How did you get to be a professional athlete? It's a question I am asked often. By parents, coaches, fans, etc. It's a common question for any professional athlete... "Tell me how you got here....”
My mind shoots to my 10-year-old self kicking a ball against a wall over and over and over again. I was the little girl who slept with a soccer ball next to her pillow at night, under her Mia Hamm poster and US Women's National Team Calendar hanging on the wall, praying to whatever god was out there, to give me the ability to one day play like these women. It probably went something like, “Hey God, it’s me Kelly. PLEASE let me be Mia Hamm one day.” Just praying to someone I was told would make all my dreams come true. Soccer was life. It's still life. and sometimes I wonder how I got through it all to get to where I am today. Everyone has a "how they got there" story.
It was my first love and my life's work from an early age. It's a beautiful yet unforgiving love; I learned the hard way that playing the game won't last forever. I endured a head injury in college that put a hold on my career for 3 and a half years and during that time I kept asking myself, "who am I without a ball at my feet?" For a while I didn't know who that person was. Those days were some of the hardest of my life. I felt like a prisoner in my own body, unable to do the things I once did so freely. Contained to a dark room and isolated from the world around me. It felt like a part of me died in some ways. I had a hard time coping with the loss of something that meant everything to me and at the time defined who I was. Losing the game forced me to take a step back and look in the mirror. It forced me to face a part of me that was buried deep in the darkest pit of my soul. The part where my heart starts racing and my palms start sweating when someone asks me the "How'd you get there?" question.
All I can think of is my youth coach who taught me how to play the game. His name was Keith. He started coaching me when I was 10. "Recruited" me to come play for his team after watching me play every position on the field during a game where his team beat mine 5-0. I guess he saw something in me. Versatility? Nah, a little Tasmanian devil that never stopped working. He was Brazilian and every practice was about getting maximum touches on the ball. I absolutely loved training with him, learning new things and making him proud. You know how you are when you're 10; When you do something good and your coach praises you, you thrive off of it. I would do anything to make him proud of me. He worked with me everyday and made me feel like I'd be the best to play the game if I stuck around him. He worked his way into my family as the years went on.
At an incredibly influential age, a time when curiosity and a hunger to learn drive you towards a passion, you trust that everyone wants the best for you. You trust the people around you to protect you and help you achieve your dreams. Especially the person who is giving you the tools to succeed. You just trust people at that age, you don’t put up walls. Well, some 10 year olds know what walls are... I didn’t. I don’t remember the specific moment Keith started abusing the power he had. But when I look back on it now, I realize he had been grooming me from the very beginning. He worked with me individually on skills, until I’d master them, and then he would take me to his camps to be the demo girl to show others how to do it. He brought me to play with the older girls he trained, and took me to practice with boys to show them there was a girl out there better than them. And I was, I was fucking good. I was also good at being his puppet. His praise fueled me. Soccer quickly became the single most important thing in my world. It was like nothing else mattered.
By age 13 he had gained control of most areas of my life. Sometimes I thought, maybe it was my fault, because I always did what he said. But thats how it was in America growing up. You do what coach says, so from the outside there wasn't anything unusual about the way he was treating me. Before I knew it I was getting stripped of all the things I called my own until I didn't recognize who I was anymore.
I remember when I would have a bad game and he would tell me I played like shit. Instead of giving constructive feedback as a good coach would have done, he put me down. I always took what he said to heart, because his opinion really mattered to me. It taught me to believe that a good or bad game decided my worth as a human being. He was the one who got to decide my worth.
I remember when he would come over to have dinner with my family or without notice pop in to say hi, and when I saw his gold Ford Explorer pull in the driveway, I would run upstairs and take off my makeup. He didn't like when I wore mascara. I just wanted to be a teenager like everyone else, but I always felt like I had an image to uphold around him. I went the lengths to convince him that all that mattered to me was soccer and nothing would ever get in the way of that.
