HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. — The love of gymnastics still runs deep among the thousands of young girls who streamed into suburban Chicago’s Sears Centre Arena this weekend to cheer reigning world all-around champion Morgan Hurd and other rising stars at the 2018 American Cup.
Dressed in colorful leggings and pastel puffer coats, their hair fastened by glittery bows as if they were ready to compete themselves, the girls were so eager to get to the souvenir stands and their seats that they scurried past the booth at the entrance dedicated to USA Gymnastics’ Safe Sport program.
As the country’s first major competition since January’s sentencing hearing for former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, the American Cup represented a gauge of the sport’s appeal in the aftermath of the sexual abuse scandal that has spawned multiple lawsuits — including one filed on the eve of the competition by six-time Olympic medalist Aly Raisman, charging that USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee “knew or should have known” about Nassar’s behavior.
The event also offered USA Gymnastics a platform for publicizing what it’s doing to protect gymnasts going forward, following the detailed testimony from more than 150 of Nassar’s victims.
At the Safe Sport booth, eight-foot-tall banners displayed the toll-free number (1-833-844-SAFE) and email address (email@example.com) for reporting abuse. Brochures about child sexual abuse prevention were free for the taking, as were copies of USA Gymnastics’ beefed-up Safe Sport policy, which requires all members to immediately report instances of abuse.
At least three gymnasts did report Nassar’s abuse to USA Gymnastics officials, but CEO Steve Penny failed to alert the FBI for several weeks, inaction that ultimately cost him his job. The sport’s entire governing board resigned last month.
“We need to take away the taboo of speaking about child sexual abuse,” explained Toby Stark, director of Safe Sport, on hand to field questions from parents. “We want our athletes to be educated and empowered, but at the end of the day, it’s the adults’ responsibility to protect our children.”
Inside the 11,000-seat arena, a huge video board aired a taped message before the competition from USA Gymnastics’ recently installed CEO and president, Kerry Perry, who called on gymnastics clubs, coaches, parents and athletes to help safeguard gymnasts going forward.
“Our work is far from being done, it won’t be easy, and we can’t do this alone,” Perry said. “Athlete safety must be at the forefront of everything we do, every day.”
Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a three-time Olympic gold medalist in swimming and civil rights attorney who has been a leader in a broad-based group seeking athlete-centered reforms in Olympic sports, applauds several of the steps USA Gymnastics has taken.
Among them: It closed its national team training center at the Karolyi Ranch outside Houston, where Nassar molested gymnasts under the guise of mandatory, unsupervised “treatments.” It also has expanded its list of banned coaching behaviors to include four additional types of abuse, including verbal and emotional abuse.
It now requires gymnasts to travel to national team camps and competitions with chaperons, whether parent or guardian, and pays their travel expenses. And it’s creating an Athlete Task Force to give gymnasts a voice in policy decision.
But the most meaningful reform, in the view of Hogshead-Makar, would be empowering current and future generations of gymnasts rather than protecting them.
“It’s about power, not protection,” said Hogshead-Makar, who went on to explain that most successful, happy and truly “safe” athletes are those who are empowered to object if a coach demands they train while injured or speak out if they feel they’re being abused.
Athlete empowerment wasn’t the hallmark of the command-and-control coaching style of the Romanian husband-and-wife tandem of Bela and Martha Karolyi, who transformed U.S. women’s gymnastics into the global gold standard over the past three decades. Obedience and conformity were.
Changing that involves a cultural shift that’s more difficult than any policy shift or series of high-profile firings and hiring.
In many ways, “not complaining” is embedded in the culture of elite women’s gymnastics, as is tolerating extreme pain, training through injury and practicing to the point of exhaustion. Gymnastics, after all, is a performance sport in which athletes are rewarded for smiling while doing the impossible. There’s no place for groaning, as weightlifters do, or grimacing like hurdlers or distance runners. In women’s gymnastics, extreme physical exertion must be wrapped in a hair ribbon and masked by lipstick.
