The New York Times published a story yesterday, part of which was first reported last month by the Chronicle of the Horse, in which multiple women allege they were sexually abused by a once-legendary equestrian coach. That coach was Jimmy A. Williams, a man so important to the sport that at one point a lifetime-achievement award carried his name and was shaped like one of his hats. Williams died in 1993.
The Chronicle report, by Mollie Bailey, quoted five women who say Williams abused them in ways ranging from talking about his sex life to forcibly kissing them to trying to force one’s face onto his penis. The Times talked to 38 “former students, trainers, grooms, equestrian officials and members of the Flintridge Riding Club,” where Williams taught.
Williams wasn’t just any riding coach. The Chronicle calls his time at Flintridge “legendary,” estimating he taught 37 professional riders and future Olympic medalists. The key themes in the Chronicle and Times stories are similar to those that have emerged in reporting on other sports: Williams’ success granted him a huge amount of power, which women said he used to keep them quiet; fear of retribution was a major factor for anyone who did speak out; women felt that they didn’t have a choice but to be coached by Williams; and ambitious parents were willing to ignore warning signs for a shot at winning.
In the Chronicle report, former student Gigi Gaston said Williams would shove her into a horse stall “for kissing sessions” and told her, “You’re going to need to learn this for the big world.” Gaston also recalled Williams once unzipping his pants and trying to shove her head down near his penis. Anne Kursinski said Williams started kissing her when she was 11 years old and that, from there, the abuse got worse. Williams told her to not tell anyone, Kursinski said, so she didn’t. Cece Durante Bloum said Williams tried to kiss her. Francie Steinwedell-Carvin, said William exhibited “inappropriate touching and inappropriate sexual advances” toward her, and the fact that her mother rode at the same club didn’t protect her. Karen Herold told the Chronicle that Williams would talk to her about his sex life.
“I’d be riding in the ring, and [Jimmy would] come up alongside of me and walk alongside—he’d always be on a horse in the ring—and he’d tell me horrible sexual stories about how to turn on a woman and his own sexual experiences,” she recalled. “For me, I had to get to the point where I would shut that part of my brain down when things were happening. I didn’t allow it to penetrate me. I’d already been molested by [my previous trainer], and I’d learned how to shut that part of my brain down. You knew things were going on, but you didn’t feel them. He kissed me, told me foul sexual stories, and touched me in places that he shouldn’t have.
“Whenever you were at the barn you’d think, ‘I wonder what he’s going to do today. Is he going to corner me today?’ ” she added. “It was horrible.”
The Times story finds more women who say they Williams abused them while they were teens. It also shows why it took so long for equestrian to acknowledge the issue. Some people the Times spoke to tried waving off what the women described as “mores of a different era” and didn’t think it was fair to bring up the allegations against a dead man. A vice president said she heard from someone (she did not tell the Times who) about the allegations before the United States Equestrian Federation named the lifetime-achievement trophy after Williams. But then-USEF vice president Jane Forbes Clark said she didn’t do any investigation beyond calling a friend and asking for his opinion on it.
“I still have to say he is a genius,” Kursinksi told the Times. “But he was sick.”