It started with a rumor.
It made the rounds quietly, no louder than a whisper. But it didn’t take long for reporters with the Chronicle of the Horse to get wind of it. Something strange had happened at Flintridge Riding Club in Southern California.
Not long after, the USEF removed the infamous Jimmy A. Williams trophy, the signature golden cowboy hat, modeled after the real one horseman and long-time riding instructor Jimmy Williams wore himself through the years. The trophy was the gift to the USEF’s lifetime achievement award winner. But suddenly, after 28 years, it was no longer part of the annual distinction.
“There was no explanation,” said Mollie Bailey, an 11-year veteran reporter at the Chronicle of the Horse, the oldest and among the most comprehensive sources for news in equestrian sport. “Eventually we got an email from the outgoing USEF president saying they ‘wanted to do something different’. But rumors were running rampant on the West Coast.”
This was in 2017, just as the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements were gaining steam in more mainstream industries. Celebrities, from actors, producers and comedians, to athletes and politicians, were routinely being exposed for sexual assault against their female co-workers and counterparts.
Some were arrested. Others resigned. But no such accusations were being publicly discussed among the horse industry. At least, not yet.
After graduating from college, Mollie took a few years off to travel, ride horses and do a few odd jobs in and out of the horse world. She’d grown up riding and grooming on the A circuit in hunters and jumpers in upstate New York. So when an internship opportunity at the COTH arose that married her writing seminar degree with her passion for horses, it seemed like the perfect job.
“This is my dream job,” Mollie said, now more than a decade later and as a senior-level reporter. “We’re a small newsroom and we write about horses, but everyone here is passionate about current events. We want to be a good magazine, not just a good horse magazine.”
As rumors continued to swirl around Jimmy Williams and the disappearance of the trophy, Mollie did what any good reporter instinctively would do: she picked up the phone. She called Olympic show jumper, Anne Kursinski, who grew up riding on the West Coast.
“Anne took a huge leap of faith,” Mollie described. “I told her we’d been hearing things about Jimmy Williams, and she said she would talk. She was instrumental in making this whole thing happen.”
From there, Mollie followed her nose.
The story took her to opposite ends of the country, from California to Florida, for interviews. The list of women who accused Jimmy Williams of abuse continued to grow the more people she talked to. They included USEF chef d’equipe, DiAnn Langer.
Mollie knew she was onto something big and her editors back in the newsroom in Middleburg, Va., threw their support behind her.
“This was extraordinarily personal. It made me feel so sick.”
“I remember being on planes with my co-workers but not telling them what I was working on,” Mollie explained. “We’re not usually so cloak and dagger, but I really wanted to respect the women and the stories they were sharing with me.”
Interviewing victims of any type of assault, but especially sexual assault, requires tact, patience and understanding. It’s not for the faint of heart. Mollie became a good listener, as she heard story after story detailing ugly molestation.
“This was extraordinarily personal,” Mollie, 38, recalled. “It made me feel so sick.”
Then Mollie had to take what she’d collected in personal interviews and go back to the USEF.
When the COTH questioned the removal of the trophy a second time, the organization’s general counsel had a different answer. The USEF admitted that the trophy was being removed due to allegations of sexual abuse.
But Mollie’s job still wasn’t done. Jimmy Williams was no longer alive. He couldn’t speak up to defend himself. Journalism ethics required her to speak to people on both sides of this issue.
“I had to get another perspective. Which meant I had to track down people who knew him or who could speak on his behalf,” she said.
When the story ran in April, the comments came flooding in. They came from the classic COTH forums and on Facebook, but also in the form of emails and phone calls.
“People would call me and want to talk about their own trauma,” Mollie says. “I became people’s therapist. I still get calls once in a while.”
Mollie admits that she made a spreadsheet, which she used to track the responses to the story. She tried not to get caught up in online comments, but constructive feedback was also important. Much to her surprise, most of the feedback was positive. But there were a few people who pushed back and criticized the COTH for attacking a man who was long dead and couldn’t defend his reputation.
“This took a lot of trust building. It was a very different type of story for us, and it required less ‘horse skills’ and more ‘people skills’,” Mollie described. “It was more about empathy. We put the women first.”
To the USEF’s credit, the organization took a strong stand against assault after the story ran. The organization was in the midst of adhering to the U.S. Olympic Committee’s new guidelines for SafeSport, which aimed to educate and eliminate assault among Olympic sports. Jimmy Williams’ name is now a permanent fixture at the top of a list of banned and suspended offenders.
“The timing was right and to their credit, the USEF worked with us when we asked questions,” Mollie said.
“It truly was an exercise in connecting with people.”
The story has had a much wider ripple effect than even Mollie could imagine. A New York Times reporter had read Mollie’s coverage, and began reaching out to the same women she’d quoted in her story. The NYT piece only expanded the reach of the COTH’s reporting.
“This was also a huge team effort, from the editors to our designers. So many people were involved in the final product,” she said. “Everyone was really passionate about it.”
But what mattered most to Mollie was how her sources felt, the women who’d opened up to her to share their stories publicly.
“It truly was an exercise in connecting with people,” she said. “I don’t deserve the credit. It’s Anne, DiAnn and the rest of these women who do.”