WOMEN
03/09/2016 09:36 am ET | Updated Mar 09, 2016

Everything I Wish I'd Said To My Abusive Gymnastics Coach

Gratitude, guilt, and what happens when a predator passes you over.

Thomas Barwick via Getty Images

When I think about it now, when I rack my brains, I don’t remember a single untoward thing.

The closest physical contact my gymnastics coach and I ever had was on the day my gym career began to end, the day I fell in competition, almost dislocating my knee, and he had to carry me off the competition floor. Apart from that, outside of spotting me, and congratulating me with a brief hug if I did well in a meet, David never laid a hand on me. As far as I can recall, he never said an inappropriate word to me.

I didn’t know or appreciate it then, but I was lucky.

Gymnastics makes you precocious. At 9, you need the focus of a 19-year-old. At 12, you can say, “I’m retiring,” and no one inside the sport will think that phrase sounds laughable coming from an eighth-grader. At 16, you wind up with the spine of a 60-year-old.

All this was true for me. I retired at the age of twelve, my prepubescent body a tangle of injuries — in my back, my knees, my wrists. It wasn’t only the injuries that stopped me, though. You need a certain kind of body to be a gymnast, but you also need an undivided heart. You need unquestioning commitment. The very first time I fell out of love with a man it felt oddly familiar, that slow and frightening loss of control as your certainty about who you are and what you want slips away from you. It was the same way I’d felt in the months that preceded my retirement from gymnastics.

My parents enrolled me in gym to teach me how to fall. They love to embarrass me by telling my friends about how, when I was 6, I would build my own balance beam in the backyard of our house in suburban Sydney, placing an old fence rail between two rusty garden chairs. Then I’d put on a leotard and slip a cassette tape into my primary-colored tape-player (“Wee Sing America,” my mother will specify, when she really wants to up the humiliation factor). Then I’d dance around on the rail. Just an Australian kid in one of her big sister’s old leotards, dancing around on a plank of wood to the tune of “You’re A Grand Old Flag” in the backyard on a Sunday morning. Totally normal stuff.

It was a recipe for splinters, tetanus, and broken bones, and after a few months, Mom and Dad sensibly decided to enroll me in real gym lessons, so I could play on a real beam and fall onto something softer than grass. The Christmas I turned 7, their gift to me was half a semester of gymnastics classes. On Christmas morning, the family gathered on their big wrought iron bed in their room at the front of my childhood home, bright December sunshine bouncing off the white bedding. Family tradition permitted each of us to open one present before we went to my grandparents’ house for Christmas lunch. It was the first time I’d ever received a gift in an envelope, and I was confused when they handed it to me. An envelope? That wasn’t how presents worked.

When I opened it, it took me a few seconds to decipher my father’s hieroglyphic excuse for handwriting. I remember the white paper and the watery dark blue fountain pen ink. A term of gymnastics classes. I bounded across the bed and hugged them  -- jubilant, ecstatic. Who needs wrapping paper or ribbons? To this day, that envelope remains the best Christmas present I’ve ever received.

Gymnastics looks like magic from the outside. To those who have never attempted it (and even to some who have), it seems physically impossible that any mortal could do the things that gymnasts do with their bodies. Most gymnasts will shrug and say that it’s not magic; it’s just physics and hard work. But the truth is, when you’re doing it, it does feel a little like wizardry. When you’re that strong and that flexible, when the connection between your brain and your muscles is that intimate, and your mastery of the laws of physics feels so complete, it’s easy to feel like you possess superpowers. Today, when I arrange myself into certain yoga poses, or, more rarely, when I have the chance to clamber up on to a balance beam, I can still grasp at the remnants of that feeling. When I’m writing in a crowded, noisy place  --  like a café, where I’m writing these very words  --  I can summon the sense of being on up on the beam in a giant buzzing gymnastics arena, with a competitor’s floor music playing over the speakers and a cheering, clapping, gasping crowd on all four sides of me. Being able to block all that out to focus on putting a foot, a hand, a finger, in precisely the right place on the beam, can make a young girl feel like she can suspend time.

