, presents, and tuition. Sometimes, I was left with a different professional for the weekend or even the week.

When I started diving, I was naive, eager to please everyone, and very trusting. I easily adopted the sports norms and jargon because I so eagerly wanted to be accepted and liked by the coaching staff and teammates. After my placement at the Junior Olympics, I entered into a more elite level. I quickly learned how the pressures and sacrifices in sports provided an environment of secrets.

Relationships between athletes, coaches, and medical examiners were heightened and manipulated. I thought this was the expectation, part of participating at this level, and I needed to get over it or forget my Olympic dream.

The weight of expectation, combined with the fear of failure, pushed me deeper into a world where silence reigned supreme. I silenced my doubts, my discomfort, and my growing unease. I silenced the voice inside me that screamed for help, drowning it out with the roar of the crowd and the demands of competition.

Each dive became a performance, not just for the judges but for the eyes of those who held my fate in their hands. I became a puppet, dancing on strings pulled by those who promised to lead me to glory.

But beneath the glittering facade of success, a darkness lurked. It whispered in the shadows, reminding me of the price I paid for my dreams. It whispered of the secrets I buried deep within me, the scars that marred my soul, and the innocence I lost along the way.

After several months of seeing and being passed around by the lawyer’s professional friends, the coach noticed something. He approached my mother and informed her that I had potential for the Olympics and a College Scholarship, but I had to listen and do everything he said. He informed her that he was going to have to take me on overnights so I could practice with the university diving team. He wanted absolute control over my practices and diet and needed to develop a trust with me without any interference from outside, especially her.

It was only after he had gained my mother’s trust, did he even approach me. He started isolating me and whispering corrections in my ear so the other teammates could not hear. The coach told me the other divers were jealous of me because I was scheduled to compete in Norway, Denmark, and Canada. He even bought me a new Speedo to wear. But the most important thing he said to me was that I had Olympic potential, and he knew what I was going through, I could trust him, and he was always available to talk. He made me feel safe.

It was not until many years later that I learned the lawyer made a deal with the coach to pay more attention to me and keep me focused on the Olympics and professionals.

The coach’s next step was to normalize the attention by showing public affection and whispering comments like, “That suit looks good on you.” His touches lingered, and he started hugging me after a good dive or meet result. The coach would tell me that he never felt for someone like he did for me, especially since we were both males. He constantly told me that I was “special” to him.

He started taking me on overnight trips to practice with The University team. He introduced me to alcohol, and he eased into being physical. Everything seemed different with the coach; although he feigned not remembering anything the next day due to the alcohol, he made me feel there could be something more with him.

As time went on, the lines between coach and confidant blurred further. He manipulated situations to make me feel dependent on him, both emotionally and physically. His words of encouragement became mixed with subtle manipulation, planting seeds of doubt in my mind about anyone else’s intentions.

I found myself trapped in a twisted web of affection and control, unable to discern where the coach’s influence ended and my own desires began. The power dynamic shifted until I felt powerless to resist his advances.

But even amidst the confusion and manipulation, a part of me knew that something was deeply wrong. I grappled with feelings of shame and guilt, wondering if I had somehow invited this attention or if I was simply overreacting. While all this was happening, I was still meeting the professionals.

One day, everything changed. During practices and meets, the coach publicly belittled me by calling me names and ignoring me. He said it was his way of deterring suspicions and toughening me up. But when we were alone, he was doting and caring. I remember he constantly emphasized that no one could ever know what was happening because no one would understand, they would end our friendship, no one would believe me, no one would ever want to coach me again, and I could kiss my Olympic dream goodbye.

His constant switching from private affection to public emotional abuse confused me and made me try harder to earn his attention.

The emotional rollercoaster I experienced left me feeling lost and alone. I questioned my own perceptions, wondering if I was imagining things or if I truly deserved the treatment I received. I internalized the coach’s words, believing that speaking out would only lead to further isolation and disappointment.

In the midst of the chaos, I clung to my dreams of Olympic glory, hoping that somehow, someway, they would outweigh the pain and confusion I endured. But as time went on, the weight of silence grew heavier, suffocating any flicker of hope that remained.

It wasn’t until much later, after I had walked away from the sport and begun to heal, that I found the courage to confront the truth. The coach’s actions were not those of a mentor or a friend—they were the actions of a predator, preying on the vulnerability of a young athlete with dreams of Olympic glory.

I never told anyone about the coach.

While I endured the abuse from the professionals and the coach, I turned sixteen years old, went on to win gold medals at the Norway and Danish Cups, 8th at the Canadian Cup, and set my sights on the Olympics. But the stress from the continued abuse and demand to remain silent kept me fearful of being “found out,” creating a depression that I could not shake and a loss of confidence.

Each victory on the diving board was overshadowed by the weight of secrecy and shame that I carried. Despite the outward success, internally I was crumbling. The relentless pressure to maintain appearances and the constant fear of exposure gnawed at my spirit, leaving me exhausted and drained.

