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Charlie Webster: ‘I can’t just help one person with my story of abuse – it has to do more’

Charlie Webster: ‘I can’t just help one person with my story of abuse - it has to do more’

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S

ince being abused by her athletics coach as a teenager, Charlie Webster has had the same recurring nightmare.

For years, it had abated but, during the making of her compelling documentary Nowhere to Run, it resurfaced, each time playing out in exactly the same way.

In it, she dreams of being forced to go back to train with her ex-coach where she is met by his smirking, laughing expression.

Paul North was convicted to 10 years in jail for abusing two other girls he once coached, and Webster’s BBC programme reunites her former training group, some of whom also fell prey to North.

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“Making this dragged a lot of stuff up,” she said. “For me, that recurring nightmare – exactly the same each time.”

The documentary throws up all manner of emotions for her: the element of feeling alone for so many years, the realisation for the first time she wasn’t the only one in her group to be abused and the guilt that others were abused after her.

And her aims in its airing are that others abused no longer feel alone and have the strength to speak out, as well as ensuring protections at sporting bodies are vastly improved to avoid such repeats.

“You hear people say ‘if I can help just one person’,” she said. “But I can’t just help just one person. It has to do more. We can’t keep doing this or else I’ve failed.”

Webster’s own abuse started in a private training session at the school where North worked as a caretaker, a location she returns to in the film, understandably breaking down outside the school gates.

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It was an abuse which also extended to a training camp in Spain attended by her group where she suspects another girl, Georgina, was also abused. Georgina committed suicide at the age of 18, and her mother appears on screen, voicing her belief that her daughter was another victim.

After that training camp, Georgina claimed she had had an argument with North and immediately turned her back on athletics.

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“She’s not here to tell her story and I know why she’s not here and what caused it,” said Webster. “I remember that camp and look back and realise it was so obvious it wasn’t just me. At the time, I was just so scared, scared of him, of getting in trouble, of being pushed out of the group, of losing friends. I didn’t understand and it’s so hard to explain.

“She was such a vibrant, funny personality. She just rapidly changed in a split moment after that Spanish camp. I hope to be her voice in this film. This film is for Georgina. This is someone’s life that she’ll never get back or her family.”

On Monday night, Webster will watch the programme with her mother, the pair having not properly spoken about the abuse until the film’s making.

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She will watch with a sense of anxiety that she has done her training group justice with her story, that it has the required impact to make change and that others can relate to its revelations and find help.

The 18-month process in its creation has understandably been raw, one week near the end leaving herself questioning why she was traumatising herself so much, and yet she knew she would never walk away from the project until it was done.

For the first time in 20 years, it has brought her an element of peace. “It’s brought that as I’ve been able to see the bigger picture,” she said. “It wasn’t my fault. This abhorrent, abusive, narcissistic, awful man took advantage of so many girls over his lifetime and abused his position of trust.

“I can see that now and spin it the other way from my shame and guilt. For so long, I ran away from it as it was part of me that I hated. But that’s not fair, we’re all an innocent party being abused.”

She explains that the abusers are the same, whatever the sport, whatever the situation, from isolation to befriending to tight trust and the eventual betrayal.

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And her frustration is that it is still ongoing with the more recent story she tells of fellow athlete Mhairi MacLennan abused by another coach to the situation of the US female gymnasts.

“It’s going on because we haven’t created a culture that has zero tolerance,” she said. “A coach might just get a year’s ban or else they can abuse in athletics and then walk away to abuse in badminton as there’s no record of it. Records only show criminal convictions and the majority are not convicted or reported to the police – they’re usually dealt with internally.

“There must be a system of recording allegations and there should be zero tolerance. Every coach that I’ve found, there is never just one victim, they carry on abusing. My own coach abused someone seven years before I joined the club.

“And we need to create education across sporting governing bodies so athletes understand what a healthy relationship is with a coach. I spoke to someone last night being abused by a coach, and I’m hearing the same stories again and again. I don’t want this to be a moment or else you’ll just be interviewing the next victim.”

Nowhere to Run, Abused by our Coach on BBC1 10.35pm on Monday and BBC iPlayer

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