The 2016 women’s gymnastics team that the United States sent to the Rio Olympics might have been the most dominant team the sport has seen at the Games.
The quintet of Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez, Madison Kocian and Aly Raisman didn’t just win another team gold medal for the U.S., following in the footsteps of 2012’s Fierce Five, they posted the highest combined score on each of the four event apparatus.
In the individual portion of the meet, Biles, Hernandez, Kocian and Raisman each won at least one medal.
And the American domination hasn’t stopped, with Biles leading the women to a fifth straight world team title last October in Germany.
But all of the medals and glory seem tarnished knowing that all five members of that famed 2016 squad — as well as at least one of the three alternates — suffered sexual, verbal and/or emotional abuse on the road to winning them.
On Friday, the New York Times published an interview with Hernandez, who is now 19 years old, in which she discussed the abuse she’d suffered while training with coach Maggie Haney, and the effects of Haney’s abuse that she is still dealing with.
A couple of days earlier, USA Gymnastics suspended Haney from coaching for eight years, finding that the 42-year-old coach had failed “to provide a safe, positive and healthy environment with a culture of trust and empowerment.”
In 2017, Biles, Douglas, Kocian, Raisman and Rio alternate Ashton Locklear all revealed that they were among Larry Nassar’s hundreds of victims. Nassar was the longtime USA Gymnastics team coach who sexually abused gymnasts under the guise of providing care.
Hernandez and others testified about the incredibly abusive environment Haney cultivated at her New Jersey gym; for Hernandez, it meant weight-shaming from Haney that led to Hernandez wearing two sports bras to try to try to make her breasts look smaller and worse, engaging in disordered eating — bingeing and purging, and even trash-talking Hernandez’s own mother in front of her.
Hernandez told the New York Times that she is still being treated for depression after enduring a decade of abuse. She left Haney’s gym after the 2016 Olympics, after finally telling her mother Wanda everything. Hernandez had told her mother about Haney’s abuse years earlier, but when Wanda called Haney and Haney responded with anger toward Laurie, Laurie stopped telling her mother about what was happening.
It wasn’t until after Rio, when she overheard Laurie and a fellow gymnast discussing Haney’s behavior toward a third girl, that Wanda pressed Laurie and her daughter finally opened up.
No medal, no national pride is worth what these young women went through.
Gymnastics, particularly women’s, is generally one of the most popular spectator sports at the Summer Games. Over the years, we’ve seen petite teenagers execute flips and spins of increasing difficulty, their sequined leotards and bright smiles putting a sweet face on a brutal sport.
It’s hard enough to get to the level these young women get to: the hours of practice (at great financial expense to parents), competing through all manner of injury, sacrificing “normal” teenage things like school dances or supporting friends in musicals to be in the gym every day, perfecting every small detail, hoping they’re the right age and peaking during an impossibly small window that only opens every four years.
Those things, those are what they know come with the territory. Being preternaturally talented at gymnastics leads to an abnormal life, if the Olympics is the goal.
Waking up every morning so afraid to go to practice and face the coach that berates you — loud, profanity-laced tirades — for the smallest miscue that you sometimes cry at the very thought of it, as Hernandez did, is not what anyone signs up for. It’s not what any athlete should deal with.
Haney’s abuse was so frequent and happened for so long that it took a great toll on Hernandez. In language that will sound familiar to other abuse victims she told The Times, “I thought I deserved all of it. The toughest part about it was that there were no bruises or marks to show that it was real. It was all just so twisted that I thought it couldn’t be real.”
Hernandez has a team gold and individual silver from Rio, medals that athletes everywhere dream of. Because of what she went through to get them, however, she regrets training with Haney and said, “I’m grateful that I got to the Olympics, but at what cost?”
While it’s good to see that USA Gymnastics, which has dealt with a lot of self-imposed black eyes since the depth of Nassar’s depravity came to light, hand Haney a long suspension, it still took years for the group to get to that point. Wanda Hernandez filed a complaint with USAG well over three years ago. Riley McCusker, a current member of the Senior National team who began training with Haney in 2015, and others at her gym could have been spared years of potential abuse had USAG acted with more urgency.
The Final Five, as the Rio quintet dubbed themselves, are athletes we should applaud and embrace for their grace under pressure. But it is heartbreaking to know what was really happening behind the scenes.
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