There is no way to skate faster than haunting memories. There is no way even at world record speeds to race away from a childhood history that made one of this generation's most powerful female athletes weak.
Even from a hero's podium, the golden light of celebrity could not warm the sadness long carried inside Chris Witty.
That slow, cold sorrow, as it turned out, was swifter than even Chris' lucky skates. And so, two weeks after she won the gold medal in Utah's Winter Olympic Games in 2002, Chris Witty quit running and turned to face head-on a childhood full of sexual abuse.
Today, the 29-year-old hopes if she is anyone's hero, anyone's role-model, it can be as someone who has made her way through a sea of depression and 20 years of shame and turned out OK.
"I hope I can inspire someone else to overcome something like this," she said from her Park City home.
If she speaks out, she hopes more children will know sexual abuse is never the fault of a child who is 4 or 5 or even 10 years old.
She hopes children will tell someone if they've been touched or abused.And she prays parents will watch their children carefully and listen if they say they've been hurt.
"The best friend of child sexual abuse is secrecy." Mitzi Dunford, Witty's psychotherapist
Clarence Platteter lived right across the alley from the Wittys in the 1900 block of S. 73rd Street. He'd been in the West Allis, Wis., house since 1947 and was the first neighbor to welcome the Witty family to the block.
Chris was a toddler then, but the neighbor quickly befriended the girl and her three older brothers. Platteter was generous with cookies and Zingers and whatever his wife, Irene, had in the kitchen.
Platteter was in his late 60s then but could build anything out of wood special furniture for people with disabilities, and birdhouses and doll houses, too. He brought tomatoes from his garden.
Platteter was one of those family friends who knocked, then walked in. After awhile, he had a key. Both of Chris' parents worked, so if a child was locked out, the neighbor was just across the alley. Once in a while, Chris stayed home alone, sick. Most of those days, Platteter would let himself into the house to check on Chris.
He was a hugger, too, the old guy.
When Chris was about 10 and started speedskating, Platteter showed up at the weekend races and snapped pictures of Chris and other racers.
Her brothers started teasing her. He likes you, they'd say. Deep inside her adolescent protestations, Chris fought confusion. Even then, she knew something wasn't quite right about the way the neighbor acted toward her.
Chris was 4 the first time he fondled her.
It was just before she entered kindergarten and her dad was cutting the lawn one afternoon when Platteter came over for a visit. Walter Witty worked the second shift as a welder. So when he went inside to take a shower, he left Chris outside with their friend. The neighbor sat her up on the picnic table in a secluded corner of the back patio and touched her.
"Don't you like that?" He had an old man smell. "Isn't that fun?"
Chris didn't answer. She was frozen.
Before he left her, standing on that patio, he said the phrase that would follow each of the dozens of these encounters through the next six years. "Don't tell your dad. Remember, don't tell your dad."
So, Chris didn't tell. Platteter continued his violations through her elementary school years. Sometimes at her house when no one else was home, sometimes at his house.
A school video on "bad touch" was Chris' turning point. In sixth grade, she watched the video with her classmates and heard an actress say,"You're in charge."
"It could have been me in that video. I didn't know it had a name. I didn't know it happened to other people."The next time Platteter tried his advances, the 11-year-old girl said no. "I had to tell him twice," she said. "But he did stop and went on to someone else."
Registrant: Clarence Platteter
Conviction Date: 06/14/1996
Criminal Code: Second-degree Sexual Assault of a Child
Registration ends: Life RegistrationSex Offender Registry, Wisconsin Department of Corrections
Neither Chris Witty nor her parents ever pursued criminal charges against Platteter. As experts say happens with many child sex abuse cases, the statute of limitations ran out before she could. Witty's mother, Diane, confronted the neighbor after she learned of the abuse just before the 2002 Olympics.
He did not deny her daughter's abuse, but he did not apologize, either.
Efforts by the Deseret Morning News to reach Platteter in recent weeks were unsuccessful. Neighbors say he is in a Wisconsin hospital. His health condition, apparently, is dire.
The fact is, after Witty, Platteter did go on to someone else.
