This post has no photos or editing.. it’s just my words.
This post is going to be difficult for me but I need to write it because I have to stand up for others and myself. I need to be counted.
I also need to learn not to be ashamed or afraid of the consequences and not to fear any kind of ‘victim shaming’
I have put off writing this or talking to anyone because I was frightened people would not believe me, belittle me, gossip about me or simply just think I was attention seeking.
I’m also embarrassed.. I know it’s ridiculous and I shouldn’t feel like this.. but I do..I know that feeling like this is a result of the system but it’s still very real.. decades on.
When I was a child I was a gymnast…. I started when I was about 5 and after my first class I seemed to be whisked into it. My feet didn’t touch the ground.
I trained all over, in my home town, my city, my county and my country.. I even trained abroad at times. My whole life was training and competing… it was my entire childhood and lasted until I was a young adult..
I don’t want to go into too many details about which squads I was part off and to what level I was competing as it’s irrelevant for this blog and I am a little worried about anyone linking me to certain squads or coaches. But what i do need to write is that …I’ve just learned I was part of a systematic and abusive culture and that I wasn’t alone.
I’m also aware that certain people still have that mentality and although they do t realise it they will try to discredit me if I ‘rock the boat’
When I saw the first reports on the news about systemic abuse in the gymnastics culture, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing..
Keith came home looking pale and worried.. he tentatively told me there was something I should watch on the news… he knew this was going to hit me hard….he sat with me as we watched it together.
It did hit me hard! it could have been me talking in that interview.. talking about bullying, training while injured, verbal abuse, emotional abuse and body shaming. I sobbed as I watched it.. my childhood was playing out in from of me.
I hated my life as a gymnast.. I hated the misery I felt every day and hated that I had to keep going because I was ‘gifted’ and would be letting everyone down if I gave up.. id let down my parents, team mates, coaches and country if I didn’t tow the line and train hard.
I continued training and competing until I was a young adult and one day just weeks before what would have been a big moment for me, I walked out.
I’d walked into training as normal and my coach hollered some horrific verbal abuse at me..
I Remember it word for word to this day. I’ve relived it many times since.. even dreamed about it…But it was normal to be spoken to like that, I had it every day of my life.. I trained every day!!! No breaks! Before school and after.. but on this day I snapped.. I picked up my kit, turned around and left.. setting off to walk home miles on my own. (Thankfully to be picked up on the way by my mum.. another parent had rung them.. not the coach of course they’d just have made me walk home)
In the days that followed I was harassed and bullied by coaches and officials who called my parents continuously and came to the house to persuade them to force me to compete.
They even phoned my grandparents which was a big mistake on their part.. they’d have stood by me till the death 😂 it was an awful time.
Thankfully, and to my surprise, my parents didn’t force me back.. I thought they would.. they really wanted this to happen.. it would have been a very proud moment for them. They were spending their whole tine taking me everywhere and anywhere I needed to be.. they’d put their lives on hold for me… but strangely they didn’t force me back,.. it was never discussed again. …
Nobody EVER talked about me leaving as I did, and I know everyone was very angry with me… for weeks/months.. (I’m not sure they really forgave me 😂) …but I didn’t care I was done.. thank god! No I had no regrets!
Years went by and I remembered my gym days almost daily, I still have dreams about some of the things that went on and I always remembered those days with a knot in my stomach.. (I realise now that I suffered ptsd for years and believe it had a lot to do with the various bouts of depression I’ve suffered over the years too).
I can now say with certainty that I was mentally and physically abused by the British gymnastics association and it’s system ..along with many others.
My body is the other victim.. the strict and harsh training has left my body in a mess.. my back is damaged beyond repair and my scans show it’s in the same state they’d expect to see in someone in their 70/80’s. I have arthritis and damage in my wrists, elbows, knees, ankles, hips, neck and shoulders .. there’s is significant damage to my joints causing weakness and pain.. I was diagnosed as a chronic pain sufferer 10 years ago. My wrists are so weak I can’t even use my hands to push myself up anymore which means, with other joins and old injuries, I can’t exercise as I would otherwise . I can’t even do yoga anymore although I do some non weight baring stretching exercises when my pain is particularly bad and causing spasms but I can’t run anymore and struggle to find anything I can do without pain.
We were trained hard! No water allowed during hours of summer training (it ‘gave us cramp’ and we would waste time using the toilet) , no food allowed as it made our ‘stomachs swell’ .. I was called a ‘pregnant pencil’ daily as my stomach pertruded further than my ribs.)
They wanted to see ribs that stuck out to the same level as our breasts and a hole where our stomachs were. I wasn’t fat! When I married (5 years after quitting) I was 6 and 1/2 stone. I didn’t put on weight until I had my children.. (I couldn’t eat big meals as my stomach just wasn’t used to it. ) They would force our bodies into shapes that they didn’t want to go in..
I remember one incident laying on the floor and a middle aged male coach pushing his entire weight on my leg, pushing it above my head as I sobbed in agony, as he lay on my leg, his face next to my head..he shouted in my face and in front of the squad that I was ‘acting like a baby’ and ‘so lazy’ I was so physically messed up for weeks after that ‘incident ‘ ..
