Little Girls don't stay little forever. They grow into strong women that destroy your world.

Time’s Up USAG

I started coaching elite gymnasts in 1982 when I arrived at UCLA as their dance coach and choreographer. I have never been to the now infamous “Karolyi Ranch.” I do not have first hand knowledge of what our elite gymnasts endured in trying to secure one of the coveted spots in representing USA, but I do believe the Karolyi Ranch was a house of horrors that enabled and helped breed a monster like Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics (USAG) doctor who is already convicted of child pornography and about to be sentenced for his criminal sexual conduct on the more than 140 women who have bravely come forward.

Since 1982 I have coached 46 former U.S. National team members, and have garnered the trust of countless more. I have witnessed the physical and emotional pain these athletes have struggled with after their elite careers ended and they became collegiate athletes.

This past summer I hosted an impromptu lunch with elite gymnasts dating back from the 1970s to the 2000s. Tracey Talavera and Julianne MacNamara were both on the 1980 and 1984 Olympic teams; Sharon Shapiro was the U.S. vault champion in 1978; and Jamie Dantzscher was on the 2000 Olympic team. These four amazing women came over for a simple Sunday BBQ. They arrived at 9 a.m. and quickly started sharing story after story about their elite experiences/nightmares. The non-stop discussion lasted for 13 hours encompassing sadness, anger, frustration, disgust, as well as shared empathy and love. The names of the coaches/abusers changed a little over the decades, but the stories were identical. Stories of verbal, emotional and physical abuse that were simply the way of life for an aspiring elite gymnast.

How has this perverse culture of abusive power festered for so many decades?

In listening to all of the brave women who have come forward in the courtroom to confront Nassar, I can’t escape the thought that while he is a mentally deranged pedophile, he is not the head of the monster. The monster is the Culture of USA Gymnastics. Abusive behavior is the example the Karolyis cultivated. The enabling environment they created is what USAG honored. Medals is all the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) cared for… not the athletes earning them. I have believed for many years the head of the monster is lead by our U.S. National Head Coach, Martha Karolyi; and before her Bela Karolyi; and before him Don Peters, who has been banned from coaching for his own sexual abuse allegations. For decades they established a culture of abuse that was widely accepted and mimicked by other club coaches because “we won medals.”

Based on their history of action and inaction, the truth is that Martha’s inner circle of minions, which included former USAG CEO and president Steve Penny, and former USAG vice president Kathy Kelly, were only concerned with winning medals and protecting Martha instead of the athletes. I’m not saying Martha knew about the abuse perpetrated by Nassar, I’m saying they created the perfect house of horror for a pedophile like Nassar to prey on the vulnerable and trusting. His gentle manner and friendly discourse with the athletes was a welcome alternative to the dictator, Martha, who insulted, belittled, and degraded on a regular basis. If you were not in her line of vitriolic fire then you were ignored. The word every elite athlete I’ve had uses is “invisible.” When you were no longer seen as valuable to Martha to win medals then she had no use for you and you were simply ignored… to the point that the other coaches and athletes would ignore you for fear they’d catch her wrath for engaging with such a low life.

The most egregious case I experienced of this was with Mattie Larson. After her floor performance at the 2010 World Championships when she failed to complete her final tumbling pass successfully, she literally became invisible to everyone involved with USAG. When you watch the video you see her teammate, Rebecca Bross, not even glance at her when they pass each other on the podium stairs. From that moment, Mattie was shunned. I don’t want you to think I’m blaming Bross, she was merely responding in the manner she was trained.

No one… as in NO ONE spoke to her for the remainder of the time she was in Rotterdam for the World Championships, and for the next three weeks after she returned to the states. Not her coaches, teammates, or Martha even said, “good morning” to her. When she called me to tell me she was quitting elite and wanted to come to UCLA I asked, “Why now… so close to the Olympics?” She said, “Because I’ve become invisible. Miss Val, I actually pinch myself at times to make sure I am still alive and not a ghost.

I honestly thought when Mattie came to UCLA she’d blossom into the joyful performer we all knew she had inside of her. Instead, her demons kept feeding the madness until one day her sophomore year she broke. Just outside our gym door she was literally crying and hysterically screaming, “Miss Val, please don’t make me go in that gym. I just can’t anymore.” Imagine the abuse and mental trauma it took for her to reach that point.

