Breanna Stewart opens up about her story of sexual abuse

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Watch Stewart and Foudy discuss her past in an E:60 feature on the ESPN app. This is an online exclusive story from ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue 2018.

Last October Breanna Stewart -- four-time NCAA champion, No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft, WNBA All-Star in her second season -- joined the #MeToo movement by publishing a powerful essay in The Players' Tribune in which she detailed years of sexual abuse as a child. The piece was about reclaiming her voice and taking back control of her body. It's with the same spirit of empowerment that Stewart decided to take part in the 10th edition of the Body Issue: "I've really opened myself up to the world this year, so this felt like another part [of that]. It's hard to open up and tell your story, but it's worth it. I've really embraced myself -- being tall, understanding my body -- and also the story that my body portrays." Stewart sat down with espnW's Julie Foudy to share more details of her story and talk about finding the strength to come forward.

JULIE FOUDY: In the fall of 2017, you shared your personal story in The Players' Tribune about your own #MeToo experience. What made you want to go public with that?
BREANNA STEWART: This is my story. It's something that happened to me when I was younger. And it was not if I was going to share it, but when would be an appropriate time to open up to the public. In light of the #MeToo movement and [gymnast and abuse survivor] McKayla Maroney's story, it gave me the courage and the push that I needed to release my own.

Did you have any doubts?
Oh my god, yeah. Once the article was written, it was hard for me to read. I was really nervous because you see everything with social media ... I wasn't sure what was going to happen when I released it. I didn't want people to view me differently. That instance was just a part of my life, and that's what it is.

When it was pushed out and made public that day, where were you and what were you thinking?
I was in China. I was in my hotel room, and [The Players' Tribune editors] were like, "Post this link to Twitter, this link to Facebook, at this certain time." Once I did it, I put my phone down, left it alone. I didn't want to look at anything. It was this feeling of, "I'm not sure what I just did. Was it a good thing or a bad thing?"

So you literally just sat there?
Did not do anything. I was like, "All right, maybe I should act like my day is still going; maybe I should go get dinner." When I did check my phone, a lot of people had reached out to me and were really inspired by the story and moved by the story.

How painful was it to revisit that memory when you're writing this and telling this story?
It was really difficult -- more difficult than I thought it would be. [At first] I'm like, "You know what, this is a great idea. This is really going to help people." But when I was revisiting things, you had to go through those details that are put way, way back in my mind. I was like, "Oh wow, you can remember what he smells like" -- things I haven't thought about in years.

In the article, you mentioned this was something you had been dealing with for two years [before you told your parents]. What was it that night that triggered you to go to your parents' room and say, "We need to talk"?
I'm not sure exactly what made me do it, that specific night. After it happened, I had trouble sleeping. I was always up -- that would be the time that things would happen, when I was at the family member's house, at nighttime. So I think when I was at home in my bed, I remembered it. I got up for some reason that night, walked to my parents' room, woke my mom up, and was like, "I have something to tell you." I made her go in my room, went in my bed. I told her what was happening, and then I went under the covers. I can remember that vividly. I don't remember her reaction, but I remember her getting my dad immediately. I think my dad went over to my grandma's house, told them, and by then, my whole family was over at our house.

What happened next?
We had to deal with the police. I'm pretty sure they were there. I had to go downtown and make a statement. Later in the day, we were at my grandparents' house. I remember we had pizza. And that's when the police came over, and they said they arrested him. He confessed. I think it caught him off guard. I don't think he thought I was going to tell.

You say in the article that this man lived in a relative's house. How was he connected to the family?
It was my aunt's husband. My aunt had two kids before him. One is a year older than me, and we were best friends. We hung out at each other's house every day in the summer, weekends, sleepovers, and that type of thing. So staying over at his house set me up for a lot of bad situations. It was hard for me, because I understood that if I go over to my aunt's house, there was the possibility of something happening at night. But I couldn't be like, "No, I don't want to go." Because then they're going to be like, "Why? Are you guys mad at each other?" Which wasn't the case.

Were there other victims that he abused?
No. There wasn't. And that was a question that was asked. The police had to make sure, and I think my aunt and other family members made sure my other cousins were fine.

