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Gymnasts Say Association Broke Promises

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The Daily News of Los Angeles

 

More than a decade later, she still remembers the promise USA Gymnastics Chief Executive Steve Penny made.

It was in the midst of negotiations in the 2000s that would result in the lifetime ban of a nationally prominent coach for sexually abusing two underage female gymnasts. Confidential financial settlements and nondisclosure agreements were reached between USA Gymnastics and a U.S. junior national team member and another young gymnast.

Penny and other top USA Gymnastics officials promised the organization would take steps to prevent similar sexual abuse in the future.

"Steve Penny personally assured us. 'Change is going to happen.' He said, 'I have two little girls myself. I'm going to make sure this never happens again,' " she recalled Penny telling her attorney.

Instead, Penny and USA Gymnastics failed to deliver on a series of measures agreed on in negotiations with the two gymnasts, including a hotline number that would have made it easier to report sexual and physical abuse and other steps to raise awareness about abuse within the sport, the gymnast said.

"USA Gymnastics had no intention of doing the right thing," the former U.S. junior national team member told the Southern California News Group.

USA Gymnastics' refusal to deliver on its promise of the reporting hotline particularly weighed on the former U.S. junior national team member as the Larry Nassar controversy, the largest sexual abuse scandal in American sports history, unraveled during the past 31 months.

"I keep thinking, what would have happened if they put in an 800 number?" the gymnast said. "USA Gymnastics put me through hell and back and we didn't even get the 800 hotline. We wanted it because we didn't want other girls to go through what we went through. If (USA Gymnastics) had just done it, it could have saved all those girls going through what they did with Nassar. We know that there might be as many as 300 girls who had to go through all that with Nassar."

Documents related to the settlement agreements obtained by SCNG and a series of interviews with the former U.S. national team member portray USA Gymnastics as an organization whose primary focus was damage control and protecting its image and brand.

Covering up the sexual abuse was USA Gymnastics' motivation in insisting on nondisclosure agreements with the two gymnasts, the gymnast said. The agreements contradict a recent assertion by USA Gymnastics President and CEO Kerry Perry to a U.S. Senate subcommittee that the organization has not used nondisclosure agreements as part of investigations.

"They try to take your voice away," the gymnast said. "It's like they abused me all over again."

Gymnasts say they were abused daily

The two gymnasts' stories detail daily physical and often violent abuse. The gymnast also alleges the mistreatment she received from USA Gymnastics officials after she and her teammate came forward with their sexual abuse allegations.

The women were investigated by the organization before it agreed to the out-of-court settlements. "They interviewed former boyfriends, my ex-husband, every former teammate I ever had, old coaches," the gymnast said. "They asked sexual, intimate questions. 'Was I promiscuous?' They asked my ex-husband, 'Did she cheat on you?' It was awful."

Yet she refuses to be defined by her abuse.

"You know what? I hate the word 'victim' and I hate the word 'survivor' because those words tether you to your abuser," she said. "You're tethered to your abuse for the rest of your life.

"The word I use is 'veteran.' I'm not a victim or a survivor. I'm a veteran of abuse. I came out the other side."

In addition to not naming the gymnasts, SCNG is not revealing the name of their coach, their club or the date of the settlement with USA Gymnastics in order to protect the women's identities.

A USA Gymnastics spokesperson said in an email: "USA Gymnastics recently established a 1-800-number [833-844-7233] for reporting misconduct, but to the best of our knowledge, we have not had one previously."

USA Gymnastics also said in a statement: "USA Gymnastics answered specifically and truthfully in its response to (the senate subcommittee). USA Gymnastics does not use or require a non-disclosure agreement as part of an investigation. The Senators asked about investigations, not settlements."

An attorney for Penny did not respond to a request for comment.

Callers to the 833 number reach a recording informing them that USA Gymnastics will contact them within "24 business hours." The number is not on the main Safe Sport page on USA Gymnastics' website.

The creation of an 800 number hotline was also one of a series of reforms submitted to USA Gymnastics by former U.S. national team members Jennifer Sey and Jessica Armstrong, attorney Jenny Spiegel and 18 other former Olympians and Team USA gymnasts to USA Gymnastics in 2012.

The hotline and other recommendations were designed to raise awareness of sexual abuse in the sport, make it easier to report abuse and close holes in USA Gymnastics policies that allowed sexually abusive coaches to remain.

The recommendations came a few months after an Orange County Register investigation revealed that coaches banned or convicted of sexual misconduct continued to remain active in the sport. Former U.S. national team coach Doug Borger, the Register found, continued to coach young gymnasts, including U.S. national team members at a Colorado Springs, Colorado, gym a short drive from the U.S. Olympic Committee's headquarters despite being banned for sexually and physically abusing more than a dozen underage female gymnasts.

It was a desire to save other young gymnasts from going through the same sexual and physical abuse they endured that led the women to come forward.

'Don't cry'

The gymnast said for USA Gymnastics to truly address sexual abuse within the sport it must first change the culture of abuse that enabled it. That culture was fostered, she said, by former U.S. national team directors Bela and Martha Karolyi.

"Martha is held up as the role model to that whole culture," she said. "The question is, how do we change that culture?"

The gymnasts were no strangers to daily abuse. And injuries and illness were not accepted excuses not to train. Gymnasts who struggled or complained were often dealt with violently by the coach.

"I got so used to reading (Bela Karolyi). I could tell when he was (going to be physically abusive)," the gymnast said. "He would have us all lined up, small to tall, and I would say, 'Whatever you do, don't cry' because that would (set him off)."

"I'd say, 'Everybody, don't cry, don't cry, don't cry, don't cry.' "

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April 8, 2018
 
 
 

 

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