The Cost of One Olympic Sexual Abuse Survivor’s Fight for Justice

Mandy Meloon—widely recognized as one of the best taekwondo athletes in the U.S.—was told she could compete in the Beijing Olympics only if she took back her allegation that her coach and his brother were sexually and financially abusing her.

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Mandy Meloon is a two-time taekwondo world champion who was thrown off the U.S. national team in 2007 after accusing her coach of molesting her at age 16. (Taekwondo Data)

Mandy Meloon never got her Olympic moment. On track to compete in Beijing in 2008, she was widely recognized as one of the best taekwondo athletes in the U.S. But in 2006, Meloon’s athletic career came to an abrupt end: She was dropped from the team after refusing to recant an abuse report in which she alleged her coach Jean Lopez and his brother Steven were sexually and financially abusing her.

Today, Meloon waits tables—one of the few jobs a person with a felony conviction can get. She does everything she can to keep her PTSD at bay so she can be a good parent to her 7-year-old daughter.  

Meloon never wanted to go to the Olympics. It was her father’s dream, not hers. But she says she got his approval when she won a match, so she kept competing. She moved into the Olympic Training Center as a teenager. Taekwondo became her life. But according to Meloon and others, the culture in the sport was toxic.

“I couldn’t rest, I couldn’t say ‘no,’ I wasn’t allowed to have feelings.” she said. She won almost every competition, but the few times she lost she was berated.

Meloon says the abuse began when she was just 13, and ranged from uncomfortable discussions about sex to her coach drunkenly crawling into bed with her and engaging in inappropriate contact.

In 2006 she reported Jean Lopez to USA Taekwondo, the governing body that oversees the sport. A few months later, USA Taekwondo officials suspended Meloon ahead of the Olympics in Beijing, saying Meloon had “wrongfully accused” coaches of soliciting her for sex.

“These defamatory utterances are untrue and damaging to the morale of the national team and [USA Taekwondo] staff and coaches,” their report said. They also said Meloon was refusing to train and was drinking alcohol and smoking in excess.

In the end, Meloon was told she could compete in Beijing, but only if she took back her allegation.

“They told me if you sign a contract, and you say that you’re mentally ill, you lied about everything, and you’re getting counseling, you can go to the Olympics,” she said. “I said, no.”

Later, a 2018 class-action lawsuit brought by Meloon and fellow survivors Heidi Gilbert, Amber Means, Gabriela Joslin, Kay Poe and 45 unnamed Jane Does would allege a pattern of downplaying the crisis and dismissing the athletes. It reads:

Recent events have highlighted a very troubling and concerning pattern of sexual misconduct within the U.S. Olympic community … a systemic failure in the system to protect athletes, including in how allegations of sexual misconduct have been handled, or not handled, by the national governing bodies—the groups that run individual sports—and the U.S. Olympic Committee. …

When you have survivors saying that they were asked to stay silent, felt that they weren’t heard, and didn’t feel safe, there is something horribly wrong with the system. …

While such focus has been on USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, gymnastics is not the only [National Governing Body] that has had its challenges. Recent public reports also include the Lopez brothers in taekwondo, Rick Butler in volleyball, and the multiple accusations that have come from the swimming community, as well as reports in many other NGBs not before us today.

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“I was one of the best fighters in the world,” said Mandy Meloon. “Sometimes the best you can do is survive it, get through it, come out the other end.” (Courtesy)

Training for the Olympics had been her whole life for so long that it was hard to have any kind of “normal” life. It took Meloon years to feel like her own person. The only experiences she could relate to were those of soldiers returning from a war zone or “like when a person gets out of a cult,” she said.

Exercise had helped her cope with the trauma. But after she was removed from the team, Meloon said, “I couldn’t stand the smell of a gym or the thought of working out. Once I didn’t have that, it all started coming out in negative ways.”

She never stopped fighting to hold the people who abused her accountable. But every step of the process has been traumatizing. In 2015, Meloon participated in an independent investigation launched by USA Taekwondo. Having to re-live the most terrifying moments of her life took a toll on her health—she couldn’t eat, sleep or work and was repeatedly hospitalized for PTSD.

After the sixth hospitalization, Meloon lost her home. Desperate for a place to sleep that night, she went to a bar with three men. But she didn’t have an ID so the bouncer wouldn’t let her in. She was trying to get the men’s attention so she pushed past the bouncer, who threatened to get the police.

The next thing she remembers is a man grabbing her from behind. Reflexively she hit him, not realizing he was an off-duty police officer. She spent the next two years in prison for assault.

Meloon doesn’t make light of incarceration, but does believe it saved her from a lot of worse fates: “I remember when they put me in that cell it was a relief. It was clean. I had a shower, I had food and I could sleep and nobody was gonna bother me.”

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Mandy Meloon and her daughter Mia. (Courtesy)

There’s a mix of pride and resignation when Meloon talks about her struggle. Jean and Steven Lopez are now banned from all World Taekwondo Federation events, including the Olympics (a decision Jean Lopez is appealing). “I’m proud of myself. But at the same time, I have really bad days.”

PTSD is a constant struggle, but Meloon says her daughter Mia motivates her. Any thought she has about giving up she quickly dismisses because she knows how much Mia needs her.

“I’m not a morning person, but I get up for her, and I like the routine,” said Meloon.

Because she was so focused on competition, Meloon didn’t have much of a childhood, so she gets to experience some of what she lost through Mia.

“When I see her she’s me as a little kid, she looks so much like me,” Meloon said. Her daughter’s joy and happiness is refreshing. She’s interested in the world around her and happy about life.

On August 8, the last day of the Tokyo Olympics, Meloon and the other taekwondo survivors will fly to Colorado where the lawsuit they filed in 2018 might get resolved. A 15-year struggle could end in an arbitration hearing with an insurance company. But the plans have changed so many times that Meloon isn’t letting herself get too hopeful.

When I asked Meloon what a financial settlement would mean, her first thought was Mia. She spoke for a minute about going back to school, but she’s still scared to work toward a goal.

What Meloon wants most is for the World Taekwondo Federation to release their investigation of the Lopez brothers. She wants all the details to be public so anyone with internet access can learn the full extent of what she and other young athletes survived.

For Meloon there will never be a neat victory—only heartbreaking perseverance. She’s modest but resolved when she reflects on the gains she and other survivors have made.

“With what we’ve done we’ve opened that door up a little bit more,” she said. Still, it bothers her when people get too positive about preventing abuse. Messages about standing up for yourself, or being a strong, empowered woman often ring false.

“I was one of the best fighters in the world,” she said. “There’s nothing I could have done. Sometimes the best you can do is survive it, get through it, come out the other end.”

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About

Meg Stone is working on a book about women’s beliefs about safety. Her writing has been published in Newsweek, Boston Globe, Huffington Post and Dame. You can find her on Twitter at @megstoneimpact.