According to Wisconsin court records and archived articles from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Platteter pleaded guilty in 1996 to molesting a child who lived four houses away from Chris on 73rd Street. In that case, he persuaded a 4-year-old girl to partially disrobe so he could touch her indecently. He served four years in prison on the conviction.
And court records show the neighbor was convicted of a similar charge in 1976. In that case, he was placed on five years probation on the condition he receive psychiatric treatment. It is not clear if he ever did.
Neighbors in the West Allis neighborhood were outraged when Platteter got out of prison in 1999, and corrections officials hosted a community meeting.
"I bought this home thinking I was living in a safe neighborhood near a park and schools," Catalina Fischer, who bought a house next door to Platteter, told officials according to an article in the Milwaukee paper. "Now I can't feel good about raising my daughter here."
Another neighbor, Pat Roebke and her mother, had lived in the neighborhood for 30 years. They knew Platteter's victims and had tried to warn other neighbors, the paper reported.
Witty wishes now she would have alerted people, too. "Even now, even as a gold medal winner, I feel so guilty about that," she said.
She had every chance to sound the alarm and she did try.
When she was much older, Chris baby-sat the little girl who became Platteter's victim and the girl's brother. He "keeps coming over," the young boy told Chris. "I think he really likes my sister."
"You stay away from Clarence," Chris warned the brother. "He's a bad man."
It crossed her mind that she should tell an adult, but she didn't. Couldn't.
Witty's friends and therapist tell her now it was not her job to protect the neighborhood from Platteter. And all of the tactics he used were textbook predatory strategies. Befriend the children. Gain adults' trust. Demand secrecy. Don't tell. Don't tell. Don't tell.
These facts don't make Witty feel one bit better."If I had told this story when I was 11, maybe this wouldn't have happened to her. I feel like it's my fault, too."
As a young woman, Witty salved her wounds on the ice. It was source enough to lift her to the top of her sport: up and up through the ranks of juniors to the elite, international level of competition.
A time or two through the years, Chris Witty fought the demons from West Allis.
In 1991, 16-year-old Chris was staying with a friend in Minnesota at a speedskating testing camp. Her friend hit the sack, and Chris was up late watching TV alone. "The Oprah Winfrey Show" was replaying from earlier in the day, and Chris sat spellbound as the talk show host told an audience about the sexual abuse she suffered as a girl.
"She was bawling and everyone else was crying, then I started bawling, too," Witty said. "It was like being able to connect with someone after so long. I realized I wasn't the only one."
She didn't really think about the abuse again until she found out the neighbor was going to jail in 1996. She battled sadness and cycled in and out of guilt. "For a good year I really struggled with having old memories."
Looking back, she says these bumps in the road probably helped her career. They made her more determined.
She got faster and faster.
World Sprint champion and World Cup champion in 1996. Bronze medal winner in the 1,500 meter and 1,000 meter silver medalist in the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan. Overall winner in the U.S. Sprint Championships in 2000-01.
She had also become a ferocious cyclist. In 2000, she became one of only nine U.S. athletes to tackle the rare challenge of being a summer/winter Olympian when she placed fifth overall in the 500 meter cycling time trials at the Olympic Summer Games in Sydney.On the ice, she was second in Worlds that same year and earned American records in the 500 and 1,000 meter time trials along the way. She was on track for the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City.
But a month before the Olympics, Chris Witty felt herself falling apart. She was stressed, anxious. She felt sick.
Her body was failing her. For months, she was deathly tired all the time. Doctors diagnosed mononucleosis. Her Olympic hopes were jeopardized.
More than physically ill, her emotions were flooded. Anxiety about the world's premier competition became jumbled with news from her old neighborhood in Wisconsin.
Platteter's wife had died the previous fall. And his ankle bracelet, long worn to monitor him on parole from prison, was removed by the courts. "He was finally free, and it all just seemed like too much at once," Chris said. "It was just too much."
Witty's family had also talked to the old neighbor. "Maybe he's learned his lesson," they told Chris. "He's really not a bad person. Maybe now we can all heal."
Witty knows they were probably trying to be supportive of an old friend, but that support felt like betrayal to her.
