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May 03

The Dirty – Not-so-little – Secret in Coaching – Part II

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Sports in the Aesthetic Group

I reported on the abuse within Beginner Sports in February. I decided then to present my personal reflection on sport in the March News, i.e., what sport is supposed to be and what it really has become or is. 

The April Newsletter deals with Part II, elite artistic gymnastics, elite figure skating, elite rhythmic sportive, and Ballet. As I did the research I began to realize that this would be a fairly lengthy report due to the gravity of the abuse that was and still is rampant. The intention is to send a warning to parents to become more aware and cognizant, and to scrutinize more closely the sport of their child’s involvement. 

I will report on the abuse in numerous other sports, college/university varsity programs, professional teams and professional athletes in the June Newsletter as we all need some happier and more uplifting news next month! 

Elite Sport Clubs and their Link to College/University Teams make abuse more likely

Compared to European countries, many elite sports clubs in the US and Canada tend to be associated with College or University Varsity programs to act as a so-called ‘feeder system.’ These athletes are said to benefit from the available coaching expertise at these institutions but many times the high annual fees support existing programs as additional income. The idea is to get younger or teen athletes acquainted with the specific system, the program philosophy, the coaching staff, and mandates in order to make recruiting into the program easier at a later time. This may be true to a certain degree but it undoubtedly limits an athlete’s prospects for athletic scholarships somewhere else. The ‘dark’ side of this ‘cozy’ arrangement is the doctors, physiotherapists, and trainers, etc., associated with these programs, which opens up the potential for emotional, physical, psychological, and sexual abuse by any person on that staff, as evidenced over the past years. 

Lack of Mandatory National Coaching Certification and Unified Control

The USA lacks the common coaching certification program and unified USA national coaching organization as each sport operates presently on its own. For comparison, the Canadian National Coaching Association and its Professional Charter Coach (CHPC) system requires the National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP) for all coaches – no matter the sport – and subsequently has control over the current 58 National Sports Federations. That does however not guarantee that coaching abuse might not occur but Coaching Canada has at least more control and can take action.

Sport Journalist Joan Ryan (1995, 2000) states that coaches in artistic gymnastics, and figure skating as well as Head Masters in classical ballet usually lack the education about growth and development of young athletes as many enrol at the tender age of 6-8 years, knowledge of psychology, mental training, periodization of training cycles, injury prevention and recovery. Most coaches usually are former competitors or dancers, and continue in the ‘traditional modus’ (the way they were trained), or have never been involved in the sport, now trying to make a ‘living’ based on their coaching success. On the other hand, elite coaches like Béla and Martha Károlyi arrived from former Eastern European Romania to continue their brutal coaching methods and harsh training regimes in the USA with the blessing of USA Gymnastics. They have been responsible for physical, emotional, and psychological abuse of many young and elite gymnasts leading to suicide attempts, death due to eating disorders and starvation (Ryan, 1995, 2000).

The Aesthetic Group: 

“Merciless coaching, overzealous parents, eating disorders, and elusive Olympic dreams!”

Let’s begin with USA Artistic Gymnastics because of the recent overwhelming scandals – primarily minors at the time of the incidents – that were ‘swept under the rug’ (starting in the late 1990s). More than 265 gymnasts alleged in 2019 to have been sexually assaulted by gym owners, coaches or staff working for gymnastics programs across the country. Particularly, long-time USA Gymnastics (USAG) national team doctor Larry Nassar has been named in hundreds of lawsuits filed by athletes, who said that he engaged in sexual abuse for at least 14 years under pretence of providing medical treatment. The Indianapolis Star first reported the scandal in September 2016 of more than 265 women, who accused Nassar of sexually assaulting them. It is one of the largest sexual abuse scandals in recent sports history.

Artistic Gymnastics – Figure Skating – Ballet – Rhythmic Sportive

Artistic gymnastics, figure skating, ballet, and rhythmic sportive pretty much share the same ‘evil.’ Rigorous daily training methods anywhere from 6-8 hours per day, laced with physical and verbal abuse, strict dieting regulations, and the common use of diuretic pills to lose weight ‘drive many performers to anorexia nervosa (sport anorexia) and bulimia to maintain the perfect ‘slim’ body shape.

Artistic Gymnastics:

The following anecdotal reports and testimony by elite gymnasts offer the reader greater insight into the abuse that persisted for a long time, and was conveniently ‘kept quiet’ in the pursuit of USA Olympic medals. The scandals are absolutely devastating as the action by coaches violates the #1 ethical principle: Safety for athletes in training and competition; it is abuse of coaching power, and a lack of ethical standards! Never mind, that these gymnasts have to deal with the scars for the rest of their lives… in the name of sport!

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Gymnast Jennifer Sey: “Chalked Up” (2008)

About Family Interaction

…About my brother: We no longer spent time together because I was always at the gym. I retreated into a very serious world void of play, and it created a divide. We just didn’t share a life stage – childhood any more. My focus became so narrow at such a young age that I don’t remember much of anything but the gym (p. 49)…

…The gym was our family center of existence. Either Chris (brother) and I were training, with Mom working the desk, or we were driving to meets on weekends or pitching in to raise money for the Gym’s booster club. For my Mom, and me everything started and ended at the gym. Chris participated in this dizzying schedule of events but without the same obsessive tendencies. My Dad was on the periphery of the whole affair, as he was hard at work at his pediatric clinic to pay for all this. But the gym took over my Mom’s life as it took over mine (pp. 81-82)…

…When I told my mother that I would not attend the upcoming championships and that I was going to call it quits, she threatened back. She wouldn’t attend my high school graduation. She would in essence disavow our relationship. Complete and total rejection! I was a failure (pp. 263-265)…

