95% of you will check out of this post in about three seconds. It will start out slightly heavy and then move into better times. The heavy part is not about me, but needed for background. So, hang in there. I’m also not writing into a big personal reveal – I’m just writing about something that weighs on me each time it pops up in the news. Fortunately, it is popping up in the news. Unfortunately, it’s years and years overdue.
I saw a few weeks ago that another high profile gymnastics coach lost her license, so to say, for eight years due to severe verbal abuse of her athletes accompanied with (likely) screaming encouragement to carry on training/competing while hurt and/or forcing them into skills they were not ready for resulting in serious injury. This coach presented such a bubbly, smiley athlete at the 2016 Olympics that, in a million years, I never would have guessed she was counting down the days until the biggest meet of her life was over so she could clear out of hell. The gymnast was 16 at the time and had endured the abuse for years and years – easily convinced (as children are) that this was acceptable and the only way to reach her dream. Yes, she told her parents – but then put the pieces together of ‘oh, every time my Mom steps in on my behalf, the whole team suffers terrible workouts, I better keep my complaints to myself.’
And unless you missed the last two-ish years, you know that opening the sports section meant seeing articles about a doctor who worked primarily with elite level gymnasts and the hundreds of those athletes testifying against his need to sexually assault them. That is not a typo – hundreds. Not ‘oh, like a hundred…’ or ‘103-ish,’ but actual hundreds – with the assumption that there were probably hundreds more who never felt comfortable enough to tell their own story. If you don’t think you’ve heard of any of them – know that our last two teams we sent to the Olympics in Women’s Gymnastics were made up entirely of athletes he’d convinced were in need of his ‘special treatment.’
I wish these were unique stories – they are not. The only unique part of these stories is that they actually got publicized and that there was actually (and finally) action taken against the guilty. But these two are the tip of a very deep iceberg that has been ignored by the very federation that oversees the sport here in America. I find it empowering every time I hear of another gymnast sharing her story – I want to reach out to every one of them and say “YES!! YOU’RE DOING IT!!” I also want to shake someone from USA Gymnastics and say “what did you let happen?!” I’d also like to know why stories of physical, mental and sexual abuse were ignored year after year – basically setting a precedence that in order to be heard, you needed to have an Olympic medal around your neck and, oh yeah…bring it up on a different platform.
If you know me, you know that I spent nearly fifteen years as a competitive gymnast, coached for twenty and and still toy with adult gymnastics. I still watch every meet Comcast provides me, read all the gymternet articles and use my Twitter feed mainly to keep up with the latest news. I realize, at 49, I am not competitive and am starting to understand why nearing a trampoline equals a request to sign seven waivers. But that’s how much I still love gymnastics. And I have to believe it is because I had a completely different experience than the one that so many young athletes are having today. So, again, who let this happen?
I’m not writing into a big reveal. There won’t be one. I’m writing because I fear that the constant and deserved bad press of the sport will send parents running from a sport that brought (and brings) me so much joy. I’m writing because I had such a positive experience – and I’m fairly sure that most of those I trained with feel the same way. I’m also writing a bit nervously in that I might find out that I did overlook the bad parts. That maybe the only reason gymnastics was ‘good’ to me was because I was lucky enough to not be ‘good.’ Well, that’s not actually true – I excelled but I was never going to get to the elite level, which is what most of the world rates one’s gymnastics-ability on. Oh, you weren’t friends with Shannon Miller? Must not have been very good.
I was a recreational gymnast through fourth or fifth grade. Then I was invited to the team – and my competitive season began, starting at the local Y where I learned to flip – immediately hooked on the upside-down-and-back-again rush of finding the ground. I quickly outgrew that program and was encourage to find a ‘better’ gym – one with serious gymnasts who practiced all the time. I stayed at that gym for about two years and did have any first experience with a screaming coach. The screaming was mostly directed to the older, more advanced girls. I did get a jolt of it at one competition where my beam routine followed a couple of misses by my teammates. Coach P made it very clear that I better get it right. It annoyed me to the point where I didn’t want him to see that it annoyed me – and the result was a very steady, casual routine. Not a shake to be found. The balance zen it sparked turned me into a beamer for life. In a weird way, I was always grateful for his completely-over-the-top-for-a-low-level-gymnast insistence that I get it right. I was immediately rewarded by finding out that can skate thru beam, you’d almost always get a ribbon. And I wanted ribbons.
