Former National Champion Says Girls Gymnastics Is Not All It's Chalked Up To Be

In 1986, when Jennifer Sey was 15, she lived on fruit and laxatives. She also won the U.S. National title in gymnastics. Sey has written a book about her experiences as a top-tier gymnast called Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics' Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams, which came out this week. In an interview with Salon, Sey discusses her experiences boarding at the Parkettes National Gymnastic Training Center under notoriously-brutal coaches Bill and Donna Strauss, who were hellbent on producing winners by "any means necessary." Sey's responses to interviewer Julia Wallace's questions are satisfyingly balanced — Sey points out that the coaches encouraged disordered-eating and dangerous training (and sometimes sexually abused their charges) but also acknowledges that "I was willing to take [the abuse] because I wanted to win."

The thing is, Sey, and the majority of her fellow trainees were children ages 10-14. Girls (and boys, too) at that age usually want to please their superiors, whether they be parents, teachers, or coaches. Sey writes about a "coach who hurled a folding chair at a girl who couldn't perform a difficult maneuver on the uneven bars, and the one who used the gym's loudspeaker to humiliate a 10-year-old for gaining one pound." Who among us wouldn't be susceptible to eating disorders and competing with injuries with coaching techniques like the kind Sey endured?

Chalked Up isn't the first book to explore the seamier side of women's gymnastics. The 1995 expose Little Girls In Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters by Joan Ryan covered much of the same ground that Sey treads on. In a chapter called "If It Isn't Bleeding, Don't Worry About It: Injuries," Ryan talks about Julissa Gomez, a girl who looked "ten years old even at fifteen. She stood 4 feet 10 inches and weighed 72 pounds." Gomez is a gymnastics cautionary tale: at a competition in Japan in 1988, she did a dangerous vault called the Yurchenko. According to one of Julissa's teammates, Chelle Stack, said, "You could tell it was not a safe vault for her to be doing. Someone along the way should have stopped her." But no one did, because the Yurchenko meant higher scores. Gomez hit her head on the vaulting horse during warmups at such a speed that she became paralyzed. She died of an infection three years later.

Some gymnasts, like former Olympian Betty Okino, were extremely offended by Ryan's dim view of the gymnastics world. Okino wrote a response to Ryan in 2001, "When the goal is extraordinary, so is the work and sacrifice that has to go along with it. How dare anyone call gymnastics 'celebrated child abuse.' Victims of child abuse aren't given a choice. We as athletes are. We should not blame the USAG, coaches, and the sport of gymnastics for turning out bitter, broken down athletes. Instead we should search for the answers a little closer to home. Those of us who came out of the sport unscarred weren't living our parent's dreams, we were living our own."

But how can one know her dreams so deeply at the age of 10? And anyway, to absolve the coaches of any responsibility creates a dangerous situation where the girls without supportive homes are left to the proverbial wolves (like Romanian gold medalist Nadia Comăneci, who has talked about her eating disorder in recent years). Sey is not calling for an end to gymnastics, she says. But she adds, "All coaches have an obligation to realize that they're not just raising champions, they're raising young women. Hopefully they'll maybe think twice about some of the practices they might employ. I love the sport — I don't want the sport to go down. I just want people to think differently."

"Why Do These Men Want To Coach Little Girls?"[Salon]

Little Girls In Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters — excerpt

The Balanced View: Betty Okino [Sports Hollywood]