TURIN, Italy -- Chris Witty will carry the United States flag into the stadium during the opening ceremony of the Olympics tonight, an honor symbolic of a greater struggle than chasing gold medals throughout the world.
She can talk about it now. An abusive predator who stole her innocence, disguised in the kindly embrace of a neighbor. He crawled into her life when she was 4 and growing up in West Allis, Wis.
The memory lingers.
"I remember his smell," Witty said dispassionately, reflecting years of work with a therapist.
Now 30, Witty is using her celebrity as a five-time Olympian and flag bearer to address the ravages of child abuse in the hopes that it will spare another child from her pain.
"Maybe that's the blessing in disguise of being a flag bearer, that I can put all my energy and focus on something like this and maybe this is that chance for me," she said yesterday. "And when it's time to skate, I focus on skating."
As only the ninth U.S. Olympian to compete in the Winter and Summer games, Witty won gold in world-record time in the speed skating 1,000 meters at the 2002 Winter Games. Previously, she had won silver in the 1,000 and bronze in the 1,500 at the 1998 Winter Games and placed fifth in the 500-meter cycling time trial at the 2000 Summer Games.
She broke her silence about the abuse in 2004, and it received a lot of attention.
Witty's struggles began when a 60ish neighbor befriended the family.
Because both parents worked, Witty and her three older brothers were left home alone. Her father was showering after a day's work as a welder when the neighbor began fondling her.
As the abuse continued and her self-esteem dropped, Witty began using sports as an escape.
"It was a way to feel good about yourself," she said. "Everything you accomplished, people would congratulate you. I could be free on the ice. I could be myself. I could accomplish things.
"I'm glad I had that. I had something that I could focus on. If I didn't have that, I think life would have been really tough."
Although Witty found the strength to speak up and put an end to the molestation when she was 11, she lived in silence for years. The neighbor eventually went to prison for abusing another child and was released in 2000.
"I came to my house to see my parents, and he pulled up with his wife and he got out of his car," Witty said. "I don't know if you know those moments when it seems the whole world stops and you have this tunnel vision and you just can't move.
"I don't remember what was said, but I remember her nudging him, telling him to say something. He said, `I'm really sorry about what happened.' I didn't say a word. I felt like I couldn't move."
The words come much easier now. There will be no shame in her stride tonight.
George Diaz writes for the Orlando Sentinel.