Student-athletes create group to support sexual assault survivors

Tuesday, March 19, 2019 - 9:29pm

Junior outside hitter Sydney Wetterstrom helped found SASH, a support group for student-athlete survivors of sexual assault, along with gymnastics student assistant coach Sam Roy.

Junior outside hitter Sydney Wetterstrom helped found SASH, a support group for student-athlete survivors of sexual assault, along with gymnastics student assistant coach Sam Roy. Buy this photo
Annie Klusendorf/Daily

In observance of Women’s History Month, The Daily’s sports section is launching its second annual series aimed at telling the stories of female athletes, coaches and teams at the University from the perspective of the female sports writers on staff. We continue the series with this story from Daily Sports Writer Molly Shea.

Sydney Wetterstrom and Sam Roy have a lot in common.

They both love yoga. Spending time with friends. Writing.

They’re both juniors, involved with athletics at Michigan and dedicated to school. If Wetterstrom’s not on the volleyball court, killing and blocking, she’s in the classroom working toward a double major in Spanish and Health and Fitness. In Roy’s case, she balances her new role as a student assistant coach for the women’s gymnastics team — after spending two years on the team as a gymnast — with studying Neuroscience on the pre-med track.

Beyond these surface level connections, Roy and Wetterstrom have a deeper common thread. Both are survivors of sexual assault.

In late February, the two women co-founded Student Athlete Sexual Health. It’s a support group specifically for student-athletes that identify as sexual assault survivors or know someone who has been affected by it. Meetings are held on a bimonthly basis and provide a safe, confidential place for athletes to share their struggles, triumphs and support.

“This group was started because we want people to know how real this issue is,” Roy said. “So many people go through it and sometimes people aren’t willing to talk about it. We’re hoping to bring that stigma out of the word 'sexual abuse.' ”

The stigma surrounding sexual abuse is undeniable, but it’s a topic that has to be discussed, especially given the statistics.

According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 20 to 25 percent of women and 15 percent of men are survivors of forced sex during their college years. Over 90 percent of sexual assaults in college are not reported.

“Pursuing legal action is hard,” Wetterstrom said. “You’re just some kid in some file cabinet, where your story may never be opened again. They may never find the perpetrator, that person may be out there affecting so many more young individuals.”

The two connected the same way everyone does — via social media. In November, Roy was scrolling through her Instagram feed when she found Wetterstrom’s post that detailed her sexual assault. She immediately reached out and offered support, plus an invitation for coffee.

“I knew I had had her number,” Roy said. “We weren’t the closest of friends but we knew each other. I just reached out and said, ‘Hey I know what you’re going through. I know for me I’d always wanted to start a group. Syd had a similar idea, and we both jumped on board with it.”

And just like that, the framework for what would eventually become SASH was born.

The two spent the following months working out the details and logistics of the group before bringing it to the Athletic Counseling Team for approval. Abigail Eiler, assistant director of ACT, was instrumental in getting the group on its feet. Eiler is present at all group meetings to provide support and assist Roy and Wetterstrom with facilitation of the difficult conversations that trauma entails.

But before these women could become allies for other survivors, they had to heal and cope with their own traumas. They believe the path to healing isn’t linear. There’s light and dark. Good days and bad days. Wetterstrom was forced to deal with the aftermath of her assault in the middle of volleyball season this fall.

“It was extremely challenging to return to play because the same physiological experiences occurred in both events,” Wetterstrom said. “The fight-or-flight response in one situation benefits you and allows you to perform to the best of your ability and be strong and compete, and at the other end it allows you to survive. Any time I was in an intense fight-or-flight response situation, it was as if I was reliving the assault. It took time for me to separate the two and realize that I am safe.”

Roy suffered abuse while receiving treatment for a gymnastics injury. She spent the beginning of her healing process keeping her assault private and dealing with it internally. But watching other women, like her teammates and role models within the sport, come forward and confront their abuser, inspired her to open up about her abuse. With the help of her psychologist, Roy is working on moving past the trauma and sharing her story with others.

“For the longest time I was silenced,” Roy said. “I feel like I’m finally standing on my own two feet. I’m standing up and using my resources. Women empower women. I truly feel that me getting to use my voice has given me back a part of that I felt like I had lost.”

For Roy and Wetterstrom, that’s their favorite part of SASH — empowering and helping others to find their voices and heal. It’s about providing a space where anyone is welcome and everyone is ready and willing to listen.

The group emphasizes that there’s no universal path to dealing with the trauma of being sexually assaulted. But they want to help survivors find their way. Whether it’s mediation, keeping a gratitude journal or finding three things every day to be grateful for, they have a plethora of mechanisms to equip survivors with.

“We always talk about what coping strategies work for you may not work for the person sitting next to you,” Roy said. “We might have something for you and it might work a couple times and then we have to switch something up, or it might work for the rest of your life.”

Roy and Wetterstrom want survivors to know that there’s light in the darkness. That they can, and will, get through it. They’ve experienced a surprising and welcome result since going public with their stories — other survivors are reaching out to them.

“By coming public with it and telling your story, people then reach out to you,” Wetterstrom said. "You find you have similar pasts. And as brutal as those pasts may be, it’s comforting to know you’re not alone.”

While the group is currently only open to student-athletes, the university has support groups through SAPAC that are peer-led and open to all students.

“To make it an individual group for student-athletes because they exhibit the same stressors and opportunities and expectations is something that makes it specialized,” Wetterstrom said. “It’s just a safe place for everyone, and that’s the most important thing.”

But if you go looking for information on this group on any of the athletic department’s web pages, your search will come up empty. They want to change that.

“The University of Michigan has never done anything with malintent,” Wetterstrom said. “But two women can only do so much to spread the word. We’re creating a group for individuals in athletics and I know it’s not a glamorous topic. It’s not Big Ten basketball, or Big Ten football. But it’s an issue that we have on campus, on campuses down the road, campuses in other states, and yet I feel like it’s being swept under the rug and I would love more support from (the athletic department).”

While SASH is still in the beginning stages, its leaders have big plans for the future. Right now, they’re focusing on baby steps. A logo. Creating a GroupMe for members. Acknowledgement from the athletic department. The bigger plans involve getting other Big Ten schools to create similar support groups and eventually every school in the NCAA.

“Whether there’s three people in our meeting, or 300, Wetterstrom said, “we’re happy to help anyone.

If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual assault, its not your fault. You are not alone. Help is available 24/7. Contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE. The University of Michigan has a 24/7 crisis hotline 734-936-3333.