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The Dark Side of Elite Gymnastics

When a gymnast steps up to vault, to the bars, the beam, or the floor exercise, the viewers watching from the stadium or at home see a well polished young lady. Often a lady so young she still looks like a child. She has on her rhinestone embroidered leotard, her hair in a tidy bun, a little eye makeup, and chalk covering her hands and feet. She’s ready to stun the world with her skills and prove that she’s worthy of the gold medal not just to herself, but to the thousands of on lookers.

Here’s what the viewers don’t see. A young woman who gets tons of bloody rips on her hands from hours and hours of bar work. A torn up muscle in her knee from that landing on vault the previous week that didn’t go quite right. The mental notes on the exact position to hit on beam for the wolf leap she has not quite mastered yet. Or the new addition to her third tumbling pass on floor to gain her a fraction of a point higher than the Russian gymnast across the stadium. And the thousands of dollars her parents spent on coaching and travel to get her to this point.

After watching the Magnificent 7 win Olympic glory in 1996, I joined the sport. I did it until the age of twelve when I was injured to the point of not being able to continue. I watched the sport over the years and admired the commitment and beauty of the young gymnasts. McKayla Maroney remains one of my favorites from the previous decade. Her vault during the team finals in the London Olympics was one of the most stunning things I have ever seen in the sport. The Russians looked on and quickly crumbled in their performance after seeing the perfection she accomplished. Even a judge can be seen in the videos with her mouth gaping wide open in shock of Maroney’s perfect landing.

But the beautiful sport of gymnastics has a dark secret. One McKayla Maroney learned in a very horrific way. It’s riddled with pedophiles and sexual predators.

Earlier this week, McKayla Maroney, the Olympic team gold medalist and silver medal vaulter came out about the sexual abuse she endured from the convicted sexual offender, Larry Nassar. He was the team doctor. She did so through the Twitter hashtag, #MeToo where she told a dark story of how he preyed on her during the Olympic Games and the World Championships. She went to sleep one night during the Olympics thinking she would die from the devastation of what happened to her.

I posted a brief blog article about the incident. Several people responded to my blog post on Twitter with surprise that something so dark and vile could take place in the sport without being checked. However, it made perfect sense to me after having watched it for two decades.

Gymnasts are always at the mercy of their coach and team officials. Think the gymnasts should have been able to tell their parents about the sexual abuse they endured? Unlikely. Gymnasts are separated from their parents. If a gymnast speaks to her parents in person during a competition, she can be disqualified. And these competitions go on for days, or sometimes even weeks. Gymnasts wanting to go to the World Championships or Olympics in the United States must go to the Karolyi camp located in rural Texas. There are no parents allowed and there is very little cell reception. This is done on purpose to isolate the gymnasts so they can focus solely on their gymnastics.

Then there are the pressures from home that go unnoticed. These gymnasts have parents that spent thousands of dollars to make their dreams come true. Coming out and admitting that their coach or their team doctor is abusing them puts their entire career at risk, the money their parents spent at risk, and their dreams at risk. Coaches and team officials talk to one another constantly. And if the abuser has the power, they can make sure that the gymnast gains a reputation for being difficult to work with and no one will coach them ever again.

Also, remember that the gymnasts we are talking about are under the age of eighteen. A gymnast must be sixteen years of age to compete in Worlds and the Olympics, but many gymnasts vying for other spots are much younger. They’re children. And most children are frightened of their abusers. They’re powerless. Especially in a world like elite gymnastics where their dreams and future is entirely in the control of adults who only want the toughest young women competing. If you show weakness of any kind in front of stiff upper lip team managers like the Marta Karolyi, you are out with no second chance. You have proven you do not have the mental toughness to compete on the world stage.

That is the world of elite gymnastics. That is why sexual predators can sneak in and choose a victim. It is an ongoing problem. One that I do not see ending any time soon. Primarily because people such as Marta Karolyi would gladly use children under the age of thirteen to compete if the United States Olympic committee permitted such things. The Chinese, Romanians and Russians have had their government illegally forge documents claiming their gymnasts are over the age of sixteen all the time. Because younger gymnasts are willing to shut up and do what they are told. I have always had a strong dislike for Marta Karoyli. And since McKayla Maroney came forward, my dislike has only intensified.

Remember the adorable gymnast Dominique Moceanu from the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games? Moceanu was the gymnast who made the gymnastics officials change the rules to state a gymnast must be over the age of sixteen to compete. She was only fourteen when she competed in the Olympics, and the story of the abuse she endured (although not sexual) came to light only a few years later when she divorced her parents and started working with a coach far away from Bela Karolyi, husband to Marta Karolyi. The retired gymnast details many of the abuses in her book ‘Off Balance,’ and was surprised to find that officials within the sport did not care and did not bother taking more precautions to protect gymnasts after her auto-biography was released.

The officials within the sport still do not care. They still do not protect their young gymnasts. And the problems undoubtedly continue. It is a sport where only the tough can survive. So parents who have little girls in this sport, keep a close eye on them. And maybe urge your daughters toward collegiate gymnasts rather than Olympic or World glory. Especially given that the spots for the Olympics are getting fewer and fewer. It was once seven girls who got to go. Now it is down to five. Soon it will probably be four. Your daughter can have dreams. Just guide her toward having ones that will keep her happy, safe, and away from the gymnastics officials who do not care about the abuses taking place.

I am left wondering about the after effects of such abuse. If one were to look at McKayla Maroney’s Instagram account now, they would see over-sexualized photographs that the now retired gymnast took of herself. Whether our current degenerate society or her previous abuse is to blame for this, one cannot really know. But we can take the necessary precautions to protect our daughters from such situations by knowing about the abuse in the gymnastics world, and always telling our children that if they feel violated by an adult, please tell someone. No dream is worth more than one’s innocence.


The Dark Side of Elite Gymnastics

by Bre Faucheux time to read: 5 min