Perhaps it was because my teammates and I were so good at this particular form of magic, this superhuman focus on what was right in front of us, that we didn’t notice what was happening around us in our gym club. Perhaps it was because we were so very young. Or perhaps it was because serial sexual predators  --  the ones who go years without being caught, at least  --  are subtle and discreet. It was probably some combination. Regardless, I never knew until long after I retired that one of my coaches had, for years, been preying on the gymnasts around me.

***

The first time I met David* was in the gym of a public school about a twenty-five minute drive from my house. It was a big school with a big gym, and it had a full range of gymnastics equipment suitable for elite gymnasts. Our club rented the space and the equipment almost every night and on Saturdays.

Because the gym was used for all manner of other things during the day, the gymnastics equipment  --  the trampolines, the beams, the sprung floor, everything  -- had to be pulled out of storage and set up before training every afternoon, then disassembled and put back in storage at the end of training every night. The top-level gymnasts, who trained the longest and stayed the latest, would warm down after practice, and then start rolling up the mats and collapsing the uneven bars. It wasn’t an ideal set-up, but David and his co-head coach and longtime romantic partner Karen made it work. Plenty of national champions and international competitors were made in that makeshift gym.

On my first day, I showed up in my favorite ballet leotard, and one of the lower level coaches put me through a series of drills on each of the four apparatuses: vault, bars, beam, floor. I would soon memorize this order of events, which is the international standard order for competition. They liked what they saw. At the end of the trial, I was assigned to a “prep squad,” which meant skipping the two lowest levels in the gym and being put on a fast track to competing for the club. My parents and I met Karen and David that day, though it was probably a brief interaction; they had a gym full of girls to look after. Besides, though they owned the club, I wouldn’t be coached by them until I moved up the ranks. In the meantime, I was trained by a group of younger coaches, all of them women in their early- or mid-twenties  --  though at the time, of course, I figured they were much older. Or, I suppose, I simply didn’t appreciate how young a person is in her twenties. They were all former gymnasts, and most of them had competed for Karen and David. One of them would later accuse David of abusing her too.

Soon after I joined the club, Karen and David were able to rent a space in an industrial park, closer to my house than the high school. Among the body shops and the other businesses that required regular visits from semi-trailers, they set up a dream gym. It had a sky high ceilings and a big roller door that let the breeze come in on stinking hot days during January training camp. Moving from one site to another was a whole-club effort: parents loaded the heavy equipment onto their pickup trucks, gymnasts unloaded crash mats, and with his own hands and with the help of some of the handier dads, David built an elevated vault strip so that we could land in a foam pit when we were first learning new vaults. There was space for half a dozen beams at competition height  --  no more waiting around to practice!  --  plus a few more at lower heights where we could work on difficult new skills without the added challenge of being almost two meters off the ground. Best of all, we didn’t have to pack everything up at the end of the night. This place was all ours, every chalk-covered inch of it.

***

 

I fell in love with gymnastics. Deep, consuming love. I quickly dropped all my other after school activities  --  ballet, jazz dance, tennis, swimming  --  to make more time for gym. I was naturally good, and like a lot of 7- and 8-year-olds, I was fearless. Throw myself backwards and land with my hands on this balance beam that’s four inches across? Sure! Run 20 feet as fast as I can and then launch myself at that large, heavy vaulting horse? Sign me up! Swing around this bar and then let go of it at the very top of the swing? Sounds fun!

Fearless, perhaps, isn’t quite the right word. There was a thrilling kind of danger in learning a new gymnastics trick. Sometimes, we would “chuck it,” just throw ourselves into the best approximation of the trick we could, hoping we’d rotate all the way around, praying nothing would go too badly wrong. Once you’d chucked it for the first time, you realized that there was nothing to be afraid of. Now came the hard work of learning to do it cleanly, with straight legs and pointed toes and no wobbles on the landing. Now came the repetitive, exacting, and deeply satisfying work of getting it just right and committing the perfect version to muscle memory. I loved it. I loved discovering and rediscovering, over and over again, that I could will my body to do something that had once seemed impossible. I loved the control that I had over my muscles, the sense that with enough determination and practice, I could get them to do just about anything. I had never felt such mastery, such possession, of my own body  --  and I haven’t since.

