How USAG destroyed young women

For Maclean’s on January 29, 2018

Beyond inherent ability and genetic advantage, success in high-performance artistic sport—gymnastics, ballet, figure skating—requires militant self-discipline and unwavering dedication to training. All talent begins raw, and each sport has its own developmental program where young athletes hone specific skills and build key areas of strength which underlie the advanced demands of the competitive system. While elite programs differ in terms of sport-specific training strategies, the best and worst systems share a common, underlying component: abuse, either in their zero tolerance for it, or the centrality of it.

My own time as a dancer and gymnast saw the full range of abuses, and escaping one kind of mistreatment only led to being the target of and witness to another. For me, the most destructive was being subjected, starting at the age of 8, to an abusive sort of body-policing where my young physique was relentlessly scrutinized and compared to the bodies of girls who were older—girls whose athletic and physical development were naturally more advanced than my own.

I was told, repeatedly, how horrible my body was, where it looked wrong, how unacceptable it might forever be. I was told I was too fat to have friends; my weight and measurements were strictly monitored and widely broadcast. All talent was rendered insignificant by my apparently horrendous self. I was shamed, belittled and humiliated, over and over, and I developed a severe eating disorder by age 11, relapsing once at 14. The anorexia was ultimately surmountable. The intense self-hate and outright abhorrence of my body, however, was not.

Though my own work ethic and drive to train ultimately earned that lean, muscular body, enviable strength and elite level of fitness as an older athlete, my grim self-assessment was firmly, irrecoverably ingrained—which affects me to this day.

That’s why the excruciating testimony in the sentencing of disgraced sports doctor Larry Nassar resonated so deeply for me, and I suspect for other female athletes who’ve been through the same. In addition to the horrors of Nassar’s serial molestation, the stories of endemic abuse by coaches and staff forced USA Gymnastics (USAG) to acknowledge the truth of its system, and the rot at its core—a rot that too often exists in programs across competitive athletics.

Last week, USAG complied with the U.S. Olympic Committee’s ultimatum for mass resignations from the director’s board, preventing the USOC from decertifying USAG, which would have stripped its status as the sport’s governing body. Regardless of the intentions behind this purge, the lifeblood of USAG’s twin cancers remain.

The first: An ideology where coach deification and institutional worship results in unquestioned, untouchable authority—the ideal conditions for abuse to thrive. When not enduring mistreatment, athletes are forced to be complicit in cruelty toward others. Speaking up will incur further abuse or outright end a career. Less powerful coaches, too, find they can do little more than witness in silence. Either their concerns will be ignored, or they’ll be out of a job. Sometimes, it’s both.

The second: A method of training built on insidious forms of abuse, where harm to the mental and emotional well-being of young female athletes is but collateral damage in the quest for glory, and where the aftermath—eating disorders, depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicide—is shrugged off as somebody else’s problem.

We saw how entrenched this was in the survivor testimony at the Nassar trial. On the sixth day, former U.S. national team member and 2010 floor champion Mattie Larson named two now-retired figures central to the notoriously abusive system that currently exists: Bela and Martha Karolyi, icons in their field, whose Ranch served as the national team’s training centre, hosting camps billed as integral to Olympic glory.

Before defecting to the U.S. in the ‘80s, the Karolyis were the power couple of Romanian gymnastics. At the 1976 Montreal Olympics, their gymnast Nadia Comăneci scored the sport’s first perfect 10 at an Olympic Games. In America, their stars included gymnastic legends Mary Lou Retton and Kim Zmeskal, as well as two members of the 1996 Olympics’ “Magnificent Seven,” Dominique Moceanu and Kerri Strugg. In a glowing 2016 profile in the New York Times, Martha credited her system, and the ranch, as the prime reason that the “United States dominates the world of gymnastics.”

Larson, however, testified the Ranch was little more than a USAG-sanctioned centre for uninterrupted physical, emotional, psychological—and, from Nassar, sexual—abuse.

She told of an “intense and destructive six-year eating disorder” that developed in an effort to be skinny enough for the coaches’ affection and approval; the Karolyis were notorious for imposing a severe caloric restriction on athletes on top of the schedule, which demanded overtraining. During one camp, Larson was told she was fine by the doctor Nassar, despite later revelations that she had dislocated and fractured both ankles. She also recounted a time she intentionally injured herself in a desperate bid to escape the relentless abuse at the Ranch.

