In a moment I thought I would never see, former USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny invoked the Fifth Amendment at a June 5 Senate hearing investigating Olympic sexual abuse. It was the third Congressional hearing on the topic in recent weeks.
Although Penny provided no answers, the spirits of Larry Nassar victims like me were buoyed by the line of questioning from two U.S. Senators — Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, and Jerry Moran, a Republican from Kansas — that signaled to us they have the will to pursue justice.
Penny’s silence was ironic, for the silence of athletes is what allowed USA Gymnastics’ culture of fear and retribution to persist. The silence of athletes and all those who controlled our fate allowed USA Gymnastics to produce athletes as prey for sexual predators.
The urgent problem to solve is not how USA Gymnastics enabled sexual predation; it is the institutionalized grooming by which USA Gymnastics (and other national governing sport bodies) developed athletes.
I recently learned the term “grooming” and connected it between predator and institution after seeing The Tale, a film about Jennifer Fox’s experience as a 13-year-old sexually abused by her 40-year-old running coach. How individuals “groom” their victims is similar to the USA system for its young female athletes. According to forensic psychiatrist Dr. Michael Weiner, “grooming is the process by which an offender draws a victim into a sexual relationship. The shrouding of the relationship is an essential feature of grooming.”
Young athletes who dedicate mind, body and soul to their love and dreams in sport have been primed for sexual abuse by USA Gymnastics through perpetual judgment and punishment where they are treated as machines, not humans, conditioned to comply never complain.
Sexual predators tend to target victims who demonstrate vulnerability — particularly signs of low self-esteem, emotional need, and isolation. Executives, coaches, and instructors are all vital to the athlete’s success and wield an inordinate amount of control. Their extreme verbal, emotional, psychological, and physical control render the athlete susceptible to the manipulations of attention, kindness — and even food — from which they are so severely deprived. A young girl feeling broken down in this way is in desperate need of validation for her hard work from the few people whose opinions matter and who control her fate — such as a doctor.
Developing low self esteem and emotional need are easily achieved through psychologically abusive situations, such as a coach’s expert use of name calling, shaming, humiliation and mind games. Athletes become desensitized to such rampant verbal abuse. It is now frowned upon for a coach to tell an athlete to lose weight, but there are other ways to intimidate.
I was often weighed twice per day. Thus, I knew I was to lose weight over the course of a training day, and would forgo water and food. I almost never ate while in front of my coach — totally normal for female gymnasts. The understanding that your weight is always under such scrutiny can be a massive mental pressure.
Isolation is another fundamental aspect of training which intensifies with greater competitions.
For me, it was living in a freezing cold gym in Bulgaria. I was completely trapped and alone; the coach controlled the gym’s hours of operation, kept it unheated, and forced me to practice up to 10 consecutive hours at a time. At USA Gymnastics, parents were banned from training camps, and at international competitions parents were barely allowed to interact with their children.
Abuses happen because parents trust the National Governing Bodies (NGBs) with their children’s lives and, because they have also invested time and money, they reinforce their child’s obedience.
But the most treacherous and longstanding “policy” for young women participating in every level of many Olympic sports is silence.
It is not part of the champion’s etiquette to speak negatively about what occurs in practice or at camps. The work you do in training is secretive and there is no such thing as confidentiality. Not one athlete who has given the entirety of their being to a single goal would risk losing everything by speaking up. You may lose your standing on the team, be dismissed, paid off, ignored, or slandered. All by the people who were supposed to protect you.
Silence and obedience are ingrained in young female athletes from their first day of training. For a treacherous sexual predator, seeing all of their grooming done for them by powerful NGBs that parents automatically trust puts determined young athletes in perpetual danger of being sexually abused.
Only now has speaking up yielded positive results. Our collective voice has brought us the attention of the most powerful lawmakers in our country.
Changing policy by signing the Safe Sport Act into law is a good beginning; now we must change culture.
The side effects of sexual abuse can manifest in depression, substance abuse, or suicide. To save current and future athletes and Olympians from abuse that shatters dreams and lives, institutional reforms must be enacted immediately.
We owe it to the powerful dreams of kids in sport to make dramatic changes that break the cycle of institutionalized grooming.
Jessica Howard is a three-time national champion in rhythmic gymnastics — in 1999, 2000, and 2001 — and at 15 was the youngest athlete to win that title. She also won a gold medal at the Junior Pan American Games in 1998, the silver medal at the Pan American Games in 1999, a top 10 finish at the World Games in 2001, and two bronze medals at the Goodwill Games in 2001. She was inducted into the U.S. Gymnastics Hall of Fame in 2015. Jessica served as an athlete director on the USA Gymnastics Board of Directors from approximately 2009-2013, and now works privately with dancers and athletes on their flexibility and conditioning, and is an athlete advisor for Equality League.