When the gymnasts take the floor at the P&G Championships in Anaheim this weekend, the women’s program will look all but unrecognizable to fans with fond memories of its 2016 iteration. From the athletes to the coaches to the national team coordinator, much about elite gymnastics in the U.S. has changed in the past year.
And that’s a good thing.
One year ago, the U.S. women dominated the Rio Olympics on the strength of a squad studded with boldfaced superstars including returning Olympians Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman and three-time world all-around champion Simone Biles. Then longtime national team coordinator Martha Karolyi retired and the Olympic team members took leaves from competitive gymnastics. Any post-Olympic season necessitates rebuilding, but 2017 may be one of the most important restructuring years in the organization’s history, and not because of its lack of stars.
Since Rio, USA Gymnastics has become mired in a series of heinous sexual abuse scandals involving coaches and, most recently, Olympic team doctor Larry Nassar, that confirmed for many a deep-rooted culture of secrecy and the prioritization of medals above all else. How USA Gymnastics responds to these events will determine whether the sport and its governing body will be able to win back the trust of athletes, parents and the public.
In September, the organization took its first step in the rebuilding process by naming Valeri Liukin to succeed Karolyi as the national women’s team coordinator. Only the third person to hold the position after Karolyi and her husband, Bela, Liukin is in charge of developing and running training programs and national team camps, overseeing international competition assignments and working with the national coaching staff. For many, Liukin was a seamless choice considering he spent the previous four seasons grooming the next generation of elites as head of the U.S. developmental program. For others, he represented a missed opportunity to clean house, hire from outside the ranks of USAG and rebuild from scratch.
A former Olympic champion from the Soviet Union, the founder of WOGA Gymnastics in Texas, and coach and father of 2008 Olympic all-around champ Nastia Liukin, he knows intimately what worked about the semi-centralized program the Karolyis installed at USA Gymnastics — and what desperately needs to change.
“I don’t want to speak negative about the past. I can only talk about myself and the way I think and see our future,” Liukin said in an interview with espnW. “It’s been just a first year, but already we are making big progress. Number one, my priority is communication. I talk to the girls and I want them to feel safe and free to talk to me. I’m not here to just judge you. I’m here to help you achieve your dreams and I hope they will talk to me. Positive reinforcement for me is the key.”
Liukin’s job is no longer simply to craft future Olympic teams. With the resignation of USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny in March in the wake of the sexual abuse scandals, it now falls on Liukin’s shoulders, as well as senior vice president of the women’s program, Rhonda Faehn, who joined USA Gymnastics in 2015, to steer the overall direction of the women’s program, implement safe sport guidelines and educational programs and oversee a necessary culture change. That’s no easy undertaking, but Liukin and Faehn are uniquely equipped for the job.
Like Liukin, Faehn competed internationally as an elite gymnast, but unlike Liukin, Faehn did so under the watchful eye of the Karolyis. She was an alternate on the 1988 U.S. Olympic team, competed and coached at the collegiate level and has coached Olympians. “We both have great variety and experience that we bring to the table,” Faehn told espnW. “My goal from day one is that every single athlete, when they say I’m done, whether they’re retiring or going into college, whether they finish first or 21st, that they leave feeling they were cared for and looked after and that their experience is one they will cherish and they will look back on and say, ‘No regrets. That was worth it.'”
Liukin and Faehn both spoke in depth about a need for better, more open communication within USA Gymnastics and of their desire for the athletes to feel comfortable speaking openly about injuries, concerns and inappropriate behavior, whether it is happening to them or to someone else. That’s a stark departure from the past, when athletes felt compelled to hide injuries for fear of jeopardizing their position on the team.
Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a three-time Olympic gold medalist in swimming, civil rights attorney and advocate for women in sports, says that smile-and-bear-it mentality was one of the most dangerous aspects of the culture of elite gymnastics.
“[USAG] had an authoritarian instead of an authoritative style of coaching,” she said. “An authoritarian style doesn’t allow kids to say no, to say they have an injury, aren’t ready to do a trick or need to eat more calories. If you can’t say no to an injury, you can’t say no to sexual abuse by someone who has power over you.”
For that reason, Hogshead-Makar says it is meaningful that those in charge at USAG are speaking in the manner Liukin and Faehn are, but it’s more important they back up their words with action, and she hopes they are held accountable to do so.
Faehn says USA Gymnastics’ recent hiring of child advocate Toby Stark as director of safe sport and Mark Busby, who prosecuted child abuse and sex crime cases with the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office, as in-house legal counsel, speaks to the commitment the organization is making to place athlete protection at the forefront of its priorities.
“Toby has been here for one week and we’ve met for hours on the recommendations we are adopting and our focus on making sure that every step, everything is done the right way,” Faehn said. “This has been incredibly challenging and traumatizing for so many affected. I will do everything possible to make sure nothing like that ever happens again.”
Hogshead-Makar says the hiring of Stark and Busby constitutes a breakaway from the direction taken by every other Olympic governing body in the U.S. Typically, she says, safe sport directors are moved from positions within the marketing or sponsorship departments, and do not have experience in child advocacy or know the law, rendering their positions ineffective. “It’s a positive step,” she says. “But [USAG] also doesn’t a get huge pat on the back for hiring people who have the correct skillset for the job.”
At the next national team camp in Huntsville in September, where the World Championships team will be announced, Liukin, Faehn and Stark will meet with the athletes, coaches and parents for several hours to explain new policies and procedures. Liukin says he is discussing the possibility of allowing parents, coaches and media to come in for a day to experience a national team camp. “This is a big step and we are still working on it, but this is something I think is important to do,” Liukin said. “We will allow them in to see where the girls spend so much time. We want to keep it open.
“And I keep my eyes open. I don’t only watch gymnastics now,” he said. “I try to see as a father now. The parents are not at the workouts. I had a daughter on the national team and I hope that gives parents confidence in me. I raised my daughter in this elite world and I know all the difficulties with that.”
Liukin said his relationship with the national team coaches is equally crucial because what he passes along to them will trickle down to every program in the country. “We have an incredibly strong national team staff who help me every day and I rely on them and praise them every time I can,” Liukin said. “My goal number one is to be very respectful to our coaches and I promise them every day they step on this floor that they will be respected. Not saying anything bad about the past, but that is how I am and positivity is number one.”
In Anaheim, fans, too, will watch more than gymnastics, their eyes open to see if all of this is more than lip service and if the national championships will indeed mark the beginning of a new era at USA Gymnastics.