Elite gymnasts who have represented Australia internationally over the past three decades have detailed fresh allegations of verbal and emotional abuse by some coaches that they received throughout their careers.
- A recent report by the Human Rights Commission drew attention to the culture of abuse, neglect and fear in gymnastics
- Former athletes turned coaches are now speaking out to ensure the culture finally changes
- They say the fact that Australia has never won an Olympic medal in artistic or rhythmic gymnastics is proof the current culture isn’t working
There are also concerns that some high-level coaches who have been criticised for their coaching methods in the past are still in charge of young athletes today.
Three former gymnasts — Olympians Kirsty-Leigh Brown (Atlanta 1996) and Emily Little (London 2012) and Commonwealth Games two-time silver medallist Mary-Anne Monckton (Glasgow 2014) — have shared their stories with 7.30 for the first time.
It comes following the recent release of a damning investigation by the Human Rights Commission into gymnastics in Australia, which found a “toxic” culture of physical, emotional and sexual abuse in the sport.
Kirsty-Leigh Brown: ‘I learned to be very obedient’
Kirsty-Leigh Brown was only 14 years old when she made her Olympic debut at the Atlanta Games in 1996.
However, Ms Brown said it has taken her 25 years to come to terms with her achievements there, and in the sport of gymnastics in general.
“I felt a sense of unease about it for a long time,” she said.
“I wasn’t proud to speak of it and I think that is because of those underlying things that have recently come out in the sport lately,” she said, referring to the Human Rights Commission report released earlier this month.
As a nine-year-old, she began training at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in Canberra, where she often trained for 36 hours a week.
She remembers training with injuries, with the added challenge of having to keep her weight under 45 kilograms.
“I had a stress fracture in my foot, I had bone chips in my elbow, I had a torn hamstring at the time, and they said that if I put on any weight, it will impact my training,” she said.
However, despite the gruelling training schedule, Ms Brown said she didn’t feel she could complain because of the risk of not being picked for particular teams or competitions.
“Very early on in my experience, I learned to be very obedient,” she said.
“I remember experiences where my coach couldn’t quite get across to me what I had to fix, and he just left me at that apparatus doing that same skill for four hours at a time.”
She said that happened multiple times during her years of training at the AIS.
The Australian Sports Commission responded in a statement: “The Australian Sports Commission Board has acknowledged and apologised for incidents and practices that occurred in the AIS gymnastics program in the past. The AIS has reached out to many former AIS gymnasts personally to offer our apology and ongoing support.”
Previous inquiry into coaching
Ms Brown gave evidence to a 1995 government-commissioned inquiry into coaching at the AIS but said she did not feel comfortable speaking openly about her experiences back then.
She was 13 years old at the time.
The 356-page report examined complaints of abuse, including physical and psychological.
Report author Hayden Opie, the former Australian and New Zealand Sports Law Association president, found there was “no systematic or widespread abuse of AIS female gymnasts”.
Mr Opie is now an honorary senior fellow at Melbourne University Law School.
He points out his 26-year-old report was not “into the sport itself”, rather his terms of reference were limited to complaints made within the AIS program.
Nevertheless, Ms Brown was disappointed the review did not prompt changes to the way young athletes were being prepared for major competitions in the subsequent two decades.
“No-one really was held accountable for it and that is what makes me frustrated.
“I just don’t know how Gymnastics Australia cannot hold themselves accountable for that. They’re putting kids in harm’s way.
“It needs to be brought to the public’s attention that this is still happening and that our governing body is allowing that to happen.”
The ‘recycling’ of coaches
Sports Integrity Australia (SIA), a new agency that investigates issues such as doping, child abuse and match fixing in Australian sport, said it is aware of coaches who have had complaints made against them being “recycled”, and is trying to address the problem.
“It’s a huge problem, but it’s not just coaches, it’s administrators as well, you see a lot of recycling,” said David Sharpe, the chief executive of SIA.
“But sometimes [sport] administrators are hamstrung if the evidence doesn’t exist, if two sides of the story aren’t tested and proven.
“It’s really hard for them to remove someone from a sport if compliance hasn’t been vindicated — it’s a complicated issue.”
Mr Sharpe said SIA was developing a National Integrity Framework to sanction particular coaches or sporting officials for misconduct and publish findings.
Gymnastics Australia declined to comment on specific coaches, but in a statement said it is committed to implementing all the recommendations made in the Human Rights Commission’s report and that the sporting body will “carefully consider how we can provide greater transparency across issues like sanctions while being cognisant of complexities around privacy.”
Emily Little: ‘We were scared of the repercussions’
It took a broken neck for Olympic gymnast Emily Little to realise the real-life consequences of the coaching culture in gymnastics.
At the Australian Gymnastics Championships in Melbourne in 2017, Emily was preparing for a floor routine that she hoped would make up for her failure to qualify for the 2016 Olympics.
