As the chalk settles…
USA Gymnastics was my life for the larger part of my childhood. I was and have always been immensely proud to be a gymnast, and I like to think the tenacity & grit of the sport is forever ingrained in my identity in a lot of ways.
I was eight years old when I traveled to Lansing for my first large-scale invitational at Twistars. My hair was slicked back as tight as could be and I’ll be damned if I didn’t have my matching velvet scrunchie in. I was ready!
I didn’t even know the logistics of how meets worked yet- I struggled to know which judge to salute and when, and I had absolutely no idea what a good score was. I just put on my serious face, did my routines the best I could, and got shaky on beam looking around at the sheer size of the venue.
At the end of the meet, as my teammates and I excitedly rummaged through our goodie bags, my first coach rounded us up in a small huddle before awards. Without warning, she leaned in and viscerally shouted, “You were all terrible today!”
I don’t remember much of the harsh speech that followed, but I do distinctly remember being called a loser in broken English. The moment stunned me cluelessly into silence and later tears. Our parents all caught wind of the incident and immediately reported it to our gym owner. Nothing happened- she was an esteemed Russian coach after all.
The message was clear early on: If I liked gymnastics and wanted to stick with it, I had to toughen up. It presented itself to me like a challenge- I could handle it! I had a six-pack at age 8 after all, I was tough. I tried to tune out the subtle little ways that coach would pit me and the other young girls on my team against one another. I tried to laugh along & be in on the joke when she and her husband consistently asked which one of us “had a hamburger for lunch that day” and mocked that we were too heavy to spot on skills.
As I advanced through the sport, I was lucky enough to move on to multiple excellent coaches who were starkly different from the first. They demonstrated to me the difference between a healthy dose of tough love that competitive gymnastics requires versus what I later realized was just cruel behavior.
But what if I hadn’t been lucky enough to have been exposed to a healthier coaching dynamic? What if I continued along in the same cycle of accepting what I thought I was supposed to as an eager-to-please child because no one else had presented a new normal to me? Herein lies the problem.
The high-profile Nassar case has brought USA women’s gymnastics into a limelight we’ve never seen before. It has put to bed one of the most hideous predatory monsters in sports history and it has shown that courage knows no bounds for the fierce survivors involved. The conversation quickly evolved from that of one man’s horrible crimes to a conversation about the cultural fabric making up women’s gymnastics as a whole.
Mattie Larson’s victim impact statement particularly stuck with me. Mattie was always one of my favorite elite gymnasts to watch when I was in high school. Her iconic floor routines & expressive choreography awed me. Nevertheless, to quote Stick It, “Don’t be fooled by the leotards, people.”
In her statement, Mattie chillingly exposed the widespread cruelty & abusive coaching behavior she experienced at the Karolyi Ranch in Texas, and explained how it allowed for someone like Nassar to thrive. She even mentioned staging a concussion once to get out of practicing at the ranch. It’s powerful and truly worth the full listen.
My own experiences in the sport were overwhelmingly positive. The few qualms I had early on pale in comparison to what someone like Mattie or any of the other 150+ survivors of Nassar endured over the course of their long careers. I consider myself ridiculously lucky to have had the experiences I had and I will cherish gymnastics forever. Nevertheless, something compelled me to write this.
Before I quit the USAG circuit in sixth grade I was training five days a week and missing multiple Fridays of middle school for travel meets. I was burnt out and was starting to like the idea of exploring other interests (I was also itching to go out with my school friends to movies & the mall on weekends). Even though I knew deep down I had lost the fire to be a better gymnast by that point, I still remember to this day the amount of guilt I felt whenever I so much as contemplated asking my mom if I could quit that level of competitive gymnastics. So instead, I tried dropping not-so-subtle hints to get out of multiple practices- like faking sick or saying I had a lot of homework. Always intuitive, my mom picked up what I was putting down.
One day, on the car ride from school to practice, she planted the seed for me. “You know, sweetie, you can quit if you want to.” I wanted to burst into tears right then and there and hug her, but a big lump of guilt remained in my throat that wouldn’t let me. By this point, it wasn’t a guilt that any parent or coach was putting on me, it was a guilt that I had let fester within myself.
Gymnastics does that to you- pits you against yourself time and time again. It’s like that scene in Fight Club where Ed Norton fistfights himself bloody (there’s a Tyler Durden within every gymnast…). I’d been competing for so long I didn’t know there could be a life without club gymnastics. I burst into uncontrollable sobs when I finally let it surface and told my mom I wanted to take a break from the sport.
Down the line, I found my niche in high school gymnastics and re-gained my love for the sport before capping off my career. The difference-maker to me was the emphasis on the team as a unit that high school gymnastics provided me. To this day, it’s why I enjoy watching college gymnastics over elite. Within USAG, your team often just feels like a group of girls you happen to do flips with in a gym multiple days a week- all trying to reach similar personal goals. Within high school and college gymnastics, however, your team is your family. If one person does well, everyone does well (and if one person falls on beam, EVERYONE does stair laps the next day).
If the Nassar case has shown us anything, it’s that there’s power and voice among fellow gymnasts when they support one another and lean into the strength of their bond. I believe that fostering this familial unity among athletes is imperative to the future of USA women’s gymnastics.
One of Mattie’s major complaints about the Karolyi Ranch in Texas was its isolation by design:
“There is an eerie feeling as soon as you step onto the Karolyi Ranch. It is completely removed from all civilization. In the case of an emergency, the closest hospital is so far away you’d need to be helicoptered there. To get to the ranch, you must drive up a dirt road for what seems like an eternity. And the closest civilization is a high-security prison 30 miles away. On top of that, there’s no cell service. It’s completely isolated, and that is no mistake. That is how the Karolyis wanted it.”
To me, the ranch’s isolation could be seen as mirroring the culture of isolation within USAG as a whole. The troubling mentality often instilled in USAG gymnasts early on is that you’re in gymnastics for yourself, and your biggest enemy IS yourself. You’re gaslighted into believing that the stress of any outside factor (however abusive) is merely just another internal test on whether or not you’re able to make it in this sport.
We have to be better. USA Gymnastics is at a turning point. I hope this historic moment compels those close to the case to take their sport back and rid the organization of abuse from the top down. To actively foster a supportive, team-based environment that prevents gymnasts from feeling like lone wolves. To set a clearer precedent for new-age gymnasts as to what constitutes normal coaching behavior, and to encourage young athletes to speak up right away if something feels out of line. To attract coaches who listen to their athletes and support & value their safety over anything else. As Mattie Larson so powerfully concluded in her victim impact statement:
“No accolade or award is worth enduring abuse. There is another way, a healthy and supportive way, to make champions.”