February 1, 2018 / 9:55 PM / 22 days ago

Sexual abuse scandal weighs on U.S. gymnastics centers

LANSING, Mich., Feb 1 (Reuters) - Gymnastics coach Jamie Boyd-Hamilton is painfully questioning everything that once seemed normal in the Michigan community at the epicenter of a doctor’s sexual abuse of young athletes.

“There was probably little or nothing I could have done. It wasn’t my gym. I didn’t refer patients to him,” she said at her training center in Lansing, a short drive from where Larry Nassar practiced sports medicine. “That doesn’t stop the guilt. It took a breakdown at all levels.”

She is among gym owners reconsidering the culture of the sport and making changes large and small after days of emotionally-wrenching speeches in a Michigan courtroom from female gymnasts abused by Nassar.

The former USA Gymnastics and Olympic team doctor was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison last month after pleading guilty to molestation charges. Prosecutors say he abused more than 265 people, many through his practice at Michigan State University.

At Lansing’s Red Cedar Gymnastics, Boyd-Hamilton has long had policies requiring that staff and athletes interact in sight of parents and other coaches and avoid one-on-one settings. She even leaves open the bathroom doors for added visibility. Yet despite such safeguards, the gym experienced an off-site incident a few years ago involving a coach’s sexual misconduct with a student.

With Nassar, she wonders if she could have been more available for athletes to confide in. She counts at least 25 victims looking through photos of gymnasts she has coached, reviewing in her mind each day their names and worrying about how they are doing.

The fallout from the scandal continues to resonate widely as Nassar returned to a different Michigan court this week for another sentencing hearing. Outrage over systemic failures that enabled his decades of abuse has spurred the resignations of the USA Gymnastics board, as well as Michigan State University’s president, and spawned numerous investigations.

CREATING A SAFE PLACE

Amid demands for greater oversight of Olympic athletes and scrutiny of U.S. college athletics, gymnastics centers across the country are reviewing and strengthening safety practices and engaging families in difficult conversations.

The search for answers is especially painful at the centers closest to Nassar’s crimes, with victims saying he at times abused them with parents in the room using a towel for cover. One Michigan gym this week held meetings with parents about how to educate children about behavior that many victims did not recognize as sexual abuse, believing a doctor could touch them in ways otherwise considered inappropriate.

Leading those talks at Splitz Gymnastics is a coach who was herself abused by Nassar for a dozen years, beginning at age 8.

Kayla Spicher, now 22, said she only recently realized Nassar had molested her on hundreds of occasions under the guise of medical treatment, primarily for a shoulder injury.

She never said anything to her parents, who own the gymnastics center where she coaches in Canton, Michigan, or any other adult.

She recently identified herself in court as one of the affected gymnasts and said she left feeling empowered to help families start conversations about sexual abuse.

Spicher is encouraging athletes at her gym to talk with their parents and is distributing teal ribbons signifying solidarity with sexual assault victims.

“Once we are able to help educate all the children, hopefully our place will be as safe as we can make it,” she said.

“THEY HAVE A VOICE”

Many gyms have reviewed their child safety practices in recent months. The Iowa Gym-Nest, known as IGN, added protocols prohibiting staff from exchanging private texts or social media messages with athletes.

The Children’s Gym in Portland, Oregon is among some programs cutting ties with USA Gymnastics after gymnasts criticized it for fostering a culture permitting abuse. The sports federation did not reply to a Reuters request on the number of centers that have left the organization and a comment on the scandal’s fallout.

USA Gymnastics last week suspended Olympic coach John Geddert, who worked with Nassar and was criticized by several victims for creating a hostile environment.

Geddert ran a Lansing-area gymnastics center, called Twistars, where athletes say Nassar molested them in a back room. Youth gymnasts continue to train at the complex decorated with USA Gymnastics banners and posters highlighting its Olympic success.

Geddert’s wife, Kathryn, now gym owner, declined to comment. Staff refused on Tuesday to let Reuters talk to parents or other adults with children on its premises.

At the nearby Red Cedar gym, Jenny Willard earlier in the day had watched through a window as her young son swung from a rope and wobbled on a balance beam. She has followed courtroom video detailing the pain inflicted by the formerly respected physician known to many locals simply as Larry. As recently as 2016, when allegations were emerging, Nassar ran unsuccessfully for his local school board but still got about 20 percent of the vote.

Willard wants to take her children to see the names of the women he abused, painted on a rock at Michigan State University.

“I want them to know they have a voice,” she said. (Reporting by Letitia Stein; Editing by Ben Klayman and Andrew Hay)

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