Words by Claire Heafford, former elite gymnast
My name is Claire Heafford, I’m 39 years old and I experienced physical and emotional abuse as an elite gymnast training in the 1990s.
Not only was I physically and emotionally abused as a young gymnast, but when I went back to compete in the sport I loved as an adult, I was a witness in 2011 to a horrific physical assault on a 10-year old child; and subsequently became a whistle blower for the abusive coaching I’d seen.
Although the abuse I reported was investigated by social services and the police, a criminal charge could not be brought and the coach in question was reinstated.
This led me to realise that the safeguarding and child protection measures British Gymnastics had put in place were ineffective at best.
Fast-forward nine years to 2020 and we find elite gymnastics at a major crossroads.
The release of Athlete A and the subsequent Gymnast Alliance movement has exposed the sport’s culture of abuse for all to see, and social media is now awash with gymnasts from around the world speaking out about their experiences.
Abuse has been reported at every level and discipline of the sport within both women’s and men’s gymnastics.
You only have to search #gymnastalliance to realise that we are not talking about a few bad apples. We’re talking about a broken system, with allegations dating back decades.
From a performance perspective, over the last 30 years British Gymnastics has gone from being mediocre to world beating.
The UK now regularly celebrates the medal winning success of its gymnasts at the Olympic and World Championship level – but at what cost?
Elite gymnasts including Amy Tinkler, Louis Smith, Hannah Whelan, Max Whitlock, Jennifer Pinches, Dan Keating, Becky and Ellie Downie, Nile Wilson, Nicole Pavier and Charlie Fellows have all spoken out about the "culture of fear" and the normalisation of abusive coaching that has coloured their experience of the sport.
For the older generation of gymnasts from the 80s and 90s, hearing the voices of current and recently retired British Olympians has made it shockingly clear that the same toxic coaching methods that were used on us three decades ago are still being used on gymnasts today.
It is a culture that is endemic in British Gymnastics and it is time for it to stop.
My experience was not the best and it was not the worst I’ve heard about, but it has stayed with me all these years and shaped my life in more ways than I care to admit.
Overall, what it has taught me is that there is a thin veneer covering the open secret of abusive coaching practices within our sport.
What I know in my heart to be true is that we’re only just seeing the tip of the iceberg. There is still so much yet to emerge.
Over the years, as this system of abusive coaching has developed, hundreds of athletes have been left broken by the long-term effects of trauma and post-traumatic stress.
This is why I, alongside a group of gymnasts from my former club, am investigating a potential group legal action against British Gymnastics with international law firm Hausfeld.
Frustrated by the fact that the coaching culture has not changed, we are taking matters into our own hands.
We are currently considering claims against British Gymnastics, individual gymnastics clubs, and gymnastic coaches who were involved in the abusive practices.
We are calling on current and former gymnasts who feel that they have been affected by abusive coaching practices, at any club, to get in touch and consider joining our claim to bring an end to abusive coaching practices.
Your voice deserves to be heard and I invite you to be a part of the change by speaking your truth.