…But my Mom had dedicated every waking moment to my young career, and my Dad was complicit. He had let her forsake their marriage in giving herself over to my gymnastics. His silent acquiescence provided approval and he couldn’t go back. Her mistakes were his as well. Their transition from supportive and proud Mom and Dad to emotionally neglectful stage parent was quiet and seamless (pp. 259-260)…

About Mental – Psychological – Emotional Abuse – Stress and Anxiety

…Weekly weigh-in was required, starting at the age of 8 years, and the practice was carried forward to elite daily training and training camps. Coach Patrick shrieked obscenities when a gymnast failed to perform, slapping their bare legs if they paused before attacking their skills (pp. 51-52) …

About Self-Infliction 

…I was only 10 years old when I began to inflict pain on myself to relieve the constant and growing uneasiness. When I started to compete, I also started gnawing at the inside of my mouth. If I did it consistently enough for a long enough time, the patch would turn red and sore. Now the nibbling could begin. I’d peel away layers of skin with my teeth. Once a blister formed, the chomping could begin. My lips would then swell with greenish-yellow bulbous cankers. On the eve of one State championship, I chewed so hard and so long that my bottom lip swelled to twice the size, difficult to explain to my mother.

I began to pull at the skin around my fingernails, the cuticles. I’d tear at the skin, hard from the drying chalk. My skin was so dry I could pull big chunks without peeling the skin beyond; it didn’t peel; it came off in hunks, leaving holes. The habit was easy enough to hide from my mom if I kept my hands in my lap, tucked between my legs while we drove to practice (pp. 74-82)…

About Coaches

Jennifer trained under several coaches at various training centers throughout her career

…Those most decorated – the ones who led nationally prominent teams and coached Olympians – were notoriously aggressive and mean. The founder of a national prominent West coast club was rumored to hit his girls. They talked of how he slapped his gymnasts’ thighs when they didn’t stick their beam routines during practice.

Every other girl knew someone who knew someone who’d trained there, experiencing the abuse firsthand. Bill Sands of the Mid-American Twisters exploded during competition unleashing his frustration when he felt his investment had been squandered due to a careless fall on the beam or a stumble on the floor. It was said that the Strausses, a husband and wife team and founders of the Allentown Parkettes, withheld food from their gymnasts as many boarded at this nationally competitive club, unprotected by parental proximity. Gymnasts were punished for weight gain – as were their adoptive hosts – with emotional abuse and name-calling. They too took on the demeanor of those Eastern European coaches, who trained the world’s best, aspiring to Károlyi’s greatness, confident they’d produce the perfect Nadia Comaneci if they mimicked his approach.

They were notoriously rough on their girls. They screamed and cursed, threw things. It was rumored that coaches slapped a girl or two. Beyond the mere talk of abuse, the Strauss coaches’ rigor when it came to weight was notorious. Weight gain meant more workouts, running and jumping swathed in a rubber sweat suit designed to burn off unsightly pounds. And, of course there was shame. Many parents were banned from the gym entirely. Coaches rationalized that the girls could not focus – more likely they knew that they should hide their behaviors (pp. 143-154)…

…Gary Goodson came to our gym, a traveling consultant, self-proclaimed gymnastics guru, who came 3x per year for special training sessions. He was angry, and mean to young girls. I always chewed a nickel-size hole into the side of my mouth, which eventually grew to the size of a quarter by the time of his departure. He called me ‘Dough Girl’ as I lacked the muscular shape of his favorite gymnast.

Often my hands were sore or torn from too much friction on the bars the day before. If they hurt when I woke, I dreaded the day. If I stepped out of bed and felt my ankles throb as my feet hit the floor, it was confirmed my workout would be something to get through – it would be all I could manage to not hurt myself. A bad day at the gym was never like a bad day for a swimmer – my times wouldn’t just be slower – it was possible that I would land on my head or break my neck. I could conceivably die.

Tracy Hinkle, fully healed from her head injury at a competition in Reno had left her coach, known as Coach Bruno. She had joined the Parkettes. The Strausses were rumored to be much kinder but they hid their missteps more skillfully. Bill now known as a ‘loose cannon’ made a scandalous scene, screaming foul epithets. ‘Stupid little bitch’, slapping the gymnast’s (named Heather) back of the legs when she could not stay on the bars. Her parents cheered from the stands shrugging off Bill’s behavior. After all, she brought it on herself with her imperfection (pp. 51-66)…

About my Body Growing Up

…I knew I had to achieve very quickly in order to beat the menacing development of my own body. I had to break into the top six before puberty and curves, and weight made it nearly impossible for me to fly through the air (p. 123)…

…I was reeling toward depression, out-of control compulsive disordered eating and self-loathing. I was surely most days disappointed with my performance during practice, pained by injuries, or anxious about my weight. All of the reasons I’d started gymnastics had disappeared. It was no longer fun. I wasn’t developing a healthy body, mind or sense of self-esteem. Now there was only winning. And my mother left me to my own devices. She left me to defend myself against the coaches who had only victory in mind (p. 201)…

About the Károlyi Camp

…I had been injured for almost one year (hamstring) and I begged my Mom to enroll me at Béla Károlyi’s camp in Houston. The workout lasted about 8 hours per day but he was nowhere to be found during the camp sessions. His other coaches had no qualms about our qualifications to try reckless moves. If a gymnast landed on her head, broke a bone, tore a ligament, so what? Coaches hurled insults at gymnasts on the other side of the gym (national team members) such as ‘You look like a scrawny chicken! You’re a fat pig!’ (pp. 137-138). By the way, Nadia Comaneci, Béla’s famous gymnast suffered from anorexia and bulimia because of his dictating the eating and supervising her habits… 

About Hiding Away

…The federation officials are calling to see whether I will attend the upcoming world Championships. I had qualified months before my body retreated, refusing me in the only thing I’ve ever known. I pretended to work out. I drive to the gym, arriving later and later with every week that passes. I consider not going to practice, sitting in the small parking lot and eating trail mix with sickly yoghurt almonds and dried pineapple until my throat is coated with sugar. I feel like I’m going to vomit. I don’t throw up; I swallow laxatives instead. I finally arrived at the gym. 

