‘Culture of fear’: Former gymnasts speak out about ‘systemic abuse’

In her teens, Sarah was pegged to be a future Olympic star. Source: Supplied

Several former gymnasts have spoken to The Feed about their experiences after a deeply troubling report into the culture of gymnastics was released by the Australian Human Rights Commission this week.

Sarah Ritchie was just five years old when she started gymnastics and eight when, she claims, her coaches started weighing her.

As an “extremely underweight” child, Sarah claims she was held up to other children as the golden example of how their scales should read.

“We were weighed twice a day,” Sarah told The Feed.

“And what I found horrific was watching my friends run to the toilet to try and evacuate anything they could to have a lower weight.”

“It wasn't uncommon in our era for gymnasts to strip naked to step onto those scales because they wanted to not even have the weight of the leotard impacting on their weight.”

Julia Murcia, founder of Gymnast Alliance Australia (left), and Sarah Ritchie (right).

In the late 80s and 90s, Sarah was training up to 36 hours a week at the Western Australian Institute of Sport (WAIS) and vividly remembers a “culture of fear” on the mats.

“When you're in the program you're spending more time with the coaches than you are with your parents,” Sarah said.

“You're taught not to laugh, smile, to do exactly what the coaches say. You have to weigh up whether the pain that you're experiencing with that injury is worth bringing up to the coach.”

Sarah’s career ended at the ripe age of 15 after a “poor landing” that left her howling out in pain.

“I was on the floor screaming and the coach that was watching my routine at the time, [they] walked away from me,” Sarah said.

“My other coach came over to me and said ‘I can’t talk to you when you’re crying, I’ll talk to you when you’ve stopped.”

“I was completely terrified, lying on the floor and both of my coaches both left me in pain.”

Another coach at the gym finally took Sarah to the physio, who called her parents to take her to the hospital.

“I spent 10 years of my life at the gym, I just had this massively traumatic issue, and I really felt that no one cared,” she said.

A report released by the Australian Human Rights Commission this week into the culture of gymnastic shows Sarah’s experience is far from isolated. 

The report found there was a systemic risk to children of physical, psychological and sexual abuse at all levels of gymnastics across Australia, hearing from gymnasts who last trained in the 80s, 90s and 2000s.

At the elite level, children as young as seven were training up to 35 hours a week in Australian sporting institutes, according to the report’s findings. 

Gymnastics Australia, the national governing body for gymnastics, commissioned the independent investigation and offered an “unreserved” apology after the report was handed down.

In a statement, it said the “confronting” report identified a focus on “winning-at-all-costs”, the silencing of athletes’ voices, an acceptance of “archaic and authoritarian coaching practices” and deeply concerning “experiences from members of the gymnastics community of abuse.”

“Gymnastics Australia thanks the Australian Human Rights Commission for its considered findings and will adopt all 12 recommendations contained in the report,” the statement continued.

On Tuesday, WAIS issued a statement apologising to former gymnasts for 'distress or injury'.

Separate to AHRC’s nationwide report, WAIS has asked Sport Integrity Australia (SIA) to undertake an independent review of the issues raised, specifically relating to athletes involved in its gymnastics program that ran from 1988 to 2016.

Gymnast Alliance Australia was created by former WAIS gymnast Julia Murcia to raise awareness about abuse in gymnastics.

She said WAIS’ apology was not sufficient and the Institute has not yet committed to implementing the report’s recommendations.

“GAA acknowledges WAIS’ apology, which is well overdue. We are, however, disappointed that WAIS continues to downplay what Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and Gymnastics Australia describe as ‘abuse’ and simply call it ‘distress or injury’,” she said in a statement.

A gymnast.
The AHRC has recommended major reform in the sport of gymnastics after an independent review uncovered repeated claims of abuse.

Former WAIS gymnast Ann-Maree Vallence trained up to 38 hours a week from the age of seven to 16. She told The Feed she's concerned the review commissioned by WAIS will not be adequate and will “water down” gymnasts allegations.

“We have reservations about the quality of the review, and whether it will adequately investigate the allegations of abuse,” she told The Feed

Like Sarah, Ann-Maree describes her experience at WAIS as a negative one. 

“I was yelled at, I was belittled, I was forced to train through injuries and called a liar,” she said.

“When I spoke up about injuries, some of those as serious as broken bones or stress fractures that were never treated medically.”

Ann-Maree Vallence
Ann-Maree Vallence was a gymnast at WAIS for nine years.

Ann-Maree claims “abusive” behaviour was “normalised” and that it wasn’t until her adulthood that she began to reflect on her treatment.

“There was this rhetoric around the Olympic dream and that this was a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Ann-Maree said.

“So there was a lot of guilt used to keep us practising or to keep us within the program.”

Former gymnasts told The Feed they felt there were toxic power dynamics at play between coaches and their gymnasts.

Now a mother, Sarah looks back on her experience with sadness.

“If I think of my daughter being treated the way I was treated, it would be very, very difficult,” she said.

“I’m determined that my child [will] never set a foot in a gymnastics centre.”

The former gymnasts praised Gymnastics Australia for acknowledging that further reforms need to be made to the sport.

“While important work has been undertaken in recent years to improve policies, education and support mechanisms for our athletes and coaches across child safety and athlete wellbeing, there is clearly more to be done,” Gymnastics Australia said in a statement.

“The Gymnastics Australia Board and management acknowledge this work needs to be underpinned by transformational cultural change across all levels of gymnastics in Australia.”

The Feed contacted WAIS for comment. A spokesperson said “The WAIS Board is reviewing and considering the recommendations of the AHRC report” but they were “unable to comment further.

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