‘Seriously, You Chose Her?’: U.S.A. Gymnastics’ Trouble at the Top
America’s best gymnasts have shaken their heads for years at the failure of their national federation to understand the blighted culture of their sport, one that allowed a team doctor to abuse them for decades while the sport’s leaders looked the other way.
A turning point appeared to come last winter in a Michigan courtroom. There, for nearly a week, more than 100 girls and women riveted a national audience with stories of sexual abuse and institutional neglect as Lawrence G. Nassar, the longtime national team doctor, sat listening a few feet away before a judge sentenced him to essentially a life term in prison.
Yet just seven months later, the leadership of their sport let them down all over again, the gymnasts say, by not seeking their opinions on crucial moves, decisions that were among the reasons the United States Olympic Committee moved Monday to strip the federation of its governing powers.
First, U.S.A. Gymnastics, the troubled national governing body, gave a powerful position to a coach who had a history of defending Nassar and a reputation, among many former gymnasts, for pushing athletes to unnecessary extremes and haranguing them about their weight.
The appointment of that coach, Mary Lee Tracy, who had four decades of experience, fell apart quickly. The complaints it generated forced the organization’s chief executive to resign.
Just weeks later, the federation’s board appointed Mary Bono, a former congresswoman, to serve as U.S.A. Gymnastics’ interim chief executive. She lasted five days.
Bono resigned under pressure after several prominent athletes complained about her lobbying work for a law firm that had advised U.S.A. Gymnastics in 2015 when the organization delayed publicly revealing reports about Nassar’s assaults.
As the federation enters a phase that may lead to its demise, longtime gymnasts remain befuddled over the mismanaged hiring. For them, the choices, most emblematically the Tracy decision, illustrated a continuing dysfunction in an organization they see as incapable of understanding the drastic changes needed to create a healthy environment for gymnasts at every level.
A cursory search of the internet would have revealed Tracy defending Nassar and calling him “amazing” in a 2016 television interview — after the first wave of accusations against him, from more than 50 athletes, was made public. Diligent outreach to gymnasts who trained under Tracy, or those who knew her athletes, would most likely have uncovered allegations of a physically and emotionally abusive atmosphere at her gym.
A spokesman for U.S.A. Gymnastics declined to comment on the hiring process for Tracy.
In an interview last month, Tracy said she had evolved as a coach over the last 10 years. “I’m not proud of some of the times in my early days of coaching,” she said. “I’m the first one to say that I yelled too much at kids and I weighed kids, and I certainly don’t do that anymore.” Tracy has also called Nassar a monster, repudiating her comments in the television interview.
Dominique Moceanu, a gold medalist on the 1996 Olympic team who trained at Tracy’s Cincinnati Gymnastics Academy in the early 2000s, said she began texting with other gymnasts as soon as she learned that Tracy had been named the federation’s elite development coordinator.
“After so many poor decisions, everybody was like, ‘Seriously, you chose her?’” said Moceanu, who recently opened a gym in Ohio. “You don’t know the eating disorders that have come out of her gym, or the problem with injuries that have come out of her gym? Have you not done any of your homework?’”
Morgan White, a Tracy protégé who made the Olympic team in 2000, never publicly discussed what she had endured as a gymnast until Tracy was chosen for the coordinator’s job in August. White remembers feeling nauseated when she heard the news — and decided to speak up.
At the time, White, 34, was recovering from a total hip replacement. She has had three hip operations, which she believes were necessitated by years of overtraining under Tracy’s guidance.
The coach repeatedly called her fat, encouraging eating disorders that have persisted, White said, and also persuaded her to hide injuries when she was under consideration for national teams. At a training camp before the Sydney Olympics, White said, Tracy coerced her to forgo a protective boot and icing sessions on the foot so that the national team coordinators would not automatically deny her a spot on the Olympic team. White ultimately pulled out of the Games because of the injury.
Nassar offered her friendship during those tough times, she said. Several gymnasts have said the doctor’s positive attitude was partly why they did not challenge him as he molested them under the guise of medical treatment.
Once when White was in a car with Nassar during a training camp, “he comforted me and rubbed my leg and said everything was going to be O.K., and that it wasn’t fair that Mary Lee was treating me this way,” she said. “He was the good guy in a sport of cruel people. He had already assaulted me by then.”
