Was I Part of the Gymnastics Abuse Problem?

Ten years ago, I quit being a gymnastics judge. Mostly because I had kids, but partly because of a growing sense something sinister was going on.

Illustration by Dola Sun

This month, as I watch gymnasts swing and tumble in the belated 2020 Summer Olympics—if Japan actually hosts them—I’ll be in awe of their grace and power like everyone. But I’ll probably also be looking for those tiny moments when an elbow bends or their angle isn’t quite vertical.

Having spent a dozen years judging gymnastics, which followed six years of competing and six years of coaching, my eyes are still trained to see the mistakes. I fully appreciate how amazing and nearly perfect these gymnasts are, but it’s a fun game to think about whether I would give full credit for a connection on the beam that has a millisecond pause or if that triple twist made it all the way around.

As I think about these things, inevitably I will think about something else: Why I stopped judging gymnastics 10 years ago. The simplest answer is that I had kids. Gymnastics meets happen on the weekend. Kids happen on the weekend, too. Being gone nearly every Saturday from October through April was too much, especially after working all week.

The other, less simple answer is that I had a growing sense something sinister was going on right in front of me. Though it would be another decade before the scandal that rocked USA Gymnastics would surface, the signs of it were already there when I hung up my uniform for good.

Do you remember the story from a few years ago about the heroic Alaska Airlines flight attendant who allegedly saved a young girl from human trafficking? The flight attendant sensed something wasn’t right by the girl’s demeanor and fearfulness of the man she was traveling with. As the story goes, the quick-thinking flight attendant got the girl’s attention and left her a note in the airplane bathroom asking if she was OK. The girl wrote back and said, “I need help.” Police met the plane in San Francisco, and the girl was saved.

According to Snopes, the story may not even be true. Nonetheless, when I read it some years back, the first thing I thought of was how many times as a judge—wearing a navy blue suit that very much resembled a flight attendant’s uniform—I had the odd impulse to send a note to one of the gymnasts I was judging, asking, “Are you OK?”

It’s not that I ever saw something worthy of being officially reported. But so many times, I sensed something wasn’t right. I can’t even say it was a mother’s instinct, because I mostly didn’t have kids yet. What I saw, over and over again, was a strange dynamic between ego-driven adults (mostly men, but some women) and girls with twig-like bodies and robotic stares. Were these girls happy, I wondered? Were they being scolded for gaining weight? Yelled at and demeaned? Told not to question the methods?

Having grown up in the Catholic Church and come of age just before the Covington Latin School priest abuse scandal cracked open in the 1990s, I learned early to be suspicious of any institution that regarded certain people as godly and bestowed on them the recurring benefit of the doubt. The longer I judged gymnastics, the more I realized that the environment around me was ripe for exploitation and misconduct. So many of these young girls (and their families) were driven by the idea of being a champion. USA Gymnastics played on that, creating a culture of silence and cover-up. Of course, I didn’t know what was being covered up back then. That would come later.

To be clear, I also saw legions of wonderful and dedicated coaches encouraging their charges—young women who were clearly loving their sport and having fun, just as I had. I especially loved judging high school gymnastics, where the atmosphere was more casual, more team-focused, and more fun than the rigor and seriousness of club gymnastics.

I also want to clarify that I never judged elite athletes. I was a level 10 judge, which was at least one rating below the highest, maybe two (the system for how one judges the Olympics was never that clear to me). But I didn’t need to be an elite judge to interact with all the big clubs in the Midwest and to witness the dark side of the larger-than-life personalities of many of these coaches.

The one I crossed paths with the most was John Geddert, who ran the Michigan club Twistars and died by suicide in February after his abuse was made public. When the story initially broke in 2018 about how Geddert physically and verbally abused his gymnasts—pushing them, throwing things at them, ignoring their injuries, threatening them, and using fear to control them—no part of me was surprised. It also wasn’t surprising that he worked in conjunction with Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics doctor who sexually abused gymnasts for decades and was sentenced to 175 years in prison after dozens of gymnasts made victim impact statements at his trial. Geddert abused them and sent them to Nassar, who told them he was on their side and would take care of them.

Not only was Geddert the star of every gymnastics symposium in the region (a symposium was an educational conference for coaches and judges), he walked around every gymnastics meet like he owned the floor. My fellow judges would say, with both dread and anxiety, “Pay attention, Geddert’s girls are up next.” Judging gymnastics wasn’t my career. Unlike some of the other judges, I didn’t run a gym or coach or have designs on advancing through the ranks of USA Gymnastics. This was just something fun I did on the weekends. The extra money was nice, but I didn’t truly need it.

So, on one hand, I remember thinking, why would I give a shit what this pompous jackass thinks? And yet, when he scowled at us, threw his hands up, or stood behind our judging table in a play to intimidate us, I was in fact intimidated. There I was, a grown woman with multiple college degrees, a successful writing career, and solid mental health, and I still wasn’t immune to the anxiety he created. What chance did a young girl have against that kind of daily toxicity, especially when USA Gymnastics rewarded him over and over again? (He was the coach of the 2012 U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team.)

As a judge, my job was to offer an objective-as-possible opinion about the degree of bend in a gymnast’s knees or the amplitude in her tumbling. I could do that. Increasingly, though, I couldn’t seem to distance myself from the look I would sometimes see in a gymnast’s eyes. The look that made me wonder what was really going on.

By the late 2000s, I made a conscious decision to stop judging club gymnastics. I didn’t want to be in that environment anymore. I wondered if I wasn’t somehow part of the problem because I was participating in a system that idolized coaches and didn’t ask questions. That decision coincided with having my first child and needing to scale back anyway. By the time my second child was born in 2010, I was only doing a handful of high school meets, and demands on my time eventually made me quit that as well.

Learning about the scandals years later sickened me, obviously. It also left me with a feeling of regret. And yet, layered under all of that, a deep and abiding love of the sport.

Gymnastics was so important to me as a young girl. It was both a physical and mental outlet—a way to express myself and to challenge myself. I still do handstands nearly every day and turn playground curbs into balance beams so I can do leaps and pop out cartwheels. I still love how the movement feels, even as my adult body doesn’t always want to play along.

While I had some initial dreams about being an Olympic champion after I watched Mary Lou Retton in 1984, I dropped that goal pretty quickly because I was a realist. I did gymnastics through the YMCA and had a series of lovely college girls as coaches. I worked hard, but it wasn’t an overly serious environment. At the time, my reasoning was, Oh, my family doesn’t have the money to send me to a fancy private club, which is where you need to go to get really good. That was true, but I also didn’t have the right personality to be a gymnastics champion. I’m terrible at submitting to authority. At not questioning. At blind faith. It’s why I was a lousy Catholic. It’s why I’ve worked for myself for 20 years. It’s certainly why I couldn’t stand to be around John Geddert.

I just wish I would have done something. Passed my score to my head judge, along with a secret Post-it note to the girl with the scared eyes, saying, “Are you OK?” Because, at the end of the day, the adults in the room did a terrible job of protecting the children.

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