When he really crossed the line, I knew it, but at that point I didn’t have a voice or a mind of my own. He would do subtle things that only I would notice, like graze his hand over my butt. Or that time he sat next to me at a team dinner across from my teammates and their parents, and rubbed the inside of my leg the entire meal. I just put on the "mask" and sat there chatting with my friends as if everything was fine. I used that mask on several occasions. Like the times he would drive me home from practice and reach across the center console to rub my leg. It was always my left leg he would touch because it was easier to reach. Except for that one time on our way home from Brooklyn when he penetrated me over my shorts. It wasn’t my leg that time. I remember him asking me if I felt uncomfortable. I said "No". What I should have said was, "yeah you fucking pervert, I'm 13-years-old and you have your hand on my vagina". but I never had the words. I was a slave to him. Totally out of touch with my body and emotions and just waiting for his next order. I remember him following me into my house that evening to say goodbye. Nobody was home and I was lucky that all he did was kiss my ear and tell me he loved me. When he asked if I loved him back, you can guess what my answer was. In a situation like this, the right words just don't come out. You're lucky if any words come out.
The time I needed them most was when I felt most silenced. In my head I was screaming but my lips were frozen. It was in the back seat of my suburban on the way home to NJ, from a soccer tournament in Connecticut. I think it was Connecticut, I've repressed a lot of memories from those days so it could have been Virginia for all I know. I had one of the best games of my life. I was doing maradonas at half field around the other team like they were cones. Mind you, this was 14 years ago and I remember the game in detail like it was yesterday. The coach on the other team asked where I learned to play like that. As usual, I gave Keith the credit... You see the theme here? I only remember the game so clearly because of what happened after. On the drive back from the game I sat in the back seat with Keith. My dad drove and my mom rode shotgun while Johnny and Lauren sat across the middle bench. Sex offenders don't lurk in the bushes waiting to attack. They are most often close to the family. They slowly work their way in until they have complete control and trust of all people involved to reach their prey. That night I was molested in the back of my suburban with my entire family in the car.(Minus Megan who was in Europe with her high school soccer team) I don't know how long it went on but it felt like it would never end. I’ve tried to erase this one. But it seems to be the most vivid of them all. It’s still hard to put into words. Harder to voice. So I’ll write...
I remember how everything unfolded that evening. How Keith switched seats with Johnny halfway through the trip at a pit stop to sit with me in the back seat. How he offered his headphones to my mom to distract her from the reality of what was going on around her. How he asked Lauren for a blanket to put over me after I “fell asleep”. How he pulled my legs onto his lap so he had a part of me to thrust his dick against, how he put his hand up my shorts touching me where I’d never been touched before. My mind was spinning and my world was suddenly dark and cold and never the same. I just laid there pretending to sleep while someone I bowed down to, took full advantage of the only thing I had left. My innocence.
I can still feel my mind spin and my body go numb when I close my eyes. It used to keep me up at night. Some pieces from those days are missing. Like blank pages. And then scribbles. And more blank pages. But the times he touched me are carved in the stone of my memories. They’re a part of me now. He took pieces of me I’ll never get back and I just have to live with that.
I lived alone with my thoughts for a month before telling anyone what happened to me. I waited for Megan to get home from Europe because she was the person I confided in. Keith trained Megan as well, and even though I was the easier target, he manipulated both of us. She was feistier and more willing to fight back though, still is and still admire her for it. Megan’s the hero of this story in a way. I was such an easy target then, followed the rules and did what everyone said. My sister was more of a rebel and laughed at the thought of getting caught sneaking out of the dorm room at summer soccer camp to kiss Todd. I wouldn’t be caught dead doing that. Not because of Todd- Todd was cute. But because of the consequences. I always wanted to be more like her, but didn't have the tits to do it(literally and figuratively). She would wear black eyeliner around Keith even when he told her not to!! OMG, SO BRAVE! We used humor to get us through some weird times. I was lucky to have her.