White, a plaintiff in one of the many lawsuits against U.S.A.G., said Nassar started abusing her when she was 16.
Tracy, however, has described White as one of her “all-time favorite” athletes. “I feel like I was a good friend and a good coach to Morgan White,” she said, adding that she had frequently encouraged White to put on weight.
She said White had insisted on hiding the injury, which included not wearing a protective boot or icing the injury, and she said it was not uncommon for a star athlete to push through an injury, with the blessing of the parents, who don’t want to derail their child’s Olympic goals.
“If I was such an awful person, then why did you keep driving your daughter to practice, sometimes twice a day, six days a week, and then pay me $300, $500 a month for it?” Tracy said.
Tracy also said that she had immediately reported a possible case of sexual misconduct to U.S.A. Gymnastics in 2015 after a mother called her to say that Marvin Sharp, the federation’s 2010 coach of the year, had taken a lewd photograph of her daughter. Sharp was arrested on charges of child molestation and sexual misconduct, and he hanged himself in jail.
Tracy has many supporters on all levels of the sport, including Jennie Leonard, who competed as Jennie Thompson on seven national teams, three of them under Tracy’s command. She said Tracy “kind of became my mom and was a very caring person.” Tracy was obsessed with educating herself on safer training methods, Leonard said, and would have been “an amazing choice” for the elite coordinator’s job.
“I think some people are getting an unfair shake right now,” Leonard said.
Tracy said she applied for the U.S.A. Gymnastics development job in August through a posting on the federation’s website and about a week later was interviewed by three federation officials at the national championships in Boston.
Tracy said they asked her questions like, “What would you do if you saw a coach verbally abusing an athlete at a camp or training event?” and made other queries that focused on athlete safety. She said she was asked if she had had any contact with Nassar survivors, and she said yes.
Tracy’s appointment was announced on Aug. 28. Within a day, a backlash began among several Nassar victims, with the three-time Olympic gold medalist Aly Raisman leading the way.
“USA Gymnastics has appointed someone who, in my view, supported Nassar, victim-shamed survivors & has shown no willingness to learn from the past,” Raisman wrote on Twitter. “This is a slap in the face for survivors and further confirmation that nothing at USAG has changed.”
Tracy said Kerry Perry, the chief executive of the gymnastics federation, contacted her three days after the appointment and asked for her resignation, citing Tracy’s contact with plaintiffs in one of the many lawsuits that the organization faces because of Nassar’s crimes.
“Nobody told me I couldn’t talk to survivors,” Tracy said.
Perry, who did not respond to messages seeking comment, was forced out less than a week later, after nine months as the organization’s president and chief executive.
Perry’s departure left a power vacuum: The federation’s office in Indianapolis had no leader, and the task of finding a replacement fell to an inexperienced board of directors that had not been assembled until June. The previous board was forced to resign in the wake of the wrenching testimony at Nassar’s sentencing hearings.
In October, Sarah Hirshland, chief executive of the United States Olympic Committee, sent along the names of Bono and another potential candidate to the gymnastics federation’s acting leadership, suggesting that the board interview them for the open chief executive’s job. Bono, who had competed in gymnastics, quickly stepped into the interim job. The U.S.O.C. had vetted her credentials.
Just as quickly came another uprising from gymnasts, over Bono’s lobbying work and a tweet of hers that opposed Nike’s ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, the former N.F.L. quarterback who knelt during the national anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality.
“What people keep missing is that this is not a Larry Nassar story,” said Rachael Denhollander, a lawyer and a former gymnast who was the first person to publicly accuse Nassar of assault. “Larry was just a symptom of the real problem at U.S.A.G. because it fostered an abusive culture for decades.”
Last month, the gymnastics federation began searching for its next chief executive and sent an online survey to more than 200 people who are considered vital stakeholders in the sport.
The questions included:
“What three characteristics of the next C.E.O. do you see as being most important?”
(Possible multiple-choice responses: A good listener? Knowledgeable about gymnastics?)
“What would you like to see changed about U.S.A.G.?”
“Please describe U.S.A.G.’s current culture in three words.”
The survey wasn’t out long before the U.S.O.C. moved to take over the gymnastics federation, which may have to declare bankruptcy in response to the lawsuits against it. Now U.S.A. Gymnastics, in its current incarnation, may not get a chance to hire anyone else.