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The Medals Keep Piling Up. But at What Cost?

Time after time, USA Gymnastics has pledged to reform itself. Gymnasts and their parents, though, say the organization still fails to hold coaches accountable for abusive behavior.

Ashley Davis needed surgery. She had been competing on a shattered ankle throughout the 2003 gymnastics season and eventually decided to have the injury repaired. The night before, she went back to the gym, where she says her coach, Kurt Thomas, told her to warm up on floor exercise, because she was having the procedure the next day and additional damage “didn’t matter.”

Davis, then 18, knew better than to argue with him. So she went ahead and tumbled, until a snap loud enough for the whole gym to hear rang out. She had overcompensated for her injured left ankle by pushing off her right foot even more. The snap was the sound of that foot breaking. Davis fell to the ground, unable to place pressure on the limb. She didn’t cry as she crawled off the floor. No one stopped. The tumbling continued all around her.

Where other coaches in other sports might have rushed to comfort an ailing athlete, Davis says Thomas berated her—a practice ingrained deeply in gymnastics. She says the coach blamed her injury on her weight (“this is what five extra pounds looks like”) and that he called her washed up and told her to “just go to college.” (She had an athletic scholarship lined up to compete at the University of Oklahoma, but had deferred one year to continue training for the Olympics.) Davis believes that she simply no longer seemed valuable to him.


Before she could crawl to her locker at the Frisco, Texas, facility, Davis says Thomas made the group of tween gymnasts that was practicing march around the floor, clapping and singing “It’s a Hard Knock Life.” Even after all that, Davis didn’t tell her parents what had happened. Looking back, she doesn’t know why. She had been told she was fat, and that’s why the injury happened. And, anyway, she was a gymnast, and this was how many gymnasts trained. (Thomas did not address any allegations of abuse before his June 2020 death due to complications from a stroke; a representative from Kurt Thomas Gymnastics denied that Davis was told to tumble on an injured ankle and that the young gymnasts mocked her.)

Davis, now 36, still doesn’t know how many bone chips the initial ankle injury yielded. “They stopped counting after 100,” she says. In addition to the break when her other foot snapped that day, Davis had torn every ligament in her right foot, too.

How Davis says her coach handled that night embodies both a rotten system and a sport in turmoil. Her experience, terrible as it was, echoed dozens of others, from gyms across the country, at all levels of the sport. And still does.

Long before the sports world ever heard of Larry Nassar, journalist Joan Ryan exposed the abusive culture of gymnastics in her 1995 book, Little Girls in Pretty Boxes. Former gymnast Jennifer Sey then wrote about the abusive culture of the sport in 2008, detailing the harm that athletes suffer in her book Chalked Up. “Tremendous backlash” met the seven-time national team member within the sport’s community. Some called her bitter because of how her career ended. Critics labeled her a liar and posited that none of her claims could possibly be true. When Olympic gold medalist Dominique Moceanu put out her memoir, Off Balance, in 2012, she experienced similar backlash.

The pushback served as a warning for others who may have considered speaking up at that time: If you don’t fall in line, this is how you will be treated.

Then last June Netflix released its documentary Athlete A, coproduced by Sey. The streaming platform pushed the abusive gymnastics lifestyle, known mostly inside the sport’s insular community, into the wider world, for all to see.

While the film focused much of its attention on the horrific sexual abuse perpetuated by Nassar, the disgraced ex-doctor, the link between gymnastics’s culture and the biggest sex abuse scandal in sports history became abundantly clear. Larry Nassar did not happen overnight. Instead, he was the result of a system that valued fear and silence.

“The fact that this man was able to abuse unchecked for so many years is linked to the fact that we have created a culture that demands total obedience,” Sey says.

The documentary prompted a wave of athletes and parents to share their experiences last summer using the hashtag #GymnastAlliance on social media. The stories centered almost exclusively on emotional and physical abuse in the sport and highlighted the lasting consequences: mental illness diagnoses, body dysmorphia and long-term physical pain—the byproducts of a life spent in that system. The flood of posts on Twitter and Instagram were enough to think that maybe this time would be different.

