Demanding Change and Moving Forward…

Martha Karolyi
Martha Karolyi, national team coordinator for USA Gymnastics, gives instructions to gymnasts after a training session at the Karolyi Ranch Saturday, Sept. 12, 2015, in New Waverly, Texas. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Gymnastics… As young kids, we wake up and can’t sit still until our parents tell us it is time to go to gym. The joy that once pulsated through our bodies is far too soon diminished and ripped away from us, as the elite atmosphere kicks in and soon takes away the thing that we had once seen as the greatest time of our life. Now, that is not to say that elite gymnastics is horrible and I regret it, because I don’t at all. I guess what I am trying to say is that elite gymnastics should only be a place where our joy continues to grow because now we have the actual chance to put our long term goals into play.

When I google gymnastics, wikipedia says “gymnastics is a sport practiced by men and women that requires balance, strength, flexibility, agility, coordination, endurance and control”. But let me relay some of the important things that it leaves out. Gymnastics requires sacrifice, dedication, discipline, getting back up every time you fall down, repetition, mental toughness, along with support, joy, and communication; and this is still probably only half of it. Support, joy, balance and communication are beyond the most important of these and it just so happens that wikipedia is not the only one who neglects these things; coaches, parents, and athletes do as well…

It is sad to look back and think that it required things to get this bad for there to finally be a movement for change. It is sad that the mental and verbal abuse was not only never acknowledged, but rather ignored, no matter how apparent it was. Time for change has been long overdue. We are now crying out and demanding that our voices be heard once and for all and that all of our reports are taken seriously and not simply swept under the rug, because exactly as sexual abuse leaves its undying marks, this type of verbal abuse does just as well.

Our voices were never heard sooner simply because of the fear instilled in us and the authorities that silenced us. Either we were terrified of speaking up or when we did we were invalidated. So when I talk  about communication, I’m not referring to there just being open communication between the athlete and coach but between the athlete and parents as well. This does not mean that the athlete is just talking to talk, but instead really being heard and understood. For gymnastics to move forward, gymnasts need to be able to have trust in the program and that everyone around us is willing to put their pride aside and do whatever it takes to protect us as people and fully support what we want.

Now as young women, we aren’t asking for all the power. We just need compromise. We don’t always know what is best, that is why coaches are hired and parents are there to guide. Verbal and mental abuse, unfortunately, are probably present within any high level sport but that also does not mean that that is the only way to win. Coaches need to learn when to keep pushing and when to pull back and that it is easier to understand and make corrections when it comes from an educational standpoint, rather than a reprimanding one. As developing individuals, it becomes extremely easy to take these antagonizing remarks personally. We haven’t developed as people yet, so of course we are impressionable, eager for approval, and more than anything I can assure we want success just as much as you, if not more.

There was a point during my freshman year of college, when it became undeniably clear that I didn’t want to be great again because when I had been great, I was miserable. I, of course, now know that it wasn’t the result of me being great that made it miserable, it was the culture and environment that came along with it. It was the fact that the way I viewed winning became impaired because no matter what the results were, it still wasn’t good enough. I still wasn’t good enough. I have such a vivid image of me coming home after winning American Cup, in 2013, crying. I was in excruciating pain as one of my vertebrates was protruding out from my spine. My well-being had been neglected for the chance to win a gold medal and at just 16 years old, I was told my back would never be the same again. This was more than the result of a physical burnout, this was the product of a mental one too.


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9 Replies to “Demanding Change and Moving Forward…”

  1. So sad to hear the ugly truths behind the USA rise to dominance in women’s gymnastics. So glad you are in a much better place now. It’s so great to watch your gymnastics again. And so good that you’re explaining the different brands of abuse . They are ALL bad and unacceptable.
    Continued success at UCLA, and in life!

  2. You said that beautifully. It is exactly what everyone needs to hear. I’m sharing this with all my gymnastics community because knowledge is power and our voices demand attention. Thanks for being a role model. X

  3. Totally agree with every word. Thought I was reading about my experiences in elite gymnastics 25 years ago in a different country across the ocean. It really applies to elite gymnastics everywhere in the world, and sadly I am afraid not only to gymnastics but every other elite sport.

  4. Katelyn, thank you for writing this. I couldn’t agree more with you. Its sad to see mental health and well being of athletes be put aside for medals. Love seeing that you are in a better place now, and enjoying the sport again. I love your personality! You are an inspiring young lady.

  5. Katelyn, U are amazing young woman, and an incredible athlete. To bear ur soul and ur spirit so openly will undoubtedly help many youngsters who follow in ur athletic footsteps. Hopefully, those individuals won’t have to face the sordid behavior of coaches who think the best way to get through to an athlete is by debasing them. Continue being a beacon of light to everyone who reads ur words and hears ur very revealing life story.
    Best wishes to u in all ur endeavors.
    Michael Warren, UCLA Bruin for life.

  6. So sad and true–and not just at the elite level. We decided to pull my daughter out of compulsory level gymnastics because of a emotionally destructive coach. We thought that speaking up would make a difference, but sadly we discovered that many coaches, gym owners, and parents still believe that it’s needed to become a great gymnast. Can you write about what makes a great coach? Maybe hearing it from you will make a difference.

  7. Dear Katelyn, I was a gymnast in the 1970s, D3 at UCD, humiliated and eviscerated by the public weigh-ins and fat shamming to the point that I gave up my passion in my junior year at Davis. Now I’m a genealogist, specializing in Japanese American research. Your story resonates with me. If you (or whoever answers this message) are so inclined, I would love to talk with you about gymnastics, sports, and family history. I’m the past president of the California Genealogical Society, and a past gymnast at UCD, just so you don’t think I’m a stalker. Feel free to send an email. LindaHOkazaki@gmail.com.
    Cheers and splits,
    Linda O

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