25 years after being sexually abused by coach, Olympian Allison Forsyth settles lawsuit with Alpine Canada
Only now, some 25 years after being sexually abused by her former national team coach, and as she prepares for her 45th birthday, is former Canadian alpine skier Allison Forsyth remembering who she was before her life was thrown into disarray.
As Forsyth was ascending to the pinnacle of her sport , she says the trust she placed in coach Bertrand Charest was abused in the most egregious of ways. Forsyth says she was sexually abused over two years in 1997 and 1998 while on the national team and in 2019 sued Alpine Canada, skiing’s governing body in Canada, and Charest.
On Tuesday, it was announced a settlement had been reached. Terms were not disclosed.
For Forsyth, the settlement will help close a chapter that consumed most of her life and sent her spinning into darkness for nearly three decades.
“I’ve been in a coping spiral and applied coping mechanisms since 1998. For 17 to 18 years I have had complete personality shifts, extreme eating disorders, fear of judgment, deep rooted insecurity, and a lack of confidence,” Forsyth said in an exclusive interview with CBC Sports. “It took me 44 years to get to know who I actually am. I’ve lost 25 of them, working through who I was before to who I am now.
“Alpine Canada and fellow survivors, we now know what happened. There is no denying it. This was not consensual relationships with young women and their coach.”
WATCH | ‘We don’t know what’s happening inside these athletes’: Forsyth
Six years ago, Charest was found guilty of 37 sex-related charges involving nine women in the 1990s who were aged between 12 and 19 when the crimes took place. He was initially sentenced to 12 years but had it reduced to 57 months on appeal and in 2020 he was granted parole.
Charest was never criminally convicted on the charges involving Forsyth because the abuse took place outside of Canada.
Forsyth says for many years she blamed herself for what happened because, on the advice of people she confided in, she kept quiet in order to maintain her skiing career.
“I started to believe it myself, that I was the bad person and it was all my fault, and I ruined people’s lives, and who am I to ever have claimed that this occurred,” Forsyth said. “After three and a half years of working through civil proceedings, I am so grateful and validated because there is proof now of what [Charest] did back then and it was very clear the level of complicity those in leadership at the time had in covering up the abuse for fear of reputational damage.”
Forsyth says she made officials at Alpine Canada aware she was being abused but did not receive the assistance she says she needed. Alpine Canada says it investigated allegations of abuse against Charest and he resigned as coach in 1998. He was never fired and his coaching license was never revoked.
“I believe Alpine Canada knows the truth and absolutely back then it was directly covered up,” Forsyth said. “It was completely a win at all costs attitude. Turning backs on any sort of behaviour of what they saw was happening, that a coach was doing what we knew in our gut was wrong because it was largely accepted in sport at the time, all forms of maltreatment and abuse. And the systemic nature of it.”
WATCH | There’s no pecking order to trauma: Forsyth
Forsyth says she’s spent years working through intense feelings of betrayal, and says she’s been able to find forgiveness for not only those who were working at Alpine Canada but also her abuser.
Alpine Canada’s president and CEO Therese Brisson says the culture and organization that existed when these events occurred 25 years ago have been overhauled.
“In the clearest of terms, we are deeply saddened by her experience, repulsed by her abuser’s actions, and apologize for the harm she experienced,” Brisson said.
Forsyth has turned her pain and grief over what happened all those years ago into action, moving into the safe sport space and becoming one of the leading advocates for helping create a healthier atmosphere for Canadian athletes today.
Despite the horrific circumstances facing Forsyth early in her skiing career she was able to push through the abuse, becoming one of the best alpine skiers in the country.
WATCH | CBC Sports’ safe sport in Canada panel discussion:
Her career included representing Canada at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City as well as winning five World Cup giant slalom medals and a bronze medal at the 2003 world championships.
But behind a confident skier was a broken woman trying to figure out who she was and who she could trust.
“Who you would have seen on TV was an athlete who was top 10 in the world, multiple world championships, an Olympic Games, hands in the air, smiling and waving to the crowd,” she said. “And on the inside I was incredibly sick. I was incredibly mean to myself. I practiced self harm and self punishment. And I felt like I sometimes didn’t deserve to be here. We do not know what’s happening on the inside of these athletes.”
It’s this understanding and experience that motivates everything Forsyth is doing today as a mother of three, safe sport educator and organizational consultant.
“I choose to work with national sport organizations including those who have had challenges in the past. Who is better than an athlete survivor and advocate to show them the new way of sport?” Forsyth said.
Brisson says Alpine Canada is grateful for Forsyth and all victims of Charest who had the courage to come forward and demand change in the hopes of making a meaningful difference.
“Our athletes deserve nothing less than safe, inclusive, and supportive training and competition environments that empower each individual to achieve their potential and reach their goals,” Brisson said. “The health and well-being of our athletes, coaches, staff and volunteers comes first, always.”
WATCH | Elite athletes want government action against abuse in sport:
Forsyth is reflecting on her 25-year journey and wonders if the system for helping victims has changed much at all. The conclusion she keeps coming to is that it really hasn’t and that athletes still face too many obstacles in Canada’s sports system when it comes to abuse.
“I’m an athlete advocate standing here telling you that athletes of this generation are very kind to each other and they’re very mean to each other as well. There is a narrative in the media that safe sport is only about bad coaches doing bad things to athletes. Bullying and hazing are two of the top forms of maltreatment we currently see,” Forsyth said.
“Every participant in sport deserves to be supported, protected, and educated. So this takes all of us to shift and move in a different direction.”
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