“While [Nassar] is a mentally deranged pedophile, he is not the head of the monster,” wrote Valorie Kondos-Field—head coach of the six-time champion UCLA women’s gymnastics team—in a post published days before Larson’s testimony. That, she said, was the cult of Karolyi: “Martha, and before her Bela, and before him Don Peters, who has been banned from coaching for his own sexual abuse allegations. For decades they established a culture of abuse that was widely accepted and mimicked by other club coaches because ‘we won medals.’ ”

This draconian method of “creating champions” is what allowed Nassar to prey with maximum reward, especially at the Ranch. He befriended the athletes, offered an empathetic, kind respite from the ongoing viciousness, and masterfully groomed each young gymnast for use to satisfy his own depraved sexual pleasure. While Nassar has been made to face consequences, and despite USAG’s vow to implement policies to better protect athletes from sexual misconduct, there has been no commitment to end the methodical mistreatment which remains.

Having coached 46 former U.S. national team members through their NCAA gymnastic careers, Kondos-Field witnessed the fallout of the system where “verbal, emotional, and physical abuse were simply the way of life.” She identified Larson as the most “egregious case” she’d seen of a young woman so thoroughly destroyed by the elite stream.

Following three weeks of living as a persona non grata after being blamed for America’s failure to secure team gold at the 2010 World Championships, Larson called Kondos-Field to say she was quitting elite to come to UCLA. When Kondos-Field asked why she’d do that so close to the Olympics, Larson replied: “Because I’ve become invisible. I actually pinch myself at times to make sure I am still alive and not a ghost.”

“I never felt so small and disposable in my life,” Larson said of that experience in her courtroom testimony. And in naming another notable figure, she exposed how inescapable the abuse remains even without the Karolyis at the helm. “It truly bothers me that one of the adults who treated me this way…is the new national team coordinator, Valeri Liukin. I hope for the sake of the current and future national team members he has changed.”

Liukin is gymnastics royalty—a top-tier figure, a two-time Olympic champion, and “one of the most highly regarded coaches in all of gymnastics,” boasts the USAG. Liukin is also the father of beloved American gymnast Nastia, whose awards include the coveted all-around Olympic title from the 2008 Beijing Games.

This wan’t the first time Liukin has been cited as abusive—two-time All-American and Junior National champion Katelyn Ohashi has spoken of aggressive body shaming and weight policing despite her being 70 pounds at the time, leading to bulimia—but it was certainly the most public, and thus inescapable, accusation. And when he replaced Martha as national team coordinator in September — four days after the Indianapolis Star first published Rachael Denhollander’s allegations against Nassar, and one month after its initial bombshell investigation into the systemic cover-up of sex abuse in the sport — the proud and firm believer in the Karolyi method planned for business as usual.

“There is no point in changing something that isn’t broken,” he said at the time.  “… We’re winning a lot of medals, and that’s what we hope to continue to do.”

That system—in which Liukin has been involved since 1999, employing methods he endorses and outcomes he’s entirely pleased with—was the one with shattering repercussions heard in that Michigan courtroom. Nassar, too, was part of that system. And Liukin saw no reason for concern. None.

When USAG recently, belatedly, agreed to close the Karolyi Ranch, Liukin offered his own facility as an interim training centre. Though the athletes would be spared of having to train in the place they were abused by Nassar, they would continue to endure every other abuse of the program.

If USAG is sincerely dedicated to a complete overhaul—if the intention is to truly establish a zero-tolerance attitude regarding the mistreatment of athletes—they will move to replace Liukin with someone outside the Karolyi circle. They will work to find an esteemed coach who isn’t known for targeting athletes in a terribly personal, cruel manner.

USAG has the power to deliver the final blow to the Karolyis’ destructive legacy. Liukin’s future role within the organization will be telling of how much power the old guard maintains in the future, and will send a message to other sports authorities about the need for total reform in their own ranks. After all, as Larson concluded in her testimony: “There is another way, a healthy and supportive way, to make champions.” For gymnastics to have a future, the USAG must believe that a demanding, disciplined program which expects excellence does not need to be abusive. It needs Larson to be right. The good news is that she is.


On loneliness​ and the winter low

For Maclean’s on December 24, 2017

“Lonely people have a natural affinity for the internet,” wrote the late film critic Roger Ebert in a 2010 entry on his online journal. “It’s always there waiting, patient, flexible, suitable for every mood. But there are times when the net reminds me of the definition of a bore by Meyer the hairy economist, best friend of Travis McGee: ‘You know what a bore is, Travis. Someone who deprives you of solitude without providing you with companionship.’

“What do lonely people desire? Companionship. Love. Recognition. Entertainment. Camaraderie. Distraction. Encouragement. Change. Feedback … what all lonely people share is a desire not to be—or at least not to feel—alone.”