When I had started, I was training five or six hours a week. By the time I was 9, I had moved up several levels and was spending three nights a week and Saturday mornings in the gym  --  about 12 hours of practice, plus weekend competitions. I was good enough to win a few state titles, and I was still a long way from puberty, which meant I had time to keep advancing through the ranks before my body made gymnastics harder, and the lure of a teenage social life made the time commitment less appealing. And now that I was training at that level, I was working with Karen and David.

David was in charge of vault, tumbling, and big tricks on uneven bars, like release moves and dismounts. Karen was in charge of beam, the leaping and dancing parts of floor, and most of bars. If there was ever any heavy duty spotting required, David was there.

As coaches, I used to tell people, they were ideal. Even-keeled. There was no Bela Karolyi-esque leaping, yelling, or clapping when things went well in competition, and there was no scolding, shouting, or insults when things went poorly in training. They were quiet and firm; I don’t remember ever hearing them raise their voices in anger. They rarely joked, but they also rarely made us feel like gymnastics was the only thing that mattered in the world. For several years after I retired, I would tell people how lucky I had been to have such great coaches. They pushed us to work hard, but they never made us train through injuries or told us to lose weight. We spent an enormous amount of time with them, but to us, perhaps because they told us so little about their lives, or perhaps because we were so young, they were largely inscrutable. The nature of the sport demanded that they understand how each and everyone of us thought, how we reacted to success and failure and pain and competition. They had to know how to communicate with us, how to motivate us. They knew us a lot better than we knew them, but in spite of that  --  or perhaps because of it  --  we trusted them.

And little wonder. They were the ones who helped us to almost literally fly, and the ones who would catch us when we fell. Even when they were spotting us lightly, even when Karen merely stood next to the beam and held her hand a full six inches behind my back, as I prepared to throw myself back into a flip I knew I was safe. In tumbling practice, when David said, “now try it with a full twist,” and insisted you were ready, you didn’t necessarily believe him, but you knew that when you did it  --  when, not if  --  nothing disastrous was going to happen.

By the time I was eleven and starting seventh grade, I was spending over 24 a week in the gym: four nights a week, and all day Saturdays  --  plus weekend competitions that added at least one Sunday per month. I’d get a lift from school in the afternoon, change into my leotard in the car, then train from 4 until 8 or 8:30. Then, my skin covered in chalk and my ponytail knotty from sweat and from flying around, I’d flop into the car and eat dinner from a Tupperware container.

Once, at practice, I called David “Dad,” mostly because the two words sound alike and because I was tired. Then again, I had spent more time with him that week than I’d spent with my actual father.

***

The injury that ended my career happened while I was tumbling.

In elite competitions, there are two gyms: one for warming up, and one for competing. In the warm up gym, we wore matching warm up leotards, so that our competition leotards would be pristine and chalk-free. A warm up leotard was a status symbol; it meant that you had reached the big leagues, that your routines were hard enough that you needed to run through them in the warm up gym before doing them for the judges. The year I ascended to that status, our warm up leotards were made by the mother of one of my teammates, a girl named Elizabeth. They were sleeveless, made of a deep purple crushed velvet, with silver sparkling decorations on the chest and a keyhole in the back. Elizabeth’s mother came to training one afternoon and measured every one of us  -- probably 30 gymnasts in total  --  and then made our leotards by hand.

That first warm up was a chance to practice our routines without the judges seeing us in advance of competition, and it was the last chance for our coaches to make game-time decisions about removing any tricks that we were struggling to nail from our routines. Then we’d change into our matching competition leotards, and then we’d march out onto the competition floor. Once out there, we had a few minutes at the start of every event rotation  --  vault, bars, beam, floor  --  to warm up on each apparatus before competing. On bars, there was a “30 second touch” rule: each gymnast had 30 seconds from the moment her fingers touched the bars to practice her hardest tricks one last time. On floor, the entire team was unleashed onto the mat all at once, about ten of us all trying to practice our tumbling passes and our pirouettes in the short time allotted without smashing into each other.