I am eighteen. But I feel like I am a hundred years old, my body aches. I am so tired. I gave up food before practice entirely. Oddly, the limited food intake and enhanced purging fuelled my energy. I learned to take the shaky light headedness of hunger as an energetic quality. There was the constant: “Jesus, Sey! I don’t coach fat gymnasts.” I started to buy laxatives at the convenient store near our house and hid them in other products such as Band-Aids and baby powder. I often felt like crashing the car veering across the median as I drove the highway. I fell into depression, which took a year to diminish its intensity. I was 3 days into my diet of apples, grapes and Ex-lax. I fell off the beam and hit my head – blood on my fingers, and I fell back into the mat. I had cut my head, broken a few fingers, probably a concussion – and had trials coming up (pp. 159-160; p. 193-204; p. 270)…

About Judges and Their Political System

…Gymnastics is not, and never has been, about who is objectively “the best.” Politics loom large. Judges have favorite girls. Most judges have some club affiliation. They are hired to consult, to judge practice competitions. They develop an affinity for those girls in whom they invested. Audrey Schweyer, a judge, who consulted for our team, had shown her disgust a week earlier during a visit. “You really shouldn’t wear your hair that way anymore. It makes your face look fat. And you know, doing gymnastics at your weight is like doing it with a 10-pound bag of sugar strapped to your back” (pp.176-178; p. 260)…

About Today (2000)

… Feelings of failure follow me. Not failure itself but the feeling. I could not accept my post-gymnastics body. My beaten ankles shock with every step across the pavement. The balls of my feet, permanently bruised, ache with every stride.  My knees grind and creak each time I rise from a chair. My back shoots sciatic reminders down my legs. My hands are swollen and stiff each morning because of arthritis and a disorder called ‘trigger fingers.’ The repercussions of this sport are endless (pp. 273-275)… 

Note: Jennifer Sey is an American writer, business executive. She began competing in gymnastics at the age of six and went on to become a seven-time member of the United States national team. She graduated from Stanford and lives in San Francisco with her husband and two sons.

Gymnast Rachel Haines: “Abused. Surviving Sexual Assault and a Toxic Gymnastics Culture” (2019)

Rachel Haines had no idea that one day she would become a two-time National Team member, 2-time National Champion, and Division I gymnast at the University of Minnesota. Nor could she have known that she had just signed herself up for serious injury, emotional distress, and continuous assault by renowned trainer turned molester Larry Nasser.

She details her experiences as a competitive gymnast and the painful realities of being one of Nasser’s many victims. She shares her story of how the sport is tangled in a dangerous toxic culture that needs to be fixed. In a world that was setting her up for a lifetime of recovery, she tells how faith, family, and an army of survivors made healing possible.

…I was fourteen years old when Larry told me he was doing an “internal manipulation” on me. He told me pain in a tight hamstring could sometimes be lessened if the muscles around it relaxed. He said this would require “internal massaging.” He was not asking for permission to perform his treatment, he was more giving me a warning of what was coming. I still never said NO. I didn’t tell him to stop when I felt like I wanted to puke from discomfort. At fourteen years old, part of me knew something wasn’t right, but I never told him I wasn’t going to let him do it anymore. He continued to perform manipulations on me until my hamstring felt normal again (p. 19). The young gymnast would therefore distrust her own feelings of alarm and discomfort when a doctor slides his fingers in her vagina and anus (p. 4)…

…I left the meet exhausted – emotionally, physically, and mentally drained. I was so happy to be done, and I was beyond ready to heal. When I got home, I finally went to the hospital and got an X-ray and MRI. I had three fractures in my lumbar spine. My MRI looked terrible. It had fractures everywhere, discs slipped forward, and discs bulging far into my spinal cord. The slipped discs were the likely cause of my back pain before the back tuck. I had literally shattered my spine with one backflip. You need a very invasive spine fusion surgery that will make it impossible to come back to gymnastics. You won’t be able to control your bladder when you’re thirty if you keep doing gymnastics. I ignored the doctors (p. 33)…

…I was slowly working back from my injury. Larry was gradually letting me do more gymnastics as he continued to work with me as my “physical therapist.” I was seeing him every Monday, and sometimes one or more times a week either at his house or at his office at Michigan State. I fed off everything he told me. I was obeying him because he held all the power to control what I was allowed to do. I was his obedient puppet (pp. 43-44)…

…My spine felt my nerves the morning I woke up for Nationals. I could feel every muscle tighter than usual, squeezing the fractures in my spine. I took a larger dose of my pain meds than I usually did. Before warm-up had even started the College coaches were in their seats already taking notes. It always felt like an animal state-fair – a show animal performing for them. They even went so far as to mark ‘purchased’ or not with different colored dots on our numbers. I hoped I was not the only one to be sickened by the feeling of being an auctioned animal (pp. 49-50)…