And the great Olympic champions — such as Raisman and Simone Biles, Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson before them — make flying look easy, allowing fans to suspend any notion that pain is part of the process.
In the wake of the sport’s biggest scandal, the question is: Can teenage gymnasts vying for an Olympic berth find their voice — the voice that Raisman, 23, summoned in court, granted the opportunity to stare down a monster, as did so many of former gymnasts?
As Hogshead-Makar noted, it’s one thing for USA Gymnastics to provide a toll-free number to report abuse. The bigger question is: Will gymnasts use it?
Rhonda Faehn, USA Gymnastics women’s program director, says she is committed to getting young gymnasts to speak out when something bothers them but acknowledges that it’s “a constant challenge.”
“You have to let the athlete at a very young age understand and know that they can — and it’s important that they do — learn to communicate and speak up,” said Faehn, a former elite gymnast who coached 13 seasons at Florida. “It’s not only okay, but the best gymnastics results from a teamwork of communication.”
There are encouraging signs among the rising generation of Olympic hopefuls.
Margzetta Frazier, 18, a U.S. national team member from Erial, N.J., wrote a powerful post on social media last month voicing heartache for the gymnasts who had been victimized by Nassar and firm belief that USA Gymnastics could still thrive. “We cannot put our bodies on hold,” Frazier wrote. “Time is not on our side. We still have dreams and goals to obtain.”
Hurd, 16, the reigning world all-around champion, voiced similar sentiment in a tweet Feb. 5, writing: “We will continue to stand together and support one another. We WILL NOT stop working to make this country proud in all we do. We WILL NOT let evil ruin us.”
Hurd didn’t flinch when asked this weekend at the American Cup whether the sport’s abuse scandal had weighed on her. “It has impacted us as gymnasts just a little,” Hurd said. “But we’re sticking together and [we] just keep working hard toward our goals.”
Hurd appears to be well on the way to her next major goal — a spot on the United States’ 2020 Tokyo Olympic team. She also placed first on the beam at the American Cup and tied for top honors on the floor and bars.
Vault was the first of the four women’s apparatus. And the arena fell silent when China’s Mao Yi came up short on her attempt, with her feet landing while her body continued rotating forward. She collapsed immediately and lay motionless, a forearm to her head, as medical care arrived — an orthopedist, a trainer, a local physician and a representative from the Chinese delegation. An extended delay followed while her leg was examined. Someone arrived with an air cast, and Mao was strapped to a gurney and carried off to applause from the crowd. She was later diagnosed with a broken left leg.
Hurd was up next.
Asked afterward whether she hadn’t been shaken by Mao’s injury, Hurd said: “It didn’t affect me too much. Everybody kind of kept me shielded from that. I just focused on what I needed to do and not what was happening around me.”
Hurd barely put a foot wrong from there but vowed afterward to polish her landings on all four apparatus. The awards ceremony followed, and Hurd left the arena with a bouquet of flowers, a trophy and another title on her young résumé.
But it was the Maletic family — Suzana and daughters Natalie, 12, and Klara, 6 — who were last to leave the arena, lingering over purchases at the souvenir shop on the concourse. They had driven nine hours from their home outside Toronto so the girls could see their gymnastics heroines in person.
“I was rooting for Morgan Hurd,” Natalie said. “I like her passion for the sport. And she loves Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling! I just love the sportsmanship among all the athletes. They’re such great role models.”
Klara, the competitive gymnast in the family, had less to say, busy doing her balance-beam routine on an imaginary beam, although uneven bars, she explained, was her favorite. Klara was going home with a Liukin-designed leotard and a tiny matching one for Maggie, her American Girl doll.
All told, it was a marvelous trip, Suzana Maletic explained as the girls played. Nothing about the sport’s recent controversy has shaken her faith in gymnastics.
“We still love gymnastics,” she said, “and we’re going to continue to follow it and look into attending more competitions if we can.”