What I didn’t want was to listen to Pete, so instead of moving up to the next level, I walked away. Again, no big deal, this wasn’t Simone retiring, just an awkward middle-schooler with a bad perm. My parents probably breathed a huge sigh of ‘oh thank gawd we don’t have to make that drive four days a week anymore.’ But, this was the summer of 1984. I went to horseback riding camp instead of gymnastics camp and came home to watch the Olympics. There she was – Mary Lou Retton – vaulting into history. And there I went – in search of a new club. It wasn’t much of a search – the only other club within the acceptable driving radius took me in despite being way under-talented. They liked my wide-open-ness and fearlessness and suggested maybe owning more than one leotard. I stayed there for five years, competing and coaching and then just coaching after wrapping up my competitive career in college.
I learned a heck of a lot of gymnastics, went from ribbons to actual trophies and even got a plaque here or there. We traveled as far north as Ottawa and as far south as Miami. I spent more time with my teammates than I did with my siblings. What I didn’t know until later was that the gymnastics part of my club was the small piece. It’s all the other pieces that have stuck with me and given me my drive and shaped my character. It’s all the other pieces that I look to for direction when faced with a problem or that I hear, repeated in my head, when I need guidance. It’s all the other pieces that make me so very sad for these gymnasts, this seemingly endless list of gymnasts, who are raising their hands and saying ‘this is not okay (right?).’
I can’t imagine that I just lucked out and strolled into the only gym in southeastern Pennsylvania with coaching techniques focused more on words of encouragement than angry tirades. I do know that all the clubs in the region had strong relationships – maybe part of that relationship was that the coaches kept each other honest. Or maybe it was just different in the 80’s. Maybe the code of points shifted after I moved on to include ‘say whatever you want to these pre-teens and young adults…just make them better than the Romanians.’ One of the reasons the latest suspended coach hit me a bit harder was that she ran a gym within the region I competed. Which means the that some of the athletes that train with my old club likely compete against athletes from her club. Again, how did this happen?
I feel compelled to tell the Lauries and the McKaylas and the Alis and the Maggies that there is good. They are so brave for speaking up and that I hope they can recover enough of their past to see the good. I want to ask them to tell me the story of what they loved about being upside down or the first time they stuck a beam routine or what their favorite trick was. I want to hear about the friends they made and the adventures they had and hope that thinking about those parts eases some of the trauma. Of course I know that’s naive, it won’t.
I want to tell the parents who are leery of raising a competitive gymnast that there are great programs available and that I came from one of them. I was never screamed at or called names. Yes, my coaches were firm – it’s a treacherous sport, deliberate coaching is critical. But when I tumbled to my knees or peeled off the bars or just completely forgot how to twist – the response was along the lines of ‘well, okay, so that didn’t work out.’ And if it happened in a meet, the concern wasn’t for the reputation of the gym – it was an arm around my shoulder while we walked away from the salute and a ‘next time’ whispered into my ear. One of my favorite moments ever was after a pretty awful crash on beam (at states, of course) – before starting my floor routine with a bruised ego and a lost trip to regionals, my coach came over. I stood in the corner ready to salute and she stepped on the mat, patted the bottom of my chin, ‘chin up, you can do it.’ She felt our falls with us – not as a slight to her ability as a teacher.
We learned so much more than gymnastics as they were very aware that we were spending a large chunk of our impressionable lives at the gym, with them. They offered life lessons whenever they could – basic manners, communicating with adults, showing character, grace, and compassion. We even learned to cook and properly set a table on our annual beach weeks. If this all sounds like some utopia, than maybe you can understand why it makes me so upset to hear these stories over and over.
For each of these stories, someone is asking ‘but where were the parents?’ Unless you’ve had a child heavily involved in a sport, it’s an obvious question. But when your child is spending a minimum of 15 hours a week on something, the reality is – you’re not going to sit staring in the window the entire time. Nor should you have to. Parents not being allowed in the gym was common when I was in the program. They were annoying – always pointing out when one athlete was getting more attention than another, asking endless questions about potential – insisting you coach to perfection while constantly interrupting your attempts to do so. So, no, I don’t blame the parents here.
A parent should be able to drop their child off for practice and not have to monitor the session for fear that the child will be forced to try something too difficult over and over until they are injured enough to need an ambulance. A parent should be able to trust a team doctor to diagnose a problem without having to grope or probe and listing paybacks if the word gets out.
This is just reality (right?).