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Amid lingering distrust, Li Li Leung seeks to transform USA Gymnastics

“I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for what had happened,” USA Gymnastics CEO Li Li Leung said. “ … And I think that a lot of people felt that they wanted to do some good work in the sport, and that’s what drove them to be here.” (Darron Cummings/AP)

INDIANAPOLIS — When Li Li Leung stepped into her role at the top of USA Gymnastics in 2019, many offered congratulations. Some then followed with condolences, alluding to the enormous rebuilding job Leung had undertaken. Three years later, the organization is, in many ways, still trying to emerge from under the cloud of a sexual abuse scandal that rocked the sport.

Leung believes the national governing body has made positive strides, evolving from the version of itself that failed to protect athletes from decades of abuse by former national team doctor Larry Nassar. Leung admits to past missteps and acknowledges the need to rebuild trust but believes she and others at USA Gymnastics have the right intentions, prioritizing athlete health and safety.

The organization settled its lawsuit with survivors of Nassar’s abuse last year and is now heading into this week’s U.S. national championships in Tampa, a marquee event for elite gymnasts, for the first time since that key legal resolution. The national team recently began working under a restructured leadership model that diffuses power from a single coach. And amid hopes of far-reaching cultural change — trading the domineering, fear-based coaching styles of the past for healthy and positive techniques — Leung believes the United States can maintain its competitive success in women’s gymnastics. That’s why she’s here, leading the sport from an eighth-floor corner office in downtown Indianapolis.

A former elite gymnast, Leung watched, disappointed, as her sport began to unravel in 2016 when Nassar’s abuse became public. While working in an executive role at the NBA, she waited for progress. “And then it never really got better,” Leung said.

She felt compelled to volunteer, perhaps as a board member or consultant. When she reached out, she was pointed toward the vacant CEO position. What started as an agreement to talk with the recruiter — “I might be able to point them in the right direction to find someone,” she thought — turned into her applying for the role.

After taking over, Leung ushered USA Gymnastics to a long-awaited resolution in the legal fight with the survivors of Nassar’s abuse. The settlement reached in December requires the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, USA Gymnastics and their insurers to pay the survivors $380 million.

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At the sport’s headquarters, the settlement and ensuing ability to exit bankruptcy — which USA Gymnastics entered because, Leung has said, “that was the most efficient process that was provided to [the board of directors] in order to resolve the litigation” — allows the governing body to take a step out from under that lingering cloud.

It also opens the door for more direct dialogue with survivors, no longer bound by legal hurdles. Conversations with gymnasts past and present can happen formally through the Athletes’ Council and other committees or informally with athletes reaching out to Leung. Tasha Schwikert Moser, a 2000 Olympian, now fills a seat on the board dedicated to a survivor of Nassar’s abuse — a commitment mandated by the settlement.

“The past is really critical to who we will become and who we are becoming as an organization going forward,” Leung said in an interview last month. “I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for what had happened. … And I think that a lot of people felt that they wanted to do some good work in the sport, and that’s what drove them to be here.”

No organizations are immune to criticism, Leung said, so she expects there will always be some, but “we know that our intent is the right intent, and we know we’re doing the right things to effectuate positive change in the sport.” With that as the focus, she said: “Ultimately, we’ll get to the point where the masses or the majority will come around. And we’re getting there. We’re rounding the corner, and people are starting to really believe in the change that we’re making.”

USA Gymnastics had continued leadership crises in the years preceding Leung’s arrival. Steve Penny, the USA Gymnastics president from 2005 to 2017 who was in charge during the organization’s bungled response to gymnasts’ reports of Nassar’s abuse, resigned and later faced charges of evidence tampering, which were dismissed this year. His two successors had brief tenures: Kerry Perry, hired in 2017, lasted just nine months in the role, and Mary Bono, a former member of Congress, resigned after less than a week as the interim CEO. Both departed amid missteps and controversy.

