Top paddlers bullying teen

2010-01-23 00:00

MEN who engage in puerile episodes of cyber-bullying, often of a sexual nature against girls as young as 14 and 15, are among some of the province’s top canoeists.

But a 15-year-old schoolgirl has now decided to speak out about her experiences, after becoming the target of a vicious cyber-bullying campaign waged against her by some of these top members of KwaZulu-Natal’s elite canoeing fraternity.

An Olympic hopeful and grade 10 sports scholarship winner at St John’s School, Emma Horner, told Weekend Witness that the experience has left her stronger and more determined than ever to succeed in her chosen field.

Emma was speaking out after yet another computer belonging to an elite SA paddler, whose name is known to Weekend Witness, was seized by the police last week, allegedly because he had written defamatory and offensive comments about Emma on his Facebook site. Other canoeists had commented on the site, chipping in with their own snide and insulting remarks.

Relaxed and smiling brightly, Emma said she had returned to paddling after a break of six months, which she took to recover after the emotional upheaval of the first cyber-bullying episode.

Weekend Witness reported in July last year that police were investigating the defamation of the Horner family on Facebook.

The laptop of another top local and international canoeist, whose name is also known to Weekend Witness, was seized then in connection with the case.

On Friday last week, police swooped on the home of another paddler and allegedly seized his iPhone, sim card and PC. Police forensics members have taken photographs of the Facebook site to use as evidence.

Weekend Witness has in its possession transcript copies of the Facebook profile sites.

The first incident carried defamatory comments about the family and was posted on a Facebook site named with wordplay on the family’s surname. Distasteful images and language adorn the page.

The second incident makes indecent comments about Emma and elicits jokes and responses from other paddlers.

“What hurts is that I thought some of these guys were my friends,” said Emma. Another aspect that she has taken badly is the fact that her family was attacked via the Facebook site in an attempt to get at her, she presumes.

She believes the cyber-bullying has been motivated by jealousy as she was doing incredibly well in paddling, working hard to get a rating under two minutes for the 500 metre sprint at Nagle Dam last year, when the first nasty episode occurred.

“When I achieved that, I was extremely happy to have been rated the best junior paddler in SA. It was a massive achievement.”

But the venomous reaction that followed from certain fellow-paddlers in KZN was unexpected, she said, and little in the way of congratulations followed.

“They did not like the way I went all-out at every training session. It annoyed people.”

Emma said she has had to deal with the fact that thousands of people both in South Africa and abroad, could have seen the crude and derogatory comments about her on Facebook.

“I was appalled people would do something like that. I don’t think I will ever truly trust anyone like I did before. I felt traumatised. My school marks plummeted. I saw a school counsellor, which helped, and I managed to cope, but it was a bumpy road. I got no support from my local club. I felt so hurt. Out of the whole Pietermaritzburg canoeing fraternity, only five people stood up for me and said this is wrong.”

A distraught Emma stopped training soon after the first Facebook attack, but in November she felt ready to begin again. And shortly after she was seen training alone on the water at Midmar Dam, the next attack surfaced.

“I couldn’t believe it had started again. I was just getting back on my feet and rebuilding my life,” relates Emma. “But I never let anyone see me cry.” Emma said she found it hard to cope when other young canoeists asked her if she was the Emma Horner everyone was talking about after the Facebook attacks.

She describes the people who perpetrated the cyber-bullying and those who were swept up in the hurtful comments as being “from good homes and decent families. Many have been educated at the province’s top private schools. We trained together and were mates who had built up bonds”.

Emma is now scathing of those who spend all their time on Mxit and Facebook. “I have seen people Mxit each other across a room; it’s just a gossip tool for teens. I don’t want this to happen to anyone else. Others may fall apart. I have confidence in the police that they will get to the bottom of whoever was behind the Facebook attacks.”

Emma’s ultimate goal now is to compete in the Olympics as a senior paddler. Her parents are pleased that she has decided to pursue academic study after school as a fall­back to professional paddling. Given that Emma is happiest in the sports arena, she says her career would be sport-related.

While young Emma may well have been a target of cyber-bullying, she has refused to be a victim hiding away from the hostile environment KZN paddling seems to have become for her. Rather, she is prepared to tackle her beloved sport with all the determination she can, despite the rough waters she has been made to navigate.

Police this week confirmed that the second computer was seized and that they await analysis on both computers.

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