Our Safeguarding Story
Joe & Caroline Fuggle, Founders of The Athlete Parent Place
To help you better understand the conversations we had with Cheryl Higgins, we have decided to briefly describe the safeguarding issues experienced by our sons whilst under the same high-performance coach.
Setting the scene
Wind the clock back to a sunny day in October 2016. I’d taken Joe to a university open day, a year earlier than is normal, in an attempt to create some sort of urgency to knuckle down with A-levels! Walking around the HIPAC (high-performance athletics centre) and gym, he was inspired by the amazing facilities on offer. Ranked No.1 in the UK at that time (for U17 400m hurdles), the university was keen to have him. Like most of the top applicants to Loughborough University, Joe was essentially headhunted to join one of the leading groups. But as we were leaving, he got chatting to one of the athletes acting as a tour guide, and his contact details were passed on to the coach of an elite training group that would be perfect for his needs. The visit had the desired effect, this was where he wanted to go, and the hard work needed would be worth it. Job done!!
How it started
During the drive home, the coach messaged him to say Joe would be more than welcome to join the group, things were really starting to look up. Receiving occasional messages from him seemed almost an honour… his group included GB Athletes for heaven’s sake. But what I didn’t realise until much, much later, was that these messages were not occasional, but almost daily conversations, and were not just about training topics but “How's school?” etc… Remember, at this time Joe was still only 16, a schoolboy.
Looking back, and knowing what we know now, we believe this was grooming. As a mum, I now feel ridiculously foolish and naïve to not have questioned this. But you don’t. You just don’t. You trust that the coach has your kid’s best interest at heart. Why wouldn’t you? Not to mention the fact that Joe was over the moon to feel wanted by a top coach. A few months before he was due to start university, the coach set a schedule of training to get started on at home, he even came to our house to meet me and go over some of the exercises with Joe. Looking back, this could easily have been all part of the trust-building plan. I guess we will never know.
September arrived and it was time to leave home for this new life, he was excited to finally start university and see where this elite training set-up could take him. The training itself was a significant step up from what he was used to, but the coach seemed super supportive. But, looking back, it now feels like control was being exerted over every aspect of life, both on and off the track, under the guise of ‘if you want the results, it’s my way or no way’ … but in all honesty, this control now seems to have a deeper meaning.
Joe racing for Loughborough University at the British University Championships, 2018, where he finished 2nd.
During a day-time ‘garden party’ that Joe and his friends attended after training, a photo appeared on Instagram of him holding a bottle of fruit cider (to put this in context: he had one cider and was then home and in bed by 10… not exactly an alcoholic rave!). One cider would, I’d say, be well below the expected standard for any first-year student, even those who were athletes. A few weeks later, at a 1:1 post-season feedback session, the coach told him something along the lines of “I stopped coaching you when I saw that photo. You weren’t worth my time” … Being made to feel guilty by his coach for going out and having fun with his mates was surely overstepping the mark and not right, on any level.
Yes, late nights and alcohol consumption aren’t ideal for any high-performance athlete, but this we were sure, wasn’t about that … it was about a coach losing the ability to control an athlete. What we hadn’t known was that this coach had a history of creating and then prioritising ‘favourites’, and Joe had been his new project. The innocuous cider incident, we think, was potentially a realisation that Joe wasn’t going to be the easy-to-manipulate pushover that he’d hoped for.
It didn’t take long before a new ‘favourite’ appeared… yet another school-aged boy hoping to attend the university. This athlete lived relatively locally and was soon invited to join the group as a 17-year-old - still at school.
At this point, and in our eyes, the coach immediately lost interest in Joe and many others as athletes, projecting his total attention towards the new athlete, Ben. This rejection, along with a number of other scenarios, understandably caused difficulties that were showcased both on and off the track, eventually becoming too much, with Joe quitting the sport.
A sad end to a career that had such great prospects.
