The Secret That Almost Killed Olympic Athlete Kim Rhodenbaugh Lewallen
“USA! USA!” The sound of tens of thousands of people screaming this chant rocked the LA Memorial Coliseum. Eighteen-year-old Kim Rhodenbaugh (now Kim Lewallen) could feel the ground shake as she waited with the rest of her teammates to make her entrance onto the stage of the 1984 summer Olympics.
As the host of that year’s games, the United States athletes entered last. By the time Kim took her first steps into the coliseum she was dizzy with excitement and pride – or so anyone in the crowd may have thought if they saw her. In reality, the young athlete was on the verge of totally collapsing not out of excitement, but from years of emotional, physical, and mental abuse she’d been suffering in silence.
It should have been the best time of her life, her shining moment. Kim was one of the top athletes in the world. She made her first US team at the age of 14. She won two silver medals in the 1982 World Games and has a rack of significant victories at the top of competitive sports.
At 18 years old she was supposed to be at the prime point of her life, at peak fitness. Instead, she was dying, and no one knew it but her. The pain of being abused for years led Kim into the dark worlds of anorexia and bulimia. Later she would turn to alcohol to escape her pain and nearly lose her life as a result of major depression. It’s only now, decades after her abuse, that Kim is speaking out about her past in an effort to raise awareness and help others caught in the same cycle of abuse.
Kim Rhodenbaugh Lewallen was just 6 years old the first time she was sexually assaulted.
It was too enormous of a shock for her little mind to process, and she repressed the memory for years.
She and her 7 siblings all swam competitively from young ages. Kim was five when she began learning and she loved pushing herself to become better over the years. “I was very coachable,” she says. She did everything the coach told her and worked hard to overcome her slightly flawed kick that kept her disqualified for 2 years. Even then the young athlete was determined to be the best of the best, setting her sights on the Olympics when she was just 10 years old.
She’d practice for 6 hours at a pop many days. To Kim and her family, it was just what they did. As both an athlete who reached the top of competitive sports and a coach how now teaches others, Kim has this advice for others in training; “Trust in the process, believe in yourself and don’t have any regrets.” If your coach is a good one, says Kim, they will push you and guide you, but you have to be open to their coaching and willing to work hard.
Some years are better than others. She never gave up during those times and she encourages others to stay committed to their goal as well. As a coach, when she encounters her athletes engaging in negative self-talk, she counters that with an inspiring story about another athlete who overcame the same challenges and proved that self-talk wrong. She encourages her athletes to give it their best and never set their own limits on their success. A positive mindset is crucial in order to achieve goals.
That positive mindset, though, wasn’t always present for Kim Lewallen.
Professionally, she continued to excel. At 8 years old she was winning events at the state level. At 11 she competed in Junior Nationals and at 13 she competed in Nationals. She was just 14 years old when she made her first US team, and she was full of hope and joy when she arrived in Honolulu with her team. That joy was short-lived.
Exhausted from the trip, Kim stretched out on her bed in the college dorm the team stayed in. She drifted off to sleep in innocent excitement and awoke to a nightmare of shame.
Confused at first, she awoke to the unfamiliar sensation of unfamiliar hands touching her. Jolted into consciousness, she grabbed at the invasive hand and shoved it away from her. The hand belonged to an older member of her swim team, one whom she barely knew. He gave a sly, unapologetic smile as he casually walked out of the room.
Fourteen is still a tender age. She may have been competing with the world’s best athletes, but Kim was still a child, and the shock and shame were more than she knew how to deal with. From that moment, she lived in a state of constant anxiety and fear, where the shame was so great she told no one what happened. Training and competing and traveling on the same team as the person who assaulted her tore her up inside, and she channeled all her angst into swimming.
Two years later she was 16 years old and representing the United States at the World Games. She earned two medals and her parents thought nothing of her returning to the hotel with the team. It was a safe environment, they believed. Their daughter was in a safe place with people they trusted to care for her and people who would never do anything to hurt her.
That night she was raped for the first time.
Losing her virginity to a violent assault was horrible enough, but that the assault came from a teammate she’d trusted and whom she had to face after that when piled on top of her previous traumatic experiences, tipped Kim past the fragile foundation of resilience she’d been perching upon.
Wracked with shame, self-loathing, and fear, Kim kept this assault a secret as well. On the outside she appeared more focused and determined than ever, continuing to train and push herself. On the inside, though, she was beginning to crumble.