The injury happened during that last-minute warm up for my very last routine of the day at what would be my very last national competition. Standing in the corner of the sprung floor with my legs squeezed together and my arms at my sides, rigid from shoulder to fingertips, I took a deep breath and cocked my chin slightly, the way I’d seen the older gymnasts do. I launched myself into my hardest tumbling pass. Adrenalin pumping, I got more air than I was used to getting in training, and the timing of my landing was off. The full weight of my spinning, falling body came down on one straight leg.

Pop.

Parents aren’t allowed on the competition floor in gymnastics, for obvious safety and pain-in-the-ass reasons. So my parents, who had traveled to Melbourne to watch me compete, had to sit in the stands and watch as I went down, as I lay in the middle of the big blue mat sobbing, as David ran over and scooped me up and carried me away. I remember clinging to him and crying in shock and despair and pain, and repeating a child’s mantra: “It’s not fair. It’s not fair.” My teammates kept warming up, but my competition was over, and without my scores to add to their total, they had no chance of medalling.

I had narrowly avoided dislocating my left knee, but the hyperextension was enough to put me in physical therapy for months. I still went to training, where I spent entire practice sessions doing conditioning and light bars work while my teammates did real gymnastics all around me. When I was granted permission to run and jump and practice dismounts again, I was hesitant. Nervous, wary  -- especially on vault and on floor. The danger of gymnastics didn’t feel thrilling anymore; it just felt… dangerous. I competed one more time before I made the decision to retire, at a local competition with otherwise low stakes. I was so scared to put any power into my tumbling that the last somersault of my routine was dangerously under-rotated. I landed short, gravity slamming my weight down into the front of my ankles and pulling on my Achilles’ tendons. The music ended and I limped off the floor to where Karen stood watching, visibly disappointed by my performance.

The hyperextension of my knee was the only instantaneous injury I’d had in almost seven years of training, but when added to the stress fracture in my back (which I got when I was eight) and the two in my wrists (I picked those up when I was ten), it made for a pretty grim picture. My physical therapist told me that I’d have to spend an hour in therapy for every hour I spent in the gym. I was training 21 hours a week. I was 12. I was in eighth grade. And during the months I had spent going to the gym but not doing gymnastics, I had fallen out of love.

This thing I adored had hurt me one too many times, and I couldn’t trust that it wouldn’t happen again. One day, after physical therapy, I asked to go home instead of going straight to the gym like I usually did. My parents knew what that meant. Karen and David did, too. If you aren’t jumping off the therapist’s massage table and racing right back into the gym, you no longer have what it takes.

***

I left gymnastics behind and took my aching heart, messed up spine, and massive guilt about being a quitter with me. I missed everything, except the pain. I missed my teammates, and the rush of competition, and the excitement of learning new tricks, and the certainty of being Chloe the Gymnast. And I missed Karen and David. Unlike some gymnasts who hop from club to club looking for the right coaches, I had trained at  -- and competed for  --  just one club my whole career. I didn’t have to go looking for the right coaches, I told people as wistfully as a 13-year-old can that I had found the right coaches when I was 7.

I first heard about the accusations against David four years after I quit, a few months after I graduated from high school. I had remained in contact with few of the gymnasts; we all went to different high schools and lived in different parts of the city and gymnastics was for a lot of us one of the only things we had in common. One night, I was catching up with one of the few girls I still talked to  --  I’ll call her Sylvia  -- and she told me that David had been for months been abusing one of my former teammates.

In situations like this, people usually write that they “were speechless.” I wasn’t. I laughed the nervous laugh that has gotten me in trouble with French transit cops and that had gotten me in trouble with Karen and David more than once. I laughed it again when Sylvia told me which gymnast it was. Elizabeth. A girl I’d met on my very first day in the gym. Whose mother had made our warm-up leotards.

She had been a tiny kid, and now she was a very petite teenager, a little nugget of muscle with long straight hair and big front teeth. Elizabeth’s mother had read her diary and had discovered entries about David. I don’t know what they said, but they were enough for Sarah to pull Elizabeth out of the gym and go to the police. Elizabeth had been 15 or 16 at the time, and David was in his forties. Sylvia, along with other gymnasts who had been training alongside Elizabeth for most of the time that the abuse was happening, had been called in by the police for questioning.

