Sexual Abuse In The Land Of America's Sweethearts

Every October brings the World Gymnastics Championship, and every October this former gymnast greedily scours YouTube for every available piece of video footage of the competition. I spent six years eating and breathing the sport, spending up to twenty hours a week in a chalk-covered leotard. Those six years in the gym shaped me as a person, teaching me discipline and focus and how rewarding it can be to throw yourself — literally — into the things you care about. They also shaped me physically, leaving me with a royally messed up spine that precipitated my retirement from the sport. But that wasn't the only thing that was messed up.

When I tell people about how bad my back is (three herniated and desiccated discs, for those of you who know about these things) they sometimes ask: if you could go back in time and change your mind, would you still choose to be an elite gymnast? I want to say yes, unequivocally: the sport gave me so much that having the spine of a sixty-year-old by the age of sixteen doesn't seem like too high a price to pay.

But I can't say yes, unequivocally. Because I know too many gymnasts who paid a much higher price than a bad lower back.

Late last month, news broke that a former US Olympic coach had been accused of sexually abusing three of his former gymnasts. Don Peters was the head coach of the American Olympic team in 1984 – the year in which American gymnastics came of age, with Mary Lou Retton's historic all-around gold medal performance – and is currently the owner and director of a gym in Southern California.

Such stories aren't uncommon: earlier this year, a coach in Connecticut was in court on charges of sexual assault, and in 2010, a coach in Colorado was placed on USA Gymnastic's "permanently ineligible" list for allegedly abusing ten of his former gymnasts. Nor are they restricted to the US: in 2002, a coach in my Australian home state was accused of sexually assaulting an 11-year-old gymnast, and in 2008, a coach in Edmonton was charged with assaulting a 12-year-old gymnast.

In the years after I quit gymnastics, I would tell people how lucky I had been to have the coaches I had. Unlike the coaches at other clubs, they didn't yell at us. They didn't bother us about our weight. They pushed us, but they never pushed us too far. They were great. At least, that was my experience. It wasn't until several years after I quit that I discovered that during the very years that I had been having this great experience, some of my teammates were allegedly being sexually abused by one of our coaches.

It happened, apparently, right under our noses. I had no inkling until years later, when the police opened an investigation and one of my former teammates was called in for questioning. Like me, Sylvia*, who was one of top gymnasts in the club and in the country, had never witnessed any untoward behavior from our head coach. Like me, she had the utmost respect for him, looked up to him, and never imagined him capable of preying on the girls with whose care he had been entrusted. But as more and more of our teammates started coming forward, a different picture of him began to emerge.

One gymnast said that he used to jokingly pull the back of her leotard away from her body so that he could look down it. Another said he had offered her presents and tried repeatedly to get her on her own outside of the gym. Two others said that on an outing away from the gym, he had touched them inappropriately. On and on it went, each story worst than the last.

When Sylvia and I found out about the allegations against our coach, we had similar reactions: we felt betrayed by someone we had respected and trusted, we felt lucky that he had never preyed on us, we felt guilty that we had had such positive experiences with gymnastics while our teammates were being abused. And more than anything, we felt horrified by his alleged behavior, and more horrified still that it could have happened right in front of us, unbeknownst to us.

"I just remember being so, so disappointed," Sylvia says. "It was shattering. I basically felt like the four years that I was at that gym became a lie to me."

And what of the nearly dozen gymnasts who were allegedly abused by our coach? They got their day in court, but the records of what happened during the trial are closed to the public. None of them would speak on the record about the investigation or the trial, but my former coach was found not guilty. He is still coaching in Sydney.

When Don Peters's gymnasts went public with their accusations, they criticized USA Gymnastics for its inaction on the issue of sexual abuse by coaches, accusing the organization of putting the reputation of the sport above the well-being of its athletes. The same might be said of the state and national gymnastics governing bodies to whom my club reported. But then again, Sylvia and I were training in the very same gym, and we never suspected a thing.

This kind of abuse doesn't happen in every gym, and it happens in other sports, too. However, the number of reported cases in gymnastics suggests that it happens more in this sport than in others. Parents need to know, before they sign their kids up, about that correlation. Governing bodies need to be better about accountability and prevention.

It's for this reason that I hesitate to say, unequivocally, that I love this sport, that I would do it all again given the chance, that I would let my hypothetical future daughter try gymnastics if she wanted to. And it's for this reason that every October, I watch the World Championships with awe and envy, but also with a modicum of discomfort. Gymnastics, for everything it gave me, has a dark side.

The sparkly leotards and pointed toes can make it easy to forget that these young women are athletes, as physically and mentally tough as any football player or boxer. As a retired gymnast, I know a thing or two about the grit and strength that people sometimes don't see behind the ponytails and the hair ribbons. But in light of what allegedly happened at my gym, I have to wonder: what else aren't we seeing?

* Not her real name.


Chloe Angyal is a writer, blogger, and an editor at Feministing.