With all this on her mind, Witty was just about paralyzed.
So, weeks before she was to take the ice, and with this black cloud over her head, Chris Witty called sports psychologist Keith Henschen. "I need help," she said.
It was a surprise call for Henschen, who had worked with Witty only occasionally on performance enhancement and concentration strategies. The sports psychologist for the Utah Jazz and the U.S. speedskating team describes her as an athlete with "awesome" mental concentration and capabilities.
Witty poured out her story.
After a long talk, Witty and Henschen made a decision. It was not the time for her to address issues she'd had pent-up for 15 or 20 years.
"You've come this far," Henschen told her. "Let's do the Games, then we will work on this together.
Witty's friend, Ina Teutenberg, supported her through this time.
"As an athlete, it was amazing to see how she could separate herself from these things," Teutenberg said. The two have been close friends since fall of 1998 when they met through a mutual cycling friend.
"She escaped into her own little world and separated herself entirely."
And in mid-February, with all of the world watching, Witty raced the clock with Canada's Catriona Le May Doan and beat the world record."She drew on some inner strength there that a lot of athletes just wish they have," Henschen said.
"I always had this thing that there was something special about Chris, and maybe this is it. Maybe she's supposed to take this experience, turn it into something good and help people." Diane Witty, Chris' mom, in an interview from her West Allis home
The December before the Olympics, Chris e-mailed her mom a Christmas wish list. There were no books, CDs or clothes. As her main request, Chris asked her mom to know the truth about their neighbor. She explained to her mother what had happened in the past, about the abuse, about how hard it had been for her and how she was trying to heal and move on. She asked for her mother's understanding.
"I want you to see him for what he really is," Chris wrote.
In an interview last week, Diane Witty said she knows Chris was disappointed she didn't respond to the news sooner. "It was so shocking. This was something you never would have wanted for your child. But it was like, 'How do I respond to this?' " she said.
"I had to come to grips with it before I could offer her any support," she said.
Brian Witty remembers the night a few weeks later when Chris called his house in Wisconsin. "It was hard to believe that it happened to my sister," Brian said. "But, on the other hand, it wasn't hard to believe because he has done this to a lot of little girls in the neighborhood." After the call, he was surprised, shocked, then mad.
He was also worried. Brian knew his sister planned to call their father next. "And I thought something like this would definitely flip his trigger."
So, Brian told Chris to wait an hour to call their parents so he could go over to their house. "I was going to go over there in case my dad did anything crazy. I wanted to be there so I could stop it." He thought his dad might go after Platteter, who had moved back in across the alley after getting out of prison.
"But here was another surprising thing," Brian remembered. "She told my dad, and he didn't do anything. He was just pretty calm. I don't think he said anything."
Brian thinks he must have talked to his folks about it that evening, but he can't remember what was said. He says his family talked about Chris and the abuse here and there, and another brother, Mike, once arranged an appointment with a psychologist for them. "But that never happened," Brian said.
Diane Witty says she's glad her daughter is receiving help and addressing the old concerns. She admits the two never did really talk about it much. "In fact, we haven't talked a lot in the last couple of years," she said.
Chris wanted support. She wanted understanding and love from her parents and family. She knows they probably did the best they could, but she is hurt. Chris won Olympic gold, and nothing much was ever mentioned about her story.
"I felt there were real issues there," Chris Witty said. "These issues were being pushed aside while everyone was like, 'We won gold.' "
So for now, Wisconsin remains a painful place for Witty. She has opted out of three two-week training camps to be held in Milwaukee early this season. She plans an in-and-out trip in late October for World Cup qualifying races.
"This shows how devastating something like this is and how it destroys things," Diane Witty said. "If anyone would have told me Chris would come to town and not have much to do with us, I wouldn't have believed them."
Witty's case and her family's reaction is typical in many respects, Henschen said.
Parents don't know the gravity of what happens to a child when he or she is sexually abused especially a sensitive child. Moms and dads don't know how to deal with the situations. They aren't trained to address the complicated emotions that surround these cases, so they simply don't do anything.
"Most parents think this stuff will go away and people will forget about it," Henschen said.