But more than a year later, with another Olympic Games underway, little has changed. When Simone Biles, herself a survivor of Nassar, withdrew from the team and all-around finals in Tokyo, it opened a deeper discussion on mental health and the pressure cooker that is the U.S. gymnastics program. In a sport where coaches exercise so much power over athletes, other gymnasts marveled at Biles’s ability to make her own decision, for herself (to be clear: Biles’s coaches were supportive). Biles herself spoke of a system that had worn her down and drained all fun from competition.

Nassar may be gone, but at root, that system—the way USA Gymnastics trains and develops athletes—remains the same. Even after yet another reckoning last summer, the organization remains unable—or unwilling—to hold its coaches accountable—in part because the mechanisms to do so are still broken. To detail the problems inherent in the sport, 16 athletes and parents spoke to Sports Illustrated, painting a striking, startling picture. Between them, the group has formally reported 19 coaches for abusive behavior over the last 22 years. Fourteen can still train gymnasts without restrictions, while three others will be permitted to coach unsupervised after completing education classes. (Of the remaining two, one, Thomas, is dead and the other remains on an interim suspension.) The system is designed to protect the coaches first, not the athletes, these families say.

They point to how USA Gymnastics has appeared to treat Nassar as an isolated predator who has been removed. It was time, officials have said, to move on, even when survivors came forward to demand an independent investigation that was never granted. USAG failed to recognize that this wasn’t just one doctor taking advantage of athletes or just an issue at the highest levels of the sport. Athletes were silenced when they tried to speak up, shunned if they did speak out and taught time and time again to question the validity of what happened to them.

This wasn’t a public relations nightmare. It was a system that may have created champions but also left a trail of gymnasts who were beaten down and broken in its wake. Gymnastics did not have a Larry Nassar problem, the SI sources say. Instead, the sport has an abuse problem that existed long before Nassar became international news.

And they wonder, is there anything that could finally make the system change?

Biles's decision to withdraw from Olympic events spurred a renewed discussion on mental health in gymnastics. 

Biles's decision to withdraw from Olympic events spurred a renewed discussion on mental health in gymnastics. 

The experiences of the gymnasts and parents who SI talked to ranged in date from the late 1990s to as recently as last year. This wasn’t just one place or one coach or even one problem. The coaches they spoke about didn’t discriminate based on age, talent level or the caliber of the gym. It didn’t matter if you were a seven-year-old newbie training at a small program in Utah or a 12-year-old on the elite path at one of America’s most well-known facilities. (The culture on the U.S. men’s side appears to be different. Issues of abuse have not surfaced there in the same way they have within the women’s program.)

From those 16 interviews, a composite sketch emerged: Gymnasts are trained to be silent. They are taught to just keep training through injuries and that they aren’t really that hurt. They realize that fear isn’t tolerated. Athletes are manipulated into believing that this is normal. This is just how gymnastics is. This is just tough coaching.

“Coaches teach you to not trust your own reality by telling you you’re not really hurt. You’re making it up. You’re exaggerating,” says Sara Rowland, who trained as a child and teen at Chelsea Piers in New York City from 2001 to 2011. “Your fear is not valid and you just learn to question your experiences over and over again. Was my experience really that bad? Was it really abuse? Was it really worth sharing or doing something about? Is it true?”

Fear, of course, is a natural part of a high-flying, acrobatic sport like gymnastics, and it is also a leverage point often abused by coaches. Two gymnasts from separate Texas gyms detailed to SI their experiences of being stuck up on the balance beam for hours because they were afraid of a skill. They knew if they came down without doing it, they could be pulled from a competition or moved to a lower level. Excessive conditioning is also a common punishment in many competitive gyms for falling or not picking up corrections quickly (this is not the take a lap or give-me-20 variety of punishment, but closer to climb the ropes for hours).

