COLUMBUS, Ohio — Survivors, advocates and state leaders gathered for Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost's Human Trafficking Summit on Thursday.

In light of the event, a survivor in Dayton is sharing his story hoping to help others like him.

What You Need To Know

  • John-Michael Lander shares his story of surviving human trafficking while going on to win gold medals at the Norway and Danish Cups as a teenager

  • Lander started advocating for other survivors and victims 4 years ago

  • If you or someone you know is being trafficked, call the hotline: 1(888) 373-7888

Years ago, John-Michael Lander’s name dominated the headlines for winning gold medals at the Norway and Danish Cups. Lander was only 16 then and an Olympic hopeful in diving, but in his highest moments, Lander was living with a dark secret. 

"The mental stress of trying to be silent and keep it quiet kept building and building,” said Lander, a human trafficking survivor. 

It began after his fame got noticed by a group of professionals who he thought had his best interests at heart. 

 "A lawyer reached out to my mother,” said Lander. “I was told they were going to help me, telling me there was only one way I could get to the Olympics, and this group could support me." 

But Lander said they had a different agenda. 

"This professional group would have these parties, and they would bring 4 or 5 young men, and check out the merchandise, so to speak," said Lander. "Then they would go into another room and have a silent auction. The bidder with the highest price for each boy would get to pick the boy they wanted. We were influenced and groomed like this was normal. This is what we had to do." 

The nightmare lasted four more years, throughout high school, and Lander said he was forced on strangers. No one had any idea, not even his family or teammates, until college when he was noticed again, but in a different way. 

"While I was going to college, one of the professors said, 'Let's have a meeting',” said Lander. “It was like she knew my soul. She said, 'I can see something else is going on. What is it?' She was the first one to ask me. I shared as much as I could with her, and she started to help me plot my escape." 

Once he knew he was safe, he knew he could not become a silent victim.

"I broke my silence and started to think how I could help other people,” said Lander. “I felt this urge or need to.”

Lander is now on to better things. 

He's a certified trainer and life coach for other survivors and continues to share his story through TED Talks and books, and though Lander's trauma has taken away his Olympian dreams, he's living a different dream: Helping other survivors. 

"I just want everyone to know you're not alone,” said Lander. “The more we speak about it, the more everybody hears, the more we can make changes.'

In 2021 alone, the National Human Trafficking Hotline reported handling 10,000 cases of human trafficking in the U.S. involving nearly 17,000 victims and survivors. 

If you or someone you know is being trafficked, call the hotline at 1(888) 373-7888 to get help.