Photo courtesy Skubik

Photo courtesy Skubik

Local Gymnastics Community Calls for an End to Abuse Culture

In the wake of the Larry Nassar trail, what can be done to protect child gymnasts?

As a young adult, “Amy Johnson” had received a number of professional massages.

Her massage therapists had always been female, and it wasn’t until she was 23 that she had a male therapist. While there was nothing unusual about the massage, the experience brought back memories that had been blocked for some time.

As a young teenager, before she was old enough to drive, Johnson—who grew up in the Puget Sound area—was at a national gymnastics competition when she began experiencing back pain. So she went to see the onsite doctor.

She described what followed as assault veiled as treatment.

Johnson’s experience was similar to those described by many of the 156 girls and women who recently gave victim impact statements in Michigan during the sentencing of USA Gymnastics’s disgraced national team doctor, Larry Nassar. On Jan. 24, at the end of seven days of survivors coming forward, Ingham County Circuit Court Judge Rosemarie Aquilina sentenced Nassar to 40-175 years in prison for the sexual assault of minors.

While Johnson’s story matched some of the ones she had read about the survivors, she said she cannot remember who that doctor was.

“The whole problem with what I have faced and what I am facing is that I can’t remember who did this to me and so I can’t get closure from it,” she said, adding that everything that has been happening in the Nassar case has encouraged her to seek answers.

After the incident at nationals, Johnson said she did not have an immediate understanding of what had happened to her.

“Not thinking my body was my own to fix, that I had no say in the matter and thinking that I had to let someone do that to me in order to feel better, says a lot,” she said. “It paints a picture of athletes not thinking they own their own bodies. That as an athlete, your body is a tool for success that not only you, but your supposed mentors [in this case a doctor] can mold however they see fit.”

“These individuals have the power to do what they want if it is even slightly veiled as something that helps an athlete succeed,” she said.

The Kirkland Reporter reached out to USAG and was told Johnson’s case has been reported to the U.S. Center for Safesport. (In sharing her story, Johnson asked to remain anonymous. To protect her privacy, the Reporter has changed her name.)

A ‘PERFECT’ CULTURE FOR ABUSE

Camille Primous, another former gymnast, said she was not surprised to learn about sexual abuse in the sport, but was disgusted at the magnitude of the problem and what she describes as the “gross negligence of USAG in protecting the young athletes they profit from.”

“When considering the hierarchy and power differentials within the sport and the vulnerable situation the athletes are put in on a daily basis, it really creates a perfect culture for all types of abuse: physical, emotional, sexual,” Primous said. “Sports have the power to be an incredibly positive influence on young people, especially young women, and to take advantage of their vulnerability and destroy their sense of agency and personhood is a despicable act.”

Primous—who graduated from Bastyr University in Kenmore last year with a master’s degree in nutrition and clinical health psychology—was a gymnast from ages 3-19 and trained at Seattle Gymnastics Academy and Cascade Elite Gymnastics in Mountlake Terrace.

Now 31, Primous doesn’t remember hearing anything about sexual abuse as a gymnast. But she heard a lot about other types of abuse, including coaches who would push athletes through injuries, body shame them, yell at them, and call them names.

“I always considered myself lucky to have the coaches that I did, even more so as these stories unfold,” she said. “While they were hard on me—bordering on emotionally disparaging at times—lines were never crossed in any significant way.”

‘NOT SURPRISED AT ALL’

While Primous was lucky with her coaches, not everyone was.

One woman who was a competitive gymnast in the greater Seattle area said that aside from her teammates—who were the only people who really understood what life was like as a competitive athlete—her memories as a gymnast are very poor.

The woman (who asked to remain anonymous), was a gymnast from ages 4-22 and trained at various clubs in the area, including Emerald City Gymnastics Academy in Redmond.

She said one of her coaches was physically and verbally abusive: tearing ripped callouses off her and her teammates’ hands and telling them they would be fine and to “rub some chalk in it.”

“He pulled me outside by my ear once to yell at me,” she said. “I had landed on the (uneven) bar trying a new skill, then bounced off the bar and landed on him. He was angry and apparently landing on the bar wasn’t punishment enough for me.”

This and other coach experiences taught her that “adults disappoint you.” Gymnastics stopped being fun for her when coaches realized she had some “potential.”

“This was not a sport for fun,” she said. “This was a sport for a purpose.”

While her situation involved verbal and physical abuse, the woman said she was not shocked to learn about the prevalence of sexual abuse in the sport.

“You have older men around young women who are taught to smile and keep their mouth shut,” she said. “I was not surprised at all.”

Sandy Flores, who now owns ECGA, said that in December 2006, she learned that the previous owner was going to be put on USAG’s banned list, making them a permanently ineligible member.

AN ATHLETE’S WELL-BEING

Flores said with everything going on in the world, she was not shocked when the news about Nassar’s abuse broke. But she was “extremely sad.”

“It’s devastating to see the number (of survivors). It’s devastating to hear how many young ladies knew it was wrong,” she said.

Flores, who is not a coach, said there are strict rules at her gym. No gymnast is to be alone anywhere with just a coach. In addition, she said she has security cameras throughout the gym.

In light of the Nassar scandal, Flores said parents have approached her—not with concerns, but to thank her for putting their kids first.

“No sport is worth the physical and mental well-being of their child,” she said.

Casey Campbell, a coach at Cascade Elite Gymnastics West in Silverdale, said many parents at her gym have talked to their kids about the Nassar situation. They have used it as a teaching point to help them know what is not okay and that they need to speak up and stand up for themselves.

“As coaches we have made them aware that we are always available for anything they need—gymnastics or not—and that they should always speak up if anything makes them uncomfortable,” she said.

Campbell, a former gymnast who trained in Spokane as well as at CEG in Mountlake Terrace, said as coaches they have a responsibility to look after the athletes and report anything suspicious, adding that all of CEG West staff has been trained through the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Safesport certification program, which addresses issues of abuse and how to handle and identify them.

CULTURE CHANGE

Following the revelations about Nassar, the women who spoke to the Reporter all said there needs to be a change in gymnastics culture.

Bijoya Das agrees.

The former gymnast—who trained at SGA, ECGA and CEG and competed for the University of Washington—said she would like there to be a zero-tolerance policy on any type of abuse in the sport.

“The sport is hard enough as it is, and safety of this nature should be the least of our concerns,” she said. “My hope is that the sport of gymnastics takes physical and emotional health and safety seriously and makes it a priority over young girls winning medals.”

Das said she would also like to see more women in power at USAG. Because of the girls and women speaking up, she feels more powerful and less tolerant of any inappropriate behavior from men.

“Gymnastics is a sport that shapes powerful women and I have no doubt that we are the ones changing our culture to be one of respect and equality,” she said.

Johnson, who coaches gymnastics part-time and takes adult classes to stay in shape, said she would like to see people who are advocates for children’s rights and safety leading the way. But she also doesn’t want to see things overcorrected, as that can be just as damaging. Gymnasts need to be encouraged to know that their body is theirs, first and foremost, she said. They also need to be shown that adults can be trusted, but they should trust their instincts.

“I still love gymnastics with all my heart. I will continue to do it until my legs fall off,” Johnson said. “But the culture needs to change. We don’t want to be grouped with the Catholic church as the perfect place for grooming children for abuse. That’s not what gymnastics is about. I want to see gymnastics stand for strong girls—and boys—who are amazingly capable. And it does, now more than ever.”

A version of this story was originally published in the Kirkland Reporter.


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