Gymnasts also learn quickly that weight becomes something that coaches obsess about and hold over their heads. If you weren’t so fat, you’d make that skill. Shedding pounds, even in unhealthy ways, earns praise. These same coaches can impact and shape their athletes’ futures, from college scholarships to national team opportunities.

“It’s just a much deeper level. It’s not just being strict,” says former gymnast Hailee Hoffman, who competed for Stanford until graduating in 2019. “It’s not just about gymnastics. It’s not ‘Oh, that was a bad skill,’ it’s ‘You’re a bad person. You don’t deserve anything. You could do this if you weren’t so fat.’ That’s not about gymnastics anymore.”

Meanwhile, this culture shuts out parents almost entirely. As gymnasts climb levels—from novice upward—some gyms don’t allow moms and dads at practice. And athletes are often discouraged from talking about what goes on in the gym at home, lest it lead their parents to question the coaches.

“As parents we don’t even realize how bad it is because of the whole ‘Don’t tell your parents’ and ‘Oh, this is just tough coaching,’ ” says one Texas mom, who requested anonymity. “If you want to be the best, this is what the tough coaches do.”

Davis, the promising elite who shattered her ankle and broke her other foot, ended up training at Kurt Thomas Gymnastics full time for seven years, then again during college breaks. In 2008 she moved on to coach at Eagle Gymnastics, less than a mile away. She tried to report Thomas’s behavior as early as 2009, reaching out to a local gymnastics judge who also taught the USAG safety course in Texas and sharing “everything.” Like how she consumed only lemon water with cayenne pepper while training twice daily. Or how Thomas gave her prescription diet pills and laxatives as a teenager. Or how she ran in a “trash bag suit” in the middle of oppressive Texas summers for the two hours in between training sessions.

Now no longer competing, she did not come forward just for herself. Instead, as a coach of young gymnasts, she didn’t want the cycle she had endured to continue with another group of little girls. But USAG had no real mechanism for handling complaints of abuse at the time; the judge addressed the issue directly with the gym, which, of course, was run by Thomas. Nothing came of it. (The gymnastics judge did not respond to requests for comment; a representative from Kurt Thomas Gymnastics said in an email that the gym was not aware of Davis’s complaint.)

Eventually, Davis moved on from gymnastics entirely. She had spoken up, attempted to make a report and nothing happened. When another young woman came forward about abuse at Thomas’s gym a decade later, Davis cringed. It was exactly what she hoped to prevent.

GettyImages-659173814 (1)
The decisions by Dantzscher (top, testifying before the U.S. Senate in 2017) and Denhollander (bottom, testifying at a Nassar hearing that same year) to speak out against the former doctor opened the floodgates for others to share their stories of abuse in gymnastics.

The decisions by Dantzscher (top, testifying before the U.S. Senate in 2017) and Denhollander (bottom, testifying at a Nassar hearing that same year) to speak out against the former doctor opened the floodgates for others to share their stories of abuse in gymnastics.

In the five years since Rachael Denhollander and Jamie Dantzscher levied the first public accounts of sexual abuse against Larry Nassar, the high-level doctor for Michigan State and USA Gymnastics who remains in prison, more than 500 athletes have come forward to say they were abused by him. His sentencing hearing captured the world’s attention and forced viewers to finally listen to the numerous survivors who gave heartbreaking accounts in court. Denhollander, the final survivor to deliver an impact statement, posed the question that reverberated across social media and news clips: How much is a little girl worth?

In the aftermath, the NCAA and the U.S. Olympic Committee launched separate investigations. The entire USA Gymnastics board tendered their resignations under threat of decertification by the USOC. Dozens of lawsuits were brought against USAG, MSU and the Olympic Committee. Eventually, USAG released statement after statement commending the gymnasts’ bravery in coming forward. “Athlete welfare” and “athlete safety” and “empowerment” became buzzwords as USAG pledged to put the competitors at the forefront of the sport.

All of which spoke to the same, obvious thing: The scandal could have—and should have—been a catalyst for a systemic overhaul, to prioritize athletes over success and safety over reputations. Most in the gymnastics community agreed the entire sport needed to change.

