From Chalked Up to Athlete A, Jennifer Sey Speaks The Truth About Abuse In Gymnastics
A Q&A with the 1986 national champion and whistleblower
|Dvora Meyers||Jul 11, 2020||5||1|
Back in 2008, 1986 U.S. National Champion Jennifer Sey published, Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics' Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders, and Elusive Olympic Dreams. The memoir delved into her experiences in the sport; Sey was frank in talking about abuse—physical, emotional, psychological, sexual—that she experienced or witnessed during her years as an elite gymnast.
The book received a lot of angry pushback from people in the gymnastics community, especially those in positions of power. Sey was effectively blacklisted after its publication.
Eight years later, we’d see that Sey had been right all along. In 2016, an Indy Star investigation showed that USA Gymnastics buried allegations of sex abuse, which led to several women (and then hundreds) coming forward and saying that former team doctor Larry Nassar had sexually abused them when they were gymnasts. Many of the survivors spoke about a culture rife with emotional and psychological abuse that cleared the way for Nassar’s sexual abuse. (For a newsletter about one of those gymnasts, check out this subscriber-only post about Jamie Dantzscher. She has been speaking out for 20 years.)
Sey, who is senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Levi Strauss & Co., has been active in the recent efforts to change the sport, traveling to Washington, DC, to meet with lawmakers about the SafeSport Authorization Act. (It was passed in 2018.) She is also one of the producers of the Netflix documentary Athlete A, which is about the culture of abuse that pervades gymnastics and how it enabled Nassar to sexually abuse gymnasts for decades.
I reached out to Sey and sent her some questions about her experiences in gymnastics, the culture of the sport, and Athlete A. Her responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Dvora Meyers: You’re one of the producers of Athlete A. How did you come to be involved in the making of the documentary? Beyond being interviewed onscreen, what was your role in the production of the film?
Jennifer Sey: I have to go back in time a bit to answer this question fully. As you know, I was a gymnast in the 70s and 80s. I was on the National Team for nearly a decade and the 1986 National Champion. I experienced the best and the worst that gymnastics has to offer. And while I loved it from day one, I left the sport broken, emotionally and physically. I’ve long said the culture is one of extreme cruelty. My coaches were emotionally and physically abusive and harbored sexual predators on their staff. We were berated and belittled regularly, called “fat pigs,” weighed multiple times a day, and ordered to lose weight “by any means necessary.” We were screamed at, had random objects thrown at us, we were more afraid of our coaches than of the sport’s dangers. We trained on serious injuries causing lifelong damage.
When I left the sport feeling ashamed and absolutely filled with despair and self-hatred, I thought I’d be able to just put it all behind me. But I couldn’t. Abuse is insidious and it weaves its way into your psyche. You think you deserved the treatment you got because you were deficient. And to continue to struggle with having been treated poorly is further sign of your deficiency. It is a dangerous cycle and one that is hard to put an end to.
In my late 30s, in an attempt to understand my experience and its impact on me, I wrote it all down. It became a memoir—Chalked Up—that detailed my experience in the sport. The ups and downs, the cruelty, the joy, and everything in between. I became an early whistleblower of sorts (or have been deemed that after the fact), and ended up being a source for journalists, an “expert” in this subject matter, often called upon by the press to speak when there was a newsworthy incident of abuse in any sport. I was on MSNBC when the Penn State story of sexual abuse under Joe Paterno was breaking; I wrote an op-ed in The New York Times when the Nassar story was unfolding. And I talked to so many reporters over the years across a variety of publications. Because if they googled gymnastics and were looking for someone to talk about the culture of abuse, I was one of the only ex-gymnasts that popped up.
Because of this, I got to know many of the Nassar survivors as they came forward; the journalists who broke the story; the detective who pursued the case; the prosecuting attorney who dared to fight for every victim, gave them all a voice, a way to take back their power.
And I thought, as I stood with all of these women, got to know them personally—this story needs to be told in a way that people will understand. In a manner that they will want to consume it. A film. Because let’s face it: more people are going to watch a film than read a book! And in a film, we can show the beauty and the brutality of the sport.
So I took my pitch on the road and quickly met Julie Parker Benello, a producer on the film, who introduced me to Bonni Cohen and Jon Schenk, the amazing directors. That’s how it all got going. I helped bring in all the featured talent, including the reporters, the detective, and lawyers. They trusted me as we’d known each other for a time already and they viewed me as someone in the fight with them. I also helped connect the Nassar story to the broader culture of abuse in the sport, the historical perspective. I was the voice of history in a sense.
