Truth gives power to abused gymnasts

Meeting four women who have excelled at a sport that I marvelled at as a child was always going to impress me, but knowing that they achieved greatness within a culture of fear, intimidation and silence could not fail to have an impact on you.

Jennifer Sey and Rachael Denhollander were both American gymnasts.

Jen in the 1970s and 80s, Rachael in 1990s.

Rachael was the first woman to speak out publicly and bring the US doctor Larry Nassar to court.

He was accused and convicted of sexually abusing US gymnasts.

He has been ordered to spend the rest of his life behind bars.

Jen produced the documentary Athlete A about it.

Catherine Lyons and Lisa Mason are British gymnasts.

Between them, they represented their nation at European and World Championships, and the Olympic Games.

For four women over four decades across two continents, gymnastics was their life.

But abuse was at the heart of their achievements.

It took the documentary, Athlete A, for them to confront the reality of their experiences.

Jen worked as a producer on the film about the physical, psychological and sexual abuse of American gymnasts.

It gave both British girls the strength to speak out about physical abuse and bullying.

“This is not just something that is happening in Team USA," Lisa says.

"This is not something that's happening just in British gymnastics.

"This is a worldwide problem.

"And seeing that through Athlete A, got my, my emotions up again.” 

Lisa Mason. Credit: ITV News

For Catherine, it was the “bravery, courage, and dignity” they showed in the film that inspired her to speak her truth.

It validated her experience.

Listening to them talk to each other and share their stories, there is a real bond between them.

There is also a desire to protect and support each other.

They have exposed a culture where abuse is not just tolerated but accepted.

 Catherine felt worthless during her career.

“I wasn't worth anything. I wasn't a human," she says.

"I was a commodity rather than a child. And I was only worth as much as the success that I could bring to my coach and my coach would always say, 'you need me more than I need you. I can make 101 other Catherine Lyonses'." 

Jen could recognise so many similarities as they shared their accounts.

“Across every decade across every geography and the story is so similar," Jen explains.

"You think that your ankle hurts, but you're told that you're lazy.

"You think you're hungry, but you're told that you’re fat.

"This is child abuse.

"The way these young girls are so beaten down, they come to accept any type of treatment and believe it's their fault."

Jennifer Sey is a former gymnast and producer of Athlete A. Credit: ITV News

These women are part of an unbroken chain of brave athletes who have emerged with similar stories.

All are intent on justice.

They don’t want the system in its current form to continue.

They believe it is unfit for purpose.

When I asked Rachael - who was sexually abused by Nassar - what is so fundamentally wrong with the system as whole, internationally, she said: “When you have people in leadership positions that truly believe at the core of their being that the most important thing a country can do in athletics is to bring home X number of medals, to produce X number of gymnasts or swimmers or divers or figure skaters… you have generations of gymnast that are told, this is where your identity is.

"This is where your value is.

"And if you can't produce that, you're not worth anything to me."

Jen echoed her point: “This type of belittling and abusing of children is utterly normalised to the point where it's practically invisible.

"If you don't even acknowledge the full scope of the problem you can't apologise for it, you can’t reimagine a new organisation that puts children first. 

"We're still in the denial phase."

Catherine agreed wholeheartedly.

She believes we are only scratching the surface with all the stories.

The gymnasts meet up virtually. Credit: ITV News

This is a public reckoning for many gymnasts. 

They are children who have grown into women and grown in strength to tell their stories. 

But how can the change they want really happen? 

Rachael believes the institutions themselves must come face to face with the reality of the damage first, only then will they be motivated to change.

"We need to start having those very difficult conversations.

"What can we do to make it better?

"What do we need to do with age limits?" Rachel asks.

For Lisa, the age of gymnasts is an important issue.

“We use the word women's gymnastics and I don't see women.

"I see children and we're expecting professionalism and adult behaviour from children,” Lisa says.

She is calling for the age limit of all gymnasts to be 18.

Having the experiences they did took away their childhoods and their love of a sport they were brilliant at.

Their developing bodies and minds were changed forever, and they want an apology.

I asked quite simply: “Who would you like to say sorry to you?

"Is it the institutions that should have protected you?

 Catherine said: “I think everyone.

"My coach who abused me and abused the other gymnasts in my group.

"I would like a sorry from the other coaches that witnessed this and didn't report it and didn't flag it like they should have done.

"And I'd want a sorry from the top of the organisation.

"No adult in British Gymnastics has said, we're sorry for what happened and we're holding our hands up."

Rachael wants “nothing more than for the leaders of these organisations to do what's right because they care about the children under their protection, but they're not doing that".

And until they make that choice, the only alternative, the only route we have available to us is to ensure that there are consequences that motivate them to make those choices."

Rachael Denhollander Credit: ITV News

It is the future of the sport and the lives of young children that are at risk. Lisa wouldn’t let her children set foot inside a gym in as it is now.  

“It is part of the justice,” she says.

“To know that the next generation is not going to be let down like we were.” 

The line between training and abuse had become a blurred one for all four of these women.

The fact that they have told their stories, told their truth has given them power.

It now gives the sport a hinge moment in its history.

In a statement, British Gymnastics previously 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."