I was an elite gymnast in the 1980s—a seven-time National Team member and the 1986 National Champion. During my time as a gymnast, I suffered a torn hamstring, a broken right ankle, a fractured femur, shin splints so severe I needed 10 Advil at the start of every practice just to walk, two black eyes, untold broken fingers and toes, and finally, an injury that left my ankle grotesquely swollen and discolored for two years before being under-diagnosed as “bone chips” by a doctor influenced by my coaches who wanted me back in the gym. (It was only at the age of 40 that I discovered how severe the break had been—“shattered” is what my doctor told me.)
I limped away from the sport physically and emotionally broken just a few months before the Olympic Trials in 1988, with an eating disorder, depression, thoughts of suicide, and nonexistent self esteem.
Yet I started gymnastics in 1975 with a pure love of the sport and a preternatural determination to be good at it. As a six-year-old child, I was drawn to the image presented to me on television—smiling, happy little girls soaring through the air and waving to the crowd. I didn’t aspire to medals or an Olympic berth. I just wanted to fly.
That joy I had in the gym in my first few years transitioned into seriousness as I entered the competitive world of elite gymnastics, the highest in the sport. But I held onto the love of the sport for years, until in the final phase of my career, it was destroyed by a team of coaches who believed that by constantly belittling, fat-shaming and insulting me, forcing me to overtrain, and denying all signs of serious injury, they could mold me into a champion. I had no notion of the lasting impacts that this coaching culture of intense brutality would have on me when I accepted it as necessary to achieve my potential. At 19, I fled the sport, entered college, and attempted to simply cordon off my experiences, to forget and to move on.
But that isn’t how abuse works. It burrows inside your psyche. And time and again I find myself unable to leave it behind, be it in Chalked Up, the memoir I wrote in 2008 detailing the abusive training culture I experienced, or Athlete A, the documentary I produced in 2020 examining the abusive culture of gymnastics. Or when, this year, gymnasts Lisa Mason and Hailee Hoffman spoke out about their own alleged abuse by their coaches. This is what drives me and keeps me asking: How do we translate our learnings into action?
Because if you are told you are garbage every day, you start to believe it. If you are told you are too fat to be coached when you’ve barely eaten and you’re starving, if you’re told you are weak when you are training eight hours a day on serious injuries, if you are screamed at constantly that it is your fault—if you were better/thinner/faster, I wouldn’t have to scream at you, you’ll believe it is always your own failings that prompt poor treatment. And that you are, in fact, worthless.
When I wrote Chalked Up, which also flagged suspected sexual abuse, I needed to write it all down in order to put it behind me and move beyond the sport. It had the opposite effect. In challenging the accepted coaching methodology, one that had been framed as simply “tough coaching,” I made myself an outcast. And ironically, I was drawn back into the world of gymnastics, this time as a cautionary tale for those who dared to declare this treatment unacceptable. I was dismissed by the gymnastics community as a loser, a bitter angry ex-gymnast in need of money and attention. There was no acknowledgement that what I said could be true. No investigations of my coaches or others mentioned were initiated. I was met with utter derision and blackballed from the sport as a liar with an axe to grind while those in question continued to coach children.
Today—the abusive, corrupt culture has been revealed. Larry Nassar, the team doctor for USA Gymnastics (USAG) for almost 30 years, is in prison for sexually assaulting young athletes. Through the investigation of his crimes, the culture of abuse within the world of gymnastics has been brought to light. And I am now considered an early whistleblower.
In June Athlete A, a documentary I produced on the culture of corruption and abuse, was released on Netflix. The film highlights the coaching cruelty, the silencing of young athletes, and the alleged cover-up among USAG leadership that has gone on for decades. Nassar committed horrific sexual assault—the culture of elite gymnastics allowed for him to go unchecked for far too long. What if action had been taken 12 years ago when my book came out? How many athletes could have been spared years of abuse, and trauma, and PTSD?