Kim had begun drinking when she was 12, but now she doubled down on alcohol as an escape. She trusted few people and was selective about small things like who she sat next to on the bus, traveling to meets.
A year later she found herself unexpectedly alone with the athlete that raped her. “It was by God’s design” that happened, says Kim, because He knew she was in desperate need of some relief.
“You raped me,” she blurted out, looking him dead in the eye.
Her rapist froze for a moment before his face registered horror. Kim believes he’d never fully realized until that moment, the impact his actions had on her.
“I’m sorry,” he stammered out. To Kim, it was a sincere apology but it was too little, too late. “The damage was done,” she says.
In her senior year of high school, the year she would compete in the Olympics, Kim sank into the seat next to the teammate who’d been like a brother to her. As their teammates drifted off to sleep in the darkened bus, Kim let herself relax as well and nodded off. In a terrible replay of past events, she again awoke to an unfamiliar hand violating her. Only this time it wasn’t a near-stranger assaulting her; it was a dear and trusted friend.
Any possibility that he assumed it was consensual was crushed by her instant and instinctive attempt to repel the assault. She squirmed and struggled to get his hands out but he was bigger and stronger, and took his time, completely ignoring her panic and resistance.
Shock prevented her from screaming, as did her instant default response feeling shame and self-loathing.
“Any trust I had left was gone,” says Kim. Sexual abuse strips people of dignity and confidence, she says. For her, this assault and betrayal immersed her in the darkness she’d been fighting off for years.
As she continued her senior year in high school and prepared to compete in the 1984 Olympics, Kim also lost herself in eating disorders, alcoholism, and drug abuse. When she wasn’t swimming, she was trying desperately to distract herself from the seemingly ceaseless memories and depression that were fully entrenched in her heart and mind.
She’d drink, or smoke weed, or starve herself or make herself throw up. Inside she was dying, but no one around her knew. She was silently drowning right next to everyone who loved her.
By the time she entered that Olympic arena in 1984 she was running on sheer grit and adrenaline and says she has no idea how she made the team that year.
To onlookers, her 8th place finish was a disappointment, but in reality, it is was a testament to her incredible strength.
Kim Rhodenbaugh Lewallen continued competitively swimming after the Olympics, but never at that level again.
She spiraled further down into alcohol and drug abuse as her depression grew along with her ability to conceal her pain from the world. She spent years in a “tumultuous” marriage that only added to her self-loathing and depression, and finally found herself alone in her garage, in her vehicle, with the engine running.
It was the second time she’d reached a place so dark and heavy that she believed death was her only escape. It was the second time she’d taken steps to end not only her suffering but to remove the burden she believed she’d become to the people who loved her.
As the engine hummed and the smoke and fumes built, Kim teetered between darkness and light. Her two kids were asleep in the house as Kim sat in that vehicle and submitted to death. It wasn’t that she wanted to die, she remembers. It was just that she wanted the pain and depression to end.
Suddenly she heard a voice saying, “You don’t want to die.”
She believes it was God’s voice that saved her that night and God’s grace that had her neighbor awake well past her normal bedtime, to answer her phone when Kim called for help.
She woke up in the hospital the next day. From there she went to rehab and from there she’s invested in rebuilding the shattered pieces of her heart and soul.
She’s remarried now to a man whose mere mention lights her face up. She’s healthy and happy and had made peace with her aggressors.
Unforgiveness was holding her back, she says. It was only when she tapped deep into her faith and found the power to forgive that she was truly able to heal.
Today Kim Lewallen coaches young athletes in the water and out.
It is only very recently that she’s felt some clarity as to what the purpose of her own pain is meant to be. She is just beginning to publicly share her story of abuse and struggle and resilience. She’s become actively involved in efforts to raise awareness about athlete-on-athlete abuse, especially in the Olympic community, as there are no current campaigns to address it.
Kim hopes that her voice will serve as encouragement for others suffering the same abuse to come forward and report it. She hopes her message will be impactful in establishing a protocol to protect other athletes around the country, and she’s already receiving messages to thank her for doing so.
It would seem that Kim’s American Dream was fulfilled years ago when she achieved such high levels of competitive success at a young age. It could seem as if her most impressive achievements are behind her, but that’s only if you determine that with medals.
Kim Lewallen is just on the verge of stepping into her new purpose – one that will impact lives all across the country. There is more than one version of the American Dream, and we wish Kim the best as she lives her next best version.
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