Penn State Gymnasts Allege Emotional Abuse Against Coaches
By Rennie Dyball/People
This article was originally published on People on May 31, 2016.
Former NCAA athletes who trained under Jeff and Rachelle Thompson on the Penn State women's gymnastics team are speaking out about the emotional abuse they say they suffered under those coaches.
Two former gymnasts described to PEOPLE how they were demeaned, pressured to continue practicing through injuries and body-shamed by coaches (one of whom allegedly told the team, “you guys look like you ate your way” through a school break).
In a story that first broke in Penn State's independent student newspaper, The Daily Collegian, in April, several gymnasts who trained with them at both PSU and, previously, Auburn, spoke out about what they call unfair and abusive tactics employed by the Thompsons. The 2015-2016 Penn State team featured no seniors – all eight of the athletes recruited as freshman in 2012 had quit or were released by the team by the time they were seniors in 2016.
In a May 19 email obtained by PEOPLE, Rachelle Thompson announced her plans to resign from her position at the end of June while her husband, Jeff Thompson, remains head coach of the team. A full review of the gymnastics program by the university's Office of Ethics & Compliance in December and January found no evidence of abuse.
But former Penn State gymnasts tell PEOPLE they are sharing their stories in the hopes that neither Thompson will coach at the school. When reached by PEOPLE, Jeff said “we've been asked not to respond” to press requests. After multiple requests to speak with Rachelle, the Penn State athletics department said she was unavailable for an interview. (The department did provide a statement to PEOPLE that appears in full below. Auburn did not return requests for comment.)
A Freshman's Gymnastics Career Ends with a Near-Suicide Attempt
Shealyn Farley was a lifelong gymnast from a Penn State family who was eager to compete in college. Having suffered an ACL tear and meniscus tears in her left knee that resulted in six surgeries by the time she was 16, finding college coaches who would work with her injury was paramount.
“In the recruiting process, Jeff was huge in saying, ‘We promise we will take care of you. Your knee is a priority, your health is a priority, we'll work through this, we'll make sure you'll be fine,’ ” Farley, now 21, tells PEOPLE. Despite scholarship potential from other schools, “Jeff really sold me on Penn State,” she says, “because he seemed genuine.”
But Farley says the opposite proved to be true. After what felt like “pulling teeth” to get a doctor's appointment for excruciating pain in her knee in September of her freshman year, the problems continued when she returned to the gym. Doing her physical therapy in the week after her surgery, “I would start to notice Rachelle making snarky comments about me, not to my face but loud enough that I could hear them,” says Farley. “Things like, ‘Why isn't she training? She's just sitting there doing nothing. All she's doing is sitting there talking to the male gymnasts.’ ”
Farley says she was forced to train bars (the one apparatus where gymnasts don't directly use their legs) over a foam pit for hours at a time despite her knee swelling “like a balloon” during practice. “I was in pain, I was telling them I was in pain, and they were still making me do it,” she says of her trainers and coaches.
Later that fall, after a three or four-day Thanksgiving break, Farley says the team returned to school for a 6 a.m. Monday workout only to be met with criticism about their bodies.
“We wear these tiny biker shorts and little tight tank tops to practice and you can see everything, your body, we're all exposed. And the first thing Rachelle said to all of us was, ‘Wow, you guys look like you ate your way through break.’ Like we all got so fat in four days. They made us feel less and less wanted in that gym. Everybody was getting really upset.”
Farley says she also witnessed a teammate who was instructed to “come into the gym every morning and run a certain number of miles on the treadmill because Rachelle would always tell her she looked like a whale, she looked so fat.”
By late fall, Farley says she was “severely depressed,” and met with a sports psychologist. “I remember telling him I feel like my life is in danger. I feel like it's not worth it any more. I came here because I wanted to be on this team and I wanted to make an impact and this is a sport I've loved for 18 years but I don't think I can do it any more.”
Soon after that, Farley says, she saw only one way out.
