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Former Crimson Tide Gymnast Tia Kiaku Speaks Out on Why She Left Alabama

Former Alabama gymnast Tia Kiaku claims disconnect with team, coaches, only grew after racist incident

Detached. Distraught. Depressed.

Those were just a few of the adjectives former University of Alabama gymnast Tia Kiaku used to describe herself when withdrawing from the school in February. 

It was a move she made after racist language was directed against her, and a situation that she felt was not handled properly.

Now she and her mother are speaking out, including during a lengthy 71-minute interview with BamaCentral, about their side of the events that transpired.

Last week in a lengthy Instagram post, Kiaku brought to light an incident with Crimson Tide assistant Bill Lorenz, who, during a practice last October, walked up to three Black gymnasts practicing on the vault together and said, “What is this, the back of the bus?”

Lorenz issued an apology for "what was intended to be a lighthearted comment."

Alabama's vice president and associate provost for diversity, equity and inclusion, G. Christine Taylor, issued a statement to BamaCentral:

“The concerns expressed in this situation were thoroughly investigated. As a part of the University’s process, I spoke with the student-athlete and the parent on more than one occasion to gather information and provide support for both of them. As Chief Diversity Officer, I also worked directly with athletics to identify the next steps to address the issue.”

Kiaku told BamaCentral that it wasn't the first instance of someone inside the gymnastics program using racist language.

It was the culmination of Kiaku’s frustration during her short time in Tuscaloosa.

Among the incidents, Kiaku recalled a moment when she overheard some of her white teammates use the “n-word” in the locker room.

There's another when a teammate told her that she was "tired of hearing your rap music."

Kiaku also says that when head coach Dana Duckworth showed her the decorated history of Black athletes in the Crimson Tide gymnastics program, she mentioned that one was “not really black, and not really raised black.” The reference was in regard to volunteer assistant coach Aja Sims, who competed in the program from 2014–2017.

“I have been doing gymnastics since I was three years old, and I have lived in the South,” Kiaku says. “But this is the first time I have ever experienced anything like this. So, I really did not know how to react at first when all of it started happening.”

Kiaku, who hails from North Carolina, joined the Crimson Tide program in 2019 after one year at Ball State. Following her sophomore season, the team voted her its "Unsung Hero." Up until January, she was listed on the Alabama roster online, before entering the transfer portal on Feb. 28.

After Lorenz's comment during the 2019 fall semester, Kiaku says some of the seniors on the team called for a meeting to discuss inappropriate behavior. In that meeting, she brought her teammates' use of the "n-word" to their attention and she was told by those same peers that it was "just a joke."

“For Alabama gymnastics, I would like to see a zero tolerance for things of this nature,” Kiaku says. “There should not be a coach able to say, ‘What is this, the back of the bus?’ and still coach African American girls. There should not be teammates saying the n-word and still be on the team without any repercussions.

“I just feel like this country has a big disconnect with giving human rights to Black people and we see now it is a big problem. You can see it all over the place in every aspect including Alabama gymnastics. I want to make sure Alabama cultivates an environment where gymnasts can speak out and they do not feel like they are going to lose a scholarship or a starting spot.”

Kiaku later filed a Title IX complaint, and Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne said in a statement that the incident was immediately reported to the Office of Equal Opportunity, Title IX programs and the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

Byrne's entire statement read: "We are limited by law on what we can speak about regarding equal opportunity matters, however we can elaborate on what steps were taken. When the complaint was received, it was immediately reported to the Office of Equal Opportunity and Title IX Programs on campus as well as the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. From there, an investigation, completely separate from athletics, took place. Once the Office of Equal Opportunity and Title IX Programs gathered all of the facts, an outcome was determined, reported back and action steps were taken. We are a department that is committed to providing a just and inclusive community for all of our student-athletes, coaches and staff, operating with integrity and respect.”

Communication stopped from teammates and the coaching staff to Kiaku until she had a meeting with Duckworth and Tiffini Grimes, deputy athletics director and chief diversity officer.

It was then, still in the fall semester, when Kiaku revealed that Duckworth told her that it might be best for her to take a break from the program.

Just days following that meeting, Desiree Gregory, Kiaku's mother, says she received a phone call from Duckworth that was the boiling point of the whole situation.

"So, Dana calls me personally and tells me that someone told her something about Tia," Gregory says. "I am thinking at this point that Tia has done something to herself. She asks me if Tia has multiple friends, and I am like, of course, she is a college student. She then tells me that someone told her that Tia has been sleeping around.

"In the light of all that has happened, I am thinking, this is what you call me with. I was just like, we need to stop right here because I am expecting her to tell me there is some videos, something inappropriate, or that the administration is upset. I ask her, 'Where is this coming from?' She says that someone just told her and that it was important for me to know.

"In the same conversation she proceeds to say, 'Well, is Tia's father around? Because I have never seen her father before in attendance at any of her meets and maybe she is doing stuff like this because her dad is not in her life.' At this point, I am very irate because have you ever taken the opportunity to talk to Tia about her situation with her father? Because I am a single mother. That has been brought up multiple times. 

"Which is fine, but at that point, I feel attacked and I felt like she had stereotyped Tia because her dad had not been around. That statement was just uncalled for. The conversation went awry. I told her that my daughter was my concern right now and that she was an emotional wreck and I needed to get her some help. She then said that she has a program she has to protect, you just have to understand how I feel, I have all these girls to look out for, and we are spending time on this, when I need to be worried about winning a national championship."

According to Kiaku, one of her main frustrations with the program was that it was not practicing what it preached to her after she left Ball State following her freshman year.