DM: What are you hoping that viewers would take away from Athlete A?
JS: I hope people understand the depths of cruelty at the heart of the culture in this sport. I hope they understand the joy it brings these athletes as children when they start. And how that is taken from them unnecessarily by coaches and a leadership culture that prizes money and medals over child safety. I hope parents take away that they need to prepare their kids to speak up, to say no, to not be obedient in the face of abuse. I hope they teach their children to believe their own experience and not to let anyone ever take advantage of them [or] abuse them in any manner. I hope parents interview coaches to understand their child-rearing and coaching philosophy. And I hope USAG knows the pressure is on. Their status quo behavior will not stand. They need to reinvent this organization as one that has a zero-tolerance policy for abuse of any kind, one that puts child safety at the center of everything they do. An organization that doesn’t see the current state of affairs as a ‘branding problem’ rather a culture problem that needs to be addressed and diligently pursued to transform.
DM: You had one of the most important insights in the movie (in my opinion at least) when you spoke about how essentially you and other gymnasts have been gaslighted, thinking you’re hungry but being told that you’re not; thinking you’re working hard but being told that you’re lazy; thinking you’re injured but being told that you’re fine. What does that kind of repeated gaslighting do to a person, in the short and long term?
JS: It’s incredibly disorienting. You don’t believe your own experience as you move through the world because you’ve been told that what you are experiencing is not only not true, it’s your fault. It is typical abuser gaslighting. Imagine a mom hits her child. She says to the child, “If you behaved I wouldn’t have to hit you.” What this says to the child is: I’m not beating you, I’m doing this because you need to be taught a lesson. This is your fault. Then the child grows up thinking any abuse heaped upon her is her fault. She deserves it. And she can end up in abusive situations because, on some level, she feels she deserves this treatment. It is a difficult web to unwind. And it starts by believing in your own experience in the world. Being able to say and know: I am being mistreated. And I don’t have to take it. I am worthy just as I am.
It is why I take issue with the language “this is my truth.” Sometimes survivors use this language and I encourage more solid phrasing. It is THE truth. You were assaulted and abused. You are a survivor. It is not your version of the truth or some version of the truth. It is verifiably THE truth. Objectively. Anything stated less firmly suggests the gaslighting is still at play, in my opinion.
DM: This probably comes from a very biased place but I really liked that Athlete A explored the investigative journalism aspect of the USA Gymnastics/Larry Nassar story. Why do you think it was important to highlight the work that the journalists did?
JS: From a narrative perspective it gave the story structure and momentum versus just having survivors talk about their experience, which is compelling but doesn’t make a film. But more importantly, the journalists were necessary for this whole system to be revealed. Not just the crimes of Nassar, but the cover-ups and the decades of burying cases of abuse. Without the Indy Star reporters, this story quite literally would not have broken through. USAG would not have acted. They had been ignoring and hiding cases of abuse for decades, which is why Rachael Denhollander came forward to them to tell her story; Indy Star had reported on over 50 cases of sexual abuse that USAG had just brushed under the rug. She saw that as her opportunity. And without Rachael’s story published in the Indy Star, hundreds of survivors would not have been prompted to come forward and report. USAG would have buried, denied, hidden these stories, blamed or ignored the victims, forever if they could have. The Indy Star reporters made that impossible.
It took a village to bring him to justice. Hundreds of survivors, dogged reporters, a committed detective—Andrea Munford—who listened to the survivors and investigated Nassar. There were other detectives who had received reports about Nassar who did not pursue the case. They believed his excuses and interrogated the survivors instead. And of course, the lawyers. The civil attorney John Manly who represents so many of the women, and the prosecuting attorney Angie Povilaitis who took every case, listened to every survivor, and pursued the case to the fullest extent of the law.
DM: Athlete A is getting a lot of attention from viewers—it has gotten big ratings on Netflix—but the reaction from current and former elite gymnasts have been far more interesting to me. In the days after it premiered, you had gymnasts taking to social media about how they related to it. And now several British gymnasts have started coming forward and spoken about the emotional and physical abuse they endured during their careers. Why do you think this documentary has opened the floodgates like this? Do you think there are more reckonings still to come in the gymnastics world?
