Report — From the November 2017 issue

Pushing the Limit

What the U.S. Olympic Committee can — and can’t — do about sexual abuse

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One afternoon, near her office in downtown Manhattan, I met a woman I’ll call Judy, a former elite gymnast who now works in education. She is middle-aged, with a warm smile and a rapid-fire way of talking. “I’m the kind of person who finishes what she starts,” she said. Judy told me a story from the beginning of her gymnastics career, when she was six years old. One day, she was on a high balance beam, in her leotard and short socks, frozen in place. Her coach had asked her to attempt a back handspring, the first step a gymnast performs before unleashing the tumbling moves that stun Olympic spectators. The high balance beam looms four feet off the ground and is just four inches wide. Judy was frightened. Her feet stuck to the beam.

Her panic became her punishment. The coach declared that if she could not bring herself to jump, for the remainder of practice, she would just have to stand there. “Don’t even think of getting off,” he yelled as he supervised the uneven bars on the other side of the room. His severity sent a message. “You had better believe I did that handspring the next time I walked into the gym,” Judy told me.

The heights of athletic performance are achieved, a child learns, by tolerating pain, becoming hardened, developing mental toughness. Girls like Judy are conditioned to think that their bodies belong not to themselves but to the people who promise to lead them to ever more impressive accomplishments. An older man may be a supportive mentor who guides a protégé to greatness, even as he abuses her after practice. The line can be crossed with the smallest step. That, ultimately, was what happened to Judy. When she was sixteen, she said, a new coach at a different gym coerced her into a sexual relationship.

Judy didn’t tell anyone about it until college, when she confided in a friend. Soon after, Judy brought the man to court. He was acquitted in the criminal case, so she brought a civil suit; in a settlement, with no admission of liability, he agreed to pay monetary damages, go to counseling, and never coach again. U.S.A. Gymnastics, however, did not put him on its banned list.

Judy still believes that gymnastics is a meaningful activity for young people. She credits her training with helping her learn to confront fear: once, she was told to visualize her fears being piped into a hot air balloon that disappears into the sky. “I still use that imagery if I’m feeling anxious about something,” she said. Yet Judy sees a direct connection between the way she was humiliated as a child and sexually exploited a decade later, as if she’d been preconditioned. “It’s hard not to look back and think, ‘Is that the moment when it all began?’ ” Perhaps her first coach thought that he was teaching her a valuable lesson. What she took away, though, was a mantra that might make any child vulnerable: “I will always do what my coach says.”

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reported this story as a 2016–17 visiting journalist fellow at the Russell Sage Foundation. Her most recent article for Harper’s Magazine, “American Hustle,” which appeared in the April 2015 issue, was included in the 2016 edition of The Best American Sports Writing.

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