In my pursuit to encourage an ideological and cultural shift in gymnastics, I brainstormed about new ways to broadcast my views to likeminded coaches and gym owners. Vaguely, I remembered seeing something about a gymnastics club owners association. Thinking that this could be a viable platform to appeal to club owners (those who can truly effect change), I decided to look into it. I was disheartened.
The United States Gymnastics Club Owners Association (USGCOA) was created by a number of club owners across the United States who were “frustrated by the direction of USA Gymnastics [USAG] and the lack of a voice that club owners had.” On the surface, this seemed like a possible outlet for me. However, with its official unveiling at the end of November 2018, the USGCOA posted “A Letter From The Board” on its website. The purpose of this poorly constructed letter is to introduce the intentions and to shape the future endeavors of the USGCOA (which includes influencing the USAG Board of Directors), which only communicate propaganda for USA Gymnastics and the status quo.
I encourage you to click the link and read this letter put forth by the USGCOA because it represents the attitudes firmly held by USAG. This is the crux of the matter: the reason why TGC (my own gym) and many other clubs have left or wish to leave USAG is contained in this letter. The philosophy behind the contents of this letter, and held by the USGCOA Board of Directors, is what got us to our current situation in gymnastics. I hope that reading this letter and my critique of it will prompt you to join me in discouraging the ideals of what is espoused, refuse to let the status quo remain, and help be a part of the actual change that gymnastics needs.
The following is my critique of “A Letter From The Board.”
The first section of the USGCOA “A Letter From The Board” serves merely as lip-service to the victims of Larry Nassar. The board’s obligatory apology to the survivors establishes that USAG (and the USGCOA) is not, in fact, Larry Nassar, and grants themselves sanction for the big “but” that comes later in their letter.
The fact of the matter is, not one person can deny that wrongs and atrocities — not just “mistakes” (as the USGCOA downplays them) — have been committed. These horrific events have been covered in the news, and have permeated, not just the gymnastics community, but the US media, the US Olympic Committee (USOC), and youth sports in general. There are two major reports — “Report to USA Gymnastics on Proposed Policy and Procedural Changes for the Protection of Young Athletes” by Deborah J. Daniels, J.D. and the “Report of the Independent Investigation” by John McPhee and James P. Dowden — that go into great detail about just how much the USOC and USAG knowingly covered up major crimes committed against their athletes, most of whom were minors.
There is no forgetting the seven days of gut wrenching video coverage in Judge Rosemarie Aquilina’s courtroom while survivors of Larry Nassar captivated America and described their abuse. There were hundreds of survivors not even represented in the courtroom that week. So, no. There is no denying it.
In light of this, the make-up of the USGCOA Board of Directors is especially troublesome. Two members (including the USGCOA President) were sitting on the USA Gymnastics Board of Directors when the entire board was forced to resign by the US Olympic Committee in January of 2018. The rest of the USGCOA board membership has strong and longterm ties to USAG and have been heavily involved at the top ranks of USAG for a long time. They are some of the people who helped shape USAG for what it is, created its policies, and molded its culture into a haven for power-hungry coaches to thrive under its easily broken rules and lax enforcement.
The following are the USGCOA Board Members and their ties to USAG.
Kelli Hill (USGCOA President) – a USAG mainstay for decades, State and Regional committee, USA Gymnastics Junior Olympic program committee, International Elite Committee, USA Gymnastics Board of Directors, from which she was forced to resign in January 2018.
Sandy Flores (USGCOA Vice President) – state of Washington USAG State Committee member since 2010, former State Chair, served on Region 2 Committee.
Kim Thomson (USGCOA Treasurer) – actively involved in USAG Washington for 20 years, current Central Representative on USA Gymnastics Washington State Committee.
Denise Dalton (USGCOA Secretary) – member of USAG Nevada men’s and women’s committees, mother of two-time Olympian Jake Dalton.
Cassie Rice (Region 1) – USAG Nevada State Chair since 2010, coached Olympian Tasha Schwikert, presenter at Regional and National Congress for over 10 years, teaches W300/400 courses for USA Gymnastics.
Brent Phelps (Region 2) – USAG Washington committee, owner of one of the largest USA Gymnastics teams in the United States.
Jeff Beal (Region 3) – JO and Elite level-coach since 1992, including US National Team Member Katie Hardman and JO National Champion Amari Drayton, clinician for Gymnastics Association of Texas, Region 3 and USA T&T National Team Camps, coached at National Team Training Centers including Karolyi’s.
Scott Roberts (Region 4) – coach since 2008 and USAG club owner since 2016.
Don McPherson (Region 5) – USAG Illinois State Committee since 1978, past USA National Team Coach, current Illinois Safety Chair since 1998, USAG Advisory Board from 2012-2016, Region 5 USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2018.
Tony Retrosi (Region 6) – USA Gymnastics educational service award in 2010, USAG Safety and Risk Management Course and USAG University course instructor, chairman of US Elite Coaches Association.
Lindsey Stancil (Region 7) – regular beam clinician for Region 7.
Brad Harris (Region 8) – Region 8 JO Chairman since 2006, USAG Florida State Committee.
