Gymnasts Push for Lasting Change After a Coach Is Suspended for Abuse
Gymnasts Push for Lasting Change After a Coach Is Suspended for Abuse
The suspension of a top coach last month for emotional and verbal abuse has galvanized gymnasts to share similar stories of misconduct, both privately and publicly, in a way that could signal a turning point in a sport desperate for a change in culture after the Lawrence G. Nassar molestation scandal.
Now that woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she had not yet filed a formal complaint, is organizing a group of other current and former gymnasts who shared similar stories of abuse involving the coach. The group, the organizer said, is preparing to go public with its accusations.
In interviews, that gymnast and others involved in the sport said they sensed a moment to hold U.S.A. Gymnastics, the sport’s national governing body, more accountable for punishing coaches who mistreat athletes and to push for the adjudication of pending cases.
One case involving an elite coach, Qi Han of Everest Gymnastics in North Carolina, remains unresolved three years after U.S.A. Gymnastics referred it to investigators at the United States Center for SafeSport, an independent body that handles cases of misconduct in Olympic sports. The complaint involves accusations that Han emotionally, verbally and physically abused his young athletes. He is not accused of sexual abuse.
A week after the Haney decision, according to the father of one of Han’s former gymnasts, an investigator with SafeSport wrote in an email that Han’s case was entering its final phase. The investigator also wrote that she was planning to contact Han soon to arrange an interview and that she was aiming to submit a report to the organization’s leadership within 30 days.
Although SafeSport officials do not comment on specific cases, Ju’Riese Colon, the chief executive of the organization, said in a statement on Tuesday that some cases had been in the system too long.
“All reports of abuse are taken seriously, and while we must prioritize the most severe allegations, especially those involving minors, the Center is committed to reducing the time it takes to get to all matters,” said Colon, who joined SafeSport last year.
Ashton Locklear, an alternate for the 2016 Olympic team, and four other gymnasts from the Everest club made their complaints about Han public in interviews with The New York Times in 2018. SafeSport has had the case since 2017, a spokeswoman for U.S.A. Gymnastics said two years ago.
The gymnasts said that Han’s treatment of them was so cruel that it was nearly unbearable and that he had berated them daily at his gym, which promotes itself as a national team training center. Two of those gymnasts, including Locklear, said they had considered killing themselves so they would not have to face Han at practices and meets.
“I don’t know why Han never got in trouble for treating us the way he did, because what he did, in my mind, was a lot worse than Maggie Haney,” said Locklear, 22, who retired last year because of injuries.
Han, through his lawyer, Melissa Owen, continued to dispute the accusations against him, saying that an army of gymnasts and parents would defend him and that he would cooperate with SafeSport. Owen did not respond to a follow-up question on whether a SafeSport investigator had contacted Han to arrange an interview.
While Haney received an eight-year ban — considered the harshest penalty for emotional abuse in the sport’s recent history — the process leading to that decision felt both slow and murky to the gymnasts who filed complaints against her. But parents of Haney’s gymnasts pushed the case forward until it was resolved.
They ultimately felt compelled to hire a lawyer to help them, because U.S.A. Gymnastics was so hands off, three of the parents said. Several parents, including Hernandez’s mother, Wanda, said there had been little or no follow-up from the federation after they filed official complaints against the coach. Wanda Hernandez said she first complained about Haney to U.S.A. Gymnastics in 2016. Yet the federation only placed Haney on interim suspension in February, at the start of her disciplinary hearing.
Li Li Leung, who took over as chief executive and president of U.S.A. Gymnastics in early 2019, acknowledged in a telephone interview this month that cases must be reviewed more quickly and that there must be more transparency in the process. She called Haney’s suspension a step in the right direction because it demonstrated the federation’s acknowledgment of a longtime problem in the sport and its willingness to take responsibility.
“Athletes’ voices are being heard and their perspectives and experiences are being validated and believed,” Leung said, adding that sea change in the sport’s culture cannot happen overnight, though the federation has prioritized it.
“We believe that our athletes can be competitively excellent and compete at a very high level and also be happy and feel safe,” she said. “And those are not mutually exclusive of each other.”
All sexual abuse complaints in Olympic sports are handled by SafeSport, which also investigates some cases involving other kinds of abuse. But U.S.A. Gymnastics handles most cases of emotional or physical abuse through an internal department that is, coincidentally, called Safe Sport, though it is separate from the United States Center for SafeSport. The gymnastics federation’s Safe Sport department has grown to eight employees from one in recent years, Leung said.
As a former gymnast, Leung said she realizes how difficult it might be for an athlete to report a coach. Jennifer Sey, a former national champion, said apprehension about reporting abuse was typical throughout the sport, in which elite athletes often reach their prime in their early teens and tyrannical training methods have long been common.
“It was, ‘If you weren’t so lazy, I wouldn’t have to scream at you,’ or ‘If you weren’t so fat, I wouldn’t call you a fat pig,’” Sey continued. “When you’re 13, you internalize that and it’s an orientation you enter into the world with. You don’t always trust your perception of things, and you move through the world sort of broken.”
Sey said that she had even questioned her own pain after injuries, and that she doubted her feelings for years to come. Was she really in pain, or was she just weak and imagining it? That confusion, she said, can be devastating.
Since the Haney suspension, several former gymnasts have called Sey seeking advice on how to publicly tell their stories of abuse. Sey said that she had encouraged them and other gymnasts to come forward but that many had kept quiet, in part because they feared losing friends or being ostracized from the sport.
“When you put it all out there, it’s scary and a little lonely,” Sey said. “But it helps others and makes them feel not alone.”
Locklear said that she was terrified in 2018 when she publicly accused Han of abuse and that she was disappointed that there had been no ruling in the case.
She and her mother, Carrie, said they first told gymnastics federation officials in 2014 that Han had repeatedly called Locklear fat, lazy and ugly, and that he had often thrown her out of the gym, making her beg him to be allowed back.
According to Locklear, Han limited her water intake and monitored her eating so closely that she binged and purged to appease him. She said she left Han’s gym after he threw his cellphone at her, hitting one of her legs.
With the help of a therapist, Locklear said, she is dealing with the debilitating effects of Han’s treatment, but she still struggles with an eating disorder and is working to be more confident in her relationships.
“A lot more of my problems come from the way Han treated me, not from what Nassar did to me,” Locklear said, referring to the longtime national team doctor who molested her under the guise of medical treatment. Nassar is serving a long prison sentence for sexually assaulting more than 200 young girls and women.
Locklear suggested that one way to help keep coaches in check would be for U.S.A. Gymnastics to hire compliance officers who would visit gyms and competitions to monitor coaches’ behavior.
“There needs to be someone constantly watching the personal coaches, because they are the main problem,” Locklear said. “They literally need to be under a microscope so athletes can be kept safe. I think that needs to change before the sport is completely safe for kids, or anyone.”