For more decades, famed swimmer Diana Nyad has spoken out about the sexual abuse she says she endured at the hands of her former coach as a teenager. Now, amid the onslaught of assault and harassment victims telling their stories, Nyad is making her voice heard yet again.
“This is not, by any means, the first time that I’ve written or spoken about my particular abuse story from my teenage years. But here we are. I’m not one to give up,” Nyad, 68, tells PEOPLE. “I decided I wanted to throw my hat in the ring. I wanted to be one of the leaders of the #MeToo movement.”
Nyad, a long-distance swimmer who famously swam from Cuba to Florida in 2013, penned a powerful op-ed for the New York Times in which she opened up about being sexually abused by her former coach, Jack Nelson, repeatedly beginning when she was 14 years old.
She wrote that Nelson would summon her after practices for rides in his car or trips to a motel where he would abuse her. She was 21 years old when she first revealed the molestation, and spent the next several years trying to get justice.
“Many times in my life I tried to go up against this deviant, this criminal who assaulted me and left me with shame, left me with humiliation, left me with rage,” she tells PEOPLE.”I went after him. Many times I met with many lawyers, many police investigators and it never did come down on my side, which is the case with a lot of women.”
Nyad’s essay comes as scores of men and women have come out and accused celebrities like Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey, Brett Ratner and more of sexual misconduct or sexual abuse, assault or harassment. Unfortunately, Nyad says, the climate of shame and victim blaming has not changed since her teenage years.
“My high school era was 50 years ago and [victims] still feel like they’ve been silenced,” she says. “I don’t think it’s changed at all. I think that good ol’ boy system has protected these people. My coach made it into the hall of fame.”
As she read the dozens of sexual abuse stories made public in recent weeks, every story impacted her as a survivor, she says.
“We could go from every sector of society. We could go through rabbis, priests, stepfathers and boy scouts and athletic coaches and choir directors and politicians and Hollywood directors. It is an epidemic,” Nyad tells PEOPE. “[The stories] all affect me deeply … People are affected and they’re affected for their entire lives once this happens to them.”
Although Nyad has become a “strong, happy, together, successful person” despite the abuse, she says she often avoids using her abuser’s name. (Although she did name Nelson during her interview with PEOPLE, she did not name him in her personal essay.)
“It’s difficult for me and I don’t even want to write it. To me he’s just a deviant. He’s a rapist, a molester and he doesn’t even have a name,” she says.
Nelson, who died in 2014, has always denied Nyad’s allegations and never faced any charges for the abuse, the Times reports. Despite claims of abuse from Nyad and another swimmer, Nelson has won numerous awards and was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1994.
“It makes me sick. This story’s not just about me against him. He already won,” Nyad tells PEOPLE. “It’s about the epidemic, it’s about the syndrome.
“I’m trying to help other people.”