ITV News Sports Editor Steve Scott reports on a weight-shaming culture that led to young gymnasts developing lifelong health issues
Ellie Marinova says she clearly remembers the moment her eating disorder began to take hold.
After being weighed at the start of a training session, one of her coaches screamed: “You have to lose nine kilos in the next four days or I don't want to coach you.”
Ellie tells ITV News: “That’s when it really started going downhill.”
"Downhill" is an understatement. Since then, Ellie has spent years in hospital, where she regularly self-harmed and tried to kill herself on several occasions.
If it hadn’t been for gymnastics, she claims, it’s unlikely she’d ever have been to that desperately dark place.
“The past few years I was so miserable, and I never thought I was actually going to make it out alive.”
There was a culture at her gym club, Ellie says, where she and her teammates were defined by “the number on the scales”. Passing out or vomiting during training was not uncommon.
“There was constant weighing. At the start of every session, we got put in a weight order line. If the number was too high for what they wanted you to be, then you were punished with conditioning, running, or skipping.
"You weren’t allowed to train with your partner, even if a competition was close. You felt like you were letting your partner down.”
Because of this constant pressure, Ellie says, her weight began to dominate her life.
“It involved me not eating, over-exercising outside of sessions. I would never really hang out with anyone at school, I’d go hide in the bathrooms so I could run on the spot and put my food down the toilet,” she said.
Ellie believes that lifestyle eventually led to her years in hospital; an experience she says that has shaped her forever.
“The way I got treated, the trauma, absolutely everything was even worse. And that makes it even harder to deal with, that all of this came from something I started when I was three years old - loving it, wanting to do it all the time - to something that changed my life completely," she said.
Ellie’s former head coach Nikki Thorne is currently being investigated by British Gymnastics over multiple complaints, but has not been suspended by the governing body.
ITV News has seen statements from a number of gymnasts trained by Mrs Thorne
One said: “I used to be so scared to come into training in case I weighed more than I did the day before. I would feel sick and anxious, terrified that I would be screamed at.”
Another wrote that after being weighed “they used to ask me about what I had eaten that day and they would tell me I should not be eating it.”
A third remembered: “If they thought we were too heavy, they made us run for maybe up to two hours up and down the back of the gym.”
And finally, one told us: “On my period, Nik said to me I’d be bloated, so I should eat less to balance it out”.
All the former gymnasts claim they have needed a degree of medical help since leaving the sport. The conditions they say they have been treated for range from anorexia and depression to self-harming and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The gymnasts all allege being weighed on a regular basis and being sent on punishment runs.
Freya Cooper is convinced her gymnastics experience has led to issues she is still struggling with.
Freya used to self-harm, she needed weekly counselling and now, a few years later, she still suffers from anxiety, a lack of self-worth and - having been criticised so much in the past - says she is always self-conscious about how she looks.
“If we put on point one of a kilogram, we'd be told to just run around the gym for the three hours we were there. It was done in a way that all the other gymnasts knew why you were running, and you’d just be screamed at while doing so," she said.
"We would do extreme things to make sure that didn't happen. So, we weren't allowed to drink water during the session, it just created a whole world of problems.
"It’s really hard to exercise when you have no energy, or you haven’t eaten, and it would be quite a regular thing to pass out or throw up. And that would be standard really; just expected."
The impact of the club culture Freya claims was devastating.
“It affected every part of my life; I couldn’t do what everyone else was doing and I just went into a downward spiral with my view towards myself and food,” she said.
“I would go from like 8am to ‘weigh-time’ without drinking water just because it would have made my life easier in the long term because I wouldn't have to deal with the repercussions at training later in the day, if I just stopped myself from eating or drinking water.”
“It was honestly like a form of torture. You feel so trapped because you're being like hounded and screamed at and exercising to the point that you pass out and you couldn't leave; you couldn't tell anyone.”
Nikki Thorne has denied all the allegations, which she describes as unfounded. In a statement to ITV News she said: “I am a successful coach in the sport of acrobatics and am well-respected all around the world. I am a British Gymnastics Pathway coach and head coach of my club.
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"As an experienced coach, the safety, welfare and well-being of the gymnasts is at the centre of my coaching ethos. To suggest I would mistreat any gymnast is deeply upsetting, hurtful and is the opposite of everything I have strived to be as a coach.
"The accounts put forward are either totally exaggerated or entirely untrue and I am currently seeking legal advice. I absolutely deny these allegations of misconduct which are shocking and unfounded.
"Some of these unsubstantiated allegations are the subject of a current investigation by the governing body, British Gymnastics. I am fully cooperating with the British Gymnastics investigation and I have provided extensive evidence to refute allegations of misconduct.
"Due to the ongoing investigation it is not appropriate for me to comment at this stage.”
ITV News Sports Editor Steve Scott explains how British Gymnastics is responding to the complaints.
In a statement British Gymnastics told ITV News: “We cannot comment on any case that is currently being investigated. Management of cases takes place through an Independent Complaints Process, and as part of that process it is absolutely clear that if a coach that is subject to a complaint is deemed to pose a risk to others, then they will not be allowed to continue coaching during the investigation and will be immediately removed from that environment.
"Through our Reform 25 action plan we are committed to creating safe, positive, and fair experiences for all in gymnastics, with nothing being more important than the safety and wellbeing of gymnasts and everyone involved in the sport.
"That means a culture of weight shaming has absolutely no place in gymnastics. The new and updated guidance that is already in place around weighing is there to safeguard the physical and mental health of gymnasts as part of wider sports science guidelines, with these having been developed collaboratively with both gymnasts and coaches.”
Who to contact for support if you've been impacted by any of the issues raised in this blog:
Beat provides a free helpline to support those with eating disorders. Call 0808 801 0677 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Samaritans offers help to anyone, including those dealing with illness, suicidal thoughts and stress. Call 116 123 or email at email@example.com
Anorexia & Bulimia Care offers support and advice for anyone suffering from disordered eating on its website or on their helpline at 03000 111213.
SANEline provides help for those struggling with their mental health. Call SANEline on 0300 304 7000 for support.