But human emotion is like water, he said. "Water always finds the weakest spot, and that's where the leak starts. That's what happens with emotions as well; it takes time, but they always come out."
Looks are deceiving when it comes to survivors of sex abuse.
"Parents think, she looks normal. She acts normal, so she must be normal, not realizing that eventually there will be a step backward where she will want to deal with it," Henschen said.
Brian now supports his sister's effort to educate people about child sexual abuse. "If she can help one child from this happening to them or two or three, she's done her job."
But you can tell the forthrightness doesn't come easily.
"I try and block it out and get it out of my mind," Brian said. It's easier that way, he said.
Even today, Brian wishes a reporter would focus more on the "David and Goliath" story that allowed Chris to come from humble, working-class circumstances to become a world-class champion.
Their dad, Walter, was a welder but was in and out of work. Mom Diane worked for an insurance company, and the family was just above being poor, as Brian describes it.
"We didn't have a lot. We didn't have the money her teammates had and those who she skated against," Brian said. So, Chris and her other skating sibling, Mike, got paper routes and made money however they could to compete. "And they beat the competition quite easily," Brian said. "It was their work ethic and (speedskating) technique."
The Witty family has a lot of happy, interesting experiences in their history, too, he says. Enough to fill a book.The family loves to tell stories about the old days and promises a visitor "you would be rolling on the floor."
Today, Witty is in the thick of her training schedule. She is preparing for a rigorous winter speedskating schedule and the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics just more than a year away.
But life is good for the transplanted girl from Wisconsin. She has worked hard at her emotional stuff for two years, she says, and is coming out of the fog. She has also made some tough professional decisions.
After the Games in Salt Lake City, Witty threw herself into cycling. She signed with the T-Mobile professional cycling team and earned backing of USA Cycling. At the Pan American Games in 2003, she won two medals.
One season sped into the next. The cycling season left her behind for skating, and vice versa.
But even with her focus on cycling wheels instead of skates, Witty finished second- place overall in the 1,000 meter World Cup rankings in 2003 and fourth in 2004.
At 28, Witty was exhausted.
So last winter, she walked away from the T-Mobile contract and the chance to become the first U.S. woman to medal in the Summer and Winter Olympics. She decided not to cycle in Athens.
"I guess what I learned from that time cycling is that my heart really belongs to speedskating," she said.
Life is good.
After all those interviews about how she likes snowboarding and sushi, all those superficial questions about the leprechaun tattoo on her hip and her favorite books, Witty is relieved to be talking about the incidents that have owned the places inside her heart and soul for so long.
She is a woman with stunning physicality set upon legs that could carry her across mountains. But there is a softness in her voice and a hint of sadness in her eyes.
"The palm tree doesn't get blown over in a hurricane because it's flexible, yet it is very, very strong," Henschen said. That's the way he describes her. The strength of an oak, and the flexibility of a palm.
On an exquisite fall day near her home, she hangs out with her friend Ina Teutenberg and plays with her dog, Glacier.
"I know this is a large step for her to heal: to educate kids," Teutenberg said. "Whatever she can do to help, it is great. If she can save a couple of kids a year . . . "". . . or," Chris interjects, "just one."
"Skate Chris skate.
Skate faster, Chris, skate.
Skate away from the sleazy neighbor lurking in the alley.
Skate away from his stares and his touch.
Stay on the ice. You are safe there.
Away from his glare, away from the knowledge that he has a key to your house.
On the ice, you are not frozen.
On the ice, you are strong and competent and you push and push and push, trying to get the thoughts of his touch from your mind.
Faster, faster, skating through trials, summer camps, coaches.
All these things can fill your mind, pushing away the abuse, the unwanted touch.
You were always hyper vigilante, always on top of your game.
You are not betrayed on your skates. You are strong, competent and know exactly what to do.
The faster you go, the faster you push.
But there aren't enough scores and times to get away from the memory.
No gold medal to cover that part of your heart.
I believe you think if you just skate faster and harder, you will escape this pain.
But now today, you sit in a chair next to me and begin to deal with your abuse.You get a gold today.
A journal entry written by a friend after learning of Chris Witty's history
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