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USAG fails to help gymnasts

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Over the past few months, USA Gymnastics  (USAG) has made so many changes to their policies that even longtime gymnastics fans are reeling from whiplash. It’s almost as if USAG is serious about rebuilding and making changes to ensure athlete safety. However, the changes have been kindly and aptly described as “haphazard” by popular weekly gymnastics podcast GymCastic, an adjective that seems increasingly appropriate the further one intricately analyzes the ongoing situation.

The best example of this frantic and arguably messy change is the closing of the national training center, also known as “The Ranch.” Before their eventual retirement, national USAG team coordinator Marta Karolyi and her husband Bela, himself a Romanian gymnastics coach, ran monthly training camps in an isolated part of Texas. Former gymnast Mattie Larson, one of over 150 reported young women sexually assaulted at the hands of gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar within The Ranch, described the overwhelming and daunting isolation in her victim impact statement.

“The closest hospital is so far away, you’d need to be helicoptered there,” she said in court.

Larson also describes an incident in which she was so desperate to not attend camp, she slammed her head against the bathtub and splashed water to make it look like she slipped and injured herself. Several other athletes of recent acclaim, including standout national stars Aly Raisman and Maggie Nichols, have come forward to explain how Nassar frequently abused them at The Ranch in addition to the emotional abuse by the Karolyi family.

However, it didn’t appear as if USAG was going to do anything about it, even planning to continue monthly training camps without a second thought or interruption. It wasn’t until Olympic gold medalist and all-time great Simone Biles publicly revealed she also was abused by Nassar at The Ranch, and that it would be immensely difficult for her to return, when USAG finally took action. Within days, the organization announced the training camps would be halted immediately, including the one already scheduled. Eventually and inevitably, on Jan. 25, USAG announced its permanent closure. Five days later, Governor Greg Abbott ordered an investigation headed by the Texas Rangers, the state’s lead criminal investigative unit.

On the surface, this seems like a positive outcome for change. One of the main sites where the abuse took place has been rightfully closed. However, once one digs deeper, problems begin to arise.

USAG hadn’t announced a backup training location, and it became increasingly obvious that the change was more a result of media backlash than any desire to genuinely self-examine. Current elite gymnasts were confused, especially considering many had already purchased plane tickets to travel to and train at the Ranch, nullified investments that may not be reimbursed. On Feb. 25, there will be a verification camp hosted by Louisiana State University, which will be streamed on YouTube according to USAG’s official Twitter. GymCastic mentioned that the event caused some confusion about NCAA regulations.

The current elites have been caught in the crossfire. From hearing their friends and teammates reveal their assault strories, witnessing their sponsors dropping like flies, to enduring the intense media backlash and watching their leadership fall apart around them, the next few years for these athletes are undoubtedly going to be troubled.

One of these aspects is the current lack of a national team coordinator. So far, no replacement has been named. Valeri Liukin announced his resignation on Feb. 2, telling USA Today that these events have caused his family immense stress, but telling Russian media outlet TASS, “The main reason for my resignation is the scandal with the doctor. Everyone is now looking for someone to blame even though I had nothing to do with the main [team] staff at the time” (gymnovosti.com). Additionally troubling is that prior to his public resignation, Liukin had made no public comment about the Nassar scandal. He was attempting to proceed as if nothing had happened.

The overall reactionary attitude from USAG is not going to make the necessary changes to end the systemic culture of abuse plaguing gymnastics. The changes were evidently implemented because of the intense media backlash in an attempt to save face. USAG has once again held its reputation in higher regard than the gymnasts it is supposed to be supporting and protecting.

mlecze1@stolaf.edu