South Carolina javelin thrower gives a voice to athletes who suffer abuse

Courtesy of South Carolina Athletics

The water ran over her face, and Olivia Hassler, bloodied and confused, was shaken back to life.

Something wasn't right. She felt off, unable to piece together precisely what had happened to her. Questions sprang to mind, each more alarming than the last: Why was she in a bathtub? Why did her head hurt so much? Why was somebody trying to clean her up? As a man wiped at her throbbing skull, he kept muttering, time and again, "Why'd you have to do that?" What did he mean?

"I was just confused," Olivia says. "It just felt wrong."

While the blood streamed down her, Olivia began to remember.

It was a weekend in May 2013, and Olivia had returned home to Allentown, Pennsylvania, just having finished her freshman year at the University of South Carolina. Olivia excelled in school and also thrived on the field, where she was a strong javelin thrower for the Gamecocks track team. Her future in Columbia was bright.

But there was one matter she first had to address. Olivia had been dating somebody in high school, Craig (whose name has been changed for this story), and she stayed with him through her first year away in college. The relationship was good at first, as relationships often are. Craig was sporty and popular, like Olivia. He was a year younger than her, but he had charisma. He was approachable and had always made everybody laugh. Olivia fell for him right away.

Craig, however, had revealed a darker side. He'd always been jealous when Olivia was not next to him, and he had soon become controlling, calling incessantly, demanding to know who she was with and where she was with them. Craig had also grown emotionally abusive while Olivia was away at school, calling her fat and criticizing her wardrobe, telling Olivia she'd never be good enough to get anyone but him.

All that, against her better judgement, Olivia could tolerate. But in the winter of 2013, Craig became physical with her. He shoved her on Valentine's Day, and it took his immediate display of remorse and repentance to rope her back in.

But when she returned from school for summer break, her decision became clear. There were rumors Craig had been unfaithful to Olivia while she was in Columbia. When she confronted him about it, he slapped her in the face. She would tell Craig she was leaving him.

A week later, Olivia picked up Craig and drove toward his house. She was going to end it there, take back her stuff and be done with him. But on the ride, as Olivia began to broach the idea of breaking it off, something in Craig snapped. He smacked her head violently off the driver's side window. When Olivia ordered him out of her car, Craig refused.

At his home, Olivia wanted to retrieve her belongings and leave. But some of her things were in Craig's basement. When she walked down the stairs to get them, Olivia was cornered.

Craig attacked. He punched and kicked her body, wrapping his hands around her throat to cut off her air. Olivia fought, but the rage inside Craig seemed never to cease. He struck her so viciously that Olivia's cell phone and keys tumbled from her pocket. Olivia prayed he would tire himself out.

The beating relented for a moment, and Olivia tried to gather herself, searching desperately for a chance to break free. She couldn't run for the stairs; Craig would catch her too easily. Then she spotted it -- a storm door that led up from the basement to the yard outside. If she could burst through before he grabbed her, she might make it. It was her only way out.

Olivia darted for the door and put all her might into it, every muscle she had toned and firmed during years of weight training for track and field. But the door would not budge. It had been locked from the outside.

She felt herself sink into immediate despair. Craig now had her phone, her keys, her only ways to save herself. Olivia broke down, weeping uncontrollably, begging to be let go. Craig rose and moved toward her.

"At that point," Olivia says, "I thought I was going to die."

Olivia was born July 3, 1994, the third child of Ron and Kathy Hassler, two teachers who always encouraged that sports go hand-in-hand with school.

She found her way easily through adolescence, good grades coming without great difficulty to her. When Olivia wasn't in school, she was on the court or the field -- volleyball, basketball, soccer, softball, track and field; she played most everything.

She began track and field almost on a lark, at the insistence of her junior varsity basketball coach, who first suggested she pick up a javelin. Olivia grabbed one, aimed it toward a faraway garbage can and missed. Yet on her second try, she connected. "Good," said the coach, who also coached the school's track and field team. "You're throwing at the next meet."

Olivia earned a partial track scholarship at South Carolina. In 2012, she took off for Columbia, her first real, extended absence from her family and friends in Allentown. She showed immediate promise in competition, winning the javelin in her first ever collegiate meet. At the SEC championships, only a few short years after picking up the event, she placed 16th.

In Columbia, it was Olivia's time to flourish on her own, to channel the drive inside her to wherever it might lead. Yet there was one thing holding her back: Craig. His abuse crested that weekend night in May 2013, when Olivia feared he would kill her.

As she sobbed in his basement, her attempts to flee through the storm door having failed her, Olivia saw another opening to run and dashed for the stairs. But Craig was onto her right away. He grabbed her ponytail and flung her clear backward, down part of the staircase and smack onto the basement's concrete floor. Craig placed himself on top of her, screaming in her face, telling her this was her fault for trying to break up with him.

Olivia wormed her way free and tried to army crawl away on her elbows and knees. Craig, hand still gripped tight around her hair, slammed Olivia's face repeatedly against the concrete. Her world went blank.

