Friday, June 1, 2018

So I Need to Talk About Gymnastics

Content note: I am going to be addressing the abusive actions that were perpetrated upon US gymnasts over the past several decades. These include physical, emotional, and sexual abuse and a breach of trust. They also include using young girls as a means to an end (that is, medals). I'm not going to be graphic but this post does come in light of all of that, and that is something to be aware of as you read.

Those who know me well, or sort of well, or at all, know that I was a gymnast. I was pretty good. I loved it. Gymnastics is what saved me, to be honest.

Those who follow the news know that USA Gymnastics handed an endless stream of young women over to a sexual offender (Larry Nassar, who apparently has an autistic daughter and I doubt she is safe from him). Those who follow gymnastics know that criticizing Marta Karyoli is Just Not Done, although you cannot square up the allegation that she knows everything with that she didn't know (I personally think the Karyolis both knew from early on that they had a predator. But keeping a predator around is a great way to find which girls will keep your dirty secrets). Marta and Bela have a documented history of being emotionally and possibly physically abusive, stretching back into the 80s. But all that USA Gymnastics saw was medals.

This is disgusting. USA Gymnastics has all sorts of things you supposedly swear to uphold if you are a judge or if you coach lower levels, but as soon as we're talking medals, the athletes are apparently disposable. Fuck that, I say.

Fuck USA Gymnastics. Fuck the Karyolis. Fuck Nassar. I'm going to talk about gymnastics. And my experience is just one, but there's themes in the survivor's narratives that echo my own experience.

Namely this: the sport is not the problem.

Many many children and adolescents (and late blooming adults) will tell you about the benefits they experienced. I made friends with my body. I learned to fly--gymnastics is all about learning to fly, right? Learning to make your body and your brain cooperate because what you are trying to do sounds like a terrible idea, and then doing it anyway. Gymnastics builds confidence, because you spend a lot of time saying "this thing should be impossible. I'm going to do it anyway". And then you do it.

Gymnasts are both strong and flexible. The physical benefits for those who can participate are obvious. You use speed, you use strength, you use a range of motion--and you use those all together. Right? And if you are being taught properly, you learn everything in a stepwise fashion. Everyone is going to have a cap of what the hardest thing they can learn to do is, that's just life and having a body. But before you find that cap, you learn a lot of other things. You stretch your library of movement every day that you're in the gym. It's no wonder that gymnasts go on to succeed in martial arts or dance or other sports. We learn how to move our bodies in so many ways that adding elements isn't as daunting as making friends with your body and also working with a partner or a ball.

Gymnasts who are not dealing with abusive coaches and program staff learn a lot of psychological things too. The psychological things I learned from gymnastics are why I am still here, and gymnasts with supportive families will report similar things. You learn to say "no, you move" to mental blocks. Even when that mental block is your asshole mom. You learn hard work. You learn creative problem solving (everyone else does a full but I hate back twisting? Good thing a front flip with a half twist exists!). Hard work beats talent because hard work shows up. And you learn that moving your body is fun. That's mental too. You learn to trust yourself. All of that is incredibly important.

It also makes what USA Gymnastics supported a betrayal. I'm not minimizing at all what our athletes went through at the hands of the governing body. But those women and I agree, at least according to everything I have read: gymnastics isn't the problem. The people at the top are.

I understand people who are saying that they'd never put their kids in gymnastics in light of all this. I do. But I don't agree with that as a blanket choice. I'd stay the hell away from elite gymnastics, yes, unless the whole system is changed drastically. I'd stay away from any program that belittled children or used weight and diet talk (I cringe so hard when commentators talk about the athletes' bodies, please shut up Tim Dagget), and I'd stay away from a program that never allowed observation--parents do not belong on the floor. Parents should be able to tell if their presence is a distraction to their kids and excuse themselves during practice. I don't like totally shut off gyms at this point. But there's seeing red flags and avoiding them, and there's cutting off a whole avenue for development. I understand the impulse. I don't think it's the solution.

As people who care about the sport and its athletes, coaches and judges have got to be less afraid of making waves. Young girls learn early that people don't listen to them. People do listen to adults. It is our duty to speak up when we see practices that make us feel icky, or see dynamics that could be harmful. Many elite coaches done fucked up on this score--I cannot believe that literally zero adults knew what was happening at the Ranch and such. I cannot believe that people who have the eye for detail necessary to teach such intricate skills and routines could fail spectacularly to miss what a fucking creeper Nassar is, or that the athletes were underfed at the Ranch, or that verbal abuse is a bad life choice and totally happens. You're more perceptive than that, folks. I do in fact hold the elite gymnastics establishment as a whole responsible for the shit that was allowed to happen. I thought I could never be an elite coach because I'm not tough enough. I was sort of wrong. I can never be an elite coach because I care about the athletes, not about the medals, and will always, always advocate for the person. Every time. All coaches should do that. US elite coaches failed spectacularly at that.

The system is broken. The sport can be sound. Listen to participants. We don't have to throw away a great way to make friends with your body because of a broken system. We need to throw away the system.