In the culture of competitive swimming, Amber said, coaches are like gods. So in the 1990s, age 12, as a new member of an established club, all she wanted to do was work hard and earn the coach’s respect.
It wasn’t easy. The coach, Michael Buchanan, ran a tough regime. Amber recalled spending at least five hours a day training. It started in the pool at 5 am, earlier if Michael decided to add a road run. The extra training was unnecessary, she said, but no one ever complained.
‘[The coach] could just about do or say anything to you and you would just say okay and grovel. Whatever they wanted to do, however they wanted to run it, was exactly what was done ... Nobody would ever stand up against them. I think that the parents wanted their kids to succeed so much too, that they would do whatever the coach suggested.’
Early on Michael began singling Amber out and verbally abusing her. ‘It was just belittling. Always just “fat”, “ugly”, “fat”, “ugly” – and this is to a 12, 13-year-old, when you’re going through puberty.’
As she settled into a new school and tried to make friends, Amber was already vulnerable. Her experience at swimming made everything more difficult.
‘[Michael] was constantly calling me fat, he was constantly calling me a beached whale – look at your treetrunk legs; I can’t believe you can swim like that … Always telling me nobody will ever want you except a man with a white cane.’
At this point Amber was spending more time with Michael than with her own parents, and the stress was starting to take a toll.
‘I was so exhausted during school, I was going to sick bay and sleeping. My school marks really started to bomb out; I was going from As and Bs to Ds. I really was struggling. I was quite withdrawn … I felt so bad about myself.’
Socially, she felt excluded and if a boy paid her any attention she would respond by flirting. ‘I thought men won’t find me attractive so if someone gives me attention I should jump at it’, she said. ‘I had no sense of self worth.’
Halfway through the year Amber developed tendonitis, the result of over-training. A few months later, this became an excuse for Michael to separate her from the group. While the others were sent off to swim, he kept her back to give her a shoulder massage.
‘He’d start rubbing my shoulder then he’d slip his hand down my togs and he’d start rubbing my breast, rubbing my stomach area – it was always quite vigorous, like he was purposely trying to make it not seem like a big deal – but the first time he did it I was absolutely petrified.’
Speaking about what was going on proved impossible. ‘I couldn’t tell anyone. I didn’t even know if it was wrong. I didn’t know what to say.’ She did tell her father she didn’t like Michael, but his response was that she needed to do what the coach wanted so he’d respect her.
Another incident took place some months later. Amber’s father had come to collect her and been sent away by Michael, who said she needed extra training. After her father had left, Michael got into the pool. Eventually, he grabbed her.
‘I could feel he had an erect penis, it was poking into me’, Amber remembered. ‘It was terrifying. He was holding me – he had togs on, I had togs on – but he’d pushed the end of his penis into the entrance of my vagina; I was really freaked out. Then I heard a car coming into the car park … As soon as he heard the car he let me go.’
Not long afterwards Amber had a horse-riding accident. It gave her the excuse she needed to give up swimming. ‘It was my way out.’
For the rest of that year, Amber hardly attended school. ‘I really just started not caring about life, fullstop.’ As the years went by there were other impacts, too: a breakdown, stomach ulcers, chronic fatigue and multiple episodes of glandular fever.
‘I really went through some hard times and some very silly things, trying to numb the pain I guess, when I was younger.’
Amber had tried to talk to her mother about what had happened. The family was still involved with the swimming club, though Michael had left by then. Amber’s mother recounted Amber’s story to the replacement coach, and they both laughed. ‘I remember I hated my mother so much for that’, Amber said.
Later, she also told her father. He didn’t believe her either.
It wasn’t until Rolf Harris was arrested for indecent assault and Amber saw the news on TV that she fully understood what had happened to her. ‘I knew it was wrong but I don’t feel like I’ve ever been able to explain that to people. I thought they’d think it was trivial or stupid.
‘My parents didn’t believe me, my mum laughed about it with somebody … I really felt like it obviously wasn’t an issue if my parents didn’t believe me.’
The Rolf Harris TV items ended with a promotion for the child sexual abuse support group, Bravehearts. Amber contacted them and was put in touch with a counsellor, which she’s very grateful for and believes will make a difference.
‘The silly thoughts that go through my head are so irrational. And I know they are … It’s embarrassing that somebody of my age is still having these self worth issues, these problems.’
She has also recently reported the abuse to police – a sign of the changes underway. ‘I never was brave enough to do anything about it before now.’