Leung’s hiring did not end the skepticism: Some survivors, according to the Indianapolis Star, felt ignored in the process, and Leung’s marketing background matched the past experiences of Penny and Perry. But Leung believes her time as an elite gymnast provides helpful perspective. She can relate to athletes with vivid memories from her competitive career. An Olympian told Leung, “You’re like one of us,” which she considered a meaningful compliment.

The organization has a handful of other former gymnasts in key positions, and Leung adjusted the national team leadership model to a three-person committee rather than one omnipotent person.

USA Gymnastics initially posted the position as a solo job, but, Leung said, the organization’s leadership decided “it was too much pressure on the shoulders of one individual and there also wasn’t one individual who could serve in every capacity that that role needed to fulfill.” When the role changed from one job to three, interest in the positions grew.

In announcing those new hires — 2008 Olympians Alicia Sacramone Quinn (strategic lead) and Chellsie Memmel (technical lead), along with Dan Baker, who remained in his post with a slightly different title as the developmental lead — USA Gymnastics, again, faced some backlash.

Olympian McKayla Maroney has said that, when she mentioned details of Nassar’s abuse to other gymnasts during the 2011 world championships, “an older teammate I looked up to” chastised her for mentioning it. In the book “Start By Believing,” an account of Nassar’s crimes and the institutional failures, Jordyn Wieber, a gymnast reportedly present during this exchange, identifies that teammate as Sacramone Quinn, who was 23 years old at the time. Sacramone Quinn, a 10-time world medalist and captain of the 2008 silver-winning Olympic team, says she does not remember that incident.

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When asked about the allegation in a news conference, Sacramone Quinn said: “[If] a situation like that happens again, obviously first thing we’re doing is reporting it to authorities. We’re going to talk to the parties involved — the athlete, the coach, the parent — and get everybody on the same page, and we’re going to be making steps in the right direction to get that taken care of immediately. It’s not something we sit on. It’s not something we take lightly. … I would never want anything like that to even remotely even be possible to happen again.”

Leung said candidates are carefully vetted and the organization “would never bring someone on board that we’re not comfortable with in terms of their actions of the past.”

Sacramone Quinn, a longtime member of the national team under Martha Karolyi, said she remembers a “fear-driven” environment. Now as a leader of the program, she wants athletes to respect the staff but feel inspired to excel rather than intimidated.

“My goal, yes, is to get them to the best level of gymnastics they can be, but I want to help them shape who they are as people,” she said. “And so when they walk away from elite gymnastics, they’re like: ‘Man, that was a great experience. People actually cared about me, not just my gymnastics but me as a person.’ ”

The national team members are the most prominent athletes, but the governing body is responsible for all members of USA Gymnastics — starting with young gymnasts in grass-roots programs. Policies are designed and developed, Leung said, for the entire community, including educational resources and requirements, as well as the introduction of a designated “Safety Champion” at all member clubs. Leung views those inside the organization as “stewards of the sport.”

The Nassar scandal also cast a spotlight on the power imbalances and the emotional abuse of coaches within the sport that helped enable a predator. Cultural change can stem from education and requirements coming from the top of the governing body, but it also requires the buy-in of coaches at clubs around the country.

“It’s up to us to be the role model and to lead that change as well,” Leung said. “It starts with the organization, and it also starts with our national team staff. The reason why we put together the new high performance team that we did is because they also believe in that philosophy.”

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As USA Gymnastics is in the early stages of planning a new training and wellness center, Leung envisions a facility that is the “hub and the heart of gymnastics in America,” she said — not a gym where top athletes will train in secrecy, which is how the Karolyi Ranch and former women’s national team training center operated.

“We want this place to be a really, really welcoming environment for gymnasts of all levels,” Leung said, “and for gymnasts to be able to come and see their role models train and some place that will be a central point of education as well.”

National team camps, Sacramone Quinn and Baker said, have a bit of a more relaxed feel. But athletes still want to win and understand that requires work. And Leung believes competitive excellence and positive experiences can coexist.

How much has changed might not be fully known until athletes from this generation have retired from the sport and feel comfortable speaking openly about any issues. With the competitive objectives largely unchanged, the organization hopes to transform the path toward them.