…Transitioning from Club to College gymnastics is difficult. It was intimidating to go from living with my parents straight to having my own apartment. I was up from 5:30 AM to 11:00 PM for school and practice.  Larry convinced the coaches that I was stable. He told them that my back wasn’t getting worse and as long as I could stand the pain I was able to do the sport. He offered up his suggestions for therapy and sent over sheets upon sheets of rehab exercises. For some reason, he never mentioned his “internal manipulation” to my therapists as a source of relief. I wondered why he wanted to keep that a secret. I know that if I had just asked my new trainers (2 women) if they knew about the treatment, the abuse could have been brought to light a lot sooner (pp. 63-65)…

…September 12, 2016, four months after my gymnastics career ended, my world came crashing down. “Larry Nasser, sexual assailant.” I felt his bare, un-gloved hands violating me. I felt the way my body was cringed in discomfort. I was being hunted by Larry Nasser. My body had been used as a sex toy by a man thirty years older than me (pp. 95-99)…

…Before this book, my statement was not released to the public. I was known only as victim 195… 

February 14, 2020, Lansing, Michigan

…A former coach accused of failing to stop Larry Nassar’s abuse decades ago is now on trial, accused of lying about what she knew of the doctor’s sexual misconduct. Kathie Klages was convicted on felony and misdemeanor counts of lying to authorities during their investigation into serial sexual abuser of former Michigan State University physician Larry Nassar. Klages could face up to four years in prison.

Joan Ryan

Sport Reporter Joan Ryan, Reporter San Francisco Chronicle: “Little Girls In Pretty Boxes: The Making And Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters” (1995, 2000)

Joan was a pioneer in sports journalism, becoming one of the first female sports columnists in the country. She covered every major sporting event from the Super Bowl and the World Series to the Olympics and championship fights. Her sports columns and features earned 13 Associated Press Sports Editors Awards, the National Headliner Award, and the Women’s Sports Foundation’s Journalism Award, among other honors. 

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Her first book, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters (1995, Doubleday) was a controversial, ground-breaking expose that Sports Illustrated named one of the Top 100 Sports Books of All Time. It was one of the Top 50 Sports Books of All Time in the Guardian newspaper in London. The Sporting News chose it as one of the top three sportsbooks of 1995. Little Girls changed the sport of gymnastics. Responding to the media attention prompted by the book, USA Gymnastics developed a handbook for parents informing them about the potential pitfalls of the sport on the elite level, such as eating disorders, serious injuries, and abusive coaches. “Little Girls” has been widely used in sports sociology classes at colleges and universities.

Media Reviews of Ryan’s Book

…Ryan’s findings are sad and devastating…as vital and troubling as the sports world has seen in a long time (Philadelphia Inquirer)

…Haunting exposé…shows how coaches and others have exploited young gymnasts and figure skaters, leading to anorexia, emotional breakdowns, and at least 2 deaths (Cleveland Plain Dealer)…

…The real world happens away from the cameras, at the training camps, and in the private lives of these talented teenage competitors. From starvation diets and debilitating injuries to the brutal tactics of tyrannical gymnastics guru Béla Károlyi, Ryan portrays the horrors endured by girls at the hands of their coaches and sometimes of their own families. The ground-breaking book shows how a longstanding culture of abuse made young gymnasts perfect targets for a sexual predator and continues to plead for sanity, safety, and an end to our national obsession of ‘winning at all cost’ (The Guardian, UK)…

Joan Ryan

Foreword to the Book on Artistic Gymnastics

…“Do it for America pressure”… Gymnast Karen Reid. I hated my days off because it meant my horrible life would be starting all over again the next day. “If it isn’t bleeding, don’t worry” (p. xvi)…

…Olympic medalist Betty Okino training with knee injury under Béla – he thought I was faking. I took Advil twice a day to dull the pain (p. xvi)…

…Olympic gymnast Wendy Bruce had many cortisone shots over the years just to be able to compete. I learned how to work through my injuries because I felt I had no choice. After all, I was not a quitter. I trained and competed on stone bruises on my heels; with plantar fasciitis so painful I could not even stand on a carpet; my hips going out of alignment on a daily basis; sprained ankles, broken toes, fractures in my back, and torn cartilage in my wrist and ankles. 

I remember practicing my round-off triple full dismount on a beam one day when the pain in my wrist got so bad that my body wouldn’t allow me to work through it anymore. Every time I did it I would automatically make a fist. I was terrified that this would make me miss my footing and injure myself even more badly. I finally told my coaches who would not believe me. They shouted at me for what seemed like hours. A couple of months later I had surgery on my wrist to clean out the torn cartilage (p. xvi)…

…People often ask how Larry Nassar could get away with this for so long. Only in an environment in which abuse of all kinds is normalized could sexual abuse on this scale happen. It requires the gymnasts’ well-practiced silence and the adults’ dereliction of responsibility. It requires a culture that prized Olympic medals over the well-being of the young athletes striving to win them (p. xxi)…

…On a Monday morning in January 2018, twenty-five-year-old Mattie Larson stepped up and described the rot at the core of USA Gymnastics that enabled the abuse to happen. For her, this corrosive, demeaning culture played out nowhere more brutally than at monthly training camps national team members were required to attend. The camps were held at Béla and Martha Károlyi’s ranch. It was a breathtakingly unsafe environment for young, compliant, driven girls: no parents allowed, limited access to food, pressure to train through injuries, and an expectation of blind obedience to coaches along with mute acceptance of their bullying and humiliation…

…Nasser, who had been on USAG’s medical staff and its team physician since 1997, had unfettered access to the girls’ cabins. He molested them in their own beds with no other adult present, under the guise of medical treatment. Over the course of two decades, he molested gymnasts as young as nine years old at gyms, training centers, and competitions sanctioned by USA Gymnastics (p. 2)…