Tom Koll (Program Advisor) – USAG mainstay for decades, has worked in all facets of the Women’s Program in the United States, forced to resign from the USAG Board of Directors in January 2018.
Claudia Kretschmer (USAG Liaison) – developed W200 Course, developed HUGS Program, Kickstart, State Committee, Xcel National Chair, Women’s Program Committee, USA Gymnastics Interim Board member, Vice Chair USA Gymnastics Programs Council.
The USGCOA’s letter states that “cleaning house is an option.” But by studying the make-up of the USGCOA board, it is clear that they do not believe in cleaning house. As such, they do not believe that any of the USGCOA board members who have been high-up in the USAG ranks at the local, regional, and national levels for decades had anything to do with shaping the culture and structure that enabled the abuse of hundreds of kids. In fact, near the end of the letter the USGCOA pleads with its audience to allow them to show us “who [they] really are.” What they truly do not understand, or what they certainly do not acknowledge, is that they are representative of USAG. The culture of USAG is what it is because of them and the gym owners and coaches who have blindly followed in their footsteps for decades.
USAG’s culture allowed Larry Nassar to thrive. The higher-ups in USAG did not take the time to think that their actions could lead to anything beyond the glory of winning medals, not to mention giving a man unfettered access to children in their hotel rooms at their competitions or dorm rooms at their training camps. To USAG, things like this had never presented a problem before (i.e. “this is how we’ve always done it”). However, these things were happening under USAG’s nose, and at the same time they espoused to the rest of us lowly club owners that sexual abuse could occur in our own gyms at any time with the USAG “Participant Welfare Policy.” Perhaps USAG should have heeded its own advice when Steve Penny proclaimed from the rooftops “How USA Gymnastics Combats Sexual Misconduct.” The “better knowledge” and “wiser eyes” that the USGCOA mentions were had, they just didn’t pertain to specific people high in USAG’s ranks, and those just happened to be the specific people who needed to heed them the most.
Perhaps USAG should have maintained more of the burden rather than pushing it off to parents such as in the “We Care” campaign. USAG wanted it both ways when it came to parents: parents were to look out for their own children, yet, especially when it came to elite athletes, parents were expected to give up their oversight over their own children. Parents were not allowed to travel with their gymnasts, or even stay in the same hotels (not rooms, hotels) as their daughters, for fear of causing a distraction. First, this puts winning over the welfare of the gymnasts. And second, I would consider sexual molestation a major distraction. Without parents, who was left to watch over and defend these kids? Answer: a well-positioned pedophile.
The USGCOA is correct in one respect: Larry Nassar does not define USAG. Mental and emotional abuse continues throughout gyms across the country. Kids suffer at the hands of abusive coaches on a daily basis. It does not take a lawsuit to see this or know this. The power play that some coaches use over their gymnasts, in the name of winning, comes as simply as not allowing kids to wear tights at practice, even when they are teenagers with adult concerns; and making them wear white competition leotards to encourage them to stay lean. Weighing gymnasts once or twice a practice and rewarding or punishing them according to the number the scale reads is abuse. Making gymnasts climb the rope twenty times because she is afraid of her beam series is abuse. Pitting teammates against each other and ignoring gymnasts because they are injured or perform poorly at a meet is abuse — all in the name of winning.
It is a culture that is not just defined by the sexual abuse by Larry Nassar. It’s got more to it: the problems surrounding USAG are systemic and cultural. There are power-hungry coaches and gym owners who find it necessary and justified to use and abuse children so their gyms can be recognized among other USAG member clubs and the elite coaches and gym owners who make the rules and policies. Some coaches find it necessary (or perhaps just easier) to abuse their gymnasts in order to produce the results they want and give in to peer pressure. There is no way to reign in all the defects surrounding USAG unless it is disbanded and a new group is at the helm. But the USGCOA does not see it that way.
The USGCOA board members cannot fathom a world of gymnastics without themselves at the helm, complete with self-imposed titles and a false sense of importance. That is the impetus of this organization.
The section on SafeSport demonstrates this point, and is especially confusing — on purpose. On the surface, the board implies that SafeSport was supposed to come in, clean up the mess that Larry Nassar left, and ensure that something like it never happened again. The truth is, the USGCOA did not want SafeSport to come in and tell them what to do, how to coach, and how to run their businesses. (Which I understand, but given the circumstances, this ideal is no longer possible.) The USGCOA is content knowing that SafeSport has not accomplished what it was charged to do. The USGCOA didn’t learn a “harsh lesson,” as they claim. What they are doing here is mocking SafeSport and the overall effort to rectify the effects of a culture that many people like themselves created. They are not taking any responsibility for the USAG culture that created the “wrongs” that were committed against their athletes, or for the reason that SafeSport needed to be involved in the first place. Rather, they are pointing out the fact that putting an entity such as SafeSport in place to cure the culture has not worked and will not work.
While I agree that SafeSport has been a paper tiger thus far, neither USAG nor the USGCOA is in any position to deride its intentions. USAG had always espoused that athlete safety and well-being was one of their highest priorities, while at the same time turning the other way when athletes were abused, filing accusations in a drawer. Their system did not work for the athletes, but it protected those who were guilty of abuse, or of covering it up. The USGCOA does not want to welcome a new standard in SafeSport, and is dismissing it. They want the status quo.