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"One thing that pulled me to Alabama was that Dana was very vocal about caring about her gymnasts," Kiaku says. "She prides herself on having the classiest program in the nation, and having a sisterhood that is for the community. You cannot be for the community, if you do not stand out for injustices in your backyard because Black people are a part of that community, too. What she said then does not add up to my experiences I have had at Alabama.

"As an athlete at Alabama, they always told us when we have that script A on our chest that we represent the university and we have to carry ourselves a certain type of way, and we have to be mindful of what we say and how we speak to people, but they are not doing that within their program. They are speaking to people however and are not thinking about the effects it can have on someone and how it can impact them.

"In my opinion, they are not representing that script A like they said we should."

She had an all-around rough semester in the fall, when she suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery, followed by rehab that kept her away from the Crimson Tide. After still hearing very little from teammates, Kiaku returned to campus in January looking to mend relationships with the intent of staying on the team.

A meeting set up in early January between Kiaku and the two other Black gymnasts, Makarri Doggette and Sania Mitchell, who both just completed their freshman seasons, ultimately led to Kiaku making up her mind on whether to stay or go.

“In that meeting with the two other African American girls, Makarri made it very vocal that if I came back, I would be a distraction,” Kiaku says. “She stated that, ‘Why do you even want to come back?’ And said the team had already moved forward. I was still, technically, on the team at this point and it made me feel like I was not welcome anymore.

"Even though I did make the decision to end up leaving, I felt like I was forced to.”

Last Thursday evening, June 4, Duckworth tweeted out this response to the allegations:

"I feel like throughout this experience we have all learned and are continuing to learn together. As the head coach, I am ultimately responsible for this program. There was a report made, and while I cannot get into specifics on that, I can say it resulted in many discussions, conversations, and training, which have also resulted in increased awareness as well as growth personally and professionally.

"No one in life is exempt from mistakes, regret, heartache, and challenging issues. Our core values have always been respect, integrity, class while providing an open and safe community for everyone associated with this program. We strive to learn with one another and grow with a greater understanding as we continue to foster an inclusive and unified family environment."

Kiaku, ultimately, believes that her former coach's words lacked what she has been looking for throughout this journey—empathy.

“From my perspective, they have not apologized because they are not sorry,” Kiaku said. “They have not put out an apology for a reason. What they have to do, they have to take ownership for what they did. It has to be about the experiences and what happened inside Alabama gymnastics than the program itself.

“Dana has voiced to my mother before that she has the best interest of the program in mind, but it makes me feel like she could care less about my experiences and what I went through. I am just at a loss of words for what they have already put out.”

Over the course of the recent days, multiple Crimson Tide gymnasts including Doggette, Sims and Lexi Graber have released their own statements, offering insight into their perspectives. 

An excerpt of Doggette's statement reads as follows: 

"After the incident, we were contacted and apologized to repeatedly as well as immediate action being taken by the university when it originally happened months ago. Initially, I felt manipulated/pressured to react a certain way being one of the only black women on the team. We all say things in the heat of the moment, when we are caught up in emotions and may say things we think are between your closest friends, but once we take time to reflect, we often realize our true feelings. 

"I, in no way, feel any of the coaching staff are racists or have hate in their heart and would purposely try to hurt their athletes. Following the incident, a team meeting was held. Contrary to what was said, things were handled immediately, meetings were in process, most of which were not attended by my former teammate. 

"In her defense, maybe she did not realize how serious they took the situation like we did, as she removed herself, not only from the team and team activities that she was invited to, but the university itself. I only wish she had participated in these meetings so she could fully understand the sense of urgency that the staff had to make sure we all felt loved and respected."

Graber's is the only one so far to apologize and mention Kiaku by name, which Kiaku says she appreciated a great deal. 

Doggette's mentions more team meetings that were held to discuss the incidents, but Kiaku says she was never invited, and had no knowledge of the gatherings, even when she was still on the team.

“I just want Alabama to clear the untruth with the team,” Kiaku says. “I feel like they have been feeding the team things they want them to think happened and that is not the true situation. No one was talking to me at the time. I felt shut out and retaliated against. They were my family and friends and, now, I do not have anyone. It has been very hard.” 

Last Thursday, the Crimson Tide team created a video montage of all the gymnasts describing what the program represents to them and where they can go moving forward in light of the recent accusations. "One Heartbeat" is the theme of the three-minute clip created by the gymnasts themselves. 

"I think that video is problematic," Kiaku says. "It looked more like a promotion for the team than an apology, which it should have been. In the video, they talk about how they are united and a team, but when it came to being a team, there was a decision to leave someone behind. I am truly at a loss of words."

Kiaku has also tweeted a screenshot of messages with an unnamed Alabama gymnast, who texted her, "I am tired of literally feeling like the back of the bus."

"It is hard for me to believe, all of a sudden now, they do not have any more problems," Kiaku says. "For that person to start a group message, there must have been some real issues there."

Despite hard feelings, Kiaku realizes now this could be a watershed moment for her as she wants to focus her energy on bringing the sport of gymnastics to historical black colleges and universities.

“I wanted to do gymnastics again, but I feel like the opportunity to do the sport I love again at the collegiate level has been taken from me,” Kiaku says. “I would love to attend an HBCU and bring awareness to the fact that none of them have a gymnastics program. That is something I would love to fight for.”

As for the bigger picture, the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis has led to a turning point as well, sparking everything from hard conversations to nationwide protests. That is Kiaku's ultimate goal, helping promote tangible change with race relations.

"I just want to say that, not only do I want Black girls to be able to feel like they are in a safe space in the Alabama gym, but I want everyone to feel safe speaking out on their feelings without being ostracized," Kiaku says. "That is a big part of why I chose to share my story now, because my team turned their back on me when I needed them the most."