As the Olympic Trials drew near, I found myself paralyzed by indecision and doubt. The once-burning passion for diving had been extinguished by the suffocating grip of abuse and manipulation. No longer did the prospect of competing bring joy or excitement—instead, it filled me with dread and despair.

The abuse continued until I graduated high school with honors, earning scholarships to the University of California, Irvine. I remained silent about the abuse because I feared it would jeopardize my scholarships and any Olympic Dreams. I thought this was my chance to reinvent myself because I was away from the professionals and the coach. I was training again for the Olympic Trials. I didn’t know who to trust, and I trusted the wrong person; I was beaten, raped, and left in the woods. That was the final straw. I became extremely sick, and the lawyer brought me back to Ohio. I couldn’t compete. Everything went out the window and all my dreams of being an Olympian were shattered.

Many years later, after obtaining my BFA, MEd, Teachers Certificate and teaching high school English, a male sophomore came into my room to tell me he was gay and had a boyfriend who was thirty-five years old. I asked him if his mother knew, and the boy explained that she and his grandmother were aware and approved since he paid for the bills and groceries. I felt this iciness run through my blood. I explained I had to report this, and he was okay with it. When I shared with the assistant principal, I was informed that nothing could be done since the mother and grandmother were aware and supporting it. I realized that I was talking to a form of myself at 16 years old. My life bottomed out. I resigned from teaching, and I fell into a deep depression. It got so bad that I wrote a note to my partner and said goodbye to our two Boston Terriers. I entered the garage, sat in the car’s driver’s seat, started the ignition, and waited. As I inhaled the exhaust fumes, I realized it was not fair to my partner to find me like this, and I felt this urge to turn the car off, get out, and go back into the house, which I did. I fell on the living room floor and cried an ugly cry. When I was exhausted, I decided that I was going to break my silence.

I wrote Surface Tension and publicly shared my story with a TEDTalk. Since then, I have been sharing my story through writing, podcasts, news outlets, and advocacy work. By sharing my experiences, I wanted to help as many people as possible to recognize that this can and does happen to anyone.

If you think you may have been experiencing this, seek professional help and assistance. Males are often very reluctant to admit such events due to our toxic masculinity, so they tend not to find the help they need. Healing from sexual abuse and trauma is a lifelong endeavor, so be patient with yourself and develop self-care protocols.

For years, I carried these burdens in silence, fearing the consequences of speaking out. I convinced myself that I was alone, that no one would understand, that I was trapped in a nightmare of my own making.

But now, as I tell my story, I realize that silence is no longer an option. I refuse to let the darkness consume me any longer. I refuse to let the voices of doubt and fear hold sway over me.

I speak now not just for myself but for all those who suffer in silence, who carry their pain like a heavy burden on their shoulders. I speak for the child who was robbed of their innocence, the athlete who was betrayed by those they trusted, the person who was silenced by shame and fear.

My story is a testament to the power of resilience, of courage, and of hope. It is a reminder that even in the darkest of times, there is light to be found. And though the road ahead may be long and fraught with challenges, I walk it with my head held high, knowing that I am not alone.

For I am more than the sum of my scars, more than the echoes of my past. I am a survivor, a fighter, a voice in the darkness. And as I step into the light, I know that my story is just beginning.

My journey has been one of immense struggle, but also one of incredible resilience and growth. From the depths of despair, I found the courage to break my silence and reclaim my voice. By sharing my story, I have not only found healing for myself but have also become a beacon of hope for others who may be silently suffering.

I’ve learned that healing is not a destination but a journey, and I’m committed to walking alongside others as they navigate their own paths to recovery. Together, we can break the cycle of silence and shame, and create a world where survivors are supported, believed, and empowered to seek the help they deserve.

So, if you’re reading and resonating with my story, know that you are not alone. There is hope, there is help, and there is a brighter future ahead. Let’s continue to stand together, lift each other up, and pave the way towards a world free from abuse and trauma. We are stronger together, and together, we can create a future filled with healing, resilience, and hope.
Photo credit: Images provided by the storyteller.

Story shared by...

John-Michael Lander

John-Michael is a former Olympic diving contender and sexual abuse survivor. As a 14-year-old Olympic-bound athlete, the adults entrusted in John-Michael’s training groomed and trafficked him into silence. Through his experiences he created the Predatory Grooming Trifecta© and Predatory Internet Grooming© (PIG). He is the founder of An Athlete's Silence. He has been in Time Magazine, USA Today, on CBC Canada Tonight, Safe Sports International, and NCOSE Global Summit. He worked on the Athletes' Bill of Rights, and was a discussion panelist for NetFlix film, Athlete A. He interviewed for the George Clooney Production Company’s documentary on a university doctor’s sex scandal. He participated with NJCAHT with the “HT101” and “How to Talk to Your Children and Keep them Safe Online” Presentations. The recipient of the 2024 Freedom Award.