Inside Gymnastics spoke with Sey following her trip to Washington, D.C. to celebrate the passage of Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s Safe Sport bill with fellow gymnast-advocates.
By Susan Williams
Feature Photo Courtesy Jennifer Sey
Jennifer Sey was one of the brightest stars to emerge in the aftermath of the 1984 Olympic Games, just as the American public’s interest in gymnastics was peaking.
Coached by Bill and Donna Strauss, at their legendary Parkettes facility in Pennsylvania, Sey made the 1985 U.S. World Championship team only to break her femur during her optional performance on uneven bars.
“I didn’t think I would come back,” Sey recalls. “I remember riding in the ambulance with my dad in Montreal and just saying, ‘What do I do now? I don’t know how to do anything else.’ I thought that was it, for sure.”
The televised injury was gruesome and serious, but Sey battled back and ten months later, even after breaking the ankle of her other leg in her rush to return, she became the 1986 U.S. National Champion.
But, while Sey projected strength on the competition floor, behind the scenes she struggled. “The night that I won [USAs], I remember thinking, ‘I should quit now.’ Like, this is it, this is the best it’s gonna get,” Sey says with a wry laugh. “I’m really injured, I know I have an eating disorder…I should have just taken my medal and gone on to college, but I continued for two more years, and that’s when things really got bad. The injuries got worse, the pressure got worse, because now I was expected to be one of those [six] that make it, but I knew that I was falling apart.”
Though Sey’s Worlds fall would help lead to rule changes allowing coaches to spot bars during competitions, her bright but brief time at the top of the sport was largely forgotten until the 2008 release of her memoir, Chalked Up: My Life in Elite Gymnastics.
Sey intended Chalked Up as a cathartic exercise, but it was viewed as a searing indictment of the sport, where Sey laid bare the physical and emotional abuse she endured during her years on the U.S. National team.
In the book, Sey doesn’t spare her own shortcomings, and many of her assertions mirror those made by many other gymnasts, but the community closed ranks, issuing public denials and heaping private scorn on Sey’s story. The backlash was brutal.
“I was physically threatened,” says Sey. “There were things I had to cancel because my publisher was worried it wasn’t safe. It was pretty scary and upsetting.”
Sey, a mom of four and Stanford graduate, has spent the last 19 years at Levi Straus & Co, where she’s the Chief Marketing Officer. Once a gymnastics pariah, she has emerged as a leading voice in support of the survivors of Larry Nassar and a passionate advocate for change.
“After I left the sport, I walked away,” she muses. “I had nothing to do with it. And after I wrote the book I got thrust back into it, which is ironic, because it was intended to do the opposite, to fully close that chapter of my life.”
Inside Gymnastics spoke with Sey following her trip to Washington, D.C. to celebrate the passage of Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s Safe Sport bill with fellow gymnast-advocates.
Inside Gymnastics: What was the impetus for you to write Chalked Up, 20 years after you left the sport?
Jennifer Sey: I was struck that I was an adult with a good job, at the time, two children and an essentially happy life, but, in some ways, I was still wrestling to make sense of some of what happened to me in the sport.
I sat down to just write it for myself. I didn’t even think I’d try and get it published. I wrote it in a fever state almost. It took me only three months, and when I was done I was like, ‘Maybe it’s something that will resonate.’
My book wasn’t meant to be any sort of expose. I had finished gymnastics with so much shame. I thought if just a few ex-gymnasts read it, and connected with it, it would ease theirs. And I did find that to be the case. I got hundreds of letters saying as much; which helped amidst the criticism.
Inside: What was that critique, from a community you were once a part of, like?
Sey: I was pretty roundly criticized; basically called a liar and an opportunist. I was dismissed and discredited as a crappy gymnast, which I’m not gonna argue with, though I’m not sure what that has to do with being able to tell the truth. But I stand by everything I said, and I think it’s since come to light that this is the culture these girls are dealing with.
Joan Ryan (author of Little Girls in Pretty Boxes) was dismissed as an outsider. I was dismissed as a liar, an opportunist and not really a good enough gymnast to have an opinion. Then, two years later, you had Dominique Moceanu, an Olympic gold medalist, (releasing Off Balance), and how do you discredit that? They had to keep finding new ways. Different women, same playbook. Now, we see it all coming to light.
Inside: In the case of Larry Nassar, being a doctor was his way in. Almost every high-level gymnast is dealing with some kind of injury. Was holding their ability to compete part of his power?
Sey: One of the things I was critical of in my book, and it is related to that short window of opportunity in women’s gymnastics, is that we get back out there too fast. I got back out there really fast after Montreal, and I had a doctor who was kind of willing to bend the rules; take the cast off a little early, this and that. I hurt myself in the process. I just kept switching legs that I broke. I would come back too early and break the other one because I was favoring it. And we see that with Nassar.