…She said she had been scheduled to fly to Texas the next day for the monthly camp. She described how she splashed water on the bathroom, battered the back of her head against the tub’s edge again and again until she felt a lump. She told her parents she slipped getting out of the shower. They took her to the hospital and canceled the trip. I was willing to hurt myself to get out of the abuse I received at the Béla ranch (p. 2)…

Ryan 

The first edition (1995) describes the physical and psychological damage inflicted by ‘tunnel vision’ parents, dictatorial coaches, and willfully blind federation officials. In my research, I found a culture as destructive, secretive, and indifferent to the athletes’ well-being as any I had seen in my years as a sports journalist. Elite gymnastics strips away a girl’s connection to her own body and mind as she is groomed from a young age to distrust what her body and mind are telling her. When she’s in too much pain to train, her coach says she’s lazy. When she is hungry, he says she’s too fat and eats too much. When she is too exhausted or one more high-risk vault, she’s a loser. She comes to understand that her own feelings and perceptions not only are unreliable, they don’t matter. Her pain is dismissed. Her hunger is dismissed. Her exhaustion is dismissed. To fit into elite gymnastics’ reality a gymnast has to deny her own. She becomes an expert at withstanding all manner of insult to her body. She doesn’t complain or make waves. She is the perfect target for sexual predators like Larry Nassar (pp. 3-4)…

…My first edition, which criticized elite gymnastics’ brutal training and its severe emotional and physical consequences on young women, prompted widespread and scathing criticism of the federation, coaches, and parents. But the outrage didn’t stick. The notion of broken bodies and psyches, eating disorders and suicide attempts didn’t square with Americans’ perception of the ponytailed pixies (pp. 4-5)… 

…The shine of gold medals and the sparkle of celebrity obscured the fact that the USAG was still employing the abusive Béla Károlyi, whose harmful training methods were brought to public attention in the first edition of my book. In 1996, the USAG made his wife Martha the head coach for the women’s Olympic team; they made Béla the national team coordinator in 1999, and then handed it back to Martha in 2001, and she held the job through 2016. The federation made the ranch the official training center for the US teams. In 2011, USAG doubled down on their embrace of the Károlyis, eliminating any doubt that it valued winning over the health and safety of its gymnasts (p. 6)…

…Christie Philips on Károlyi: He’s in it for himself. He doesn’t care about the gymnasts. He doesn’t care what they go through, what they suffer through, what he makes them suffer through. He cares about the fame and fortune he’s getting out of it. When we’re at competitions and on TV, and he has a microphone on, he’s a different person. That is what the public sees but he is really the exact opposite (p. 129)…

  • Note: at the 1996 Olympics Béla made Kerri Strugg take her final vault despite an injured ankle, claiming the team needed her score. They did not and she landed her vault on an injured ankle. Béla proceeded to carry her in her arms like a ‘loving father’ in a disgusting move that those of us who knew the score tally at that time – and of course the Media loved it! (Schloder)
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Oh, so caring for the TV image! 

A day before the Opening Ceremony for the 2016 Olympics in Rio, the Indianapolis Star published an explosive investigative story that would take down both Nassar and the power structure at USAG, although the reports didn’t know about Nassar yet. The story detailed USAG’s gross mishandling of sexual misconduct complaints against dozens of male coaches. 

Thus most of the accused men continued to coach young girls, and some continued to molest them. USAG did nothing, For example, Marvin Sharpe, 2010 Women’s coach of the year, was charged four years later with abusing a twelve-year-old girl, and killed himself in jail (pp. 6-7)…

…In Louisville, Kentucky, a thirty-two-year-old woman, Rachel Denhollander, read the Star’s story. She had been molested when she was fifteen years old at a gymnastics club affiliated with Michigan State University. She wrote a letter to the newspaper. Her abuser was not a coach but instead the well-known athletic department physician and faculty member, Larry Nassar. Jamie Dantzscher, who competed at the 2000 Olympics had been molested by the USAG doctor beginning in 1994 when she was twelve years old. Like Denhollander, she worried about the backlash as she had been sharply denounced by both the gymnastics community and some reporters for daring to criticize the brutal and demeaning tactics of the great Béla Károlyi (p. 6)…

… So how, eighteen years later could more than 250 of USAG’s female gymnasts have been sexually abused by the federation’s own doctor? As of January 2018, a total of 265 women had joined ranks (pp. xxi; p. 9)…

…Rachel and Jamie did an interview with the Star about USAG ignoring sexual abuse allegations against at least 50 coaches (p. xx)…

On Deaths

Gymnasts – Dancers

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Death in artistic gymnastics and ballet due to self-induced starvation and rampant eating disorders are linked to the mandated ‘slim body’ image. Though Christy Henrich was succeeding in gymnastics, a judge at an international meet in 1989 told her bluntly that she was ‘fat and needed to lose weight.’ The perception of Henrich’s weight being too high was fueled further by the culture of elite gymnastics, which was dominated by “pixies” – small, underweight, prepubescent girls. 

Her own coach, Al Fong, coach of the late Julissa Gomez, who also reportedly felt pushed into doing something unsafe for her health when she kept attempting the difficult-to-master Yurchenko vault until she was rendered quadriplegic in a vaulting accident – had also allegedly made insulting remarks about her size and body type. Desperate to move up the ranks in the highly competitive world of Olympic-level gymnastics, Henrich took the criticisms to heart; her drive to lose a few pounds progressed to unhealthy eating habits and, eventually, became full-blown anorexia nervosa.

