(Reuters) – For young gymnasts heading to summer camp it is no longer just fun and games – it also means having “the talk”, said three-time Olympic champion Aly Raisman as the sport continues to come to grips with sexual abuse scandals.
Three years after ex-USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to hundreds of years in prison for molesting young female gymnasts, the nightmare resurfaced last month when former-national team coach John Geddert was charged with sexual assault and human trafficking.
Geddert, who was head coach of the U.S. women’s squad which included Raisman that won team gold at the 2012 London Olympics, died by suicide on Feb. 26 shortly after court documents were filed for his arrest.
Whereas once the main focus of these summer camps was to learn and hone the kind of acrobatic and tumbling skills that set Raisman on her way to earning six medals across two Olympics, the shocking events over the last few years mean that such carefree days are probably gone forever.
Learning to cope with these horrors, spotting predators and recognising the warning signs now seem essential and have been incorporated into the program designed by Raisman for the Woodward Gymnastics camps.
Having endured Nassar’s abuse herself, Raisman understands camps are not meant to be survivor schools. These camps are meant to be fun but in today’s reality, Raisman is adamant that issues such as athlete abuse and safety must be confronted, not ignored.
“It is something we are definitely addressing,” Raisman told Reuters during a phone interview. “Part of the problem is when you try to act like you don’t want to talk about it and sweep it under the rug.
“The more we talk about it the less likely people will have to suffer in silence and predators will get away with it.
“If you’re talking about it and you are out in the open it is going to create an environment where kids feel comfortable coming forward. Where as if you are not talking about it, the kids ultimately end up suffering in silence.”
Getting parents to feel secure about handing over their children requires trust, and Raisman said this is something that is in very short supply when it comes to USA Gymnastics.
Following the Geddert criminal case, Raisman has renewed her calls for an independent investigation into USA Gymnastics and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee because there are still too many unanswered questions around the sexual abuse scandals and how they were allowed to happen.
“I have been saying for years there needs to be an independent investigation I have been trying for years to get that going,” said Raisman, noting that any adult involved with her program at the Woodward camp will undertake mandatory training designed to provide education and prevention of child sexual abuse.
“I just feel like my bar is just so low for USA Gymnastics at this point it’s crazy. Trust needs to be earned.
“People can say a bunch of times they have changed and its a new USA Gymnastics but I need to see action and so do the other survivors and athletes.”
If there is a lack of trust it has not been reflected in registration numbers, said USA Gymnastics.
In fact it has been COVID-19 and not the scandals that has impacted registration.
“Prior to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020, we were experiencing year-over-year membership growth, and we were tracking toward another above-average annual cycle,” said USA Gymnastics in an email to Reuters.
There have been at least six independent investigations stemming from the Nassar scandal according to USA Gymnastics while the organization has undergone a complete overhaul internally, including a new Board and the hiring of Li Li Leung as president and CEO in 2018.
Raisman, however, remains unimpressed saying there are still far too many unanswered questions.
“Right now USA Gymnastics is extremely disappointing and continue to let all of us down,” said Raisman. “I know John Geddert was investigated in 2011 and those years I spent a lot of time with him.
“He coached one of my closest friends and no one notified me or my parents that he was being investigated and they decided he was fine and rewarded him with being the 2012 Olympic coach.
“There are still people there that were there when John Geddert and Nassar were there.
“Unfortunately I do not trust or believe in USA Gymnastics leadership right now.”
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Pritha Sarkar)