The Other Side of Gymnastics

The eyes are the window to the soul.

William Shakespeare

This post is going to be really hard to write. But, I want to be vulnerable & stand up for what I believe in. Over the past 5 years a lot has come out about USA Gymnastics and the abuse that they have covered up. The USA Gymnastics national team doctor was sentenced to 175 years in prison back in 2018 for numerous sexual assault crimes against the gymnasts that he treated. Just a few days ago, a well known Olympic team coach committed suicide after being charged with 24 counts of sexual abuse & human trafficking. A lot has also come out about verbal abuse from coaches. And, USA Gymnastics continues to sweep all of this under the rug, choosing to avoid discussing all of the abuse that they let happen. They still have not allowed an independent investigation. It breaks my heart. I was a competitive gymnast for 10 years. I know all too well how abusive gymnastics can be. I lived it. I experienced years of emotional, mental, and verbal abuse from coaches. And I’m not afraid to talk about it anymore. I loved gymnastics with every fiber of my being. It was my whole world, and it helped shape the person I am today. I made incredible friendships, connections, and unforgettable memories. I will always be thankful for my years as gymnast. When I look back, I feel a lot of happy & positive feelings. But, in the same breath, I can’t continue to allow myself to ignore the trauma that also came with those years. I tried so hard at ignoring those scary feelings for way too long, and I will not do it anymore. I can’t do it anymore. I only realized the trauma I went through about 4 months ago, in therapy. With the help of my therapist, I was able to link certain things together. A lot of the things I struggle with today stem from competitive gymnastics. I have this overwhelming urge to be perfect in a few things that I do. I think I notice it most when I’m cooking. If it doesn’t come out perfect, I feel like I failed & disappointed everyone. For 10 years, I was judged on how perfect I executed routines. I was judged on how perfect I looked- there couldn’t be a hair out of place or a speck of nail polish on your fingers. It was drilled into me every single day to be perfect, and there wasn’t an option to be anything less. I’ve realized that we were taught to chase a perfection that didn’t exist. And I think it’s unfair to teach young girls that they need to be perfect. It has carried over to my life now, even 8 years later. I wish it didn’t still affect me, but it does. It’s hard to undo what you’ve been taught. I think I will eventually, that’s one of my goals in therapy. I’m so afraid to disappoint people. But, believe me, I do. Disappointing someone when you’re so afraid of it is really difficult, like a tricky mind game. There was never any hesitation when it came to kicking you out of practice for not meeting your coach’s expectations. Didn’t stick a landing? Quick smack on the back of the head. Gained a few pounds? You’re “getting soft” and you have to lose those pounds as quickly as they came on. Shed a few tears because you were so emotionally drained & exhausted & frustrated? Berated in front of teammates. Those things stick with you forever. And for a long time I didn’t allow myself to remember those things, let alone talk about them. I believe that in an overwhelming amount of gyms, gymnasts are taught to be submissive. You don’t question your coach, you don’t talk back to your coach, and you always have to do what they say. I think that’s what needs to change. Coaches are not right all of the time, and gymnasts should feel like they’re able to voice their opinions. Up until recently I think I put gymnastics on a very high pedestal. Like nothing about it could ever be wrong. There is no other sport like gymnastics. I believe that it’s the hardest sport there is, without question. No other sport takes a bigger toll on you mentally, physically, or emotionally. And unless you lived it, you truly don’t know what it’s like. I think gymnastics was so untouchable when it came to criticism for me, because I felt like I was special for being a gymnast. Like I was part of this secret club that was so hard to get into. I’m still proud of myself for being a gymnast. That will never go away. Now I just choose to except the reality of the situation, and I allow myself to feel the pain, to peel back the layers of trauma. And I know that underneath those layers, there’s that little girl who fell in love with the sport, and I owe her the opportunity to heal. Because I know deep down, there is still so much love, respect, and gratitude for gymnastics. But that love has to be healthy, another thing I’m working on in therapy. I had one coach who always, no matter what, kept that love for gymnastics alive for me. When I say that gymnastics taught me everything, I really mean him. He always pushed me to be the best that I could be. And he taught me a lot about my self in the process. Sure, we had some hard nights. Nights filled with a lot of tears, one night where I was kicked out of the gym, and nights with a lot of frustration. But he never made me hate the sport, and for that I owe him everything. When I look back, I’d still do it all over again. Even knowing what I know now. Maybe that makes me weak. Maybe it makes me a hypocrite. Maybe it makes me human. I guess that’s for you to decide. I’d do it all over again because it puts me in the position I’m in now. A position where I’m able to stand up and advocate. To call on USA Gymnastics to open up an independent investigation. To protect all of the current gymnasts, and all of the ones who will come after. To use my voice to fight for what I believe in. I coach gymnastics now. I think it gave me back some control. I actively try to break the cycle of abuse. I always make sure to check that my kids feel okay, that they’re comfortable, and that they’re happy. I try my best to encourage open & honest conversations. I think it’s a good starting point. I have to say, the gym that I coach at is absolutely incredible. All of the coaches, owners, and people there care so much, love so big, and always have the gymnasts best interest at heart. Being in such a healthy & happy gym environment has truly reminded me what the best parts of gymnastics are. I definitely think coaching at such an amazing place has helped me on my journey to heal. And I’m grateful everyday that I walk in there. I think the thing that I’ve realized is that it isn’t the sport of gymnastics that I have a problem with, but the culture of gymnastics that has affected me so negatively. The culture of gymnastics is not going to change overnight, that’s why we need to continue pushing for change every singe day. I still believe, after everything, that gymnastics is the best sport, and I’m so thankful for all of the positive things it brought me. I have a lot of things to still work through, but I think that I will. I have a whole lot of love for the sport, and I want that love to last inside of me forever. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without all of the things gymnastics gave me, both good and bad. But I think it’s made me strong, and I will continue using that strength to advocate for change. I’ll leave you all with a quote from Us Against You by Frederik Backman. “At some point almost everyone makes a choice. Some of us don’t even notice it happening, most don’t get to plan it in advance, but there’s always a moment when we take one path instead of another that has consequences for the rest of our lives. It determines the people we will become, in other people’s eyes as well as our own.”

One thought on “The Other Side of Gymnastics

  1. Eleanor this is eloquently written. So much truth and heartfelt emotions. You are a fabulous writer and warrior. God Bless you! Your strength and perseverance will guide you through your journey in life. ❤️❤️

    Like

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