*Note: In the Yurchenko vault, the gymnast does a round-off onto the springboard and a back handspring onto the horse or vaulting table. The gymnast then performs a salto, which may range in difficulty from a simple single tuck to a triple twist layout. The Yurchenko gave birth to a new vault group called “Round off with or without 1/2 to 1/1 turn (180-360 degrees) in entry phase (Yurchenko entry) – Salto forward or backward with or without long axis turn in second flight phase.

**Note: The vault has resulted in several deaths and broken backs (Schloder). Houston, Texas, U.S. Julissa D’Anne Gomez (November 4, 1972 – August 8, 1991) was an American gymnast whose rapid rise through the ranks of elite gymnastics in the mid-1980s was cut short by a vaulting accident in 1988 that left her a quadriplegic. She eventually died from her injury.

…Henrich: I know I need to eat. I know I need the nutrition. I know I need to live. But food is like poison to me (p. 104). At first, neither her family nor her coaches were aware of the situation. Eventually, her battle with anorexia took such a toll on her health that she was no longer strong enough to compete. Despite many early treatments and hospitalizations, her weight deteriorated to 47 pounds. Henrich died of multiple organ failure on July 26, 1994. She wanted to get well, marry her boyfriend Bo, move to Florida, work as a nurse, and have children (p. 104)…

Her parents: They stole her soul (p 105)… 

… The entire male USAG board had to resign. In July 2017, Nassar was sentenced to 60 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to child pornography charges. On January 24, 2018, Nassar was sentenced to 175 years in a Michigan state prison after pleading guilty to seven counts of sexual assault of minors. On February 5, 2018, he was sentenced to an additional 40 to 125 years in prison after pleading guilty to an additional three counts of sexual assault. His state prison sentences are to run consecutively with his federal sentence, all but assuring that he will die in prison…

The Aftermath

…Henrich’s death brought the problem of eating disorders in women’s gymnastics into the spotlight. Gymnasts such as Kathy Johnson (did not menstruate until age 26) and Cathy Rigby admitted to having periods of disordered eating that resembled anorexia and bulimia, and other U.S. National Team gymnasts stepped forward, and went public about their own eating disorders and disordered eating… 

Dominique Moceany: “Off balance: A memoir” (2013). 

In this riveting New York Times bestseller, Olympic gold medalist Dominique Moceanu reveals the dark underbelly of Olympic gymnastics, the true price of success, and the shocking secret about her past and her family that she only learned years later. 

At fourteen years old, Dominique Moceanu was the youngest member of the 1996 US Women’s Olympic Gymnastics team, the first and only American women’s team to take gold at the Olympics. Her pixyish appearance and ferocious competitive drive quickly earned her the status of media darling. But behind the fame, the flawless floor routines, and the million-dollar smile, her life was a series of challenges and hardships.

Off Balance vividly delineates each of the dominating characters, who contributed to Moceanu’s rise to the top, from her stubborn father and long-suffering mother to her mercurial coach, Béla Károlyi. Here, Moceanu finally shares the haunting stories of competition, her years of hiding injuries and pain out of fear of retribution from her coaches, and how she hit rock bottom after a public battle with her parents. But medals, murder plots, drugs, and daring escapes aside, the most unique aspect of her life is the family secret that Moceanu discovers that she has a second sister – born with a physical disability and given away at birth. 

Schloder

There is so much more to report but it takes a ‘strong stomach’ to cover these books. I am furious that a National Federation let these events happen to its young athletes destroying their lives forever.

I have one serious question: if schools are so worried nowadays about gender ideology, bathroom issues, etc., why have school health officials failed to offer a health curriculum on body image, eating disorders, depression and suicide (increasing among the young), and sexual abuse. As a former elite athlete, I would have never let a team physician examine me the way Nassar did! But then I was always a rebel, and walked away from an offer to sleep with the Regional Head coach to make the select team… And the whole town wondered what happened to Schloder. Only my mother knew. There was no recourse way back then!

Figure Skating

Ryan

…In truth, the perfect skater is a combination of Twiggy and Barbie, thin enough to perform the difficult jumps and desirable enough to fit skating’s cover-girl image (p. 107)…

…One Olympic skater, who requested anonymity, recalls days on end when she ate one can of asparagus and a frozen diet dinner and drank a dozen cups of coffee and diet Coke in a quest to fit her coach’s image of the perfect skating body (p. 108)…

…For weeks before a competition, skaters would starve themselves, holding on to the thought of bingeing when they finished competing. We lived for food (p. 108)…

Schlots:Users:monikaschloder:Desktop:gabby-daleman.jpeg

…One of Michele Kwan’s coaches, Evelyn Kramer is a maverick among skating coaches; she has a Masters degree in psychology. She knows about the interplay between weight and self-esteem. She says every female skater she’s ever known, has had eating disorders. She knows a Russian ice dancer who had her teeth capped because they had been eroded by the acid in her vomit.  She knows of an Olympic medalist who began pulling her hair out as she battled bulimia (p. 110) 

…Elaine Zayak at age 15 was the new rising star. She dropped out of 9th grade to train 7 days a week, 6 hours a day. Then something happened. She grew up. She fell 3x at the US championships and finished third. The failure rattled her parents and coaches, and nearly paralyzed Elaine. She pleaded to her parents: ‘don’t make me go out there and make a fool out of myself.’ Elaine’s mother cried and her father went to a bar! (p. 116)… 

…Elaine couldn’t open the refrigerator door without her parents quizzing her. She tried Weight Watchers and Diet Center. She biked. She hired a nutritionist. Her coaches weighed her every week, exhorting her to lose more. She tried amphetamines, given to her by her classmate. She succeeded only in making herself sick (p. 117)…

…Her sport was all about control: coaches’ control, parents’ control, physical control, and emotional control. Her coaches could order her back into training; her parents could take away her car; they could forbid her to date; they could dictate everything in her life – but they couldn’t dictate what she ate. Eating was a rebellion, but it was also a refuge (p. 117)…