… The image they want to project is that everyone is wholesome, happy; [These] are all-American kids doing this for the sheer love of the sport, and that we win medals the right way. That’s what sponsors sign on for. That’s what the public wants to see. So, everything that doesn’t fit that image has to be a secret. Abuse is a secret. Injuries are a secret. And, pretty soon, it’s all just secrets, because it doesn’t fit the image. If we said, ‘Sure, we’re winning, but we’re doing it the way the Soviets did in the ’70s,’ no one would ever take their kid to a gymnastics class, even if that’s closer to reality.
Inside: Do you feel the gymnastics community is more willing to listen to you now than when Chalked Up was released? To work to address those concerns that go beyond Nassar’s abuse?
Sey: At the time, I managed my words very carefully, because I knew people weren’t going to be very open to hearing what I was going to say, but I still exposed, to some extent, the darker side of the sport. Some of the abusive training methods and some of the effects that has on the athlete(s), in terms of eating disorders and things like that.
There are a lot of coaches out there right now that need to think long and hard about their behaviors. I’m a firm believer, and I know a lot of the gymnasts who were Nassar victims agree with me, that the broader culture of abuse made [Nassar] possible – and not only possible, but almost inevitable. When you’re abused almost every day, emotionally and physically, and you’re gas lit, essentially, and told this is not what is happening to you—That you’re fat. That you’re not injured. Then you don’t trust your own reality, your own perception of the world. That opens the door for: one, someone to be nice to you, which he was, and, two, for him to convince you that he wasn’t doing what you thought he was doing, because you are already unsteady in your perception of the world.
That’s something I dealt with well into adulthood. You feel like everything is your fault. It’s a typical effect of being abused. A parent who abuses their child says, ‘If you were good, I wouldn’t hit you.’ The survivors don’t believe their own take on things. If I just worked harder. If I just lost another pound. Whatever it is, they just internalize it and make it their own fault, which is a strategy on the part of the abuser.
I don’t want to equate what I went through to what any of these girls did with Nassar, but I do understand, and I empathize, and I think that culture is what inevitably led to someone like him.
You have all these coaches who practice methods that are both emotionally and physically abusive, and I don’t even think they know it. It’s just the accepted practice. I think people need to think long and hard and make sure they’re not looking at this like a one-guy problem.
Inside: When Chalked Up was released one of the common critiques was that the sort of coaching you experienced was a relic of the 1980s, that gymnastics was different now. Did you ever believe that?
Sey: I actually got phone calls directly from USA Gymnastics saying, ‘Stop talking about this, things are different now.’
I don’t know (Twistars coach John) Geddert beyond what I’ve read about him, but the way he’s described was standard operating procedure back when I was competing.
I did believe that there was some lessening of the practices around food and diet, which I now know didn’t happen. I thought, after Christy Henrich died, that we sort of took a good, hard, long look and changed some practices, but what I’m hearing from the women now is that, absolutely not, that didn’t change at all. They were still weighed and starved and denied food, and all of that. Those practices continued straight on through, and one of the ways [Nassar] groomed them was with food.
I was very convinced it hadn’t changed, because the people hadn’t changed. For one, the practices are so widespread, so endemic and so accepted as ‘tough coaching’ that they’re almost invisible. They can’t see that they’re problematic until you can step outside the world of gymnastics.
When I look at what’s come to light, [what I experienced] with the Strausses seems like small potatoes in comparison. … It was said they were, ‘old school,’ that was the ‘80s, that’s how we did it. But now we see that’s how Geddert did it, that’s how [a lot of coaches] did it, according to the women I’ve spoken with.
A lot of gymnasts become coaches. They want to be different, and I think some of them really are but these are learned behaviors. If that’s how you were coached, it’s hard to see how to do it differently. I know I was teaching gymnastics right after college, and I did not like the way I behaved. I stopped [coaching] immediately.
Inside: What can USA Gymnastics (USAG) do to foster that sort of significant shift? And do you think they’re on the right track?
Sey: I think it’s a really long road. Culture change is hard. You can put laws in place, like the safety act from Feinstein. It’s a start, but even she said, ‘It’s just a start.’ It’s about changing the culture. It’s about the right leadership and putting forward a zero tolerance policy, and then following through on that zero tolerance policy. Saying child safety is the most important thing, bar none, no excuses. And then taking action on that vision.
USAG has not really done anything meaningful. Everything they have done has been done under duress, with their backs against the wall. They have to be forced. The U.S. Olympic Committee said everyone needs to resign [from the Board of Directors], or we’re decertifying you. They didn’t take that action upon themselves. They closed the Ranch only when Simone Biles said she didn’t want to go back to the scene of the crime. They didn’t take a proactive stance there.