The parents and athletes who spoke to SI say that the system is broken in many ways, but at root are two fundamental problems: First, just figuring out who to file a complaint with is complicated. And, second, it forces those who do come forward to repeatedly badger officials for updates and preys on their patience as reports languish for months, or, in some cases, years. The result, they say, is a structure that does not hold its coaches accountable.

USA Gymnastics declined to address the specifics of the accounts SI documented for this story. But in an emailed statement, CEO Li Li Leung said that progress has been made in reforming how coaches are investigated, writing, “We know that the Safe Sport investigation and resolution process must be faster in the future, and we have made significant changes to our Safe Sport department and processes to make it more efficient. We have, for example, significantly increased department personnel, staffed a chief of athlete wellness position, and invested in better reporting software—all in the last few years. While we are seeing the benefits of these and other changes—including a 69% reduction in active cases in 2020 and a drastically reduced time-to-closure for all Safe Sport cases—we will continue to make improvements until our athletes and our community are more confident in this process.”

But those who spoke to SI remain frustrated. The first systematic hurdle they described encountering: figuring out which organization to report that abuse to. The U.S. Center for SafeSport, which was launched by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee in March 2017, tackles all allegations of sexual abuse within the Olympic movement. Most other claims of mistreatment go to the USA Gymnastics internal SafeSport department. No, they aren’t the same thing—hence the attendant confusion (to complicate matters further, sometimes the USAG SafeSport department may refer a case to the U.S. Center for Safesport to handle). For the purpose of clarity, here they will be referred to as USAG and the Center.

Both USAG and the Center told Tara, who requested that SI use only her first name, that the other organization would handle her daughter’s case. Tara filed her complaint first with USAG on Jan. 14, 2019, detailing the verbal and emotional abuse her child suffered. But a USAG official told Tara to make a report to the Center because it involved Twistars, the Michigan club that made headlines as the gym where Nassar regularly assaulted athletes (even though her daughter’s case was unrelated to the doctor). Tara submitted her daughter’s story once again.

The Center declined jurisdiction, letting her know in an email on Feb. 8, and sent the case back to USAG. But a USAG official wrote in a Feb. 13 email that “due to circumstances, which unfortunately, cannot be shared with you, the USCSS will handle this complaint and any other future complaints regarding John Geddert and Twistars gym.” (Tara’s complaint did not name former Twistars owner John Geddert within the body of the report, only his son, Blaize, wife Kathryn and another coach. John Geddert died by suicide on Feb. 25, the same day he was charged with 24 felonies; neither Blaize nor Kathryn Geddert responded to SI’s request for comment.)

Tara followed up the next day with the Center but never received a response. The day after that, USAG assured her that the Center would be responsible. Then Tara didn’t hear anything from either organization for ... two years.

A Center official reached out to Tara in early March of this year to inform her they had finally opened an investigation into Blaize and Kathryn. Tara was informed earlier this month that the Center wrapped up the case and an investigator had started writing the final report, but no further details were provided.

A spokesperson for the Center said its officials could not discuss the specifics of any cases “to protect the integrity of the process.” He added that while the Center will notify complainants if their case is moved between organizations, it typically does not offer any explanation for why to avoid giving an indication of an investigation’s progress, since it is typically in early stages. But the Center’s CEO, Ju’Riese Colón, explains that the reason most cases get elevated to her organization from USAG is because a conflict of interest exists at the governing body. For instance, if there were claims against a well-known national team coach or a USAG executive or board member, the Center would be likely to handle the case.

Colón added that the Center is working on educational materials to help coaches (and parents and athletes) understand where the line is between tough coaching and abuse. “We’re really doubling down our efforts and resources to create those to help us,” she says. “At the end of the day we would much rather educate folks on what this looks like and how to prevent it than have to investigate allegations of abuse.”