What did your aunt do when she heard this? What did she say?
She was shocked as well, and I remember ... My aunt came over [really early]. I was still in my room at that point, and the sun was coming up, and I had to tell her what was happening. She believed me. She supported me right away.

How did your parents deal with the emotion of it, him being in your inner circle in the family?
My parents are great people. You can't put blame on them. I showed no signs of anything going on in my life like that. But I think they still kick themselves over it, even looking back on it now, even reading about that in The Players' Tribune article. But I say it's OK. It's actually OK. Life happens -- I don't want to them to dwell on it more than I am.

What do you want victims of abuse to feel when they read your story?
I want victims of abuse to feel that we're relatable. I mean, I think the fact that we are the same, and no matter where we're at in life, we've gone through the same unfortunate situations, and it's where you go after. So many people have messaged me or written me or tweeted at me and said thank you for shedding light on something that other people can relate to, people who have gone through similar situations -- or just the fact that, you know, not everything is great. Not everything looks golden and amazing -- four national championships and gold medals and all that. A lot more people can relate to my story than people would think.

How have you changed since sharing your story?
I think just being more at peace with things, because now it's out there. I don't have to rehash it. I don't have to revisit it. I don't have to explain why some situations may be more uncomfortable for me than other situations. And people will just know, and people will respect it.

You have this strength and composure when talking about your story. Where does it come from?
This is a subject that I obviously don't love talking about, but I realize that I'm talking about it for other people besides myself. And this is my life. I don't know anything different. I'm just being honest with you about things that I've gone through. It's not easy, but after releasing the article I've had a little bit of practice.

We've heard, unfortunately, lots of stories from female athletes with their #MeToo moments. Why do you think it is that young female athletes are susceptible to abuse?
I don't know if it's that young female athletes are susceptible to abuse, or that the abuse happens, and from there they really dive into sports and make more of the sport than they originally thought. It's an outlet. I used basketball as a safe zone. I remember, at my grandma's, I had basketball practice that day, and my dad is like, "We don't have to go." I'm like, "No, I want to go to basketball practice." I just informed my whole family and flipped everyone's life upside down for a second, but I wanted to go to basketball practice still.

Did you start approaching sports and basketball differently, in terms of the energy you put into it?
Yeah, I think I took a different approach to basketball. I don't know if opening up to my parents made me thrive more, but it was just a sense of really putting a lot more of an effort to excel, to get better, and using that as motivation to try and be as good as I could be. It felt safe. Whether I was with my team or I was dribbling around my block with my headphones in. I had my music, I had the basketball, and nobody could bother me. Nobody could get into my little space that I was in.

We've seen rampant sexual abuse in gymnastics, in other sports. How much of an issue do think this is in women's basketball?
I think that it's a bigger issue than anybody notices, because people aren't prepared to speak up about it. I think that if there was to be an anonymous survey and people had to answer a question [about whether] they've ever gone through any sexual abuse in their life, I'm sure the percentages would be pretty high.

Did other basketball players reach out to you about your story, about your essay?
Yeah. A lot of players in the WNBA reached out to me. Some were just like, "Thank you for sharing your story. Thank you, Stewie, for being courageous, for standing up." Then some were kind of looking up to me, the fact that I was able to share my story and that one day they hope to do something similar.

Did they say that they had been through a similar situation?
Yeah. I don't want to go too far into other people's situations and lives. But there's more.

Did that surprise you?
No. As female athletes, we're all strong. We all have gone through something in our life that has helped shape us to where we are. If you really dig deep and peel back the layers, you're going to realize that there's a lot of stories that are unsaid. Hopefully at some point, people will get to a point to share them. Like I said, the weight was lifted off my chest after my Players' Tribune article. They'll feel a similar situation.

What did you say to the players who reached out?
First I was like, "Thank you." Everyone was in support, which at first I didn't think was going to happen. It's hard to open up and share your story, but it's definitely well worth it. It puts you at peace. It gives you a better light and clearer mind going forward.

You're 23 years old. You've already written this legacy. What's the next 20 years got in store for you?
A lot. More rings. More gold medals. WNBA championships -- haven't gotten to that point yet, but that's the main focal point as far as my basketball career. Continuing to reach lives that maybe need some extra help and they don't even know it.