Gymnastics: The Sport Gasping for an Abuse Awakening


Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The average human turns on their television, and they see people at the Olympics doing skills in gymnastics that they have only contemplated in dreams. The Triple-Piked Backflip that Simone Biles — a world-class Olympian — does can shatter the minds of innumerable amounts of people, not to mention her record-breaking Triple-Double skill on the Floor Exercise that rewrote the history books. It is quite conspicuous that many individuals come off very impressed at the talent of the gymnasts to the point where it may inspire them to dip their feet into the sport. That seems like a positive to a majority of the population, but those people are unaware of an environment that was described by British Olympian Nile Wilson as a “culture of abuse.”

Countless numbers of readers, when absorbing the phrase “culture of abuse,” may be wondering: how could a sport be fundamentally broken at its most basic level and still be operating freely? The answer to this question lies in the fact that gymnastics, as a sport, takes much more commitment to follow compared to other activities like football. Football has seasons lasting a few months, and it gets wide media coverage nearly every minute of the day. Hence, its events are quite mainstream in everyday American talk. In contrast, the gymnastics season is year-round, which means that those who are not absorbed in the sport can easily lose track of what is happening. Even parents of young gymnasts find it difficult to watch their own children all the time because of the vast hours spent daily at the gymnastics complex. An astute reader would note that fact, because as they will see, that gap of watchful eyes will open the door to abuse at a gym-to-gym basis.


Why is it important to learn about abuse in a sport that most people rarely encounter?

It is common for people to choose to plead ignorance rather than have to learn about the gruesome experiences of many in a complicated sport that isn’t very popular. It is much easier, they say, to just leave the issue at the door. But what does that say about society, in particular American society? There are young children of all ages and genders out in a world that is unforgiving both emotionally and physically, and the fundamental abuse that they are extremely likely to encounter can negatively impact their lives for decades. Awareness, as always, is an exceptional tactic in the fight for the more perfect world, and adding the systematic abuse of today’s children to the thoughts of many would just be another step.  


A Bird’s Eye View of the “Culture of Abuse”

When talking to “60 Minutes” about Lawrence Nassar — the infamous Olympic-level gymnastics doctor who sexually abused hundreds of women — 2000 Olympic bronze-medalist Jamie Dantzscher said that Nassar was able to thrive partly due to the fact that the “yelling and screaming [from the coaches], that was, like, normal.” She described how Nassar exploited that fact and made himself seem like a “buddy” by showing levels of kindness. On its surface, that story is another disturbing fact to add to Nassar’s 175 years in prison. On a deeper look, however, one can see a sport that, at its core, will normalize abusive and damaging behavior to the extent that malevolent forces will seep in and implode the worlds of many. Based on her story, it is obvious that Dantzscher, and countless numbers of other gymnasts, must have become numb to abusive behavior at a young age. Hence, once those people have reached top-level gymnastics, the numbness will try to convince them that the abuse they have experienced is just part of the process to victory, no matter how emotionally and physically strained they were. 

It is not coaching irregularities that bring these maltreatments; they happen because the sport systematically allows it to happen. Even abroad, in countries like the United Kingdom, The New York Times found people like Lisa Mason, a British Olympian, who had stories of her coaches pouring rubbing alcohol on her raw wounds and scratching her when she did not perform perfectly. Her male counterpart, Nile Wilson, told BBC News in an interview about the medal-winning environment that had brushed his complaints of abuse “under the carpet.” In plain words he told them that the British governing body of gymnastics just “didn’t care” about potential cases of mistreatment.

Without a doubt, problems of the sport do not just rest at the top; they seep down methodically to the most local of gyms. Take the wisdom of Diego Arpino, a former top-level gymnast who was a gymnast at teams in Whippany and Mahwah for over a decade. In an interview, he describes that he has seen different types of systems for the interactions between athletes and coaches, with there either being a “master-servant relationship” or one that allows them to approach each other as equals. To him, it really takes an exceptional coach so that the coach and athlete can get to know each other on a personal as well as professional level. However, he believes that it is common for gymnasts and coaches to create “a hostile environment where nobody understands each other and they don’t like each other because of [that environment].” 


A New York City Gymnastics Complex With at Least 30 People Claiming Abuse From a Single Coach

Fifty-one minutes from Morris Hills High School, in lower Manhattan, lies the gymnastics team of Chelsea Piers. Located on the banks of the Hudson River, the team is one of the most recognizable names from New York City partly due to its 23,000 square foot training facility. In a taint to its image, Chelsea Piers was once the home of Chris McClain — a now-suspended women’s gymnastics coach accused of abuse at a multitude of levels.