She called my mom after school one day before practice as I held my breath and hid under pillows in the other room. I couldn’t listen to the whole conversation. All I remember was Megan saying, “We’re not going to practice today because Keith touched Kelly in the groinage area.” There’s a certain language you don’t want to use around your parents when you’re starting your teen years. We still laugh about the way she phrased it. In the end though, it doesn’t matter how it comes out, as long as it comes out. At least she had words. I didn’t have anything.
When my Dad found out, he called Keith and told him to leave the country before he finds him and kills him. I think any sane father would have this type of reaction. I remember my Mom asking me how I wanted to move forward from there. My parents knew things could get messy going to court, they also knew I would need to go into grave detail to the prosecutors about exactly what happened, and they understood that at the time all I wanted to do was run away from it all. I knew that coming forward was the right thing to do. The other option was to not take any legal action and just threaten him to stay away from me, as my dad had already done. I was afraid that he would still find a way to get to me. I also knew he could have been a threat to more than just me.
Turns out I was right.
Keith was sentenced to jail for 8 years. What he did to me may have put him behind bars for a few years but after I came out with my story and he was arrested, two other girls came forward. I remember meeting one of them at the court house and instantly crying in each other's arms. She was a bit older than me and I trained with her a few times. She apologized for what happened to me. Even though there was nothing she could have done to stop it, it probably made her feel better to say it. I thanked her for coming forward and sharing her story. I never met the other girl who came forward, but I do think about her often. I hope she's out there thriving in life. I don't know her full story, and it's not mine to tell, but THANK YOU wherever you are. You are BRAVE and I hope coming forward offered you some sort of freedom from the past.
The days that followed the arrest were liberating but hard. There were some cringe-worthy moments in there for someone who didn’t even know how to put a tampon in. You should have heard me trying to dance around the word "clitoris" when the prosecutor asked where Keith touched me. It was like someone was slowly sticking a needle through my eyeball. It was torture...I actually would have preferred the needle. The story was all over the local New York news and in the paper but because I was a minor my name was never said. I still felt like people in my town probably put two and two together though: "Allendale Americans soccer trainer, arrested for molesting minor from Ridgewood NJ "... they may as well have said my name. There were only a few girls from my town playing soccer out of town at that age. I was sure someone would say something to me in school and i'd break down and everyone would know it was me. Thankfully it never happened in school but at soccer camp a year later a group of rowdy boys came up to me in the cafeteria and asked me what happened to that trainer, Keith, who did stuff with “that girl”? they asked if I knew who “that girl” was. "Yeah fuck face it was me". I wish I had the guts to say that, just to be able to see the looks on their faces. The moment came and left before I had anytime to think. My body went numb and I pulled out a shrug before I could get out of there. Numbness became a natural reaction anytime I felt attacked. To this day I turn off emotions to avoid pain.
I wish I could have owned what happened to me all these years. I didn’t do anything to deserve it but somehow I was ashamed of it. I felt guilty for something someone else had done to me. It seemed the wounds were always too raw to face so I just buried them deeper and deeper and put on my “strong” mask and kept moving forward. As an athlete I was always taught to suck up pain and swallow your feelings. Most life lessons I learned on the soccer field, but this one doesn’t translate to life. In life it’s much more courageous to use your words.