There are many, many good club owners and coaches who happen to be members of USA Gymnastics. If any of them are like me, they had become members of USAG because it was their only option. In these clubs and with these club owners is where the change needs to start, because, it is obvious, the change is not happening with the USAG elites — reflected in the coaches and gym owners who comprise the USGCOA. They do not believe that they had anything to do with the culture that enabled Larry Nassar. The structure created by the elites is where the problem lies: this structure created the culture where abuse could grow undetected and thrive.
The USGCOA Board claims that they are leading by example. But part of leading by example is knowing when something is so detrimental that it needs to be discarded, even when it isn’t the most popular or the easiest thing to do. The leadership that the USGCOA espouses instead exacerbates a culture that created a place for the worst case of sexual abuse in sports history to happen — never question a coach, and instill fear into kids in order to get them to perform.
The USGCOA argues that discontinuing USAG would overlook a great number of gymnasts, most of whom I call the “Everyday Gymnast.” These kids have dreams regardless of their sport’s governing body. And last I checked, their dreams do not include being under the auspices of a program that allows children to be abused. The vast majority of these kids, when they enter gymnastics, have no idea what USAG is, or what competitive structure a gym uses. To dismantle USAG will have no effect on them, which negates the USGCOA’s argument surrounding this topic.
I have been pushing for an end to USAG while fully supporting these “thousands and thousands of young children.” These are the children who need to truly be separated from the perils of USAG. There are other programs out there that can absorb them and give them a better opportunity to thrive. For instance, our club participates in the United States Association of Independent Gymnastics Clubs (USAIGC), which is an international league based on NCAA rules. There are a number of clubs participating in the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). Many states have their own leagues. To suggest that just because a club doesn’t participate in USAG makes it illegitimate is inherently wrong, elitist, and overlooking the kids who participate in these other leagues. USAG is not what is best for the Everyday Gymnast. Read my “Gymnastics Manifesto” for the many reasons why USAG was not right for my kids — before Larry Nassar became a household name.
But the USGCOA does not see it that way, and here is where the “but” comes in their letter: “We have no choice but to fight for the survival of USA Gymnastics.”
What? Why? How did this intellectual leap happen? Where is the bridge? “We have no choice”? Just because there are gymnasts, does not mean that USAG has to be their governing body. Just because kids compete under USAG’s umbrella, does not mean that it is what is best for any of them, and certainly not all of them.
Even if USAG is not to remain as the governing body, something like it will manifest and take over (much like the USGCOA). This is the time that gym owners and coaches who do not believe in USAG’s philosophy and mission must make a decision: continue with the status quo, or join another league that will be better for their gymnasts.
Most of the USGCOA board members are also heavily involved in elite gymnastics. They mention the great leadership of Tom Forster. Perhaps Tom Forster is a strong leader for the elite gymnast. But I argue that the elite gymnasts will always have strong leaders to step up for them. It’s easier to want to represent the best, isn’t it? It is the Everyday Gymnast who needs a voice and a strong leader, and USAG (and the USGCOA) is not providing her with one. The USGCOA’s argument is that there are a lot of gymnasts under USAG, therefore, we cannot change the structure. That argument is faulty. It insinuates that just because it exists, it is good. It doesn’t take into account that the system is deeply flawed. If anyone should know that hard work doesn’t guarantee success, it is a bunch of gymnastics coaches. There are no guarantees. This is the time to replace USAG, when everything is already in shambles. Start over.
The USGCOA Board says they want a chance to show the world what USAG really is. However, USAG has had plenty of time to show us who they really are, and to the detriment of hundreds of girls and women, that is exactly what happened. I will not stand by and give these people another chance. They say that Larry Nassar doesn’t define USAG: who, or what, does? What exactly is the culture that they have not yet conveyed? They don’t tell us.
But the Board does get angry: “We’ve already pledged stronger, better and healthier.”
They are saying, “We’ve already told you that we are going to do all these things. Leave us alone.” But pledging is not doing or ensuring, as we have already seen. The USGCOA is demanding special dispensation for us to acknowledge the past, move on, and let them continue to run gymnastics in this country. They claim they want to move forward, but that is easy to say when they weren’t the ones who were abused. How is keeping USAG intact moving forward for the survivors?
The USGCOA’s argument is to keep doing more of the same, so we don’t have to disrupt anyone too much (especially them). There are 350 women whose lives were completely upended and scarred forever. Not to mention countless other children who have silently endured mental, physical, and emotional abuse.
There is no change espoused in this letter. To preserve USAG is to preserve an entity without an underlying philosophy beyond “winning medals.” If this continues to be what defines the program, then “anything goes as long as we win” will continue to be the driving mantra. The USGCOA is grasping to a dying program, one that is collapsing under the pressure of its own evils. USAG has no clear direction, and the USGCOA has no clear motive to exist except for preserving what they know. To write this letter is short-sighted and it reeks of self-preservation.