Just a few thoughts after Birarda’s guilty plea on Tuesday, after spending the last couple of days processing everything.
I didn’t realize I was holding my breath, but since the guilty plea was announced it feels like the first time I’ve properly exhaled since I hit publish almost 3 years ago in February 2019.
I’m flooded with feelings of relief.
The truth we have known since 2008 has been validated, and those that tried to silence us now have to face the full weight of the truth: That collectively many powerful people in Vancouver and Canadian soccer worked together to cover up the actions of a sexual predator, allowing him full access to vulnerable female players for a decade. This, despite ripping him off the field in 2008 for sexual misconduct, weeks before a U20 World Cup.
The last couple of days I find myself most emotional when I think about how I was feeling in 2019. How angry I am, that the system and the powerful people within it put me in such a tenuous, vulnerable position. One where I felt I had no other choice than to take a massive personal risk to have the full seriousness of what was being allowed happen, be acknowledged and rectified. Anger that nothing has systematically changed to this day and so many are still in danger because of it.
I’m emotional when I think about the full scope and damage caused by the gaslighting we experienced. Thinking we were crazy when the reaction didn’t match the information being delivered. Myself and some teammates banging on more doors than I can count that we naively expected would help us and being let down again and again and again. How no one listened: soccer organizations he was coaching at, media, individuals in positions of power at organizations that oversaw Birarda’s clubs and even the police.
At one point in 2018 having suicide on my mental table of options as I was so low, so stuck, and so suffocated under the weight of such an egregious situation being silenced and minimized.
The helplessness after 2008, and its suffocating violent silence, losing hope, and feeling like evil ruled a world that I grew up always seeing good in and at times not wanting to be a part of it anymore. But no matter how much I wanted to, I felt stuck, unable to walk away from a situation and a possibility that more vulnerable players like us, could be harmed.
How far behind in life I sometimes feel for being stuck in that place for so long.
The last couple of days I’ve cried thinking about where I was in 2019 where the only option I felt I had to move forward in some way, came from hitting publish and metaphorically flinging myself off a building, not having any idea where I would land.
Being so low that I no longer cared of the consequences.
In 2019, on the precipice of publishing the blog, I knew couldn’t stay suffocated in silence any longer. And since then I’ve been walking a metaphorical tight wire, one step in front of the other, not looking back, and not looking forward, terrified of looking anywhere but a few inches in front of me. I’ve carried a vague sense of fear of the powerful people hovering around that tight wire I was walking, who have had every resource at their fingertips and no qualms about using them to cause harm. As I now exhale, I recognize how I’ve felt the last 3 years, exposed and vulnerable, always on guard, feeling at any point I could be pounced upon.
With the guilty verdict we can collectively breathe. The truth sealed and stamped. The egregiousness of what we experienced forever validated.
I have immense gratitude for that safety net in 2019 after I jumped: Skiier and survivor, Gen Simard a friend of a friend who I still have never met who was my rock in the first weeks after I hit publish. Former teammates Andrea Neil. Eden Hingwing. Hana Taiji. Adrienne Ruhe-Lischke. Our manager Diane Voice who had our backs as fiercely in 2019 as she did in 2008. All the brave players from the U20 team that signed the letter outlining publicly the truth of what those of us in the elite soccer community in 2008 knew to be true.
The healing that came in watching the public finally validate the horror that came in an environment where players were silenced and abuse was enabled. Seeing local journalists in Vancouver finally taking the story on. Matthew Hall from the Guardian who in his coverage, forced the uncomfortable question of why an internationally renowned newspaper found value in the story, yet it seemed so hard for widespread media in Canada to pay much attention.
And then there were the fans. From experiencing the worst of humanity to seeing the best and the healing that came from strangers taking a stand and being our voice, in our most vulnerable moments.
Thinking of our continued resilience as the Whitecaps and their enablers continued to try and silence us even after meeting with us in 2019. Their arrogance of choosing to play the game the only way they knew how, with heavy handed harm, despite having so many chances to do things right.
When I reflect on the last 3 years what I’m most proud of, is that collectively in speaking up we have drawn a clear line in all these situations: a right side and a wrong side of stories to be on. No longer can powerful people in organizations cause harm in dark corners. A light has been turned on that people will never again be able to dim and I feel hope that athletes are now starting to have a voice that we were never given.
Determination. Heart. Resiliency. Integrity. Teamwork. All the things I always loved about sport. And it’s showed up in spades over the last 36 months, with a large exclamation point being in the brave women that stepped forward and pressed charges and who won just in being brave enough to show up. Who have made the world a better, safer place in doing so. They are incredible and all the focus of the victory of this guilty verdict should be on them.
An important chapter has closed, but the work is just beginning. We have a broken system and every day we allow it to exist, more athletes are being harmed.
It’s time to change systems, structures and ways of doing things and think about truly putting athletes first. It’s time for us as athletes to take a stand and rise up.
Because without us sport does not exist and the next generation deserves so much better.
Almost exactly 3 years ago, I sat in the empty house of my best friend’s parents, at rock bottom, and came up with a title to the awful story that was one of a decade stolen, silenced and wrapped in harm: A Horrific Canadian Soccer Story. The Story No One Wants to Listen To but Everyone Needs to Hear.
And with an immense amount of gratitude after the verdict this week, I breathe out deeply in relief, as every single one of us have finally been heard.
Congratulations, Ciara. You are so brave and strong and your efforts and sacrifices have changed the world for many. Breathe.