Some might assume Tara’s was an isolated incident. But in several other instances, the initial report landed with USAG before being bumped to the Center for reasons that were never explained. Former gymnasts Samantha Medel and Hoffman, the Stanford grad, each reported their old coaches. The Center quickly took over Medel’s case in August 2019, without explanation to Medel, or the two dozen other gymnasts who had come forward alongside her with accounts about two coaches at their gym.

Hoffman’s complaint against her former club coach was initially declined by the Center last August and went to USAG instead (the coach denied Hoffman’s claims through her lawyer). The governing body assured the former gymnast that it held no conflict of interest in investigating the coach, who had recently been inducted into the USAG Hall of Fame. Four days later, though, USAG changed its tune and sent the case back to the Center. Hoffman last received an update about her case from the Center on July 12: The final report was being written up. As far as Hoffman knows, it has not yet been finalized. (The U.S. Center for SafeSport is also backed up with its caseload.)

For one Texas mom, who requested anonymity, reporting her daughter’s abusive coach presented other logistical complications. When she went to fill out USAG’s reporting form, she found little information about what happened next. Would they need to interview her daughter? Would the investigator be showing up at the gym? USA Gymnastics posts a 10-page document outlining how it conducts investigations and resolves complaints on the SafeSport Policy landing page. The text is difficult to understand and full of legalese. On the introductory page, it states that “the primary goal of USA Gymnastics Safe Sport is safety, not punishment.” It doesn’t outline what complainants can expect as the process unfolds, or that removing coaches from the sport will be difficult.

There were even little things about the form itself that the Texas mom struggled with. For instance, it has space to list only one date for when the incident occurred, but for her daughter (and many others) the abuse was ongoing and not necessarily limited to a single date.

Sara Rowland, the former Chelsea Piers gymnast, says the entire process needs an overhaul. Last spring she shared a Facebook post detailing her experience—and then wondered what came next. Over the course of a month, Rowland researched the SafeSport code and USA Gymnastics’s bylaws and created a Google form to collect experiences of other Chelsea Piers gymnasts who wanted to be involved in filing a complaint. She submitted the report in May 2020 to USA Gymnastics, which included 47 individuals coming forward to testify to abuse by coach Christina McClain. (McClain declined to comment; Chelsea Piers did not respond to SI’s requests.)

Rowland called for better communication for those filing a case, noting how difficult it was to obtain answers.

“There should be a flow chart that tells you how to submit a report and then what’s going to happen [and] what the timeline is,” Rowland says. “They should be thinking of themselves as a project manager and they should be sending out updates once a month. Here’s what’s happening on your case this month. Here’s what you can expect for the next month.”

Rowland had no communication with the USAG between June 2020 and January, when she reached out. The email to her investigator bounced back, and that’s how she found out that person no longer worked at USAG. The organization hadn’t notified her. When Rowland reached out to USA Gymnastics in March, she was informed that the investigator left the governing body and that her case had been assigned to a third person. Her complaint remains ongoing.

For some, knowing a reporting mechanism existed at all presented a challenge. Liz Weathers was unaware that USA Gymnastics had a SafeSport department in 2018 when her daughter left Empire Gymnastics. She says the Texas-based gym did not talk about the SafeSport program and the team handbook provided no resources, either. (The gym did not respond to requests for comment.) Weathers found more information on a gymnastics forum. Coaches and athletes over 18 are required to take SafeSport training courses each year, but parents and minor athletes don’t receive that education.

With all of the confusion surrounding the process, Weathers believes that USAG doesn’t truly want to change. Rather than putting the onus on the clubs whose coaches could potentially be reported, she says, the governing body itself needs to take responsibility for providing both information and training for parents. “USAG has designed a program so they can say they have a program,” says Weathers, who manages an ethics reporting hotline at her company. “They have not designed a program to find their problems and fix them.”

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The second issue that parents or athletes run into is how long the process drags out. Rebecca, who has requested not to be identified by her real name, first filed a complaint on behalf of her daughters alleging verbal, emotional and physical abuse against Gymnasiana owner Sabrina Picou in September 2018. (Picou, who sold her gym last year, did not respond to a request for comment.) The complaint has languished with USA Gymnastics for nearly three years. The initial response from the governing body seemed promising, but that hope quickly fizzled. The official handling the probe didn’t contact or respond to any of the parents willing to be involved and, over the next few months, Rebecca was met with silence.