Embedded in the post was a poignant cartoon of a simple figure, looking downward with a pink heart on its chest, showered by an unforgiving rain from a cloud hovering above. Beside this image, there were these words: “Sometimes I take a carton of eggs out of the fridge and look at it and think that maybe one day I’ll crack an egg and a little baby chicken will fall out, and I’ll wash him off and raise him indoors and then… then I’ll have a friend.”

For many, the winter brings an increasing darkness beyond the shortened daylight—a shadow which stubbornly hovers like the cloud haunting the figure in the cartoon—a cycle best captured by an Icelandic term: “Skammdegisskuggar.” The meaning, as noted by author Robert Macfarlane, is “literally, ‘shadows of the short days’; metaphorically, the darkness that can be cast into both land and spirit by deep winter.”

Winter depression, and the loneliness it invites, can make the year’s final months seem, at times, unbearable. The holidays can prove to be a particular challenge, as the reluctance on one end to reach out for support, combined with uncertainty on the other of when and how to extend a hand amid overwhelming cheer, intensifies the aching sort of isolation, which then begets further loneliness.

Why, with all the campaigns dedicated to understanding mental illness and promoting emotional well-being, does there remain a reluctance to seek support for social isolation? Loneliness hasn’t been granted the same sort of legitimacy as, say, depression. It’s largely subjective, deeply personal, and remains so stigmatized, people are deeply reluctant to discuss—or even admit to—this honest emotion. There’s a profound vulnerability in doing so, as if loneliness itself indicates or reveals some fundamental failing or flaw of character.

Some won’t acknowledge their own lingering sadness because they imagine loneliness only affects those who are, quite literally, all alone. But the fact is, you can be married, have children, enjoy a stable, successful career, be surrounded by like-minded colleagues, and still, at the end of the day, feel lonely. You can still lie awake with an emptiness, yearning for some specific, meaningful connection to something or someone that would satisfy some persistent void.

“Human connection lies at the heart of human well-being,” wrote Dr. Dhruv Khullar in his December 2016 column in the New York Times outlining the “dire physical, mental and emotional consequences” of social isolation. Though we’re more connected online than ever, those ties are increasingly superficial. Not only have deep, meaningful bonds become scarce for many, modern demands of life and work have made it more difficult to maintain and nurture—or at least, far too easy to neglect—those important few that are still held.

Whether you’re married, single, an extrovert or generally shy, close, meaningful friendships matter. It’s not the number of connections or the proximity, but the quality of them.

Despite the evolutionary role of interdependence for well-being and survival, rugged individualism is too often romanticized. As recent research on the medical, as opposed to the psychological, fallout of loneliness has shown, the biological and physiological consequences of the prolonged stress from loneliness can be, quite literally, lethal.

According to Khullar, “analysis that pooled data from 70 studies and 3.4 million people found that socially isolated individuals had a 30 per cent higher risk of dying in the next seven years, and that this effect was largest in middle age. Loneliness can accelerate cognitive decline in older adults, and isolated individuals are twice as likely to die prematurely as those with more robust social interactions.”

What’s more, the fallout begins early. “Socially isolated children have significantly poorer health 20 years later, even after controlling for other factors.”

“It’s up to all of us,” concludes Khullar, “to maintain bonds where they’re fading, and create ones where they haven’t existed.”

If you find yourself, to use Ebert’s words, among “the lonely people” as the year draws to a close, it’s important to understand that, no matter the reason, you’re not alone in that feeling. If you reach out to someone—whether a close friend or a mere acquaintance; a family member or a crisis line—you’ll be met with far more empathy and understanding than you might expect, because everyone, at some point, to some extent, has been there too.

Rekindle ties with those you value and with whom you may have fallen out of touch. Write a letter or an email, or give them a call. Do something tangible, even if it feels forced at first, to begin to reconnect and rebuild the relationships which remain, in some way, important to you.

If you’re someone who will be surrounded by family and friends over the holidays, consider taking a moment, or finding meaningful time, for a person you suspect might not be as fortunate. It could be an elderly neighbour who lives alone, or perhaps a colleague you’ve noticed withdraw in recent months. You never know when the simple act of checking in—sending a simple text or e-mail, calling to chat, leaving a message, or dropping by—will change, or even save, a life.

Helping others through a difficult stretch doesn’t require special training or knowledge, just a moment of patience and an empathetic ear.

Never underestimate the value of time. Whether seeking it from another, or offering some of your own, it can prove to be the most cherished gift exchanged through the holidays. These connections have a way of growing into deep, lasting friendships—the kind that are the ultimate antidote to loneliness, even after the winter low has lifted.