On The Things I Missed

The Gymnast Alliance, a global movement against coaching abuse in gymnastics that emerged on social media just over a month ago, has resulted in dozens of news stories, several coaching suspensions, and general upheaval in the British, Australian, Belgian, and Dutch gymnastics federations.

Even though the most prominent figures using the #gymnastalliance hashtag to speak out have been from outside the U.S., several American gymnasts have also added their stories to the increasingly long list of abuse tales. And a couple of weeks ago, several gymnasts from Texas Dreams, a prominent U.S. gym owned and operated by Kim Zmeskal-Burdette, the 1991 world all-around champion, and her husband Chris Burdette, started speaking publicly about their experiences of training with the duo (and other coaches) during their club gymnastics careers. The first was Ashton Kim. She put out a statement on social media about the abuse she experienced while training under their tutelage. 

Here’s her statement:

Several of Kim’s former Texas Dreams teammates tweeted supportively in response, including former University of Alabama star Ariana Guerra and former junior national team member Nica Hults.

Kim’s statement was followed by one from Kennedy Baker, a former national team member who went onto a celebrated career at the University of Florida. (She also posted about her troubling experience at Florida, but for the purposes of this newsletter, I’m going to focus on her Texas Dreams statement.)

There’s a lot that is troubling in here, but I actually gasped at the part where Baker says Zmeskal-Burdette cut off her braids without her consent before a competition. That is such a violation of someone’s physical autonomy. For most women—and for most people—their hair is supremely important to their identities. (I’ve moped for days over a bad haircut that I personally chose and paid for; in that situation, I had no one to blame for it but myself, and I was still quite upset about it.)

And in Baker’s case, there’s the added trauma of racism. Black women’s hairstyles, whether braids, twists, locks, or natural, are strictly policed by the white supremacist culture. Black hairstyles are often regarded as “unprofessional” or worse. In some cases, schools have forbidden styles like braids or cornrows. Baker observed that this wouldn’t have happened to her white teammates, and I believe she is right.

In her statement, Baker also noted that Zmeskal-Burdette’s and Burdette’s reputations of being the “good” guys made it harder for gymnasts to speak out against them. Speaking out against them wouldn’t just mean dealing with being vulnerable about hard things that happened to you; it would mean having to push back against an entire narrative that had been constructed that would suggest that what you’re about to say can’t possibly be true. A narrative that made you believe their supporters are legion. Their “brand” had the effect of silencing gymnasts.

This is why I wanted to respond to Baker’s, Kim’s and others’ statements regarding Texas Dreams. Having written about these two coaches quite positively and uncritically in my book, I played a small role in helping to construct their “good” coaches brand. And for that, I’m profoundly sorry. 

Over the last few days, weeks, months, years, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I had missed in the course of my reporting and analysis about gymnastics: Where I should’ve been more skeptical, what my wrong assumptions were, and how to do my job better going forward. (And not just in regards to Zmeskal-Burdette and Burdette, but also Maggie Haney, of whom I also wrote positively back in 2016.) 

I have wanted to write something like this essay for about as long as I’ve been pondering my past work, almost since the Larry Nassar allegations were first made public in September 2016, but I struggled with how to approach it. Over the last few years, I’ve started several drafts but never finished any of them. Perhaps this, too, should’ve remained an unpublished draft. You guys will be the judges of that. 

I think one of my biggest errors was not going in search of information that would contradict my biases. I loved gymnastics—still do—and wanted to believe that things had improved because the sport was so important to me. I extrapolated far too much from witnessing a couple of good coaching sessions, which may not have been the norm—the day I visited Texas Dreams, there was also a college recruiter there—and I didn’t go looking for accounts that would contradict my initial positive impressions. In this case, my reporting served my biases. I wanted to tell a beautiful story so I didn’t go looking for an ugly one. 

The desire to see the positive in something that meant a lot to me was probably the biggest bias I had going in, but there are others that also need to be accounted for. A big one in a lot of sports—not just gymnastics—-is a coaching bias. And gymnastics, perhaps, more than most, has this bias. The coaches are held in (too) high esteem, seen as the keepers of special knowledge. While the careers of female gymnasts are notoriously short—though they don’t have to be, but that’s a discussion for another time—the careers of coaches are long. They, not the athletes, are the ones who end up developing relationships with federations and other powerful figures. And with reporters who are covering the gymnastics beat. 

Also, the coaches tend to be more accessible than the athletes. At meets, it’s pretty common to find reporters and the coaches chatting at the hotel bar after the competition is over. (The athletes, most of whom are underage and cannot legally drink, are not there.) This practice is not inherently bad. This is how you learn off the record gossip and cultivate sources you might need down the line. But it also puts you on friendly terms with people who you should perhaps be looking at more critically or will have to look at critically down the line. 

(On a personal note: I was a huge Kim Zmeskal fan when I was a young gymnast. I should’ve been more cognizant of that in my work, and approached her with more skepticism. I regret not doing that.) 

Other journalists have also spoken about having wished they had done more. Will Graves of the Associated Press commented that he wished he had asked more questions. (I’m with you, Will.) In an episode of GymCastic, he spoke about this: “We would ask questions but sort of in a polite way, not hold people’s feet to the fire necessarily...because they don’t know me, I’m trying to get them to trust me because I do have a lot of respect for the sport and people in the sport...I sit there and think, well, why didn’t I press coach X about Martha’s story Y or Martha’s story Z?”

And Sally Jenkins, a Washington Post sports columnist who in 2000 wrote a particularly scathing column about Jamie Dantzscher when Dantzscher openly discussed being mistreated by Bela Karolyi, has issued her own mea culpa. In 2018, she wrote: 

“Many are tangentially responsible for this ecosystem that harbored Nassar and other abusers for so long. Including yours truly. Just like the Blackmuns, Pennys and Ashleys, I was not nearly interested in how or at what cost the Karolyis collected their haul of ‘97 Olympic and World Championship medals. I was too busy admiring the gold and making a living off the beauty of the performances that those young women turned in, despite unimaginable circumstances.” 

In Start by Believing, an account of Nassar’s abuse written by John Barr and Dan Murphy, Jenkins said, “Every gymnast was impossibly brave, but obviously what Jamie Dantzscher was dealing with was tougher than most. I hate that I added to her pain.”

I hope that this doesn’t read as one long excuse for my mistakes and biases; it is not at all my intention to let myself off the hook. Nor is self-flagellation the aim. But I did want to (finally) address this topic. It’s been on my mind for years. I felt it would be remiss to not at least write something about how I screwed up, what I’ve learned, and how I hope to be better at my job going forward.