From about the age of 5, there was little I enjoyed more than jumping around the house, doing handstands and turning cartwheels.
There were contests among me, my sister and our friends to see who could do the most cartwheels in a row. And while I may have been the youngest of the bunch, I was pretty competitive and determined to win — which I’m proud to say I did some of the time.
Eventually, my father enrolled me and my sister into gymnastics classes at the local club, Cascade Elite Gymnastics in Lynnwood (now in Mountlake Terrace). I don’t know if it was because he saw how much we enjoyed being upside down (loved it), was worried a wayward limb would destroy something around the house (a distinct possibility) or concerned we would hurt ourselves (highly likely as the oldest of our bunch was spotting us on back bends and other skills no untrained 12-year-old had any business assisting on). It was probably a combination of the three.
My sister stuck for about a year, but I fell in love and for seven years — from 7-14 — gymnastics was life. There were practices after school and on the weekends, competitions around the country and my teammates became some of my best friends.
So when the Indianapolis Star published an investigative piece in 2016 about the prevalence of abuse in the sport, which later led to the revelations regarding USA Gymnastics’ former national team doctor Larry Nassar and his decades of sexual abuse of young girls and women in the sport, it hurt.
I wasn’t, however, surprised as I had heard whispers about such cases every now and then — though not till I had left the sport and was an adult.
In recent months, following the Harvey Weinstein scandal in Hollywood, women and men from all walks of life have been coming forward with stories of sexual harassment, abuse and assault. The #MeToo movement has quickly gained traction and does not show signs of stopping. And while I applaud and support all of those who have come forward, it wasn’t until the USAG scandal broke that I took it personally.
When I think back on my days in the gym, I have mostly fond memories. Sure, there were injuries, bad days and ongoing frustrations, but overall, my experience with gymnastics and USAG had been pretty positive.
As this story has dominated local and national news for the past several weeks and I watched gymnast after gymnast speak up and share their heartbreaking and truly horrific stories, I felt betrayed.
How could USAG do this? How could an entity — which I knew wasn’t perfect but had always held pretty positive connotations for me — not only let down but actually hurt so many of my fellow gymnasts? Did winning gold medals become so important that athletes’ safety and security was just an afterthought? Did the fact that — and this is a biggie — the majority of participants are underage just escape them?
I admit that this column is both very easy and very difficult to write as I have a lot to say but am having a hard time not getting teary-eyed as I try to say it.
I knew that if I was experiencing mixed emotions toward the sport of gymnastics, then I wouldn’t be the only one. Which is why I reached out to people currently and formerly in the local gymnastics community to see if anyone was willing to be interviewed for an article. I got a several responses so I knew the repercussions of Nassar’s actions and USAG and Michigan State University’s inaction reverberated beyond those directly affected.
I found that many of the women had similar feelings and reactions to the news: Saddened but still fond of the sport itself. I had expected this.
What I did not expect was for someone to come forward with their own story about sexual abuse.
When I learned about “Amy Johnson’s” experiences, it was another personal hit. Nassar had been the national team doctor and “practiced medicine” halfway across the country. My gymnastics career never reached the heights of which I would be “lucky” enough to be seen by him. But I had been where Johnson had been. I have been to national meets and could have easily been injured during pre-competition workouts or while competing.
That could have been me.
#MeToo wasn’t even an idea yet back then so I don’t know if I would have been able to find the strength to speak up if was in her situation. And just look at what happened to all of the girls and women who did speak up when they were abused years — sometimes decades — ago. They were dismissed and Nassar was able to continue abusing.
When news of his actions came to light, officials were slow to react. But once women and girls started coming forward with their statements at Nassar’s sentencing, I think the sheer number of survivors shocked them into doing something. And things have been happening, rapid fire, within the span of less than two weeks: USAG cut ties with the Karolyi Ranch (where the women’s national team used to train). Three board members resigned. The U.S. Olympic Committee called for the resignation of the rest of the board. The board complied. On Tuesday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called for an investigation of allegations of sexual misconduct at Karolyi Ranch.
And if USOC does not see USAG taking the necessary steps to change its culture and protect athletes, the former has the power to strip the latter of its certification as the sport’s governing body. If that happened, USAG would no longer be able to crown national champions and select teams for international competitions — including the Olympics.
As fitting as this would be for USAG — and I’m sure there are many out there who would love to see it all burn down — this would have punished those who had nothing to do with the abuse (USAG also oversees men’s gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics and trampoline and tumbling).
But think about that, what would the world of women’s gymnastics look like without the United States? In recent years, the country has not only become a superpower in the sport, but THE superpower. As crazy as it seems, the fact that USOC even considered and is still keeping this option in its back pocket shows they are (now, finally) serious about protecting athletes.
While this is encouraging for the future of athlete safety, it shouldn’t have taken decades and more than 150 women and girls to speak up for this to happen.