Abuse allegations rock NZ gymnastics

Parents' previous concerns included an athlete being told to continue with a serious foot injury...
Parents' previous concerns included an athlete being told to continue with a serious foot injury and a girl being forced to train on the bar even after skin on her palms had been torn off. Photos: Getty Images, Supplied
Accusations of abuse, over-training and fat-shaming of athletes as young as 8 have been levelled at one of the country's largest gymnastics programmes.

Multiple parents of children enrolled in competitive gymnastics at Auckland's North Harbour club have told of their concerns at the behaviour of coaches in the nationally acclaimed programme, prompting club management to investigate and promise action.

Meanwhile the sport's national governing body, Gymnastics New Zealand, emailed members this week encouraging potential victims to come forward.

Parents the Weekend Herald spoke to say that girls as young as 8 were told by coaches:

• They were "too fat".

• They were "useless".

• They were "never going to be any good".

• They were only "crying because you are weak".

On one occasion, a gymnast was allegedly seen self-harming in the gym to get out of having to perform, while another athlete was "left sobbing in the foetal position" while her coach allegedly screamed abuse at her.

On that occasion another coach at the gym "rescued" the situation by intervening and removing the girl from the floor and comforting her, the Weekend Herald was told.

One young gymnast was allegedly made to continue a routine she was struggling with on the bars -...
One young gymnast was allegedly made to continue a routine she was struggling with on the bars - even after the skin on her hands had been torn off. Photo: Supplied
Sources claim the following day, at a mock competition, the coach called the athlete over and instructed the gymnast to tell nobody about what had happened the previous day.

North Harbour Gymnastics chief executive Mike Thompson told the Weekend Herald the allegations were "gut-wrenching" as it went against culture changes the club had tried to implement in recent years.

"We put a lot of work into providing a safe environment and educating our gymnasts, our coaches and our parents into being positive in their interactions," he said.

"In 2018 we started a wellness programme which was for gymnasts, parents and the coaching group and it was about the language you use, having a growth mindset and taking that attitude into training and competition.

"To hear of these incidents and the feedback you've been given, is gut-wrenching ... gut-wrenching. It points to the amount of work we still need to do."

Some parents have held concerns about training methods for up to five years.

Those claims include girls being forced to train while injured. One young athlete was allegedly made to continue a routine she was struggling with on the bars — even after the skin on her hands had been torn off.

On another occasion, coaches are alleged to have told a young girl to get on with it and "to stop being weak" after she hurt her foot badly on a dismount.

Another gymnast was so concerned by the fact her friend's foot was immediately swollen and blue that she ran to the office to ring the child's mother. The gymnast was taken for X-rays and a metatarsal fracture was revealed.

Joanne* said children had been subjected to fat-shaming and other forms of mostly verbal, "low-level" abuse during their time at the club.

She said while not exclusive to one coach, most of the aggravation stemmed from a coach with a background in Europe.

The coach declined to discuss the allegations when contacted by the Weekend Herald.

According to the parents spoken to, on multiple occasions one coach would tell students as young as 8 that they were "ugly", "too fat", "useless" and "a waste of my time".

On one occasion, Joanne said, the coach physically turned waiting children's heads away so they couldn't see her child's work on a particular apparatus because "it was so ugly".

Some of the allegations are historic and Thompson acknowledged he was aware the coach's interactions with athletes had been problematic in the past.

An email from Thompson to Joanne in 2018, said: "[The coach] will be having a one on one with Cameron [Beeton, manager of competitive gymnastics] specifically to address the matter.

"It will be spelled out that this behaviour will not be tolerated and there will be formal consequences if it happens again."

The email said the coach would be undergoing professional development and would have a mentor assigned to her to help the coach manage stress appropriately.

One young gymnast was taken for X-rays and a metatarsal fracture was revealed. Photo: Supplied
One young gymnast was taken for X-rays and a metatarsal fracture was revealed. Photo: Supplied
But issues between Joanne's family and the coach flared again in February this year after they allege one of her daughters was verbally abused during a training session over a sustained period, which left her distraught.

A meeting was sought between the parents and head women's coach Liezl Miller, which Thompson attended.

During this meeting the family claimed that the actions of the coach were "ignored, dismissed and normalised"; their daughter was blamed for the coach's behaviour; their daughter was condescendingly referred to as "unique" and was told she was "not good enough" to be moved out of the coach's group.

They believe this amounted to victim blaming.

In response, Thompson acknowledged this angered the parents but says it was not intended.

Miller explained the only available group was at a skill and train level above what their daughter was used to and the coach in question trained that group a couple of times a week. This meant the solution was not viable.

"Liezl gave them a coach's perspective but in hindsight the first steps should have been acknowledge it [the behaviour], leave the meeting there, and investigate it, which we did.

"Our new draft complaints policy explicitly states acknowledge, believe, investigate."

Thompson said in the wake of the allegations it was vital they opened up dialogue whereby parents or those affected felt they could offer "feedback without fear of consequence".

Another parent of children who have gone through the competitive programme at North Harbour described the culture as one where low-level abuse had been normalised to the point where it was an accepted part of being a competitive gymnast.

"They don't want this out in the open," Colleen* said.

"There's no other sport where you entrust your young child to a coach for 20 hours a week.

"Their coaches see more of them than we do.

"I was with another mother who was watching her daughter being verbally abused and said out loud that she would go to the police if this coach behaved like that again, but nothing seems to happen.

"I just want there to be change.

"We have a situation where all the parents know it's wrong but nobody wants to say anything because they're worried their child will then suffer."

The parents acknowledged their complaints only applied to the competitive programme, saying the recreational side of the gym had a "well-earned" excellent reputation.

Thompson said this would provide a wake-up call for his programme and for local and national gymnastics.

He said the evolution of gymnastics as a sport meant the elite female athletes were children.

He said it was never acceptable to train through injury and was disappointed he had not been made aware of these complaints from his staff, gymnasts or parents.

"If it's an adult, training through injury is a choice; the kids don't feel like it is a choice. We have to work harder to get that message across."

Thompson also said it was never okay to fat- or body-shame and said that even before his arrival in 2017 it had been policy to have no weight scales in the gym. Nor was it ever acceptable to be told you were "useless" or wasting a coach's time.

The gymnastics world has been rocked in recent years after the United States team doctor Larry Nassar was jailed for sexually abusing hundreds of young athletes.
This week Gymnastics Australia launched an independent investigation into at least 20 former athletes' complaints of physical and mental abuse.

In an email to members on Thursday night, Gymnastics NZ chief executive Tony Compier called recent revelations of athlete abuse overseas "abhorrent" and said it would be naive to think New Zealand is "immune to this global crisis".

Compier offered members a confidential email address to lodge complaints or concerns.

"We are here to listen, help and make change where required."

* Names have been changed.

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