We immediately walked Mattie to student-psych services and shortly thereafter she decided to quit gymnastics, which lead to dropping out of school. I am happy to report that Mattie did come back last year to complete her degree and spoke at our awards banquet. One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t record her senior speech. It was one of the most heart-wrenching speeches any of us had ever heard, and yet there wasn’t an ounce of self-pity or victim mentality. Mattie simply told her story of emotional and verbal abuse by her club coaches at AOGC and Martha Karolyi. Mattie would later come out and disclose the abuse she suffered at the hands of Nassar.

When it concludes, roughly 120 women will have made an impact statement at the sentencing hearing for Larry Nassar. Two U.S. National teammates who publicly broke their silence early on were UCLA Bruins: Jeanette Antolin and Jamie Dantzscher. Jamie, a 2000 Olympian, told me it took until 2016 for her to come to terms with the fact she was sexually molested by Nassar. Jamie and Jeanette were on our team from 2000-2004. Why didn’t I see the warning signs of the most egregious abuse? Like so many I feel it was a lack of imagination at the depravity some humans will sink to. I knew the system was broken because I, like many other college coaches, have been picking up the pieces for decades. My response was to unearth the strength within these amazing humans after it had been suppressed and buried for so long.

Watching the survivors of Nassar testify has been life altering for me. I have often felt the collegiate environment is where most elite gymnasts go for psychological rehab. Now I think differently. Our program, like many others around the country, are actually more of a safe-haven for these abused athletes. It’s not really a place where they go to deal with their memories of abuse, but a place where they can finally relax, breath, and trust… and let their memories surface when they’re ready to deal with them. With the case of Jamie and Jeanette, this took over a decade after they had graduated for them to begin to start listening to their inner voice. Other more recent gymnasts have the benefit of hearing the accounts of their gymnastics sisters who came before them—accounts that trigger their own nightmares of abuse. The Nassar trial has provided a spotlight of truth and transparency into the price we have paid for our medals. To see what happened at The Ranch in Texas we needed to visit a courtroom in Michigan—and for all these years USAG and the USOC have been perfectly fine with the fact spectators and parents weren’t allowed there.

The Ranch has been glorified as a place where champions are made. It’s not. In an interview with GymCastic (1:06:00), the gymnastics podcast, Aimee Boorman (Simone Biles’ coach) tells a story of how she rejected an invitation to The Ranch in early 2012. In one of their first trips to U.S. Women’s National Team training center, Aimee saw how Martha emotionally mistreated Simone and was afraid Simone might quit the sport if she returned so early in her career. After she rejected the invitation, Aimee said they weren’t invited back to The Ranch for the remainder of the year even though Simone had earned it. During that year Aimee tells how she bumped into Martha at the U.S. Classic meet.

Martha asked Aimee, “How are we doing today?”

Aimee replied, “We’re fantastic.”

Then Martha responded, “Isn’t that a bit optimistic?

Apparently not… Simone won the whole meet.

Heartbreakingly, the system the Karolyis built and USAG approved was still too powerful and unchecked. This week Simone revealed she was also abused by Nassar.

My deepest respect to all of you who have braved the pain to stand for justice and change. I wish I could think of what I could have done differently. With each new year that elite gymnasts came to UCLA with the same stories of verbal and emotional abuse all I could think to do was to give them a safe-haven to help them start to heal, find their voice and their self-worth.

While I’m devastated by the circumstances I am so happy these brave women are finding their voice amongst each other. This is their sport. When Simone came forward about the abuse she also stated how disappointed she was that she would have to go back to the scene of the crimes in order for her to prepare for the 2020 Olympic Games. Even though USAG has known about the abuse taking place at The Ranch since 2015, they still made everyone qualify for the Rio Games there and chose to renew the contract with The Ranch in 2016. It took just three days after Simone spoke up for USAG to announce it was shutting it down. The power has shifted. We have now seen behind the curtain and understand the Kayrolis aren’t wizards, they’re enablers. Their power is gone, but the work isn’t done.