After Athlete A was released, gymnasts around the world started to break their silence, telling their stories about the oppressive culture of obedience within the sport using the hashtag #GymnastAlliance. Earlier this year Lisa Mason, a 2000 British Olympian, said her coaches threw shoes at her, scratched her, and poured rubbing alcohol on her blistered and bleeding hands, raw from practicing on the uneven bars. Mason, along with Catherine Lyons and Jennifer Pinches, also from the U.K., started the movement and have now been joined by gymnasts from Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Belgium and the U.S., all posting harrowing stories of abusive coaching. “It was a tipping point that enabled this movement to happen,” said Pinches, a 2012 British Olympian. Former Stanford gymnast Hailee Hoffman, 24, who filed a complaint against her coach Mary Wright for emotional, physical, and verbal abuse, told The New York Times: “I feel morally obligated to speak out because Mary’s abusive coaching was so seriously damaging that it’s taken me years to process the extent of it.”
But how do we translate this outpouring into action? National federations in Britain, Australia, the Netherlands, and Belgium initiated investigations. The Dutch federation suspended their elite gymnastics program to better understand what’s been happening but quickly restarted without announcing meaningful findings or changes. USAG released a statement in response to the film, but we’ve yet to see any real transformative action. What needs to happen here at home?
First, USAG as a whole needs to issue an apology to those who have bravely spoken up. A deeply felt apology that acknowledges what the organization could have done differently to protect its athletes. [Editor’s note: USAG released a statement in September addressing leadership changes and a focus on putting athletes first to build a “culture of health, safety, and excellence, where athletes can thrive in sport and in life.”] They also need to investigate and act urgently, banning coaches found guilty not just of sexual abuse, but of emotional and physical abuse as well. Implement robust coach education around child development and the long-term harms of this kind of abuse. Celebrate the athletes brave enough to come forward so that others know they won’t be shamed if they do. Initiate reports without waiting for a formal claim if a coach abuses in plain sight on the competition floor. Educate athletes in clubs across the country, teaching these kids what is appropriate treatment and what is not, so that they know when and how to speak up, where to call, whom to tell.
People who are troubled by the revelations have repeatedly asked me, “Can I still watch gymnastics?” Gymnastics is a beautiful sport; the performances are breathtaking, requiring grace, agility, speed, and power. It’s easy to get sucked into the image USAG deftly created—one of happy girls with bouncing ponytails and big smiles entertaining a rapt audience. But there is darkness behind that image.
I tell anyone who asks, “Yes, you can watch. But do so thoughtfully and actively.” Demand change of USAG through social media. Support the athletes brave enough to come forward and tell their stories, thus encouraging more to do the same. Don’t allow abuse to become normalized as “tough coaching” or necessary to produce champions when in fact, we lose more promising athletes to the cruelty than we gain winners.
Demand more from sponsors and partners of USAG. Vote with your wallet. Refuse to support companies that align with an organization that accepts and promotes the abuse of children.
Anything less is complicit.
For the first time since I left the sport, I watch gymnastics again. For too long it was just too agonizing. I could see the wincing in pain on a tough landing. The snide comments from coaches on the sidelines, the castlike taping of injured bodies, and the darkness overwhelmed the beauty of the performances for me. But for the first time since I walked away feeling worthless, I’m hopeful change is possible. I can see glimmers of joy again when I watch these incredible athletes competing for their country or their university. I believe coaches can amplify that joy with positivity and an athlete centered approach.
I will continue to speak up and agitate first for understanding, then for change, because I love gymnastics. I believe in the promise of sports for kids. I believe that at every level, sports can and should build healthy minds and bodies, equipping children to overcome adversity and learn the value of hard work. These are worthwhile lessons for kids and young adults that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.
We all want better for these athletes. And as much as we love winning in this country, I think, and hope, we love our children more.
Jennifer Sey is the Global Brand President of Levi's, producer and advocate.
Originally Appeared on Glamour