After that, the accusations tumbled in, one after the other. More teammates, one who said that David had touched her against her will, and that her mother had gone to Karen and demanded that her daughter not be left alone with David anymore. Another girl who said that he used to “jokingly” pull the back of her leotard away from her body so that he could look down it. Another who said that she had had a sexual relationship with him long before Elizabeth had; she had been fourteen or fifteen at the time. Another who said he had offered her presents and tried repeatedly to get her on her own outside of the gym. Two more who said that on an outing away from the gym, he had touched them inappropriately. Then, allegations from a young woman who had trained with David, and had then become a coach. My first coach.

Today, I look at that list of women and I try to figure out why David chose them. Sexual predators are strategic, and those who go a long time without being caught are especially so. One thing the women have in common is that none of them were champions. At the highest levels in our gym, every gymnast was good, but we were divided, implicitly, into two castes. As one of my former teammates Emma put it, there were the competitors  --  the ones who were or had the potential to be national champions  --  and then was everyone else. Emma was a few years older and a few levels higher than me, and she told me that she spent a lot of time wondering which tier the coaches thought she was in, in part because she wanted to be excellent, but in part because she sensed that excellence would keep David away. It was as if he knew, she told me, that it would look suspicious if a star gymnast just quit out of nowhere. And she saw how he used the caste divide; if she was training next to a competitor, David was all business. If she was training next to a second tier gymnast, he would crack dirty jokes and make suggestive remarks as they warmed up their bar routines.

It was as if he trained some of his athletes to be champions, and groomed the rest of them for abuse, capitalizing on the insecurity felt by those who knew, or who feared, that they would never be excellent. Those gymnasts, more than the competitors, wanted their coaches to see them, to notice them, to validate them. If you had asked me, back then, who David’s favourites were, I would have named Sylvia and Sam and Anita  --  the competitors. Now, I know better: they were his favourite gymnasts, but they weren’t his favourite girls.

The list of ex-gymnasts who came forward grew longer and longer; in total, nearly a dozen of women made allegations, recalling violations that spanned about a decade. For years, David had been preying on girls who trusted him with their lives, who were also being coached, made and molded by his wife. The club began to fall apart. So did my image of David, and my relationship with the sport that made me who I am.

Except for that split-second fall at Nationals, and the slow fall that followed, my experience of gymnastics was a positive one. In the gym, I became fiercely focused, highly competitive, and relentlessly disciplined. In the gym, I learned how to take calculated risks, how to make sure every tiny detail is just right, how to peel yourself off the mat when you fall, how to lose with grace. And I learned all those things from a serial sexual predator and from the woman who enabled his actions.

What David did was monstrous. David  --  who is still coaching, by the way — -- is not a good man. And there is no escaping my truth: he was good to me.

I don’t know why. I don’t know what made me different from the girls he preyed on. It wasn’t that I was too young, because that didn’t protect Annika. It wasn’t that both my parents were involved in my life and in the life of the club, because that didn’t protect Lisa. It wasn’t that I was a mouthy, outspoken kid, because that didn’t protect Katie. I was eager to please. I liked being the centre of attention. I had been at the club since I was little, had grown up trusting David, like Elizabeth. And like Emma, I lived on the cusp of the two castes, never quite sure if the coaches thought I had the potential to be excellent. I was, in many ways, a perfect target. But I was spared, and I don’t know why. What I do know is that I feel grateful, and guilty.

The gym  --  that place that had been all ours, that place that gave me so many gifts and robbed my teammates of so much  --  folded. Karen left David, taking their two sons with her.

Those women had their day in court, but the records of what happened there are closed to the public. David was found not guilty on all charges, and he went to coach at a new gym. Did almost a dozen women concoct a conspiracy to accuse a coach, a pillar in the gymnastics community, an admired creator of national champions, of one of the worst crimes imaginable? Or is the system stacked in favor of men like that, and against the girls who accuse them?

I haven’t spoken to either of them in years. I don’t know what I’d say him if I did.

You made me. Thank you.

You broke them. How could you?

 

*all names have been changed

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