I couldn’t walk after, my legs giving way as I tried… he demanded I was taken home out of his sight…the system was so normalised that even my parents and other coaches all showed their anger at me for crying and not being able to get my body into the shape it should have.. shrugging and shaking their heads at me as I struggled to walk out of the gym..I was limping around for weeks after.. but they made me train still.. I never forgot it.. but it was normal.. girls would suffer this kind of humiliation regularly… it wasn’t the parents fault.. they were sucked in too.
The long lasting damage is huge.
A friend and ex team mate has had so many surgeries in the last few years and walks with a stick. Another is due to have her wrist joint replaced after she has suffered years of agony following training on it broken as a child. I still have two displaced toes and a loose bit of bone on my shin.. I have various injuries that never healed.. you just need to see the lumps on my knees!
I avoided letting the kids join any sports clubs.. my worse fear was they’d be brilliant at something and become sucked into something similar. I just presumed it was normal for elite and gifted children to be treated this way.. so I just avoided taking them.. thankfully my lot were more arty than sporty.
But Kitty is different.. I knew she was gifted, I could see it in her.. I tried to ignore it but it can’t be ignored.. she’s brilliant!
Reluctantly I put her name down at the local club and made a pact with myself that I’d only let her do it for fun. No competing just fun.
The first class she went to, I was shaking walking in there.. I sat on the side watching the class, checking the coaches tone and waiting for someone to shout or criticise my daughter.. I was waiting for a reason to take her home.
There was none.. the club was amazing, the coach lovely and the kids adored it. Over the next few weeks I still avoided the parents room and still watched from the side.. but there was a shift, I was watching and enjoying it.. I was coaching in my head and living Kitty’s love and enthusiasm for the sport.. something I’d never had the luxury of.
I started helping a bit.. my body doesn’t allow me to do much and I don’t know the new terms and way things are done.. a lot has changed..but I can help with presentation and turn out.. I can help the girls feel confident and understand the psychology of what they are doing. I like it but it’s early days.. some of the girls are still wary of this lady who has started turning up.. I’ve not talked to them about my experience or what level I was at.. I just couldn’t do it.
But We’ve not been since March due to lockdown so the relationships I started to build are on hold… with the scandals and revelations about the sport coming out and rocking me to the core, I don’t know if I’ll go back… they may not want me back.. who knows what will happen after speaking out… time will tell I suppose.
I’ve made my statement to the independent body investigating the allegations (not heard from them yet and I’m not sure I will) it took me a while to pluck up courage.
I didn’t think anyone would believe me.. and I feared and still fear I’d be called all the things I was called throughout my childhood…they told me for years I wasn’t special and I was an attention seeker, that I was silly and lazy… fat and ugly… I was called ‘paranoid’ when I suggested we weren’t treated fairly and ‘kicking off’ if I asked questions… so of course I stopped pushing back.. we all did..
I still live believing myself to fit that person they said I was…. these people, this organisation broke many children over the years and left permanent scars. So strong and controlling they were that 40 years on we are still having nightmares and still worried that we will get in trouble by speaking out!
I spoke to a few people who I trained with and they are all mostly still too afraid to speak out.. after decades and decades they, like me, are still damaged by this and the thought of bringing it all back up has made them physically ill.. they’ll never report it .. I was lucky.. some of the things that went on to other girls was too awful to share. There were some very dodgy incidents that I experienced over the years but I actually think I got away lightly.
My old team mates and I have talked this though and for the first time we’ve shared how it all affected us.. we didn’t see it at the time.. we just accepted it as normal.. so we just didn’t talk about it. We were stopped from having real friendships with each other too.. we were competitors not team mates.
I understand why they don’t all want to talk .. I feel the same way.. there are people I’d never talk to about this and I’m terrified people will use this as a way to belittle me or gossip about me.
That’s what they made us believe.. and as a society we all still told that we shouldn’t start ‘rocking the boat’ . People ask ‘what’s the point dragging it up now’? Or why didn’t we report it then?
But we couldn’t have spoken out when it was happening.. who would have believed us? NOBODY would have helped us.. it was just ‘normal’.. we were all under the spell.. parents, kids, families… we really thought it was okay!
But there are kids still struggling.. elite athletes still reporting the same levels of abuse and fear.. my daughter is now part of this world (albeit at the very beginning)… so I had to speak out.. I need to be heard and need to feel validated and others do too.
My worry is that in the 80’s there were no records like now.. no welfare protocol or ethics committee.. why would they listen to us now.. it’s our word against theirs.. .
Kitty’s club is lovely and I just love the way they are with their squad and the little ones.. I hope me talking about my past won’t reflect badly on them.. they are part of the reason I can do this now. They gave me hope and I really believe they are wonderful.
I hope talking about this will help others come forwards. I feel like a secret part of my life has become public and it makes me feel less alone. It felt important to ‘fess up’ about what we’ve gone through these last few weeks.. I guess my past has affected me more that I realised and it feels important people know what has made me who I am.
I am one of many thousands of adults who have lived with this in their heads and memories..who keep their experiences to themselves and just believed it was normal.
I’m still worried about folks calling me out on this. Scared of the response.. but what have I to loose? I’ve kept it to myself for years.. it’s time for others to take some of the burden and just getting this out of my head and into the universe makes me feel lighter.
One thought on “I was a gymnast..”
It is a very brave thing you are doing, and it is the right thing to do. Good luck with that.