In March 2019, she forwarded her report to Wendy Bruce Martin, who was on the USA Gymnastics SafeSport committee. A different investigator reached out and requested that Rebecca resend any documents or names of witnesses pertaining to the original complaint. Eventually, USAG began reviewing the investigator’s report in early May, and Rebecca waited once again.

After three months and no updates, Rebecca connected with other parents who had already navigated the process. Those parents pointed her to Shelba Waldron, the USA Gymnastics director of safe sport education and training. Frustrated, Rebecca emailed Waldron asking for an update on her case. Waldron responded almost immediately on Aug. 28, 2019, writing that she would get back to Rebecca around “mid-day.” Rebecca didn’t hear from Waldron, or any other USAG official for more than a year. (USAG did not respond to questions about Waldron or make her available for comment.)

Roadblocks in the investigative process pop up in even the most unexpected places, too. Leslie Medows reported her granddaughter’s emotionally abusive coach in March 2020, but ran into another issue: USA Gymnastics would not interview her granddaughter, then 9. Lead investigator Daniel Campbell wrote in an email that “USAG Safe Sport does not interview children under the age of 14. We do, however, allow the parent or guardian to make a statement on their behalf. This statement would be weighted the same as if it came directly from the child.”

Michelle Peterson, who is a consultant and forensic interviewer in Colorado who specializes in child abuse cases, says that USAG’s policy isn’t best practice—that they should be engaging with children with specially trained investigators. “There’s a reason why we have experts who do this and specialize in this, because we’ve learned over the years that kids don’t tell,” she says. “When they do tell, it needs to be someone who’s trained in dealing with trauma and how to ask those questions and get the right information.”

Medows has not been contacted since last September, when her investigator said her case was closed. She does not know how it was resolved.

Rebecca didn’t reach out to USAG again until last September, 13 months after her previous inquiry and two years after the initial complaint; she was told that the case remained open. By that point, the investigation had been delayed so many times that the majority of the parents and athletes involved in the original complaint no longer participated in the sport at all.

When Beucler competed at the 2012 national championships, it appeared to her mother like her coach was giving her positive encouragement. But Beucler says things weren't as they seemed. 

When Beucler competed at the 2012 national championships, it appeared to her mother like her coach was giving her positive encouragement. But Beucler says things weren't as they seemed. 

While parents and athletes grew increasingly frustrated as their cases languished in the system, USA Gymnastics continued to emphasize that it was becoming an athlete-centric organization. But its actions have told a different story. The delays in the investigative process allow coaches to continue working with children, for the most part with little consequence.

A report being filed cannot guarantee that a coach will be kept away from athletes or even reprimanded. That’s why so many of the coaches reported by the families who spoke to SI are still active. One even coached at recent elite competitions.

That coach was Mary Lee Tracy. When Michelle Beucler saw a tweet with an image of an elated-looking Tracy congratulating one of her athletes at the Winter Cup on Feb. 28, it reminded her of photos she has of her daughter, Alexis.

Michelle recalled watching Alexis interact with Tracy in 2012 during the national championships. Tracy appeared to be encouraging Alexis, then 14, just before her floor routine. When Michelle asked her daughter what her coach told her, she says the teenager responded, “ ‘Mom, she said if I don’t make this routine she’s gonna kick my ass.’ ” Michelle was stunned. But Alexis reminded her that of course her coach looked happy. The cameras were on her. (In an email, Tracy denied this exchange took place.)