The water is what brought her back, jarring her awake, the cool rush stinging her raw scalp. In the bathtub, Craig tried to clean her up, tending to the fresh wounds he had made.

He said it again -- "Why'd you have to do that?" -- and it was enough for Olivia to give in. She looked at him, exhausted, and relented. "Just kill me," she told him. "I'm tired of this."

To Olivia, the words were about as grim as she could imagine, but what Craig said next chilled her even further. "If I kill you, that means you're leaving me," Craig answered. "And how many times do I have to tell you? You can't leave."

She was sure then she was finished. Craig demanded Olivia admit she still loved him. When she refused, the look reappeared in his eyes.

With one motion, Craig gripped Olivia's skull and crushed it against the side of the tub.

Two days would pass before she woke again.

It's been nearly six years since the murder of Yeardley Love, the University of Virginia lacrosse player beaten to death by her ex-boyfriend in 2010. The case rocketed across the media landscape, prompting calls for more awareness, more advocacy and more solutions against the domestic abuse of college students.

Love, like Olivia, was attacked off campus. And Olivia's aggressor wasn't even a South Carolina student. So universities have had to face a double problem: find ways to protect and help students who have been victims of domestic violence, whether it has happened to them on school property or off.

It took many years for Title IX legislation to explicitly protect victims of dating or interpersonal violence. Not until 2013, when President Barack Obama signed the Campus SaVE (Sexual Violence Elimination) Act -- itself an amendment to a 1991 act requiring colleges and universities report crime and sexual abuse figures in and around their campuses -- were school's first ordered to disclose statistics about occurrences of domestic violence, dating violence and stalking within their immediate school areas.

It was a major change, with the right intentions. Most colleges today, including South Carolina, have offices dedicated exclusively to the well-being of their students. But victims, most of whom are female, can feel inadequately supported by systems in place to help them, says Caren Sempel, associate director for interpersonal violence education and services at George Mason University.

One challenge is there's no accurate way to predict who will become a victim of domestic abuse and when they will become so. And the only way school officials can treat and help victims is if they choose first to come to them -- to visit strangers and open up about the most painful parts of their life. Often, victims remain silent, hiding and locking away the terrible things that have happened to them.

There is also no forecasting how long it may take victims to step forward, if they ever choose to do so. "When someone's been through trauma, it takes the brain and the body a while to process what has happened," says Marguerite O'Brien, the University of South Carolina's director of student wellness, prevention and advocacy. "The person who's been through trauma wonders, 'What did I do to bring this onto myself?'"

According to 2007 statistics from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, as many as 32 percent of college students report having experienced physical abuse at the hands of a previous partner. The U.S. Department of Justice notes that women aged 16 to 24 experience the highest per capita rate of intimate partner violence in the country.

The killing of Love and the assault on Olivia were attacks on youth groups we don't necessarily consider targets of physical abuse. Student-athletes are often the biggest, strongest, most popular kids on campus. But a joint American College Health Association/National College Health Assessment survey shows there is almost zero difference between how relationship abuse reaches students and student-athletes.

O'Brien says it's an epidemic that finds its victims as evenly as mental health does. "Interpersonal violence doesn't discriminate," she says. "It doesn't matter who you are."

Inside an Allentown hospital room, Olivia began to stir.

She didn't know how she arrived or immediately what put her there, and it took a nurse's assurance to place the time. Olivia was told she had been in and out of consciousness for the past 48 hours.

As Olivia expressed her confusion, the nurse told her something peculiar: Olivia, the nurse said, had been mugged and beaten, found lying by her car. Then the nurse told her something terrifying: "Don't worry," the nurse tried to calm her by saying. "Your boyfriend was here."

The words sent a shiver through Olivia, her beating at the hands of Craig rushing back to her at once. "At that point," she says, "I got scared."

Now that Olivia was awake, police were brought to question her about the alleged mugging. Olivia told them what she knew, that she remembered nothing about any muggers -- but she mentioned nothing about Craig. Knowing he had been at the hospital made Olivia clam up under questioning.

Olivia ordered hospital staff not to contact family or friends concerning her whereabouts. She didn't know what Craig might be capable of. "I just figured it was better to figure out what was going on before I bring other people into the situation and put them in danger," she says.

Olivia was discharged soon after, her injuries catalogued as two broken ribs, cuts, deep bruising across her body and a splitting headache that would not surrender. Physically, she was hurt. Emotionally, she was a wreck. Nearly a month passed before she was able to look at herself in the mirror.

She felt she couldn't tell her family about her attack, so she retreated to a girlfriend's place to heal. It was not unusual for Olivia to stay with friends for days on end during breaks from school.

So went her summer, trying to forget her own abuse, or, failing that, taking great pains to conceal it from others. When she finally re-emerged to her family, she covered her bruises with clothing and kept quiet. She avoided Craig at all costs, terrified to confront him after the attack. But he would show up unannounced, stalking her location through the social media posts of others. Each time, she excused herself in a panic. "I was always on edge," she says. "I didn't know where he was. I didn't know what he was up to."