“I was alone in my dorm room and I had a bottle of pills and I came to the conclusion that the best way out of this was to end my life … I thought ending my life was not only the easiest way – then I didn't have to face Jeff and Rachelle – I truly thought it was the best thing for me. Another thought that went through my head at the time was, I'm obviously disappointing these people. They make it clear every single day that I'm worthless to them … so ending my life, who's gonna care?”
“I was ready, 100% ready, to take the pills. I'd made my mind up, this is what I was doing. And two or three of my teammates came in the room and … they stopped me, obviously. They called my mom, who said, ‘That's it, you're done. You go in there tomorrow and you quit. You need help. We need to get you therapy and get you out of that toxic situation.’ ” (Farley did undergo therapy and continues to this day, she says.)
The athlete's departure from the team was as painful as the experience itself. She asked for a meeting with the coaches in which she told them she was quitting.
“One of the first comments out of Rachelle's mouth was, ‘You wouldn't be making your father proud,’ knowing my father passed away 4 years ago,” says Farley. “At that moment, I knew I had made the right decision.”
As for sharing her story publicly, says Farley, “I don't want girls to go through what I went through any more.”
Current athletes on the team have reached out to her, she says, and “one of the girls told me, ‘I feel like you're saving my life.’ When the news broke about Rachelle resigning, I got text messages from almost every girl on the team saying, ‘you're saving this program, you're saving my passion for gymnastics.’ ”
Farley hopes Jeff will be next to depart.
“There's a difference between hard work and mental abuse … I don't think that they should be allowed to coach women any more. Not only do I not want them to work at Penn State University, I don't want them to work at any university, I don't want them to work at any club gym, I don't want them to work in coaching ever.”
“They Took Everything Away From Me”
Kristin Blades was recruited by the Thompsons as a walk-on when they were coaches at Auburn University. By the time she graduated high school, however, the Thompsons had been hired by Penn State, so Blades began her freshman year there in 2010 with hopes to ultimately earn a scholarship.
Despite warnings from women on the Auburn team who suggested the Thompsons were not what they seemed, Blades, now 24, moved forward with her plans to attend Penn State.
Blades pushed the warnings aside but soon noticed an unsettling level of involvement by the coaches in her personal life, discouraging her from hanging out with one teammate who she'd become friendly with and instead encouraging her to be friends with a better-performing member of the team. “They would constantly tell me not to hang out with her … [but] this girl does well, you should be friends with this girl.”
The summer before her sophomore year, Blades earned a scholarship. She also suffered an elbow injury that required surgery. “They were pretty pissed about that,” Blades recalls. “They said, ‘If we'd known you had elbow problems we would have never recruited you, it's something you should have told us, you lied to us, you hid this from us.’ I was like, I didn't hide anything, my elbow just locked up in practice. They said, ‘Your team needs you on vault.’ So I rushed two weeks early to get out of my brace and I kept pushing and pushing my trainer.”
After a great practice the fall of her sophomore year, says Blades, Rachelle called her in for a meeting, only to deliver a stunning ultimatum.
“She sits me down and says, ‘I'm really proud of you … but you need to choose between your boyfriend and your scholarship,’ ” Blades recalls. “ ‘He's not good for you, he's going to distract you. You just can't be with him.’ ”
A meeting with Jeff brought more of the same, Blades says, alleging that Jeff asked her, “ ‘Why would you choose a man over your scholarship? You're a lonely little girl if you can't let go of this guy. Do you stay with him because you're sleeping with him?’ Jeff would be so inappropriate and really dig into my personal life.”
But Blades says she wasn't the only one subjected to criticism for her personal life. “There was times where Rachelle and Jeff … would be like, ‘Oh, how many people did [name redacted] sleep with this weekend? You probably shouldn't hang out with her because she's kind of slutty.’ ”
“They were super controlling. They wanted to know what you ate, what you did, who you were dating, who you talked to, everything,” she says. “They would ask me, ‘what do the girls eat on the team? We have eyes everywhere, we know what you guys do on the weekend, we know what you decide to eat for lunch and dinner.’ ”
Ultimately, Blades and her boyfriend went their separate ways and she began to feel alienated at the gym. The coaches, she says, turned her teammates against her. She also underwent a second surgery on her elbow.