It was just part of a pattern of emotionally abusive behavior Michelle and Alexis say Tracy exhibited during Alexis’s six years at Cincinnati Gymnastics Academy. Alexis posted her story on Twitter last August, writing in part, “Mary Lee did not like that I would not show emotion, she would even ask my sister who also trained at CGA in the ACC (fast track) group what she could do in order to break me and make me cry. It got to the point where my teammates would tell me ‘Just cry Poof so she stops yelling and being mean to you. Just cry.’ ”

In an email, Tracy denied any abusive behavior, writing, “Expression is artistry. I wanted to help Alexis open up especially when it came to her gymnastics. … I wanted to do all I could to help her reach her goals.”

After Alexis’s post went viral, Michelle waited one week to see whether USA Gymnastics would contact her or her daughter. After all, the organization tweeted in August that it had opened SafeSport investigations based on information posted to social media. When the first week passed by without any communication, Michelle filed a report. After the second week, she made another. Nearly a month after her daughter’s Twitter post, in September, USAG’s investigator, Nancy Austring, contacted Michelle. Michelle says that she was informed that Austring submitted her report to USA Gymnastics in October, which then turned the case over to the Center. Michelle and Alexis were each interviewed by a Center investigator in May. Neither has seen the results of Austring’s work.

Despite the two investigations, Tracy is still running her gym and training athletes without a single public restriction.

Michelle questions whether anyone at USA Gymnastics would have paid attention to what happened to her daughter had “Twitter not blown up when [Alexis] posted her story.”

Alexis’s post wasn’t the first time Tracy had been involved in controversy. When USAG named Tracy as its new women’s elite developmental coordinator back in 2018, her appointment lasted barely two days. The organization forced Tracy to resign because, according to the governing body, she had inappropriately contacted a Nassar survivor involved in the lawsuits against the organization. She returned to coaching.

Former national team members Alyssa Beckerman and Morgan White have also been vocal in recent years about their experiences with Tracy in the late 1990s and early 2000s, alleging that she overtrained and body-shamed them. Beckerman says that, as far as she knows, USAG has not investigated their concerns or reprimanded Tracy for her behavior.

Gallant, 11 years old in this picture, started training at Kurt Thomas Gymnastics in 2005, when she was 7. 

Gallant, 11 years old in this picture, started training at Kurt Thomas Gymnastics in 2005, when she was 7. 

The abuse that Ashley Davis worked to prevent at Kurt Thomas Gymnastics did not end when she made her complaint, or when she left. Instead the behavior trickled down through other coaches, who targeted another group of young athletes, ones that Davis trained before she left in 2008.

One of those gymnasts was Kaleigh Gallant.

Gallant moved from a smaller program at age 7 to train at the Frisco gym in 2005. She says her coaches didn’t seem to care if she cried or when she struggled with her asthma. Even little things that seemed innocuous at the time now feel to her like part of a disturbing culture of absolute submission. For instance, all of the gymnasts had to wear the same leotard, even at practice. Gallant figured that this was normal for a competitive gym. But the mistreatment, she says, would become more overt in later years. (A representative from Kurt Thomas Gymnastics said that the gym requires uniforms to foster a unified team spirit among its athletes.)

Gallant’s most painful injury occurred in 2011. She landed a double tuck awkwardly with her leg “splayed out” behind her. She says her coaches, Thomas and Josh Cook, insisted that she couldn’t be injured because “the mat was very soft.” She hopped from the floor to the freezer where she scraped frost out to ice her injured knee and ankle. Gallant was eventually diagnosed with a sprained ankle and knee, but, at 13, refused to tell her doctor how much pain she was in. She knew she’d be in even more trouble if she brought in a note barring her from training. Plus, the state meet was coming up. Gallant left the gym and the sport in 2012. (The Kurt Thomas Gymnastics representative denied that Thomas coached Gallant during her time in the gym, but said he could not speak for Cook; Cook did not reply to requests for comment.)

In November 2018, Gallant filed reports with the Frisco police department and USA Gymnastics. The police statement detailed that incident and others over the eight years that Gallant competed for the club. The governing body assigned an investigator, Austring, to the case that December. More than two years of mass-emailed press releases claiming that the organization would put athlete safety first had passed.

