Simone Biles' former coach Aimee Boorman says British athletes must keep telling their truths

Simone Biles and her former coach Aimee Boorman
Aimee Boorman coached Simone Biles to many of her medals. Credit: AP

If you want a blueprint for the perfect modern gymnastics’ coach, you don’t have to look too much further than Aimee Boorman, who guided the incomparable Simone Biles to the majority of her 23 Olympic and world titles.  

Boorman was told as a young coach that her positive and inclusive approach to athletes would get her nowhere.

By then, though, she had already decided that was the only way she was going to be; a method intentionally far removed from how she was treated when she was a gymnast.

Boorman was determined not to contribute to a cycle of abuse. 

“I had a coach that made me fall out of love with gymnastics because I felt so terrible," Boorman said.

"I decided I didn’t want to coach the way he coached me, I never wanted another child to feel the way that I felt."

Simone Biles, left, with Aimee Boorman, right. Credit: PA

So, when British gymnasts started to speak publicly about their stories of abuse, she was not surprised, but she definitely was moved.

“It made a huge impact on me when I first saw the #gymnastalliance stuff come up being led from Great Britain, it was eyeopening that this was a global problem.

"I don’t think they’re trying to ruin anybody as far as their coaches, their clubs, I think they’re trying to say ‘this wasn’t right and it needs to change’.

"The movement they have started is amazing, they’re not doing it to bring someone down, they’re doing it to lift someone up, they’re doing it to lift the future up so it’s super important they keep on this track.”

But is a change really feasible when so many coaches have been operating the same way for much of their careers and in many cases are replicating how they were treated?

“I do believe you can teach an old dog new tricks.

"A successful coach, one with lots of medals can say, 'well, what I have done has worked'.

"Did it really work?

"Are your athletes now enrolling their kids into gymnastics?

"Do your athletes want to come and coach for you?

"Will this go on for generation after generation or will they continue the cycle of abuse?

"It’s really a choice to change, if you make the choice to change, you can change.”

Boorman told me during our transatlantic Zoom conversation that communication and honesty are the keys to a successful coach and gymnast pairing; a philosophy she employed with Biles.

It quite obviously worked even though she admits there were bumps along the way, but they were ironed out she says thanks to the openness of their relationship.

She gets a sense that that balance is one of the issues causing so much pain in the UK. 

Gold medalist Simone Biles performs on the balance beam as she took home her 25th world medal. Credit: AP

“To get someone to any status in gymnastics it’s a partnership.

"It sounds like what’s happening in Great Britain is that there is not that communication, it’s that ‘do as I say because I said so.’.”  

So, what is her advice to Britain’s current crop of coaches? How can they be a part of the solution? Boorman is convinced a happy athlete makes a better athlete. 

“Coaches have to drop their barriers a little bit and say ‘OK, parents I want to hear from you, athletes I want to hear from you because in the long run everything will come out better.’

"I understand that it’s scary for these coaches who open themselves up because there is going to be ridicule there; they’re going to hear ‘I don’t like it when you do this’. And the coaches have to decide ‘well, that’s who I am and that’s who I’ve decided I’m going to be.’ And then they have to live with that. And other coaches are going to look at and say ‘I had no idea I was doing that, it was never my intention and I’m going to be more aware of it.’” 

And, as for the gymnasts, Boorman says they need to keep telling their stories, especially those still at the top with a high profile.

“I would advise them from a moral and ethical place to come forward because whatever is happening to you will happen to the next girl, and the next girl, and the next girl and the boys as well.”

But naturally the very best are concerned about the impact on their selection, their funding, their Olympic dreams, if they speak up.

According to Boorman, that’s when the governing body, British Gymnastics, should stand up themselves to reassure gymnasts.

“I do have compassion from where they’re standing but in reality their national teams should be set up in such a way that this is about your gymnastics.

"If you can go out and win the medals your country wants you to win it shouldn’t matter whether you’re outspoken or not, you’re looking to better the world, who doesn’t want that representation?” 

When it comes to the old school style of, at best intimidating and at worse abusive coaching, she couldn’t be clearer.

There is no place for it.

“It might breed medals but it won’t breed success, because you’re going to have an athlete that is broken at the end of it.”

British Gymnastics says any mistreatment of gymnasts is inexcusable and urges any athlete who feels they've been mistreated to report it to their Integrity Unit or call the NSPCC or British Athlete Commission.

British Gymnastics has also launched a QC-led independent inquiry into the claims of abuse made within the sport.

When writing up their recommendations, the QC leading the review could do a lot worse than take guidance from Boorman.

She is someone who has lived through the US gymnastics scandal, has coached one of the best gymnasts America has ever produced but has done so in a style that would have protected a growing number of young British gymnasts from the damaging memories they now carry around with them.