Everything they’ve done has been under duress, or symbolic, to some extent. Even the Daniels Report [they commissioned]. I mean, gimme a break. Everything in there was common sense. I worked with a lawyer in 2012 to submit a proposal that was pretty similar, and we were ignored. I don’t think you needed months of research to come up with the recommendation that you have to report sex abuse immediately, instead of just sticking it in a file. To me, that was a PR play.
I’m very skeptical. I don’t think that the new leader is necessarily up to the challenge. I don’t think [USAG CEO Kerry Perry] knew what she was getting into when she took this on. I suspect the cover-up is as bad as the crime at this point, and there’s more that will come out.
I just think it is so broken to the core that it is a really difficult rebuild. Yes, it’s possible, but you need really capable leaders that are values driven, that want the sport to be safe, and it’s gonna take a long time.
Inside: In recent weeks, we’ve seen the entire Board of Directors resign, is that a step in the right direction?
Sey: There are so many others that need to go.
I think the Board of Directors [should] establish a vision and hold people to it, and they failed at doing that. They were ineffective at that, and it was very insular. I think that (Paul) Parilla and (former CEO Steve) Penny decided everything. I definitely believe that the Board was not involved in some of the more insidious decisions, but I also believe there was a culture established where there could be no daylight between what the chairman and the CEO were saying. You had to stand by what they said, and if you didn’t, you were ousted. No one had the courage to speak up and say, ‘This isn’t OK.’
There were reports way back, about all of this, and they did nothing. Look, the first Indy Star piece wasn’t even about Nassar. It was about the 50-some-odd abuse cases that were buried in a file cabinet at USAG. More than just Steve Penny knew about those, and they all still work there. They all do! I think a lot more people will go.
I think there will be an ongoing investigation both at Michigan State and USAG. I think Congress is gonna call for it. The complicity – and I’d go beyond complicity and say cover-up – had to be active for Nassar to go on doing this for two decades.
I just don’t think that [Nassar] could have done this for so long without people knowing. I mean, we already know that a lot of people reported it. In 1997, 1998, 2004, 2014 … We know! The questions are: who did they report it to? Why didn’t they do anything, and who else knew about the reports?
A question I get asked a lot is why [more women] didn’t speak up. Well, there are a few reasons. One, we know the victims of sexual assault often don’t, because they think they won’t be believed – and, well, they weren’t. And, two, THEY DID. They did speak up! It’s all documented. They did, and they were threatened with the loss of their scholarship at MSU. They were threatened with, ‘That’s not what happened, you don’t know your body.’ Time and again they were discredited, dismissed and disbelieved.
Inside: You’re in marketing, how do you think USAG has handled this crisis from that standpoint?
Sey: I’ve thought about that a lot… If I was advising them, I would have said to come clean, we are gonna go forward, and we’ve got a zero tolerance policy. We are going to build a world-class team, and do it the right way and put child safety first. And then actively action that. Just from a rehabilitate-our-image standpoint, that’s what I would advise. Any decent PR firm would tell you to do that.
It’s shocking to me that they’re not perceiving the broader culture context of #MeToo and everything that has happened. You can’t keep taking this stance and doing nothing. You can’t keep making pat, PR statements and not take action. People in every industry are being rooted out and held accountable. People far more powerful and famous than USA Gymnastics employees. No one is off limits right now.
We need new leadership, with a different lens on the problem that puts athlete welfare first.
Inside: Do you think Kerry Perry, hired in December, has had enough time to make any kind of impact?
Sey: I think she’s made some serious mistakes. Yes, it’s difficult. She doesn’t know the sport. She has to figure all this out, but I really believe — and I don’t know the woman — but based on her background, she is ill-equipped to manage a catastrophe of this magnitude. She is a marketing person, not a child safety expert. She’s never led an organization of this size.
The fact that she wasn’t there in Lansing with the women … What could be more important than that? A couple hours are not enough. She needed to sit in the chair and listen — all week. That’s what she needed to do. [She needed] to demonstrate empathy and solidarity and [show] which side she was on.
[I think the sport] needs someone like Nancy Hogshead-Makar. A brilliant woman, an Olympic gold medalist, a lawyer who has fought for equality and women’s rights for decades, who puts athlete safety first, who knows the law and how to run an organization. I think it’s gonna take someone like her.
Inside: Did you take anything positive from the sport?
Sey: Yes! That’s what surprised me when people were so upset by the book, because I ended it by saying that I miss [gymnastics] every single day. It’s so much fun when you’re little! I had an amazing coach from the time I was about nine until I was 13. She was a true believer in the idea that coaches are teachers first.
I got so much good out of it. Outside of just the physical aspect of learning to understand your body, and the certain connection between mind and body, it was a real self-esteem builder. To be able to be out there with your teammates. You learn to set a goal and achieve it.
I think it’s an amazing sport. I’m grateful, still, that I could do it. I don’t love how it ended, but I do believe it can be fixed. But, it’s a really long road.