A year later I saw Keith in court for the sentencing but I have a hard time remembering exactly what happened that day. I remember pieces. Just hard putting it all together. I remember sitting next to Megan who was crying. She sat there and watched him the entire time. She wanted to hear him apologize. But when he had the chance to say something to my family in court, all he said was “I’m sorry”. That was it, and that was it for us too. I think the two of us were desperately grasping onto the slight innocent thought that maybe he didn’t really mean to hurt us. I felt like crying with her, but as I remember it, my entire body was in shock. I couldn’t bring myself to look at him. So I fixated on the white wall straight ahead of me and eventually a light pool of tears filled my eyes. It was like everything starting closing in around me as the judge sentenced Keith to 8 years in prison, on four different counts of child molestation. Fear; shame; guilt; extreme sadness to see the person that introduced me to this game I fell in love with, sitting there in an orange jumpsuit, knowing that he would spend so much time in jail because of me. Even a year later I felt so conflicted about what I had done. Feelings I didn't understand at the time. I knew what he did was wrong but all I could think was that I betrayed his trust and disappointed him. I wish I knew that it was actually the other way around. It wasn’t so clear to me then how this whole thing would affect my life, there was just an emptiness that washed over me knowing that soccer would never be the same. Through all those confusing feelings though, there was a small sliver of hope as I walked out of the court room that day. For the first time in a long time, I felt free.
It’s been 14 years and people want to know how I got here...14 years of climbing to the top and getting pushed back down.
and over again.
Thats the answer to the question.
How’d you get to be a professional athlete?
I picked myself up over and over again.
It used to be a daunting question, because I always thought of where it all started. I was afraid of my past. What people might think of me if they really knew that piece of my life that showed I was “weak”. Or “messed up”. Or “damaged”. But the truth is, what got me here wasn’t you...
I kicked the ball against the wall after school every day, I ran the extra sprints in the freezing rain, I said no to the summer vacations and birthday parties, I put up with you and other coaches that tried to tear me down, I battled through the long periods of resenting the game that you tried to take from me, I talked to therapists when I felt like I had no where to turn, I got through the dark years of daily headaches and isolation, I found the courage to continue on when I had every excuse to stop. When doctors said I would never play again, when coaches told me I wasn’t good enough, when people told me to give up and move on with my life. I kept pushing, because even though it felt impossible at times, I wasn’t where I wanted to be. I had more to prove to myself than the career I’ve had on paper.
I got me here.
I’m a victim of sexual abuse and those feelings of self doubt, mistrust in myself and others, anxiety, insecurity, shame and guilt, still linger. I still have those moments where I wonder if I’m good enough to play at this level. I still expect more from myself than I can give. I still care too much about what my coach thinks. I still beat myself up over a bad game. I still put on the mask some days. I still wonder if I will really know what to do when I have to hang up my cleats for good. And I still love this god damn game more than anything in the world. These feelings are all a part of me, but they don’t control me anymore.
He doesn’t control me anymore.
I won. but you won’t see that statistic anywhere.
There’s more of us out there than you can imagine,( and we’re talking now. This is just a part of my story, it doesn’t define who I am. I’m no Mia Hamm, but thanks Mia Hamm for giving me someone to look up to. I am “that girl”, Kelly Conheeney. And I can finally be proud of that.
**To the coaches that believed in me and showed me that my worth as a human being went way beyond the playing field; thank you for bringing out the best in me and showing me what I had within. I couldn’t have gotten here without your time, dedication and passion to help me learn and grow; My teammates near and far, friends, cousins, and boyfriends who supported me and opened their ears and arms to help me heal; Thank you for loving me when it was hard to love myself; The voices out there who have told their stories, thank you for speaking up and giving me the courage to share mine. It was an emotionally exhausting, yet liberating process. To the ones who have yet to find their voice, When the details got hard and I questioned if I should post this, you were my inspiration to keep going. I hope reading this made you feel less alone. My siblings; Lauren Megan and Johnny; It’s a hard and weird life that we all find a way to laugh through together. There is no better gift in this world than having you three by my side; And most importantly, my parents who will never forgive themselves for what happened to me. I’m okay now. You did everything right. Thank you for believing in me and supporting me through it all.**
•It’s taken me a lot of years to get to this point and a lot of tears to write this out. It’s raw and real and all of me. Share with as many people as you care to. Thank you for listening. Write, message, reach out If you need someone to talk to, I’m here for you and I believe you•
CHECK OUT KELLY'S WEBSITE: https://ckelly919.wixsite.com/website-1/single-post/2018/07/09/Over-and-Over-again