Joe (middle) at the Schools International Athletics competition, 2015
Grooming… round two?
Meanwhile, manipulation of the new ‘favourite’ (and his family) began. Becoming liked by the family turned out to be an integral part of the deception, being trusted by the parents meant that no one would ever suspect anything untoward. It all felt so familiar to me, now an observer. Invitations to family barbeques, and birthday parties became the norm, performances were improving. Life was great, for Ben and his family at least.
There still was nothing that leapt out as obviously wrong/inappropriate, until one weekend in June 2021…
Then it became obvious…
On the Sunday morning of the British Championships weekend that doubled that year as the final opportunity for Tokyo Olympics team selection, I woke to find multiple missed calls and messages saying “Mum where are you? Mum? Mum? Pick up my calls”. I assumed it was to tell me about a results revelation, as Joe’s old training group contained no less than four Olympic hopefuls. Nothing could have prepared me for the manic call that followed. He was crying hysterically and could barely speak, it took a while before I could work out what he was telling me.
In short: He’d just found out that Ben had caught the coach filming him having a shower in the hotel room they were sharing during a two-day competition the weekend before. Imagine, seeing a phone camera being held up against the glass panel above the bathroom door, knowing who was doing it and the shocking realisation as to why.
After confronting the coach who immediately admitted guilt and fled, Ben, aged just 20, was left to pick up the pieces, call the police, and wait for his mum to race to Bedford to retrieve her traumatised son. Both then tried to process the fact that the man they had trusted implicitly and had welcomed into their home, had betrayed them in one of the most nauseating ways possible. The next day, Ben won a bronze medal at the England Athletics U23 Championships… a perfect example of his mental strength.
Joe weeks before he decided to leave athletics, December 2019
The wider damage
Ben had kept the news from the training group who were already having to deal with being left coach-less and with no explanation as to why, the week before the most crucial competition of their careers. Their compassionate assumption was that maybe a close family member had died, and he’d had to leave urgently. On hearing the actual reason, all hell was let loose within the group. Emotions were extreme and there was no desire to hide the intense pent-up anger that most of them felt. Some managed to successfully use that anger on the track whilst others took it out on anything that could legally be punched. What was playing out was so sad to see. They’d all been betrayed. Just one of the four hopefuls, made it to the Olympics that summer…
For Ben, Joe, and the entire training group, the coach receiving a lifetime coaching ban and being put on the sex offenders register will never make up for the trust issues and feelings of betrayal left behind. Were chances for Olympic selection missed as a result? We will never know…
Joe, Cheryl and Myself Discussing Our Experiences:
The guilt as parents
As parents, Cheryl (Ben’s mum) and I felt betrayed. We had put our trust in that coach to do what was best for our sons. But looking back, we both agree there were many ‘red flags’ that neither of us felt able to question at the time:
On one warm-weather training camp in Tenerife, the coach shared a room with Ben and another male athlete to ‘keep his costs down’. But how could we raise concerns about that when, as an unpaid volunteer coach, he was having to fund his own trip, to coach our kids?
The offers for Ben (whilst still school-age) to stay overnight at his house after training group social evenings or to reduce the distance to drive on weekends.
The frequency that body composition measurements were performed on the training group members in their rooms, with doors shut…
And perhaps the worst of all, the requests for topless photos of the athletes as ‘updates’ to check in on their nutrition and recovery…
Joe and Niamh Emerson, GB Heptathlete
All of these scenarios are now viewed with very deep mistrust and suspicion and I personally, will always feel guilty for not being brave enough to question and speak out about them.
Feeling indebted to a coach or being worried your athlete will lose their place in a training group, are not reasons to keep quiet about concerns…. We learnt that the hard way.
We hope that by telling our story, other parents will become more vigilant and be more prepared to speak out or, at the very least, question behaviours they feel are perhaps inappropriate
Safeguarding issues within sports must stop… talking about them to raise awareness is the first step.