ACHE Foundation’s Courtney and Alexa are the cover story of Pleasanton Weekly – July 11, 2008.
Gymnasts reflect on molestation by gym owner, their foundation to help other victims of abuse
by Janet Pelletier
If the saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” holds true, two local young women have taken that axiom and run with it.
Courtney Kiehl and Alexa Hernandez were the shy ages of 13 and 9 when they were sexually abused by someone they trusted–their gymnastics coach.
Robert Shawler, 44, now a convicted sex offender with two strikes against him, owned Cal Gymnastics in Fremont, where the girls both practiced. The abuse began in practice sessions, Kiehl said. One day, as she was performing stretching exercises, Shawler slid his hand underneath her leotard.
Shocked and bewildered, Kiehl said she froze and continued on with her practice session. But as the incident continued to bother her, she decided to make a list of stretches she said she was uncomfortable with and emailed them to Shawler because she was too afraid to tell him to his face. Shawler told her they wouldn’t be doing those stretches anymore and that Kiehl needed to delete any email correspondence on that subject. But despite her attempt to quash the abuse, it continued every day for a year, Kiehl said.
As terrorizing the incident was, Kiehl said she couldn’t bring herself to tell anyone such as a teammate, let alone an adult. She was worried that if she told, the gym would shut down and it would affect other girls’ future opportunities in gymnastics.
“I just felt like if it was only me, that I could handle it,” she said.
“I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want the other girls to worry about their future at the gym,” the now 18-year-old Fremont high school graduate said. “I thought I would be destroying others’ dreams.”
But what began as a casual conversation with teammates at a gymnastics meet became the dialogue that would bring her the courage to speak out.
“We were at a meet and we somehow brought (Shawler) up, about how weird he acts and a girl mentioned that he had touched her,” she said. “Other girls then said the same thing had happened to them.”
After finding out that Shawler had abused the other girls, Kiehl said she couldn’t bear to be silent anymore.
“I was bawling. I told my mom that I was going to tell her something that would make her never want to go back to this gym,” she said.
Kiehl’s mother Joyce, who worked at the gym at the time, pulled her daughter out of any activities there and quit working there, leaving many to wonder why because it was unusual for someone as dedicated as she to just quit gymnastics.
Shawler continued to coach, her mother said.
A total of seven girls came forward about their abuse in 2004, with Kiehl leading the way. One of them was Alexa, now 14, who was 9 years old when incidents as similar to Kiehl’s encounters began.
After Shawler was arrested, a trial began. The case ended in 2005 in a plea deal that gave him two felony charges and a jail sentence of three years with credit of time served. Due to the deal, the girls never testified, but were able to read victim’s statements. Shawler was released from prison in June 2007, having served a total of two years, eight months.
During the trial proceedings, Kiehl and Alexa began thinking of a way that they could turn their suffering into something more positive. It was then that rubber bracelets such as Lance Armstrong’s yellow Live Strong one were becoming popular. The girls decided to make one of their own that read “stronger now.” From the bracelet came the ACHE Foundation, which stands for Abused Children Heard Everywhere.
Just like hearing other girls tell of their abuse, Kiehl and Alexa, a sophomore at Amador Valley High School, knew that the foundation would be an outlet for other victims to come forward with their stories. And it has been met with much success. Since it began in 2005, the girls and ACHE have been featured on “The Montel Williams Show,” an ESPN special on abuse by coaches and “Good Morning America.” And all the way, word spread like wildfire about the foundation and its website, www.achefoundation.com. Since then, the girls have received numerous emails of support.
“We had one woman who was 72 tell us that she had been abused when she was younger and only now had the courage to speak up after seeing our website,” Kiehl said.
“If we can help one child, we’ve done what we set out to do,” added Jeanne Hernandez, Alexa’s mother.
Though the girls have found strength, it is still a difficult struggle. Kiehl, once a promising young gymnast, hasn’t returned to gymnastics because it was too traumatic. Shawler had been her coach on and off from 6 years old.
“We were friends. We went to his wedding,” she said. “He was like a second parent to me.”
But she has moved on with her life in other ways. She just graduated from high school and will be attending UCLA in the fall. Instead of gymnastics, she is now a successful pole vaulter.
Alexa said she too has struggled to overcome her experience but wants to move past it. She said she’d like to speak to junior high school students about her experience and let them know it’s okay to tell.
And as damaging as the abuse was to the teens, it’s been a rollercoaster ride for their families.
“I think about it every time I go out,” Jeanne Hernandez said.
Shawler, who was a Pleasanton resident at the time of the abuse, still lives in the area, in Livermore. His wife and children still reportedly live in Pleasanton.
Alexa, who continues to perform, but is currently recovering from an injury in January, said she is afraid that she’ll see him at a gym meet, but she doesn’t let it consume her. His wife continues to coach at an area gym.
But despite lingering feelings, the girls say they have been empowered by their foundation and the effect it has made.
“I feel stronger now,” Kiehl said. “I won’t take it anymore.”
Sex offenders in Pleasanton
Melody Foreman, who works in the investigations unit of the Pleasanton Police Department and registers the city’s sex offenders, said police keep close tabs on them.
“In this police department, we verify address, with I.D., check where they work, we know the car they drive,” she said.
There are currently 38 sex offenders living in Pleasanton, compared to 75 in Livermore. Addresses can be looked up on the Megan’s Law website.
“We have one of the lowest per capita rates of sex offenders living in our community because obviously you have to have a good job to live here,” Foreman said. There’s now about 80,000 registered sex offenders in the state. In Alameda County, there’s probably about 2,500. About half of those live in the city of Oakland.”
“(Police) Chief (Mike) Fraser takes this monitoring of sex offenders very seriously,” she added. “We can pay attention, we have the resources.”
Sex offenders are required to update their registration, name and vehicle information within five working days of their birthday each year, according to police. All registrants are required to notify local law enforcement within five days of any relocation in or outside the jurisdiction. If they fail to comply, a warrant is sought through the Alameda County District Attorney’s office and an arrest can be made.
Foreman said Robert Shawler works in Pleasanton and there is no law against working within a certain distance of child-related centers.
“We can’t control him there, but we can control where he is in the off hours,” she said. “The reason we encourage them to work is because how else are you going to turn your life around and get on with your life if you can’t have a paycheck coming in?”
She said he lives in Livermore because he wasn’t able to find a place to live in Pleasanton that met the requirements.
ACHE Foundation response
“I can’t really stand to read other people’s stories because of how painful it is to know just how common this is. I also was molested when I was about 5 years old by a neighbor. I struggle a lot with feelings of guilt and shame. Although I’ve come a long way I still have a lot to work through. I really really admire and encourage you two young ladies who started this site. We need so many more outlets for people like us to speak without feeling judged or afraid. We need a voice to be heard and not thrown in the back burner as though there is no lifelong struggle for people who have gone through something so traumatic. I pray for all of us who are struggling with these experiences and looking for answers. For those who feel they are to blame in some way and for those who want to be whole. I know one day I will have the courage to tell my story without being afraid of being judged. And I look forward to that day. I know it will allow someone else to begin to heal. Just like this site will help me take another step forward. Thank you and God bless you and every single person who shares their story.”