Aja Evans, a collegiate track and field star whose journey took her from Chicago's South Side to a bronze medal in the 2014 Olympics, filed a lawsuit in New York state court Wednesday, alleging she was sexually assaulted on multiple occasions during treatment sessions by a doctor who for years was a fixture on Team USA's medical staff.
Dr. Jonathan Wilhelm, a chiropractor with offices in Bozeman and Belgrade, Montana; Wilhelm's Pro Chiropractic clinic; the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee; and the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation are listed as defendants in the lawsuit, filed in Essex County not far from the Lake Placid facility where Evans and her teammates trained for international competitions.
Evans says she first met Wilhelm in 2012, seeing him as a patient for a hip injury. During that treatment session, she says, Wilhelm asked her inappropriate questions about her personal life and touched her exposed genital area in a way that made her recoil.
According to the lawsuit, Wilhelm "touched and groped Ms. Evans' genitals and body in contravention of any applicable medical standards."
"The repeated molestation and sexual assault I suffered at the hands of John Wilhelm left me physically and emotionally damaged, to the point where I experience chronic anxiety and fell out of love with the sport of bobsledding," Evans said in a statement announcing the lawsuit.
Evans says she and her teammates reported Wilhelm's behavior to coaches and officials within USA Bobsled and Skeleton after Wilhelm recorded video and took pictures of them in various states of undress during treatment sessions and before competition.
"At times I spoke up to the coaches and the medical staff, it was really disregarded," Evans told ESPN.
In discussions with teammates, Evans says, it became well known that, regardless of the injury, Wilhelm would "go for the adductor," a collection of muscles in the pelvic region.
She and her teammates became so uncomfortable with Wilhelm's behavior, Evans says, that in 2016 they decided to pool their money and take the unusual step of paying to fly in their own medical provider during training sessions.
"I didn't feel like the USA bobsled team was taking what I was saying seriously, and it was becoming a distraction for me and my performance ... and so it felt like what was within my control was doing this with my teammates and just focusing on getting through the season," Evans said.
Wilhelm did not respond to ESPN's request for comment but released a statement Wednesday night through his attorney, Ryan Stevens, who is based in Flagstaff, Arizona.
"Dr. Wilhelm wholeheartedly denies these baseless allegations," the statement said. "At no point did Dr. Wilhelm commit these heinous and disgusting acts that Ms. Evans now alleges started over a decade ago. Dr. Wilhelm has reputably served and protected professional athletes all over the world. Dr. Wilhelm looks forward to vetting these unfounded claims and will pursue all legal avenues to protect his professional reputation."
When reached Wednesday about Evans' lawsuit, a spokesperson for USA Bobsled and Skeleton told ESPN: "We're not prepared to give you a comment at this time, but I can tell you that USABS does not condone sexual violence of any kind."
In addition to Evans' lawsuit, Wilhelm is the focus of an ongoing investigation by the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which began after another athlete raised concerns about his behavior during treatment sessions. Stevens confirmed to ESPN that he is representing Wilhelm in that SafeSport investigation. Evans said she has been interviewed on multiple occasions as part of the investigation.
Wilhelm's Pro Chiropractic website touts his "elite athlete service" and lists his contributions as a volunteer physician for the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation dating to the 2012 World Cup in Calgary, Alberta, and going through the 2020 world championships in Altenberg, Germany. Stevens told ESPN that Wilhelm was active with the national team until September 2022.
"It's clear that he used being a part of USA Bobsled for his own promotion and business," Evans' attorney, Michelle Simpson Tuegel, told ESPN. "Similar to Larry Nassar, he was the Olympic chiropractor for the bobsled team, and there are articles online that he wrote."
Simpson Tuegel represented more than two dozen women in civil cases filed against Nassar, the disgraced former Olympic doctor for USA Gymnastics who in early 2018 pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting his former patients and was sentenced to more than 100 years in prison.
"Having worked with so many of the Nassar survivors, it was eerily similar," Simpson Tuegel said of the two cases. "The way [Wilhelm] tried to be more personable with the athletes, especially during treatment, in a way that almost distracted and confused them as to what part was inappropriate, there was a lot of similarity with the way Larry Nassar operated."
Evans grew up on the South Side of Chicago in a family full of high-achieving athletes. Her father, Fred Evans, is recognized as the first Black swimmer to win a collegiate national championship, competing for Chicago State in the mid-1970s. Aja Evans' older brother, also named Fred, played eight seasons in the NFL as a defensive tackle for the Miami Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings.
In November 2022, Evans was banned for two years from bobsledding for not submitting a drug-testing sample during an out-of-competition test in March of that year.
"I humbly accept this sanction, and will use the time to focus on my health and well-being," Evans said in a statement at the time.
Evans' lawsuit comes at a time when those who run bobsledding and skeleton in the United States were recently reviewed for their hiring practices and culture. ESPN has obtained a May 19 email sent to Aron McGuire, CEO of USA Bobsled and Skeleton, by Amanda Vaughn, senior director of compliance investigations and ethics for the USOPC.
In the letter, Vaughn summarizes the findings of an internal investigation of USABS conducted by law firm ArentFox Schiff, which found that several athletes described a "toxic culture" within the sport and that "a significant portion of Black athletes, and some white athletes, perceive racial bias toward athletes of color and that athletes view leadership as a 'good ol' boys club.'"
As a Black athlete on the team, Evans told ESPN, she often felt marginalized and didn't have the standing to raise concerns about her experiences with Wilhelm.
"It was almost like I had to pick and choose my battles, like, did I want to lose my spot by continuing to push a topic that no one seems to care about?" Evans said.
Evans is now living in Atlanta and said she has not ruled out a return to the sport after her suspension.