An independent investigation has been launched after a British para-snowboarding athlete, who had her UK Sport funding cut while she was being treated in a psychiatric hospital, made allegations of disability and sex discrimination.
Cassie Cava, who starred in the “This Girl Can” advertising campaign, was raped by a group of men while abroad in 2013 and had her foot amputated in 2014. But she claimed that when she made senior figures within British Parasnowsport aware of the impact these two episodes had taken on her mental health she was discriminated against and left feeling alienated, alleging one of them asked: “Do you want to hang yourself?”
The 26-year-old claimed she was denied her request to train alongside and reside with female athletes and instead was made to share a house with three male athletes while abroad which she claimed was a trigger for her post traumatic stress disorder. Cava, together with her lawyers, is now considering legal action against UK Sport.
Although she still harbours a slim hope of being selected to compete at next month’s Paralympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Cava said her primary aim is now to change the way certain governing bodies treat mental illness in their athletes.
British Parasnowsport and UK Sport insist Cava’s funding was reinstated on appeal and backdated after a review took place although she has since removed herself from the athlete performance programme to free herself to speak out about the bullying she claims led her to consider taking her own life.
“I was pushed to suicidal feelings and given no support,” she said. “I want to make sure that never happens to another athlete.”
Cava, who was born with club foot in both feet, began on the British para-snowboarding programme in October 2015, one year after she had her leg amputated. She was used by Sport England as a poster girl for their This Girl Can campaign and viewed sport as a rehabilitative force as she recovered from the trauma of amputation and rape. In 2013, Cava was walking home late at night while abroad in southern Europe when she was attacked and subjected to a gang rape.
She is reluctant to relive the ordeal and never fully reported the incident. But she claimed she was discriminated against after confiding in certain members of the British para-snowboarding hierarchy. “I think there’s absolutely no understanding from the management about disability and mental health and I was just looked at as somebody who wasn’t strong enough, who wasn’t as good as the boys,” said Cava.
She recalls one incident where she was away on a training camp. “The camp had been quite isolating and someone turned to me one evening and said: ‘Do you want to hang yourself?’
“After that, I said I didn’t want to be near him because I felt quite uncomfortable. I was staying on the ground floor of a house with two female physios and a younger male athlete and his guardian. We’d specifically sorted that so I wasn’t around the team and then this man decided he was going to sleep in the living room near my room and it just freaked me out because he shouldn’t have been near me, he should’ve been in the house he was in.”
As an athlete on the performance programme with realistic ambitions of winning a medal at the Winter Olympics, Cava was in receipt of funding from UK Sport, the body which allocates lottery and national exchequer money. But this was stripped while she was receiving psychiatric treatment at the Priory hospital. “I lost my UK Sport funding while I was in hospital which they later described as behavioural issues,” said Cava. “Calling severe PTSD because you were gang raped ‘behavioural issues’ shows a real lack of understanding.
“I came out of hospital and was feeling much better and positive about getting to Pyeongchang but then I received a letter from UK Sport thanking me for my contribution to sport in the UK and wishing me all the best in my career after sport,” she added. “That was devastating, for them to turn round and tell me my career in sport was over.”
Consultant clinical psychologist Dr Edel McAndrew, who Cava is a patient of, prepared a report to submit as part of Cava’s appeal to the British Parasnowsport selection committee. In her concluding remarks, McAndrew wrote: “The stressors being applied to Cassie by the BPS decision process have been psychologically and emotionally damaging and I have not witnessed a genuine desire to support her.
“Cassie’s allegations of bullying and intimidation by her coach/performance director have yet to be formally investigated and in the meantime it would appear that Cassie has been left (unsupported by the BPS and UK Sport) to overcome her mental health issues alone.”
A UK Sport spokesman said: “Athlete welfare is of the utmost importance to all of us. British Parasnowsport and UK Sport have jointly commissioned Sport Resolutions UK to produce an independent investigation and finding of fact into the allegations raised by Cassie Cava, and therefore we are unable to comment further at this stage.”
On Cassie’s selection, a joint statement issued by a UK Sport spokesman said: “British Parasnowsport, UK Sport, the British Athletes’ Commission and the British Paralympic Association were working together to support Cassie’s ambition to compete at the Paralympic Games. Cassie was involved in developing a plan to support her through the selection process and to compete in Pyeongchang. This pathway remained open to her at every stage, and her Athlete Personal Award payments will continue to be made until the end of April, however Cassie herself chose to remove herself from British Parasnowsport’s programme earlier this year.”