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On Gymnastics: A History of Abuse

by Maria Siciliano //

Trigger Warning: This article contains discussions of sexual misconduct, abuse, and assault. This article also contains mention of suicide. If these are triggering topics for you, please skip this article or refer to the end for resources.

There is power in testimony. To share an experience and to return to the site of trauma can, in many cases, bring a sense of agency to the abused. In testimony, the silenced regains a voice. And those that are listening witness a glimpse into the pain. 

Unfortunately, we are all a witness to the pain felt by so many gymnasts affected by the USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal. It is one of the largest scandals in sports history, and it continues to unfold. 

As a former gymnast, this story hits close to home. I competed in club gymnastics for 10 years, and for a number of years, I attended Olympic coach Marvin Sharp’s gymnastics camp in Indianapolis, IN. In 2015, he was charged with counts of child molestation and sexual misconduct with minors and ended up committing suicide in prison. This began the investigation by The Indianapolis Star that revealed how so many high-level coaches and USAG staff contributed to the abuse of hundreds of female gymnasts. 

In 2016, more than 265 women accused USAG and Michigan State University team doctor Larry Nassar of sexually assaulting them. During his week-long hearing, more than 150 testimonies were given by the accomplished women that were abused and forced by USAG to remain silent. Nassar was sentenced to more than 175 years. Last year, the Netflix documentary Athlete A detailed the history of abuse, the silenced reports, and the Indy Star’s work to uncover this scandal. 

This past winter, the scandal continued to unfurl. On February 26th, 2021, NPR released that the 2012 Olympic team coach, John Geddart, was charged with sexual assault, abuse of minors, and human trafficking. Human trafficking refers to the forced labor by minors in extreme conditions, which, unfortunately, in gymnastics, is no surprise. These minors were forced into excessive training to the point of injury with no power to speak up for themselves. The same day of NPR’s release, Geddart took his own life. The women affected by Geddart’s abuse did not have the chance to testify and begin their healing process. And, similar to Sharp, Geddart did not serve his life sentence or even face the charges. 

The history of abuse in gymnastics does not stop with big-name coaches and staff members. There are so many instances of college and club coaches, gym owners, and staff members in the gymnastics world that unfortunately contribute to this story. And it goes without saying that the perpetuated abuse culture stems from a poorly run administration that covers up cases rather than calls attention to them. 

Gymnasts are at their peak when they’re young. Most gymnasts’ dreams will end at the age of 16, where they’ve either missed their opportunity at an Olympic run, or they’ve started puberty and are becoming “too old” to compete. Gymnasts will spend upwards of 20-25 hours in the gym per week, focusing solely on their pursuit of perfection. At a young age, they’re told that their coaches will lead them to success. Whether that’s restricting their eating, forcing them to train through injury, or making them see doctors that perform osteopathic manipulative medicine (otherwise known as sexual penetration of these athletes), the young girls are forced to submit to whatever it takes to win the medal. And many gymnasts will experience lasting negative effects of gymnastics years after they hang up their grips. 

Resources: 

National Sexual Assault Hotline (24 hours): 1-800-656-4673

If you’re a current or former USA Gymnastics member seeking confidential, professional counseling treatment through the Athlete Assistance Fund, fill out to form to be contacted by a care team member to be connected with professional healthcare providers: https://www.phpaafund.org/#!/