JS: I don’t know why this is the moment. I think it has been building, and somewhat inevitable, for years. But I think having a wide viewership that just says “NO this is not ok” to some extent makes it impossible for the community to deny it any longer. When it's kept ‘inside’ you can justify, you can defend, you can say they just don’t understand what it’s like. But when the full light of day is shined upon this situation, the sheer vileness and criminality, and regular everyday people say “this is not ok”— well the community has to reckon with itself.
When my book came out, many gymnasts who I trained with wrote me and said “well why did you have to say it that way” or “why didn’t you tell the good stuff too?” (I did.) The gymnastics community, my fellow gymnasts weren’t prepared to say it wasn’t true necessarily. But they weren’t prepared to say this is all not ok; that it happened and it had adverse impacts on our lives. They were defending their preferred way to remember the experience. Because if you say “wow that wasn’t ok” you then have to start doing the work of your own reckoning with the impacts and the work of calling out the culture, your coaches, the community to do better. And that is hard. Easier in many ways to just to remember it all fondly. To stay friendly and part of the culture. I was very much expelled from it, which wasn’t easy by any stretch. These were my people. This was my entire childhood and adolescence. And I was blackballed.
It’s complicated to hold competing ideas in your mind. To be proud of your achievements, to revel in some of the experience as an athlete but to also admit to some dark days and to reconcile your own memories with what I would call child abuse. I can hold these two opposing ideas and experiences in my mind. I can appreciate all the good and say that bad stuff should never have happened. And I think others are now coming [around] to this way of thinking.
DM: A lot of abuse happens at competitions and, at times, at international competitions. What responsibility do you think the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) has towards the athletes who compete at World Cups, World Championships, the Olympics? Should they be required to step in or should this responsibility lie solely with the national governing bodies?
JS: I think it has to start at home. Gyms can’t tolerate abuse of any kind. USAG needs to be reconstructed as a child-centric organization. Abuse of any kind—emotional, physical, sexual—cannot be tolerated. The rules need to support this idea. Complaints need to be pursued. Coaches need training. Public displays of abuse, which happen all the time, must be treated with total seriousness. Those coaches should be suspended on the spot…Of course, FIG needs similar rules. But I don’t believe the international body can make change on the ground. It happens in gyms every day. And the national governing bodies can’t elevate those coaches who abuse. They need to be banned. And a new culture will emerge over time.
DM: This is not the first time you’ve been close to a story of sex abuse in USA Gymnastics. In Chalked Up, you not-so-subtly alluded to the fact that former Olympic coach Don Peters had sexually abused one of his top gymnasts, former national team member Doe Yamashiro. Why was it important for you to include this?
JS: Because it happened. He was the national team coach. He was the most revered coach in the country at the time. He took the ‘84 Olympic team to Los Angeles and they won a team silver. [It was also] the first time we’d gotten golds: Mary Lou Retton in the all-around, Julianne McNamara on bars. He was a hero. And he was abusing athletes in his club program at SCATS. And people knew. It had long been rumored that he was abusing but no one bothered to investigate. We were all sent around the world with him to compete. No one cared that we were in danger. They only cared that his reputation be protected. I knew first-hand what he’d done to Doe, who was and is one of my closest friends. I asked her if I could include it. And she said yes. She knew it was important. It was critical that people understand this celebrated coach was committing crimes and was permitted to continue abusing children while the federation (it was USGF at the time) continued putting other children in his care. It’s mind-boggling, but gives people a real sense of what the culture was like. Is like.
[Ed. note: In 2011, three years after Sey’s book was published, Yamashiro and two others came forward about Peters sexually abusing them to Scott Reid at the Orange County Register. Peters was eventually banned by USA Gymnastics.]
DM: When the book was published, did anyone from USA Gymnastics ask you about Peters and Yamashiro?
JS: No. No one contacted me. Later when Doe pursued having Peters banned in 2011 and other former gymnasts simultaneously reported on Doug Boger, [Steve] Penny [former president of USA Gymnastics] tried to intimidate me. He called me at work a few times. He thought I was behind them coming forward. I wasn’t, but I was certainly supporting them. I knew them all. I gave them moral support from the sidelines. He said, “It's not like this anymore. That was the 80s.” I don’t think Don Peters woke up one day and said, “It’s the 2000s, I think I’ll stop.”
[Ed. note: When reached for comment, Edith Matthai, on behalf of Steve Penny, wrote, “The statement that you attribute to Ms. Sey in your e-mail is false.”]
DM: In an interview with Inside Gymnastics, you said that you finished the sport with so much shame despite the fact that you achieved a lot, including winning a U.S. national title. Do you think that this is common amongst elite gymnasts to walk away from the experience feeling shame? What was at the root of that shame for you?