She buried herself in training for the upcoming track season. Her parents noticed a change in her, but Olivia masked its source well. "They just thought I was going through regular teenage sadness," she says.

Olivia retreated to campus in the fall, though she was never herself again. She was angry and frustrated without prompting. "I didn't even want to get up to go to class," she says. "I couldn't bring myself to do anything."

Finally, she broke. In October, her emotions overwhelmed her in the shower. She was ready to open up about what happened to her. The first person she told was her roommate, Maya. Then came the biggest, most difficult reveal: she dialed her parents and told her story.

The call rocked them. Ron and Kathy were beside themselves, so hurt that in discussing treatment options with Olivia they found they also needed an outlet to discuss their grief. "I had to go for counselling to get through it," Ron says. "My wife and I [did]."

Together with her parents, she decided not to press charges or file a criminal complaint against Craig, despite the severity of his attack. Olivia found her best path to recovery was to look forward, not back.

There is little research to prove student-athletes are able to cope or rebound from domestic abuse differently than traditional college students. Yet sports do provide a unique support system, a network of coaches and teammates and schedules to keep, that can lend itself to victim recovery.

Olivia found great salvation in track and field following her attack, if not for the restorative properties of physical competition than for the normalcy it forced her to resume upon her life. Her injuries from the beating had largely healed by the time she returned to school. Yet the emotional toll was another matter entirely.

When she admitted Craig's abuse to those closest to her, Olivia sought the counsel of two psychologists, one through the university and the other through its athletic department. Many of the services available to victims today are a result of Title IX.

Sports gave her an outlet to continue with life as best she could, even before she was ready to outwardly confront the pain inside her. "It allowed me to sort of work through my problems without having to necessarily face them yet," Olivia says. "I could just work through my anger and frustration and the different emotions that I wasn't yet understanding by just working out and focusing on my sport."

Track was what she had to keep her head above water. There were practices to show for, lifting sessions to appear at. Coaches and her teammates unknowingly kept her accountable. "Even though I didn't want to get up," Olivia says. "I knew I had to.

"Sports was the only thing I had control over still," she says. "The abuse took over every part of my life, except track."

She was on the mend, yet Olivia was not content to heal only herself. In Columbia the year after her attack, she attended a domestic violence awareness walk. A victim spoke to the crowd and shared her story of abuse, and that struck Olivia. It was a time when domestic violence was in the news: NFL running backs Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, and U.S. women's soccer goalie Hope Solo, had made headlines as perpetrators of domestic abuse.

But there was Olivia, very much an athlete herself, and very much a victim.

"I was sitting there thinking, 'Everybody views these athletes as the aggressors,'" Olivia says. "What about the athletes that are abused? They don't have a voice. No one is speaking for them. I could have a big impact, I think."

So she began to speak, openly and candidly, both at events on her campus and those at different schools, too. Olivia tells her audience what Craig did to her, the scars he left her with, on her body and in her mind. It is painful each time, though every telling brings Olivia another step toward closure.

"After everything that I've been through," Olivia says, "what can anybody really do to me at this point that I can't handle? This is what I need to be doing."

Geography is important to her. Though her abuse happened away from school, she cannot ignore the plague of domestic violence in South Carolina. For the past four full years that national homicide data is available (2010-13), South Carolina has been either the first or second state in the U.S. where women are most likely to be killed at the hands of men, according to an analysis by the Violence Policy Center.

In fact, in 2014, 20-year-old Diamoney Greene, in her first semester at the University of South Carolina, was killed in a murder-suicide by her then-boyfriend. The problem is very real in South Carolina, and that Olivia can make a difference here, in her adopted state, has given her purpose. "She's the happy Olivia again," Ron says. "She knows she's turned this thing around and is able to help people."

On a cool February evening, on the patio of a Columbia coffee shop, Olivia told her story once more. By now, she has shared it enough that it has become routine -- not rehearsed, for the emotion is still real, but she is able to make it through the telling of her horrors today without missing many beats.

But of course there are still times when the script in her head fails her, when she reveals new things about her attack she doesn't normally discuss. When she shares, for among the first times, that not only did Craig beat her that night, but also that he burned her, singing her skin with a hot spoon he'd held over a candle to coerce her into saying she loved him, it is impossible for her not to flash back to that time. In these moments, the pain returns fresh to her. "I don't usually talk about that," she says, her eyes looking away.

And yet Olivia is so much more than a victim today. She still throws for the Gamecocks, though much of this season was lost to Tommy John surgery. No matter, for she is fast on the rehab trail to compete again next spring, and larger pursuits await. In November, Olivia, now 21 and a senior, was accepted into the University of South Carolina's graduate School of Law. She begins her legal education this fall.

As the evening sun lowered, a silver chain and medallion glistened around Olivia's neck. In the fading light, the pendant came into view, two boxing gloves and one phrase etched beneath them. It was easy to draw the connection, between the four words and what they have come to mean to Olivia.

They read, simply: "Roll with the punches."