WEST NEWBURY — She had always been good at keeping secrets. In fact, Heather Crowe Conner prided herself on keeping one particular secret for 35 years — until the day came when she just couldn't keep it private any longer.
A former tennis professional who played numerous times at Wimbledon and the US Open, Conner broke her silence for the first time publicly last week when she revealed she had been molested and raped by her tennis coach for 15 years as a teen and young woman growing up in Topsfield.
Her moving disclosure came at a meeting of the Pentucket Regional School Committee during a portion of the agenda reserved for public commentary. At the end of the 10-minute speech, many in the audience and on the school board rose to give her a standing ovation.
Conner said she was speaking out now in part because she wanted people to understand why she resigned so abruptly from the Pentucket committee last August. She also hopes to be an example for young people today who might be experiencing what she did growing up and to serve as a cautionary tale for parents about the warning signs — or lack of warning signs — from kids in distress. She believes her story would be useful in discussions on anti-bullying and health and wellness for Pentucket students.
Conner chose not to reveal the name of her abuser, describing him only as a Hall of Fame tennis star widely considered "the best doubles player in the world" and someone who had won "many Grand Slam tournaments."
She first met the 36-year-old married man in 1975 when he was hired as the traveling tennis pro. The tennis star told her and her family that he admired her athleticism and drive. He offered to help the 14-year-old Conner — known then as Heather Crowe — train for free because, he told them, he believed she had what it took to become a great tennis player.
But shortly after that, he made it clear to her that his offer came with strings attached, she said. He pulled her aside at the club one afternoon and began asking her questions like "Do you have any really close friends you confide in?" and "Do you always tell your parents everything?"
He told her he found her "very attractive and cute" and wanted to show her how much he cared for her, she said. But he cautioned her that she must never tell anyone because what he was proposing was considered statutory rape in the eyes of the law. To her 14-year-old ears, hearing that it had a special name made her think it was somehow "less bad."
Conner said that for the next 15 years, he controlled her life. She lived in fear and worry — of what would happen when she was left alone to train with him and what her friends and family would think if they found out. To them he was a hero, a famous tennis star generously willing to mentor their budding young proté©gé©. He said he believed in her potential, and her parents trusted he would help catapult the talented Masconomet High School teen into the tennis big leagues.
And so, when she complained that she didn't want to meet him for weekend-long training sessions at hotels he was staying at along the ATP World Tour circuit — that she was tired or had too much homework — they would remind her that this was her shot. Ultimately, she felt she had no choice but to acquiesce. She was led to believe that everything that she and her family dreamed for her future depended on it.
She won the state title and a full athletic scholarship to Indiana University, eventually realizing a successful professional career for several years. Conner said that for a long time she believed her success was directly linked to her "special" relationship with this man.
However, when she looks back now on the years of innocence he stole from her, she realizes his type of mentoring came at too "high a price."
As an athlete, she was trained to tough things out, and she applied that attitude to this wound as well. Fiercely independent, she was proud of her ability to keep this secret from everyone — including her family. She married, was blessed with two beautiful girls and really believed she had put the ugliness of her past behind her.
Last year, the stresses of life coupled with the fact that her young daughters were nearing the age she was when her abuse started pushed Conner to the brink. She became anxious and overwhelmed imagining her own girls curling up in bed at night, as she had for all those years — drowning in loneliness and secrecy, believing her life was built on a lie.
She took an extended medical leave from her teaching job at Reading High School in order to begin intensive therapy. Then, in August, she made the tough choice to resign her post as a West Newbury representative on the Pentucket board before going back to work full time in Reading last September. Not raised to be a quitter, Conner felt that on some level she was letting down the students and teachers she was elected to represent, as well as the constituents who had voted for her.
But for the first time in her life, she was beginning to understand that her health and well-being needed to be the priority. Since then, she has received a warm welcome back from her colleagues at Reading High and has continued to work on healing herself.
She attempted to pursue criminal charges against her alleged abuser, but the district attorney's office rejected the case, citing the length of time that had elapsed since the alleged abuse and the fact that the person Conner is accusing now lives in South Africa and would need to be extradited to the U.S. in order to face the charges.
Speaking publicly about her experience is a step in her healing process, Conner said.
"I wanted to speak for the people who can't speak — to send a message that it's never too late to get help; it's never to late to speak out — and I want my daughters to be proud of me."
As is evident from the poem she chose to close her comments with last Tuesday, she also wanted to make it clear to her abuser that although he may have dominated her life on and off the court when she was younger, by breaking her silence, ultimately the victory match goes to Conner.
The poem, entitled "I Just Want Him To Know," is also the tentative title of a book she is writing about her experience.
I Just Want Him To Know
I have found help when I never had help before.
I have always been alone.
I don't have to be alone anymore.
I want him to know what he did to me.
He told me I could never tell.
But this year I told.
I have help now.
I can be free to be me.
I want him to know.
I want him to know I told my secret.
I just want him to know what he did to me.