“I wasn’t in a good headspace,” Ms Little said. “I felt like I had to prove myself.”
While doing a routine on the floor, Ms Little ran diagonally across the square and into a roundoff backflip, which she landed with ease. But as she transitioned into the next move — a tricky double layout with a full twist — things went dangerously wrong.
“I chucked my head back in the tumbling line, then lost myself in the air. I wasn’t sure where I was, and I came down and landed on my head. I was kind of paralysed for a few seconds, I was terrified,” she said.
The career-ending fall is immortalised on the internet after an audience member posted footage of it to YouTube.
But it is what happened next that forced Ms Little to reflect on her 15 years as a high-performance gymnast.
‘My health and safety wasn’t the number one priority’
“When I landed, my initial instinct was to get up and keep going, because that is what has been drilled into you from a young age,” Ms Little said.
“I tried to get up, but I physically couldn’t.
“I was told to get up and present to the judges and walk off the floor, so that’s what I did.
“But I’d broken my neck, so I was walking off all wobbly and in shock with 1,000 people staring at me. It was quite traumatic for me.”
Ms Little said there was a culture in gymnastics that compelled athletes to finish routines or go on training even if they were injured.
“If you injure yourself or stop for any reason in a competition you’re taught to keep going no matter what, because that routine contributes to your team score and that could cost you a gold medal,” she said.
Hours after the competition was over, Ms Little went to hospital. Scans showed she had dislocated her C6 vertebrae — one of the seven bones in the neck.
Ms Little said some coaches demanded too much from child athletes.
“We were trained so hard, like three hours of training in the morning before school, three hours at night, and you just weren’t allowed to show any weakness in the gym,” she said.
“Our parents were only allowed to watch about the first 10 minutes of our training sessions and then they had to leave because the coaches said it was a distraction for the gymnasts.
“I would often tell Mum things, but other times we wouldn’t, because we were just scared of the repercussions.”
‘What if this happened to another girl?’
Ms Little said she was speaking out now because she wanted to see change in the sport.
“What if this happened to another girl, and I hadn’t spoken up about it?” she said.
Despite the bad memories, Ms Little defended the actions of coaches and is urging them to listen to gymnasts who might feel aggrieved and want an apology.
“I don’t hate any of my coaches,” she said.
“I have been in a lot of pain and very hurt by some of the things that were said and done to me, but I don’t blame one person in particular.
“I have compassion and empathy for them because they were under a lot of pressure as well — to come up with these results and these medals that they weren’t getting.”
Mary-Anne Monckton: ‘It was authoritarian’
Mary-Anne Monckton began training at the AIS when she was seven years old and went on to win two silver medals in the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
But she has bitter memories of her training along the way, which involved training hours equivalent to a full working week — and at various times during her career, she felt poorly treated.
“I was yelled at, screamed at, and told I was a disappointment — those words came out of my coaches’ mouth,” she said.
“I was being forced to do things that I was not capable of doing — stretching and being punished with strength [exercises].
“If it wasn’t happening to me it was happening to the girls around me, which [was] pretty hard to watch.
“Those are just some of the things that jump out to me as being pretty traumatising.
“It was authoritarian from the word ‘go'”.
Ms Monckton said that she felt the blame was often placed on the gymnasts, even if things were outside of their control.
‘If your athlete is happy and healthy, they’ll perform better’
Ms Monckton is now a coach and uses the memories of her own training days to guide her in her own coaching career.
“The most important thing is to remember that you’re dealing with children, so you really have to be careful with your words,” she said.
“Because now — as we know from the Human Rights Commission report — these things can come out of the woodwork as trauma years later.
“I think our coaches really need to remember that you need to nurture that athlete’s talent, but also treat them as a human being.
“If your athlete is happy and healthy, then they’ll perform better. But I was always performing as a beaten out and tired, injured athlete, which did not help me achieve the best.”
Australia has never won a medal in artistic or rhythmic gymnastics in the history of the Olympic Games — the closest was a fifth placing by Lauren Mitchell on the floor in London in 2012.
Ms Monckton said that was proof that the current style of coaching was not working.
“I think that there’s a better way to coach athletes, especially child athletes, to get the best out of them. And at the end of the day, if they’re not cut out to be an elite athlete or an Olympian, that’s OK.
“Gymnastics in Australia can change, starting from now, to make sure that the future generations of gymnasts, whether they’re at the grassroots level or the Olympic level, don’t have to endure any type of abuse in sport.”
Fellow athlete-turned-coach Ms Brown agrees that the time for reform is now.
“I’ve been scared for a really long time to say anything, but I definitely think there are some good coaches out there and we’re ready for change, and we need to push this now,” she said.
Watch this story tonight on 7.30 on ABC TV or iview.