'Beaten and starved': Stars allege abuse at heart of British Gymnastics

Catherine Lyons is 19 years old now and is recalling her stunning gymnastics career.

But she’s not smiling, that’s because, despite being a world class athlete; a junior European and British champion, the memories hurt deeply.

Throughout her time competing at an elite level, as a very young girl and then as a teenager, she was not only assaulted but bullied by her coach.

She was made to train even when injured and was tormented about her weight. 

Her ambition was always to compete at the Olympics but she ended up instead walking away from the sport she excelled at and received one and a half years of counselling at the Priory hospital.

Sometimes she was hit, she was struck with a stick in the worst incident, but the abuse was mainly mental too.

She was routinely shouted at, so much so it left her in tears.

On other occasions she was left alone in a store cupboard with the door closed until she calmed down. 

At one international training camp, Catherine was told she was overweight and told not to eat anything.

She was starved for a week and when she came home and tried to eat normally again, she couldn’t keep any food down.

One highlight of an already more than impressive career came when she was selected for the British team to compete in Japan.

But an injury just before the event meant she was ruled out, it was a heart-breaking moment for her.

What made matters worse was, she was then taunted by her coach who sent her a picture message on her phone.

In the photograph her coach was wearing the leotard Catherine would have been competing in, in Japan.

Catherine is just one of many young women who are starting to speak out about the culture within British Gymnastics when they were growing up.

A picture is emerging of a generation of former UK athletes, badly damaged by their experiences.

Prompted by ‘Athlete A’, a Netflix documentary on the US gymnastics sex abuse scandal, dozens of elite British gymnasts are coming forward to talk about the abuse they suffered at the hands of their coaches.

Now young women, not vulnerable girls, they have found a voice. 

A cursory search of social media is revealing and the experiences highlighted are not limited to a couple of "bad apple" coaches at a couple of clubs.

A catalogue of horror stories is there for all to see.

One former British gymnast writes: “I spent most of my gymnastics career being way more scared of my elite coaches, than the moves I was practicing.”

Another posted: “I’ve witnessed girls being shamed, called fat, ugly, stupid, dragged across floors by their hair, picked up by the leotard and thrown to the floor.”

One athlete remembers “constant anxiety about not being good enough, a long battle with an eating disorder, nightmares and injuries that plagued me daily because I wasn’t believed”, and a gymnast’s mother who said “a certain club my daughter went to was run like a concentration camp by someone who had no morals whatsoever".

Lisa Mason, an Olympian and Commonwealth Games gold medallist, has been inundated with messages in the past couple of weeks.

Every contact comes with another sorry story of a gymnast whose life has been damaged by their experiences in the gym.

She says she’s even heard from current elite gymnasts who are too terrified to speak publicly because they believe if they do, they’ll be dropped from the British team ahead of the Tokyo Olympics next year.

They’re suffering in silence.

“A couple have said to me they want to be more vocal but they’re concerned about their position.

"We all know why.

"The Olympics is next year and we don’t want to rock the boat and upset the people who make those decisions.

"They’re going to be ready when they’re ready to speak out but there are a lot of stories from current gymnasts that are ready to go, but now is not the right time.”  

Her own experience is typically brutal, even before the age of 10 she was subjected to what most observers would say were practices tantamount to torture.

“My coach put me on the bars until my hands ripped and bled; my hands would then be pulled down and surgical spirit would be poured all over them.

"I would also have Astroturf put under the bars, so I would burn my feet if I didn’t keep them up. But everyone else is going through it so you think it’s normal.”

As a child she was even made to parade in front of her training group in her underwear and told by her coach that she needed to lose weight.

She was locked in rooms and told she couldn’t eat. “It was something that was normalised. We didn’t even realise it was abuse. Why would we?”       

Weight is a recurring theme throughout many of the complaints.

Lisa says she’s been contacted by a lot of girls who were put on diets by their coaches when they were only eight years old.

“There were a lot of eating disorders,” she says. 

Girls were also routinely told to train through injuries.

Lisa says she regularly took the prescription-only Voltarol by her coach or was even given pain killing injections so she could carry on training. “

We pretty much popped Voltarol constantly from the age of around 12."

Some of my teammates could not do a training session without taking those.

"If that started wearing off you’d get a cortisone shot.

"I was made to compete with a grade three strain on my ankle and a stress fracture in my shin.”

Catherine’s coach was investigated by British Gymnastics about Catherine’s case and other complaints.

As a result she was suspended and she was asked by British Gymnastics if she would be willing to take in a risk assessment and if she intended to carry on coaching.

As of July last year ITV News understands she was still suspended.

ITV News has approached Catherine’s coach for comment but so far she has not responded.    

In a statement, British Gymnastics said: "The documentary 'Athlete A' currently being aired worldwide detailing the Larry Nassar scandal within USA Gymnastics has quite rightly shaken the sport to its core and has had a profound effect on us all.

"British Gymnastics condemns any behaviour which is harmful to the wellbeing of our gymnasts. Such behaviours are completely contrary to our standards of safe coaching.

"Our Positive Coaching Behaviours programme which is mandatory for all coaches sets out clearly why such behaviours are harmful and unacceptable.

"Our Integrity Unit investigates all allegations of emotional abuse and bullying that are reported to us or identified by our national network of club Welfare Officers and takes disciplinary action to prevent recurrence."

"We have worked particularly hard in recent years to ensure that our athlete and coaching culture is transparent, fair and inclusive.

"This is essential for the welfare of all gymnasts and a pre-requisite for success in national and international competition.

"Athlete welfare plays an essential role within our performance culture and decision making.

"We have worked with our gymnasts and taken specific actions to ensure that their interests and concerns are always considered and addressed and that they have a choice of routes to raise concerns.

"British Gymnastics is reaching out to any gymnast, either current or past, that has concerns around specific incidents or behaviours and encourages them to contact our Integrity Unit.

"This unit has the power to investigate any persons within British Gymnastics or its member clubs and take the appropriate action.

"British Gymnastics is here for every gymnast across the country.

"There is nothing more important for us than the welfare of our participants and we continually strive to create a culture where people feel they can raise any concerns that they may have."