Don't tell anyone, he said.
For four years, she heard that from him.
Don't tell anyone.
And for years, she didn't tell a soul.
Then, one night in 10th grade, she decided she was going to defy this man. She was going to tell someone. She was tired of being afraid and tired of being hurt. She was tired of being a victim.
That night she said goodbye to her childhood bedroom, and said goodbye to abuse.
Kellie Wells is 28 now. She is one of the top hurdlers in the world, and one of the best hopes for Team USA in the 2012 Olympics. Recovered from a devastating hamstring tear during U.S. Trials in 2008, Wells is running faster than ever. Last weekend, she became the U.S. national champion in the 100-meter hurdles with a 12.50 time in the final, announcing her candidacy to be one of the best American stories at the London Games. For the first time in August, at World Championships, she will be wearing the Red, White and Blue of the U.S.A.
"I am so excited to represent my country," Wells says. "To make a U.S. team is such an honor and I'm looking forward to making my country, friends, and family proud."
And yet the nightmare is just as alive inside her as the dream. Sometimes she wonders if there would be a dream without the nightmare. Would she have made it to the precipice of Olympic glory without being on the precipice of personal destruction?
Could she chase gold this way if not for all those years when the demons chased her?
Wells' chase started in middle school in Virginia; that's where she started running after her older sister, Tonni. The Wells family all ran, in fact, whether long-distance or sprints. "The sprinter’s side came from my mom," Tonni says. "The long distance came from my dad. It was almost this unspoken thing – everyone ran." Kellie was just trying to keep up at first. "She was the team mascot," Tonni laughs. But soon, the mascot would outrun them all.
As her running took off, life at home became troubling. Kellie's parents, Jeanette and Fred, divorced when she was 8. She remembers the arguing, the tension. She remembers being confused. Beyond that, she doesn't remember much.
What she does remember is the man who came into her life next. His name was Rick, and Kellie's mom fell for him. In a childlike way, Kellie did too.
"I was enamored," Kellie says now. "He was a baseball coach; I was a tomboy. I was into all that. He filled a void my dad wasn't there for."
Kellie's sister was wary, and stayed away to focus on her running. "She could tell he was sneaky," she says.
Looking back, Kellie sees the signs of trouble. She says Rick mistreated her mom, before and after they got engaged. "I saw him push her around, pull her hair, smack her," Kellie says. But Rick loved sports and so did Kellie, so they got along. They would go to the basketball court and he would encourage her to jump and touch the backboard. After workouts, he would stretch her out. She was in middle school, so she had no idea that might be inappropriate.
And then, during one of the post-workout stretching sessions, Kellie says her step-father "let his hand slip."
She was scared, and once again confused, but she let it go. Maybe it was a mistake.
Kellie poured herself into running. It was an escape for her, just like it was for Tonni, who ran to get away from the stress of watching her parents divorce. The worse things got, the more they ran.
But they couldn't run away. At one point, Kellie says, Rick rubbed Vicks on her chest.
This can't go on, she thought. It has to stop.
She told her mother what was going on.
"She blamed me," Kellie says. "I think she was thinking, 'How could he do this to a little girl and not to me?' "
Kellie figured she couldn't argue with her mom, who she worshiped. And if she told someone else, who knows what would happen? She was going to school in another district, where the academics and sports were better. What if she told on Rick and then had to move back to her original school?
So she didn’t fight. Rick touched her "more times than I can count." Kellie says it went on until she was a sophomore in high school.
It's a summer afternoon in Florida and Kellie Wells sits in a Crispers restaurant in suburban Orlando. She knows she's on the brink of something amazing, and she knows it will change her life. Up until now she's been an Olympic hopeful, but one of several in the U.S. She was only "an OK hurdler," in her words, as a student at Hampton University in Virginia. She was talented, but not elite. Then her coach, Dennis Mitchell, asked her a simple question: "Are you tired of being a lane-filler?" That set something off inside Wells and her career took off. She likely would have made the Beijing Games in 2008, but when she crossed the finish line second in the 100-meter final, she felt a searing pain in her right leg. She had torn her hamstring. She went from planning a trip to China to riding in an ambulance to an Oregon hospital.
