USA Gymnastics returns to the Olympic stage trying to recover from the Larry Nassar scandal

TOKYO — At the 2000 Olympics, the United States women’s gymnastics team failed to medal. Not one gold, not one silver, not one bronze.

A decade later they’d be retroactively awarded a team bronze after it was learned China used an underaged gymnast. But at the time, it was a podium shutout that was deemed unacceptable for the once vaunted program.

What followed was an era of gymnastics — from the local level to the national one, where team coordinator Marta Karolyi set the tone — that would focus on winning and little else. Obsessive training. Omnipotent coaches. Predatory doctors. A priority placed on compliance and obedience.

There was no denying the results inside the arenas.

Over the next four Olympics, USA Gymnastics hauled in 28 total medals, including 10 golds. It produced the all-around champion each time (Carly Patterson, Nastia Liukin, Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles) and consecutive victories in the team competition in 2012 and 2016. At Rio, the Americans won half the medals in a show of dominance.

Even gold fades though. Trauma is revealed. The truth comes out.

Larry Nassar was arrested, sparking a reckoning that went beyond rooting out just horrific criminal behavior and enablement, but empowered athletes to speak up about the mental and physical abuse that was accepted as normal in building a champion.

Now, as gymnastics returns to the spotlight at the Tokyo Games, those running the sport — from the local gyms on up — vow that it is entering a completely different, and far healthier, era.

“I think the last few years there’s been a culture shift,” said Jordyn Wieber, a 2011 all-around World Champion and 2012 Olympic gold medalist, who now serves as the head coach at the University of Arkansas. “A lot of it comes from the abuse from both the coaching side and Larry Nassar.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 23:  (L-R) Jordyn Wieber, McKayla Maroney, Kyla Ross, Alexandra Raisman, and Gabrielle Douglas of the United States listen to Martha Karolyi, the team coordinator during training sessions for artistic gymnastics ahead of the 2012 Olympic Games at Greenwich Training Academy on July 23, 2012 in London, England.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Under the guidance of Marta Karolyi, USA Gymnastics was dominant at the Olympics. But the gold medals came at a cost. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

“What people thought made a good coach ended up negatively impacting the athlete, especially when they left the sport,” Wieber continued. “It was very traumatic for some of them.”

This isn’t just a sweeping out of the old guard, although that’s part of it.

Nassar will spend the rest of his life in prison for sexually abusing hundreds of gymnasts, including numerous national team members. John Geddert, head coach of the 2012 team, is dead. So is Marvin Sharp, who coached two 2008 Olympians. Each chose suicide rather than to face separate and unrelated criminal charges that ranged from sexual misconduct to abusive coaching.

There has been a full overhaul at USA Gymnastics, where longtime president Steve Penny resigned in 2017 and was later charged federally with tampering in the Nassar investigation.

Then there is Maggie Haney, a renowned coach who was suspended in 2020 after numerous gymnasts, including 2016 Olympian Laurie Hernandez and 2018 World Champion Riley McCusker, accused her of “severe aggressive behavior.”

Finally, there are the Karolyis — Marta, who retired as planned after Rio, and her husband Bela, whose work dates back to Nadia Comaneci in Romania through Mary Lou Retton in the U.S.

Their style was unapologetically focused on winning. But the cutthroat ways born from the old rigid Romanian system, and their lax oversight of Nassar while gymnasts trained at their ranch in Texas, has left them as pariahs in a sport they long lorded over.

The hope inside the gymnastics world is that those days, no matter how successful they were at building champions, are over, because the cost of all those medals was never worth it.

The horrors of Nassar, who raped hundreds of gymnasts, including many prominent Olympians, made the headlines. But inside gymnastics, there are endless tales about coaches who made the sport miserable, of eating disorders, of injuries caused by overwork, of mental and emotional abuse, all in pursuit of perceived glory.

Reform can’t be just about replacing the faces. It’s changing the attitudes.

“I think this represents a new era,” said Valorie Kondos Field, who won seven NCAA titles as the coach of UCLA, where she was known for her pro-athlete philosophy. “I have felt that since the Nassar story came out.

“You can do it unlike the Karolyis and still win,” Kondos Field said. “Yes we won. But there is a different way, a better way. The coach that will take the time to know their athlete and what makes them tick, what motivates them, are going to get better results.

“And then the Aly Raismans, the Jordyn Wiebers, they would have had just as much success, but have much better memories and experiences.”

Kondos Field points to Simone Biles, who has never subscribed to a joyless, robotic way of training. She often butted heads with Marta Karolyi, but her unqualified success shows that a different way can work.

“Her [personal] coaches are brilliant,” Kondos Field said. “Aimee Boorman and now [Cecile and Laurent Landi]. They saw her as a unique human being and perfected the training to her skills and personality.

CHARLOTTE, MI - FEBRUARY 05:  Larry Nassar is led from the courtroom after being sentenced by Judge Janice Cunningham to 40 to 125 years in prison for three counts of criminal sexual assault in Eaton County Circuit Court on February 5, 2018 in Charlotte, Michigan. Nassar has been accused of sexually assaulting more than 150 girls and young women while he was a physician for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. He is currently serving a 60-year sentence in federal prison for possession of child pornography. Last month a judge in Ingham County, Michigan sentenced Nassar to an 40 to 175 years in prison after he plead guilty to sexually assaulting seven girls.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Larry Nassar is led from the courtroom after being sentenced by Judge Janice Cunningham to 40 to 125 years in prison for three counts of criminal sexual assault. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

“Just because every other elite gymnast is training seven hours a day, doesn’t mean she needs to train seven hours a day,” Kondos Field said. “They threw out the entire playbook.”

Haney, despite appealing her suspension and believing she was made a scapegoat by USA Gymnastics, acknowledged to the New York Times earlier this year that things have changed.

“Maybe what used to be OK is not OK anymore,” Haney told the newspaper. “And maybe it shouldn’t be. I think maybe the culture has shifted.”

Biles has noticed the new attitudes and appreciates them. She also wonders about whether it can, or will, go too far. It’s easy to say you value athlete health, but winning is a powerful motivating factor — in both athletes and coaches.

“I think the culture shift is happening,” Biles told the Associated Press, “but it’s almost as if the athletes almost have too much power and the coaches can’t get a rein on it. So then it’s kind of wild. It’s like a horse out of the barn: You can’t get it back in.”

USA Gymnastics hit rock bottom with Nassar. The culture of compliant athletes and blinded-by-winning adults that allowed him to operate was indefensible. Everything had to be examined.

That’s the process. With Biles leading the way, a pile of medals is all but assured in these Games, but what about the future? If a more athlete-first style doesn’t produce, will it stick for the long haul?

What the gymnasts, the survivors, who came through the last era are trying to do is build the kind of sport they wished they had gotten to enjoy.

“We are really redefining what it means to be a good coach,” said Wieber, who was coached by Geddert and treated by Nassar from her local gym outside Lansing, Mich., all the way to the London Olympics. “I want a healthy environment for my gymnasts and for them to use their voice when they are in the gym.”

If they can do it, they can change everything for the better. That can be a legacy far greater than gold.

“This is a transformation in coaching,” Kondos Field said. “And it has to be done. I feel the U.S. has a responsibility to the world to show a new and better way of training elite athletes that can still achieve at that level.”

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