…Because she couldn’t eat at home, she stuffed herself at convenience stores, and delicatessens. Once, when she tried to buy a bagel and cream cheese, the man behind the counter wouldn’t serve her: ‘Coaches’ order.’ Coaches had instructed him to only sell her tea and coffee. She drove to the 7-11 store down the road, bought a pint of ice cream and ate it in the parking lot (p. 117)…

…She dropped out of skating, doing ice shows but inevitably her parents and coaches wore her down and she returned to the rink. Her weight had climbed to 125 pounds. You gain weight because you’re physically a woman. My father didn’t understand that. He goes: ‘that’s bullshit’ (p. 117)…

New York Times

September 27, 2019

In a statement, U.S. Figure Skating said it “supports the skater, who bravely came forward after years of abuse by Thomas Incantalupo. His actions were heinous and intolerable. By sharing the disturbing details of his grooming process and resulting sexual abuse have put Incantalupo behind bars for his abhorrent crimes and provided other athletes and families the warning signs of grooming and abuse. In court on Friday, the teenage skater said that a “million pounds of weight” was lifted off her shoulders by going public but that she still experienced nightmares from being abused, found it difficult to trust anyone, and did not feel safe to move away from home to attend college.

“I want to have a family one day,” she said, “but I’m scared I will end up alone” because her adult coach “decided it was OK to rape and mentally abuse a child for over two years.” Sarah Klein, the teenage skater’s lawyer, said in an interview that while Mr. Incantalupo would be incarcerated, young skaters remained at risk of being abused.

On a number of occasions, Mr. Incantalupo traveled alone with his victim on trips inside and outside the United States and was responsible for her care, according to the criminal complaint against him. He began abusing his victim in August 2015, two months after she turned 14, on a training trip to Connecticut, forcing her to perform oral sex on him and warning her not to tell anyone, the complaint said.

Mr. Incantalupo assaulted his victim dozens of times, the complaint said, including during several trips to Argentina and at a hotel in Eden Prairie, Minn., where the coach took the young skater from the rink where they trained, abused her and returned her to the ice center before her parents were scheduled to pick her up. In January 2018, the skater told a friend about the abuse. Once the skater’s parents were alerted they went to the authorities. On Jan. 9, 2018, the complaint said, the skater wore a wire in a meeting at a rink with Mr. Incantalupo, who told her that “he knew that their relationship was wrong and that he could go to jail for it.” He was arrested following the conversation.

The U.S. Figure Skating Association has a long and shameful history of placing money, medals, and the reputation of coaches above the protection of child athletes, Ms. Klein said. U.S. Figure Skating said it was preparing a statement to issue after Friday’s sentencing. 

Figure skating has been particularly shaken by sexual abuse scandals in March 2019. Richard Callaghan, a once-prominent coach, who instructed Tara Lipinski as she won an Olympic gold medal in 1998, was permanently barred from the sport after being accused of sexually abusing male skaters over a period of two decades. He has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

Callaghan announced his resignation from his position at the Detroit Skating Club and his intention to retire at the end of that skating season. In April 1999, The New York Times reported that Callaghan had been accused of sexual misconduct by Craig Maurizi, one of his former students who had continued to work with him for many years as a coaching assistant. Maurizi alleged that Callaghan had engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with him beginning when he was 15 years old, more than 20 years previously. The Times article additionally quoted two other former students who also claimed to have been molested by Callaghan. Callaghan denied the charges and alleged that Maurizi was attempting to destroy his professional reputation as the result of a dispute the previous year that arose when Lipinski fired Callaghan and named Maurizi as her official coach. 

Maurizi filed a grievance against Callaghan with the United States Figure Skating Association (USFSA), but the grievance was dismissed in June 1999 without a hearing on the grounds that he had waited too long to file it. Until May the chairman of the grievance committee, Steve Hazen said that senior members tried to keep him from reviewing the case. In October 1999, a three-member panel of the Professional Skaters Association said it had found no violation of its ethical standards. In March 2018 Callaghan was finally suspended from all participation in sports under the auspices of U.S. Olympic Committee member organizations. 

Callaghan said he had grown tired of the travel and grind of being a top coach and that his planned retirement had nothing to do with the grievance. He ultimately did not retire but instead moved to another rink in the Detroit area where he continued to coach. He is currently based in Coral Gables, Florida, and now lives in Naples, Florida to coach at Germain Arena. 

In skating, underage boys and girls are particularly vulnerable. They often leave home to train at ice centers, are away from their parents, and have historically spent considerable time alone with their coaches. To enhance athlete safety, U.S. Figure Skating now forbids coaches from living with or being alone with skaters who are minors – all once common occurrences.

John Patrick Coughlin (1985 – 2019) was an American pair skater. He was the 2012 Four Continents silver medalist and 2012 U.S. national champion with Caydee Denney, and 2011 US champion with previous partner Caitlin Yankowskas. After Coughlin’s death by suicide by hanging in January 2019, news emerged that he had been under investigation for sexually assaulting skating partners. In January 2019, Coughlin age 33 died of suicide after being suspended by the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a non-profit whose mission is to investigate charges of sexual misconduct. Shortly before he died, Mr. Coughlin told USA Today that accusations made against him were “unfounded.” But two skaters have come forward since Mr. Coughlin’s death to accuse him of sexual assault — Ashley Wagner, a three-time United States champion, and Bridget Namiotka, a former skating partner of Mr. Coughlin’s.