"I couldn’t run for over a year," she says. "I was in pain all the time. I contemplated quitting. That was a year when I watched everyone else do this."
But on the way back to her old form, Wells decided to stop running away from her past. She decided that "Don’t tell anyone" was not going to work anymore. She decided to blog about what happened to her as a child. It took her three days.
"Kellie almost became terminator against it," Tonni says. "She almost had a chip on her shoulder where she had a tough edge."
So tough that she agreed to sit down and answer any and every question about Rick. That meant talking not only about what she confessed on the blog, but what she didn’t. Kellie says that one night, in her room, Rick went further than ever. Kellie says that in the 10th grade, she was raped.
That was enough. More than enough. Kellie told her mom the next day in the car, and got mostly silence. So she decided to move out. That would be the last night in her childhood bedroom.
A few weeks later, Kellie was driving home with her boyfriend when she saw a horrific car accident. She couldn't imagine what happened to the passengers inside, but like all onlookers, she soon forgot about it.
Then, the next morning, her father sat her down next to her brother and told her Rick was the driver of that car.
"Your mom is dead," he said.
Kellie turned to look at her brother, who was always able to keep a straight face through anything. He had a single tear falling down his face.
That's when she lost it.
"I'm going to kill him," she thought. "Wherever he is, I'm going to kill him."
But Rick was dead too.
Any relief Kellie felt at being rid of Rick drowned in sadness at the loss of her mom.
All that was left for her to do was mourn, and heal.
Over the years, Wells found a way to cope with what happened to her. It's up to others now to come to terms with it. Tonni, her sister and best friend, admits hearing the truth was not easy.
"I was so blown away," she says. "So angry. There was a lot of emotion behind her when she told me. It played out as anger. It was not really spoken about. It should have been. We have talked about it now that we’re older."
But the only person who must be aware of Kellie’s past on a day-to-day basis is her coach. Mitchell is the mentor, the guide -- the same authority figure Rick was supposed to be.
"Knowing Kellie's past. I put myself in a position that’s very fragile," Mitchell says. "I come to the track and it's up to me to build the trust in Kellie that I will not betray her in that trust."
At the same time, Mitchell has to help harness all the energy in his star hurdler. "Track is an emotional sport," he says, and in a way it's more emotional for a hurdler. Those who are the slightest bit overexcited or down can make a miscalculation that ruins everything. Wells has always put her anger and disappointment into her running, but if she puts too much into it, her past could ruin her future.
"This is a very revealing sport, especially in hurdles," Mitchell says. "It takes a toll on the human body. The mental aspect is that battery that charges the body."
Wells admits her own mental battery is sometimes drained. "I miss my mom," she says, "every day, all the time." The battle through grief and self-doubt has been far greater than the battle to come back from her injury, far greater than the battle to go from sitting in a wheelchair to running faster than any female hurdler in the country, and far greater than her battle to get her time down from 12.93 all the way to 12.50.
"Why does stuff have to happen to me?" Wells asks. "It's very exhausting. You keep fighting and fighting and fighting."
And it's a fight she has to wage mostly alone. She has her sister and brother, but she says her relationship with her father has not been strong, and she lives alone.
"I have zero trust in people," she says. "The people who were supposed to keep me safe did this to me. If harm came from them, who will look out for me?"
As hard as that must be to think and say, the answer may have already come from within. Wells has learned to fend for herself. She's thrown away all crutches – literal and emotional, and she's come all the way back on her own. And now she is a national champion.
"I'm equipped with things," she says, "that most people don't have."
The 2012 Games are a year away. It's now very likely Wells will be there. Sure there are plenty of other stars in women's hurdles, but now they must catch up to Wells and not the other way around. "I see myself in London," Kellie says. "I see myself on the podium."
If she gets there, she'll stand up there in front of the world -- a woman finally free of self-doubt and secrets. She'll stand up there for all women who have been afraid to speak, and afraid to speak up. She'll stand up there in American colors but she'll be a hero to untold women of other countries who are unable to fight back.
"I want to show them," Wells says, "I'm OK. I’ve made it."
Eric Adelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Kellie Wells on Twitter @kelliewellz.
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