On the fourth day of women facing Nassar in the courtroom to deliver their impact statement, UCLA assistant coach and World and Olympic Champion, Jordyn Wieber, made her voice heard. Jordyn is one of the most remarkable human beings I’ve known and I want share part of her impact statement delivered in court:

“The people who are responsible need to accept responsibility for the pain they have caused me and the rest of the women who have been abused. Larry Nassar is accountable. USA Gymnastics is accountable. The U.S. Olympic Committee is accountable.

My teammates and friends have been through enough and now it’s time for change, because the current and future gymnasts do not deserve to live in anxiety, fear or be unprotected like I was.”

The sun has set on The Ranch. It’s time to listen. It’s time to heal. It’s time for the USOC and USAG to show the same courage these amazing women have. Time’s up!

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Nicole
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Nicole

It blows my mind that this isn’t being more publicized in the media. How did this culture of abuse become so normalized? It disgusts me to see that the women I’ve always looked up to have been through such terrible things. Thank you for this incredible post. We need more coaches like you!

Casey
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Casey

This is amazing 💙 thank you

Michele Zapple
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Thank you for speaking out and telling the truth. All of the different kinds of abuse were normalized for so long, people just got used to it.

Heather Humphrey
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Heather Humphrey

Incredible article, Val. Thank you for sharing your voice and your wisdom. In doing so, you are helping to continue this conversation that I pray doesn’t get buried as well as press for change. Thank you for your courage and honesty. Kudos to you.

Melissa
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Melissa

Love this. I was the head coach of a high school gymnastics team for many years for a very prominent program in both the high school gymnastics and high school athletics world. Although it is not college, I can relate. My girls often came to our program when they were broken and beaten and deemed no longer needed by their club programs. We found that our program was also a safe haven, and a place where they could re-build their confidence and fall in love with the sport again. I would be horrified at some of the stories they shared… Read more »

Shelia Rudesill
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Shelia Rudesill

As a TV spectator, I could tell that Bella and Marta Karolyi and many other gymnastics coaches were abusing the female gymnasts. What I don’t understand is why the parents and friends of these sexually and verbally abused girls didn’t notice it as well. I watched as beautiful young girls turned into sullen teenagers. I watched coaches berate athletes when they didn’t perform perfectly. I watched too many male coaches pat the bottoms of little girls who did well. I watched coaches “assist” the girls stretch in a splits positions banging their bottoms on the floor or stretching their legs… Read more »

Marko
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Marko

They had fun at the worlds 2010 banquet and day ooit. Nobody ignored mattie also not in the traininghalls where I worked. Rest of the article is an eye opener for everyone who does not know the abbusive usag system

Sharon
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Sharon

Have fun at banquet doesn’t mean Mattie was not ignored. Just like you see Olympic athletes interact with Marta in front of TV, often with happy faces doesn’t mean Marta did not abuse them or create a harsh environment. Ignore dones’t mean you don’t have any conversion like “let’s go” it means meanful cknversion or conversion shows care and being sincere. A lot of top elite athelets are very good at faking friendship or more natural words “ articulating “

Bethcartermd11
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Bethcartermd11

Miss Val, Coach Val: you “hit the nail on the head” with this statement. I look at this HORRIFIC revelation of Nassar’s crimes (and your wonderfully scripted editorial) from many perspectives: as a pediatrician who knows the standard of care practices for the medical profession, as a parent of a level 8 gymnast that has needed to “step in” and advocate for my daughter when she was cast aside (aka made to feel “invisible”) during injuries, and as a proud UCLA alumnus. What more can I say, but THANK YOU. We are with you and we are with these brave… Read more »

Caroline Gardiner
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Caroline Gardiner

Miss Val and the athletes have said it all. Parents of gymnastics clubs are questioning why they pay dues to an organization that allowed this to happen. Our daughters love the sport of gymnastics but they should not have to go through hell if the are talented enough and willing to put in the hard work required to make the team. The time is now to make impactful change to the organization. Starting with getting any money back from executives who got Golden parachutes to leave. Clubs pay millions of dollars each year so our daughters can compete, we expect… Read more »

Ann
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Ann

Thank you Miss Val. USAG and USOC need to take action and stop cowering behind their petty defenses. It is time for a change, And it is time for these young women to not be afraid anymore. Everyone deserves to be seen and not be invisible, and everyone deserves a voice. We all Need to stand behind these women and support them in every way we can, and it takes special people like you to stand behind them and provide the motivation and inspiration they need to face their fears.