McClain was confronted with abuse claims thanks to the work of former Chelsea Piers gymnast Sarah Allen. In 2018, Allen first made her claims public in an informal letter charging McClain with emotionally abusing young athletes for their eating habits and mental abilities. A more formal complaint against McClain, reviewed by The New York Times, affirmed her previous letter and described specific instances of abuse. Allan claimed that McClain repeatedly called gymnasts “worthless” and “disgusting” as well as contributed to the development of multiple eating and anxiety disorders of her athletes. Notably, she tells The New York Times that “[a mistake] was blown up into you as a person are flawed and you’re not going to succeed in life and you’re not talented and you’re not going anywhere in life.” The young age of the athletes, Allan believes, made them susceptible to what they were told.

McClain has been suspended by USA Gymnastics — the governing body of American gymnastics — as well as Chelsea Piers because of the allegations. The quick action against McClain was partly due to the fact that Allan’s assertions rang true with at least 30 of her fellow former gymnasts, making it, according to USA Gymnastics, one of the biggest emotional abuse scandals that the governing body has ever seen.

From this specific instance of abuse, a parent of one of the gymnasts claiming mistreatment had a warning for the parents of future gymnasts. He told The New York Times that not only should parents not blindly trust the coaches, but they should raise alarms if their children come home crying. Recalling an interaction with McClain to the Times, he describes how he confronted McClain about his daughter coming home from practice crying and how he got an answer that he deemed acceptable. He seemed to regret trusting that answer, because in that same interview, he states that the movement against McClain is so vast that “[i]t’s going to be like #MeToo.”


A New Jersey Gymnastics Team Built From an Abusive Environment

Former MG Elite coach Maggie Haney has trained multiple Olympian-level gymnasts like 2016 balance beam silver-medalist Laurie Hernandez and Olympic-hopeful Riley McCusker out of the Monmouth Gymnastics complex in Morganville, New Jersey. What to note about Haney is that she is actually not an USA Gymnastics-sanctioned or approved coach anymore because of a widely-publicized eight year ban from USA Gymnastics that bloomed from declarations of abuse.

In the claims against Haney, a wide variety of her gymnasts made many assertions against her. Laurie Hernandez, who was mentioned above, gave testimony to the USA Gymnastics panel presiding over Haney’s hearing, while Riley McCusker submitted a letter of testimony to the panel, per the Orange County Register. For the rest of the gymnasts who said that they were subjected to Haney’s abuse, they shared their stories of what they experienced to other coaches like Karen Goeller. The people told Goeller that Haney forced the gymnasts to remove any casts they had on and train on those broken limbs. They also said that they were forbidden to tell anyone what happened at MG Elite, causing the athletes to become “afraid to speak up,” according to Goeller. 

After hearing the claims of the former gymnasts of Haney, Goeller submitted a report of misconduct to USA Gymnastics in May 2019. However, it is ambiguous when USA Gymnastics started to investigate the claims after receiving the report, and Haney was still able to coach at national team camps when she was being investigated. Not only that, but she was coaching at the Pan-American Games in Lima a few months after the report was submitted. 

In the terms of her eight year ban, Haney can not have contact with any minor in the sport, and she is banned from coaching at USA Gymnastics member clubs for eight years. After the eight years, she has to go on a two-year probationary period. Her assistant coach, Victoria Levine, also received a suspension from USA Gymnastics that bars her from unsupervised contact with minors.

Per images gathered by the Orange County Register, it is known that Haney has potentially been violating her ban by coming within close enough proximity to the gymnasts that she could be coaching them. An image posted on the Orange County Register website shows Haney running with two other young people at the MG Elite site in July 2020, whose identities were confirmed by parents at MG Elite. USA Gymnastics has received complaints about Haney’s potential violations, but no action has been taken. 


Fundamental Flaws Need Fixing, But How Will Society React?

At least up until now, American society has tolerated abuse in all sorts of places in the name of winning. In the Cold War, it was about getting a victory home, not checking to make sure what they were doing would not lead to the collapse of democracy in the region. Today, Americans are watching their representatives at the Olympics Games win the gold, but not thinking twice about how they got there. The ignorance of the American people has opened the gateways to abuse at a dystopian-level, and the only antidote to the toxin that they are being fed is just pure knowledge.