JS: Yes, I think it's common. I’ve had lengthy conversations with Jamie Dantzscher about it, with Doe [Yamashiro], with Mattie Larson. And many, many others—national team members and all the way down the line. Laurie Hernandez, who I don’t know personally, has talked about it as well. Jamie says she’d never felt proud of herself despite all of her achievements. That breaks my heart. That she can’t take pride in being an Olympic medalist. She does, of course, say now that she feels a sense of pride in being a part of bringing Nassar to justice. So that brings me hope. As to why, it’s because of the abuse. You are trained to believe you are garbage. That you are worthless. That’s how the coaches maintain control. They break you down. So if you suffer after the fact from the abuse—from an eating disorder, from low self-esteem, from depression—the shame enters in and comes from not having been strong enough to take it. It’s your own fault you feel this way because you are garbage. There can’t be anything wrong with the coach, it’s you. It’s this circular thing and it’s what makes this kind of abuse so insidious. You always end up blaming yourself for how bad you feel but you were torn down and made to feel bad for your entire childhood.
DM: You have written and spoken about all of the injuries you had from gymnastics before you turned 18. When you were doing gymnastics and getting injured all of the time, did you ever consider the long term implications of all of these injuries? Did anyone around you—coaches, doctors, physical therapists, anyone—discuss what this all could mean for you, health-wise, down the line?
JS: No. We were taped up, given cortisone shots regularly and sent back out on the floor. And let’s be clear: I don’t think these girls who were competing and being treated by Nassar understood the long-term implications of their injuries either…We know how he was treating them. Do we really believe he had their long-term health [at the] top of his mind? His main concern was access.
DM: I’ve been reading through your old blog posts from 2008 back when you were defending your book from a lot of unfair attacks. I came across this passage that really struck me:
“Dominique Moceanu has a gold medal and has suggested she might not go through it all again. I don’t have one and I say I would, even if I didn’t get a gold medal again next time. Fifteen years ago I said it wasn’t worth it, that I missed having a childhood, that it splintered my relationship with my parents beyond repair. Now, with age and perspective, I dispute that, taking a more ambivalent view. I have nightmares about the traumas but I miss the good parts everyday.”
It’s been more than 10 years since you wrote that and many, many more horrors have been revealed since then. Do you still feel the same way? Would you still do it all over? And if so, under what conditions?
JS: I do feel the same way. I have some great memories. I so loved the sport for so long. Just loved the way it felt. And, it sounds corny, but I am who I am in many ways because of gymnastics. But I think I could have had more success and left without being traumatized if my coaches weren’t abusive.
DM: Athlete A is not the first time you’ve been involved in a film about gymnastics. Back in 2006, you wrote a short called The Gymnast, which was about a former gymnast who was struggling in life after her athletic career ended. What was the story/message you were trying to send with this fictional short?
JS: I was wrestling and writing about many of the same issues that I write about in my book. How do you reconcile the trauma suffered after an abusive time spent in the sport? How do you reject, once and for all, what others told you to believe about yourself, and define who you are for yourself? It’s a coming-of-age [story], in a sense.
DM: Finally, there’s been a lot of talk for the last few years about changing the culture of gymnastics but culture can be very difficult to shift. What are some of the concrete steps that all of the stakeholders in the gymnastics community can take to start moving things in the right direction?
JS: Culture change is very difficult and will take many years. The rules need to change so that coaches are held accountable. USAG has to clearly state that they have no tolerance for abuse and hold gyms and members to that same standard. Not adhering to that standard means expulsion. Coaches need to educate themselves on child-centered, child development-oriented coaching techniques. USAG needs to provide this training as well. Athletes need to know they can speak up when a coach is inappropriate. They need to know there is a place they can go—a hotline, another coach in the gym—and the complaint will be taken seriously. Kids need to be taught what is inappropriate behavior and how to get away from it and how to report it. Parents need to prepare their kids to speak up for themselves, to not take abuse of any kind. Mostly we need our kids to know that they are worth everything, that they are more important than any medal. And every adult in their world needs to reinforce this. It doesn’t mean kids can’t train hard. It doesn’t mean they can’t be given feedback. But they can never be abused, demeaned, belittled, insulted, harassed, humiliated. People say it’s a fine line between tough coaching and abuse. I don’t agree. I think it’s a very bright line. And we need to simply uphold it.
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Sey
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