There are no seniors remaining on Penn State’s current women’s gymnastics squad — the Nittany Lions’ entire 2012 freshman class has since transferred or dropped the sport. While the school says this is the result of normal athletic decisions, a number of former gymnasts have brought forth allegations of abuse that follow the school’s current head coach and associate head coach all the way back to their days at Auburn.
Over the past two months, some of these former Nittany Lions gymnasts, as well as others from Auburn, have spoken out to Penn State’s student paper and People magazine, claiming the school’s women’s gymnastics coaches, Jeff and Rachelle Thompson, emotionally abused members of both current team. The story was first brought to light by The Collegian in April in an extensive report unveiling allegations that the Thompsons verbally derided athletes while forcing team members to work through injuries against their trainers’ advice and attempted to manipulate their personal lives and eating habits. One woman claimed the verbal abuse drove her to the point of a suicide attempt. After investigating the claims, the school denies the wrongdoing.
Shealyn Farley, who is at the center of both reports and spoke with both publications, alleges the Thompsons, knowing she had undergone six surgeries on her knee by age 16, made it difficult for her to schedule a doctor’s appointment her freshman year when her knee caused her pain. Then, following another surgery, she claims the Thompsons ridiculed her when she could not participate in practice. Later in the semester, after returning from Thanksgiving break, Farley said Rachelle body-shamed the team — a claim that appears multiple times from separate players.
“We wear these tiny biker shorts and little tight tank tops to practice and you can see everything, your body, we’re all exposed. And the first thing Rachelle said to all of us was, ‘Wow, you guys look like you ate your way through break.’ Like we all got so fat in four days. They made us feel less and less wanted in that gym. Everybody was getting really upset.”
Farley also told People the Thompsons forced an unnamed athlete to run on the treadmill while calling her a whale. The repeated abuse wore down Farley, she told People, eventually leading to a suicide attempt that was foiled by her teammates. After speaking with her mother, Farley went in to quit soon after the nixed attempt, ending her relationship with the Thompsons and stepping away from the sport in a meeting she says confirmed her decision.
“One of the first comments out of Rachelle’s mouth was, ‘You wouldn’t be making your father proud,’ knowing my father passed away 4 years ago,” says Farley. “At that moment, I knew I had made the right decision.”
Both the People and Collegian reports include other detailed accounts from former Thompson-coached gymnasts as well as a Penn State assistant coach who has since quit. Kristin Blades told People the Thompsons attempted to force her to cease relationships with a member of team and her boyfriend. She went on to tell the publication the coaches told fellow Penn State gymnasts to cut their relationships with her and forced her to attend a competition the day after she underwent shoulder surgery and was derided by coaches and team captains for not cheering loudly enough.
Penn State released a lengthy statement to People, writing that after hearing the gymnasts’ complaints, the school completed an investigation and found no wrongdoing by the Thompsons. In its statement, the school first attempted to express empathy for the affected students while positing that the decision to walk away from the program was not because of emotional abuse but their own athletic shortcomings or personal decisions.
The university went on to write that all exiting athletes are required to complete an exit interview with an administrator, though Penn State did not specify which administrators conduct the interviews. All athletes are also asked to complete an “annual student experience survey,” the school wrote. Through these information-collecting processes, the university reported it felt it has since properly addressed the issues.
“A full review of the gymnastics program was conducted by the University’s Office of Ethics & Compliance in December and January, following information Penn State received earlier this academic year. The Athletics Department reviewed the report and noted that while that some student athletes reported behaviors they found personally objectionable no instances of abuse were identified. We believe we have addressed the issues identified and are optimistic about the future of the program. Our goal, as always is to create an environment that facilitates the best possible student athlete experience for all.”
People obtained an email sent May 19, a month after the Collegiate report was published, in which Rachelle Thompson announced she will retire at the end of June. Jeff Thompson, per Penn State, will stay on as head coach.