Ballet

According to a study in the UK, dancers are the best-trained athletes. They scored higher on 7 out of 10 fitness test items compared to UK Olympic swimmers. On average, most dancers train 6-8 hours per day. However, body image and long slender legs are part of the desired look in dance; dancers have to be at a certain height and fit the troupe’s overall image. To maintain their skinny image, they resort to eating apples and salad leaves, drink a lot of water to ‘kill off’ hunger pangs, use diuretics, laxatives, etc., in order to maintain their required body image.

Evelyn Hart

…Canadian Evelyn Hart studied dance at the Dorothy Carter School of Dance in London, Ontario, Canada, and later at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School. Before attending the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Hart auditioned for The National Ballet School of Canada in Toronto, Ontario but did not secure a place for the school year at the National Ballet School, mostly due to her problems with anorexia nervosa. Hart battled with this pathological eating disorder before returning to ballet, training again, and winning a place for herself at The Royal Winnipeg Ballet School (“Evelyn Hart: An Intimate Portrait” (1991)… 

Rhythmic Sportive

Single Performance
Group Performance

Rhythmic Sportive gymnasts perform on the floor with routines with hoop, ball, clubs, ribbon, rope, and clubs. It combines elements of gymnastics, dance, and calisthenics. Gymnasts have to be strong, flexible, agile, dexterous (required), and coordinated. If you ever watch any performance of these athletes, their flexibility and skills with ball, hoop, rope, ribbon, and clubs one has to question how such performance is humanly possible.

In the so-called group routines with the selected or mandated apparatus by the International Federation, 6 girls present a ‘unified look’ as to height and weight, and hairdo! Frequently, in past competitions, the media has referred to them as the ‘angels of death’ due to their ‘deadly beauty’ and anorexic look. That trend was started way back by the Romanian and Russian teams in 1984 (1st Olympics), and has dominated the sport ever since – and of course, the USA had to imitate and follow that fashion.   

As the USA was new to this sport, many former Eastern Block coaches were recruited to train US gymnasts, and they brought along their rigorous and extreme coaching methods. Training to develop hyper back flexibility led to intense lower back pains, ankle and foot injuries due to the expected height of split leaps (landing), hamstring injuries, anorexia (diets of lettuce and an apple, and dehydration methods, etc.).

June 20, 2018

Hannah Clugston: Director and former gymnast Marta Prus sought out one of these athletes for her documentary “Over the Limit”

…While she found that doping was a concern, it transpired that Russian athletes have a lot more than drug scandals to contend with. Prus followed rhythmic gymnast Margarita Mamun for 100 days in the lead up to the Rio Olympics, filming the brutal way athletes are ‘prepared’ for competitions. Margarita’s fur-clad, jewel-adorned coach, Irina Alexandrovna Viner-Usmanova – also the wife of an oligarch – fires off verbal tirades every time her young ward slips up, making training hard to distinguish from abuse. The way these coaches treat Margarita is like an abusive relationship – they shower her with praise one minute and yell profanities at her the next.


Schloder:

The aesthetic sports seem to share the same issues of physical, emotional, and psychological abuse as well as starvation and eating disorders to maintain the expected body image, and death attributed to these disorders. I really do not know how to stop this insanity of training to achieve ‘perfect’ performances, as well as the pursuit by parents who seemingly live vicariously through the success of their children, and uneducated coaches who continue to train children and youth in order to advance their careers. My hope is that by getting this information out to the public it will raise awareness and exposure to this longstanding culture of abuse, and begin to change the tide of this disturbing trend.

References:

Clugston, H. (2018, June 20). Over the Limit [Documentary. Screened at Sheffield Doc/Fest, June 7-12). 
Retrieved April 25, 2020, from https://www.huckmag.com/outdoor/sport-outdoor/uncovering-dark-side-russian-rhythmic-gymnastics/

Competitive Advantage. Retrieved March 27, 2020, from https://www.competitivedge.com/coaching-abuse-the-dirty-not-so-little-secret-in-sports/

Haines, R. (2019). Surviving sexual assault and a toxic gymnastics culture. Lanham, MD: The Rowan & Littlefield Publishing Group.

Kane, L. (2019, November 25). She took so much away from me. Universities failing to protect athletes from abusive coaches, student says. Toronto: National Post, in The Calgary Herald, NP8. Calgary, AB, Canada.

Longman, J. (2019, September 27): Figure skating coach sentenced to 24 years for sexual abuse. Retrieved April 25, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/27/sports/figure-skating-abuse-Thomas-Incantalupo.html

Moceanu, D. (2013). (Williams, T, Contributor). Off balance: A memoir. NY: Touchstone.

Ryan, J. (2000). Little girls in pretty boxes. The making and breaking of elite gymnasts and figure skaters (Rev. Ed.). NY: Warner Books.

Ryan, J. (1995). Little girls in pretty boxes. The making and breaking of elite gymnasts and figure skaters (1st ed.). The making and breaking of elite gymnasts and figure skaters.  NY: Doubleday.

Sey, J. (2008). Chalked up. My life in elite gymnastics. NY: Harper Collins Pub and Dey St. and Imprint of William Morrow Pub.

http://www.joanryanink.com/biography/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USA_Gymnastics_sex_abuse_scandal

https://www.wfmz.com/news/area/lehighvalley/long-time-parkettes-gymnastics-club-coach-under-investigation/article_c3478dfb-51ea-567f-a429-4571ea16d866.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Coughlin_(figure_skater)

https://www.cnn.com/2020/02/13/us/kathie-klages-ex-msu-gymnastics-coach-trial/index.html

https://www.espn.com/college-sports/story/_/id/28703239/former-michigan-state-gymnastics-coach-kathie-klages-found-guilty-lying-police

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