“The day after I got out of the hospital, they made me come in to cheer on the girls,” says Blades. “I don't know if you've ever had surgery, but you are not 100 percent after. You're in a lot of pain. The team captains came up to me yelling at me for not cheering enough, saying I had to put a smile on my face and act like I was part of the team. I was just taken every punch I was given. I couldn't afford school [without the scholarship].”
As she recovered, Blades says she was forced to do excessive conditioning as her arm healed.
At one practice, she recalls, “I'm on the treadmill and I'm crying because I've got this giant robot arm brace on and I wasn't allowed to go under 6.0 [MPH] and if I went under 6.0 I got screamed at and had to start all over again.”
It wasn't long before Blades says she hit “rock bottom.”
“They started telling the girls on the team I was a bad influence and they couldn't hang out with me any more. I just got to the point that I was just shutting down. I stopped eating. Honestly, I went into a state of depression. I didn't care about getting my arm healed properly. I stopped caring about school. I was shutting down. I didn't care if I was going to make it to the end of the semester.”
Blades left the team at the start of her junior year. When the first story about the Thompsons first broke in the Collegian in April, “at first, I didn't want to speak out because I haven't dealt with it,” she says. “I push it aside. I lie to people and say the reason I left the team is because I had surgery. It's embarrassing that I let this happen to me.”
Blades says Farley, among other younger gymnasts, had come to her with their concerns, though she didn't find out until later about Farley's near-suicide attempt.
“My heart just broke for her. I'll tell my story too so I can help these girls. I honestly think somebody's going to get to the point where they don't have that one person who walks in on them and finds them or that's there for them. I hate to say that but I really think if something's not done, something bad is going to happen to somebody in the future.”
“I think Jeff needs to leave too because he was just as bad as [Rachelle],” says Blades. “They took everything away from me.”
Penn State Responds
Concern about the women's gymnastics program is growing. In addition to former gymnasts speaking out (one told PEOPLE that the current team members are too afraid of retribution to do so on the record), an online petition calling for a new investigation into the Thompsons has garnered more than 1,200 signatures.
In Rachelle's May 19 email, which was obtained by PEOPLE, the coach writes that her last day of work will be June 30.
“Over the last six years, I have wholeheartedly dedicated and offered all I have to give to every part of this program; however, it has recently become increasingly difficult for me to come to work each day with my normal passion,” she wrote. “As a result, I now find myself in a place I never imagined – walking away from a sport and a program that has meant the world to me.”
PEOPLE contacted the Penn State athletic department for comment (as neither Thompson coach was made available for interviews), and a spokesperson replied with the following statement.
“We understand that our student-athletes are under great pressure as they balance the rigors of their academic and athletic pursuits,” reads the statement to PEOPLE. “It is a highly competitive environment and we work hard to create conditions for their success. Unfortunately, not all student-athletes maintain their roster spots for a variety of reasons – some are cut from the team while others decide to no longer pursue their athletic endeavors.”
“When this happens in any sport, we take very seriously the nature of the student-athlete departure. Built into our evaluation process is an ‘exit interview’ with administration for all student-athletes who are leaving for a variety of reasons – graduation, exhausted eligibility, transfer or other reasons. These interviews help us continue our constant pursuit of an outstanding student-athlete experience. In addition, all student athletes are asked to complete an annual student experience survey, which is yet another important opportunity for student-athlete feedback and evaluation.”
“A full review of the gymnastics program was conducted by the University's Office of Ethics & Compliance in December and January, following information Penn State received earlier this academic year. The Athletics Department reviewed the report and noted that while that some student athletes reported behaviors they found personally objectionable no instances of abuse were identified.”
“We believe we have addressed the issues identified and are optimistic about the future of the program. Our goal, as always is to create an environment that facilitates the best possible student athlete experience for all.”
“We of course don't discuss the confidential details of our processes but we can tell you our review has been thorough and inclusive. Regardless of our method of evaluation or inquiry, our ultimate goal is always an accurate, balanced picture of the environment in which our student-athletes learn, train and compete. We look forward to working with Jeff Thompson as our head coach, as well as our current and future rosters to ensure a first class experience.”
With reporting by Char Adams