In the weeks and months after Maggie Coles-Lyster says she was sexually assaulted, the Canadian cyclist buried herself in her sport.
The 21-year-old from Maple Ridge was just 18 when she joined Doltcini-Van Eyck Sport’s women’s team as a development rider in 2017. It was during a multi-day race in the Netherlands that she said she was repeatedly sexually assaulted during massages by someone associated with the team.
The global body for cycling — the UCI — has launched a formal investigation into the Belgian team after Coles-Lyster and American cyclist Sara Youmans alleged abuses within the squad.
The allegations haven’t been proven in court.
“I didn’t talk about it for a while,” Coles-Lyster said in a recent phone interview. “I didn’t know what effect that would have on me. You’re always considering your future career. There’s always the not being believed, still kind of wrapping your mind around what happened. And then when I started talking to Sara, she was coming out with her story … I realized that it’s shocking how many people don’t really realize this happens in the sport.
“I felt this is a very important message and story that needs to get out for change to start happening because this is out of hand right now.”
Coles-Lyster, who captured two medals for Canada at last summer’s Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, alleged she was assaulted during her first massage with the Belgian team which was then under title sponsors Lares-Waowdeals. The Canadian alleged the individual straddled her around the tops of her legs and touched her genitals, which “seemed like a strange practice to me.” She said the sexual assault was repeated during massage sessions on days that followed.
She also alleged the individual took pictures of her during group meals and sent them to her with intimate messages.
Coles-Lyster eventually confided in her parents. It was a difficult conversation.
“It took a lot of courage for me to come forward and talk to them about it, because it’s the whole, as a victim actually understanding and coming to terms with what happened,” she said. ”There’s really a big stigma that a lot of women feel around this, even unfortunately embarrassment, guilt, shame, all these emotions and even though you know your parents would always believe you, there’s always just these thoughts in your head. But you know they’re going to support you and love you no matter what.
“I have a great relationship with my parents. So once we actually got the conversation rolling, it wasn’t that hard to talk to them about it, and for them to help me.”
Coles-Lyster also reached the podium twice in UCI criterium races last season, and had a UCI victory on the track.
Team director Marc Bracke told The Canadian Press in an email that Coles-Lyster informed staff in April of 2017 that she ”didn’t feel safe” around the individual ”because he was stalking her with messages and photos … I took this seriously as a manager.”
Bracke said he’d been unaware of Coles-Lyster’s allegations of sexual assault until “I had to hear from the press last Saturday. I can understand that Maggy didn’t just dare to say this despite being safe in our team.”
The UCI said in a statement it had been informed by the Ethics Commission of the opening of a formal procedure.
“The latter, led directly by the Commission, is under way,” the UCI said.
Cycling Canada’s high performance director Kris Westwood said in an email that it’s committed to the well-being of athletes the principles of Safe Sport particularly around sexual assault.
“Unfortunately, athletes often find themselves in team environments that are outside Cycling Canada’s jurisdiction, and sometimes this environment can be unsafe, as we’ve seen with the allegations brought forward by Maggie Coles-Lyster, who was a minor at the time of the alleged assault,” Westwood said. “We have offered Maggie our support, and we are glad to see the UCI’s ethics commission is investigating. We hope the people who committed these acts will no longer be in a position to victimize athletes in the future.”
Coles-Lyster’s allegations are the latest in a list of several high-profile sexual assault and harassment stories in Canadian sport. Canada’s track and field community was rocked recently by allegations against former national distance coach Dave Scott-Thomas. Former middle-distance runner Megan Brown came forward in a Globe and Mail story alleging that Scott-Thomas, a former University of Guelph coach, groomed her for a sexual relationship when she was 17.
The allegations against Scott-Thomas haven’t been proven in court.
Coles-Lyster said, with the current climate in Canadian sport, she felt it was important to speak up.
“It’s empowering other women to come forward and address these topics, not leave them under the rug,” she said. “Lots of people have come up to me and are shocked that this has happened. So it could be because cycling is still considered such a male-dominated sport or who knows, but for whatever reason people seem surprised that this happened.
“This has been really empowering to see the conversations this has opened up and the other women I’ve talked to about this who have had similar experiences, and just talking it through and what the steps should be. There’s a bunch of other athletes who have come forward recently, and I have considered reaching out to them. I think the strength of women banding together through issues like this is really important.”
Coles-Lyster said policies within professional teams and national sport organizations need to be considerably stronger and more accessible. She pointed out that Canadian athletes must complete an annual anti-doping seminar, but there isn’t similar information about safe sport.
“What needs to be implemented, probably not even within just sport, but everybody … boys and girls need to have education on what sexual harassment looks like, so this all starts before anybody becomes a victim,” she said. ”They need to know what it looks like, where to go if it happens. There’s still a lot of stigma, so people don’t talk about it enough.”
It was more than a year before Coles-Lyster finally felt comfortable opening about the alleged abuse, and reached out to a psychologist among others.
“I really had pushed it under the rug, and just tried to focus on racing and I was still going back to Belgium to race and just wanted to focus on that and doing well, because so much of doing well in the sport and succeeding as a cyclist seems to be how well you can do in Europe. So that kind of was my focus,” she said.
Coles-Lyster, who no longer competes for Doltcini-Van Eyck Sport, will race in the Manchester Six Day Series track race beginning March 13.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press