Gallant sent Austring the police statement, her medical records and the names of eight teammates who could corroborate her experience. She says Austring passed on her report to USAG in early 2019. Gallant waited, and waited some more, and eventually assumed USA Gymnastics closed or dismissed her case without telling her.

The entire reporting process, says Gallant, now 23, reaffirmed her belief that what had happened to her “wasn’t bad enough” for the governing body to investigate properly or even ask whether she was O.K. It mirrored her experience with her coaches: What she felt or believed was a lie.

“You would never think about the hoops that you would have to jump through to prove to the entity that was supposed to be protecting you that you were hurt,” Gallant says.

As the #GymnastAlliance movement gained momentum last summer, Gallant posted her story anonymously on a smaller Instagram page dedicated to sharing gymnasts’ stories of abuse. Then she made a second post using her name. She saw competitors from other gyms receive overwhelmingly positive support and validation, and, for some, even apologies from their coaches. She expected a similar response. Instead, an attorney representing the gym sent Gallant and her mother each a cease-and-desist letter demanding that Gallant remove her post. (The gym’s representative said the letter was sent because Gallant’s statements were “false and without merit.”)

After sharing her story, Gallant reached out to several USA Gymnastics officials. The organization’s attorney informed her that her case was not actually closed. It had instead been stuck in legal review for nearly 18 months, but no one communicated that to Gallant.

Bottom line: The sport has made abundantly clear that the initiatives in place aren’t helping USA Gymnastics keep its athletes safe, according to the parents and gymnasts who spoke to SI.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Peterson, who in addition to consulting on abuse cases in Colorado is the state’s SafeSport coordinator for USA Hockey, offers a different solution. In hockey, she says, instead of the national governing body’s handling nonsexual abuse complaints, they are handled by state level organizations. For instance, if something happened in Denver, instead of USA Hockey’s handling a claim, the Colorado Amateur Hockey Association would. Peterson says that state-level organizations can investigate these claims more efficiently, avoiding the bottle-necking that occurs with a national organization based far from where the incidents actually occurred.

Each club also has a parent who volunteers to serve as a SafeSport representative and is trained, working in conjunction with state coordinators. Nobody involved in the process has any say over playing time or other team decisions.

When USA Gymnastics suspended Maggie Haney, best known for coaching Olympic gold medalist Laurie Hernandez, in April 2020, it marked the first time the organization handed out a significant, public sanction to a coach accused of emotional and physical misconduct. (An arbitrator later reduced the punishment from eight to five years. Haney sued USAG in federal court in March 2021 in an attempt to overturn it entirely; the case is ongoing.) Of the 217 people on USAG’s permanently ineligible members list, none have been banned for nonsexual abuse.

USA Gymnastics told Rebecca that the organization planned to offer a negotiated resolution to her daughters’ coach, Picou. The mom in Texas received notice that her daughter’s case was administratively closed, citing “insufficient information.” Rowland’s ex-coach remains on an interim suspension. In fact, of the 19 coaches reported, only three—from a single gym—have gotten any final sanction. They can return to coaching unsupervised after completing 50 hours of education classes.

And then there’s Gallant, who waited two and a half years for her case to conclude. According to a letter sent by USAG to Gallant, its investigator did, in fact, corroborate her claims. But because Thomas was dead and other coaches had moved on, and because there had been no recent complaints about the gym and a survey of current parents found that nearly all agreed that it offered a “positive environment” for their children, USAG “administratively closed” the case without issuing any punishments.

Kim Kranz, the USAG chief of athlete wellness, further told Gallant’s lawyer that, because the organization’s SafeSport guidelines weren't enacted until 2016, complaints citing behavior before then would not result in a sanction. Coaches didn’t have guidelines then for what was acceptable and what wasn’t, explained Kranz, whom USAG did not make available for comment. USA Gymnastics was “not in the business of righting past wrongs,” Kranz told Gallant’s lawyer. The organization prioritized making sure current athletes were safe.

What the 16 people who spoke to SI made clear, though, is that until past wrongs are taken seriously, reckoned with and righted, current gymnasts will not be safe.

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