By Susan Williams

In this series, Inside Gymnastics talks with current and former athletes, coaches and other members of the community about what they’d like to see in terms of solutions for the next chapter of the sport in the United States, in their own words. We hope to be a part of the dialog that helps move the sport forward in a way that will change the culture and allow for all participants to thrive.

Feature Photo by Lloyd Smith

When Kerry Perry took the reigns as president and CEO of USA Gymnastics, she embarked on what was described as a “listening tour” for several months to gain perspective about what needed to be done to bring about change and begin a new era of USA Gymnastics. But many in the sport, including defending Olympic Champion Simone Biles, felt as though they were not being heard. Perry was criticized for offering few solutions with limited (and fumbled) messaging. This ultimately lead to her resignation just nine months into her tenure and following criticism from new United States Olympic Committee CEO Sarah Hirshland. 

All of this after an independent review of USAG by Deborah Daniels, who published the following conclusion in her report:

“USA Gymnastics needs to undergo a complete cultural change, permeating the entire organization and communicated to the field in all its actions. USA Gymnastics needs to take action to ensure that this change in culture also is fully embraced by the clubs that host member coaches, instructors and athletes.” 

As USAG once again looks for a new leader and attempts to make the changes called for in the Daniels Report, what exactly do those actively involved in the gymnastics community want to see from the organization?

In this series, Inside Gymnastics talks with current and former athletes, coaches and other members of the community about what they’d like to see in terms of solutions for the next chapter of the sport in the United States, in their own words. We hope to be a part of the dialog that helps move the sport forward in a way that will change the culture and allow for all participants to thrive.

Here, Inside talked to Alyssa Beckerman from her home in New Jersey–where she and her husband, Matt, own and run a music school (Beckerman is also an EMT)–about what she thinks the future of the sport should look like…

On the surface, Alyssa Beckerman’s gymnastics career was defined by “almost” on many levels. Selected for the 1999 U.S. World Championships team, a broken wrist forced her to withdraw from the squad. In 2000, Beckerman was named an Olympic alternate, which she remained even after Cincinnati Gymnastics teammate Morgan White withdrew from the competition. (Fellow alternate Tasha Schwikert got the call instead.) In college, Beckerman continued to struggle with injuries. Though her Bruin squad won two NCAA titles during her tenure, Beckerman was dismissed her senior year by head coach Valorie Kondos Field, after being sidelined by injury for most of her junior season.

Alyssa Beckerman

Behind all of Beckerman’s near misses was a long string of chronic injuries and disordered eating, perpetuated by what she has called a, “culture of abusive coaching.” Since her retirement and, she says with a laugh, “even before,” Beckerman has been outspoken. “I never stopped talking about these things,” she says, “It’s just that people are listening now. I’ve been talking about all of these things for years.”

Inside Gymnastics: What do you think USA Gymnastics needs to do to move forward and make positive changes?

Alyssa Beckerman: I’ve given this a lot of thought. I’ve been thinking about it for 18 years, actually. It’s an overwhelming problem. It’s multifaceted—the organization, the structure, the personnel that run it, the coaches themselves, the club gyms, the regional governance… There are so many levels to this, and all are in need of change.

We need a total paradigm shift. I know that sounds cliché, but it’s so true. For me, the coaching—the system by which we develop elite gymnasts—has been my focus. You can have all the structure in the world—and yes, I still think a lot of the people in power, the people still running USA Gymnastics, need to go—but it’s the coaches who are doing the damage.

I want to draw a real bright line here that I’m speaking about my experience as an elite. I think that level, and some among the Level 9s and 10s striving for it, are where we’re seeing the worst. It’s not all coaches. I had some great coaches; coaches I’m still very close with… but it’s too many.

One of the first things that needs to change is the attitude I’ve experienced about parents. There’s this stereotype, and I’ve seen it particularly among higher-level coaches, that parents are a problem. That they’re all, “crazy gym parents.” It’s usually not true, but that attitude is prevalent, and it’s a means to separate girls from their parents. Coaches want the authority, the control. That entire idea needs to change. Parents need to be welcomed, and if they’re truly exhibiting this competitive, “crazy” behavior, they need to be educated—not shut out. But, seriously, those parents are few and far between, in reality.

I’ve seen gyms where they put curtains over the windows so the parents can’t see in from the waiting room. I mean, just the idea of that is so wrong! I’ve also seen gyms where they nurture that competition between parents, where it’s rewarded.

In a gym, it’s the coaches who set the standard. If they’re professional and fair, so are the parents. But, if they encourage competition between teammates, and reward it with favoritism, the entire environment deteriorates. I believe it’s intentional. It’s all part of the element of control. They intentionally create an environment where anxiety overshadows everything else.

Mary Lee [Tracy] was definitely a control person. She controlled what we wore, how our hair was done… even our jump ropes for workout matched. She controlled every element, in and out of the gym, including socially, and that behavior needs to change.

Note: In a recent, general Facebook post, not specifically related to Beckerman’s training, Mary Lee Tracy said: “Times have changed over the past 20 years and so have I. It is time to learn from the past and move forward to a brighter future for all of us!” More here.

When someone has so much control, it puts a young person in a mindset that the coach has more authority than anyone else in their life—that they should put all their faith in them. When they tell you to go to a doctor, you do it. You don’t think twice, and you definitely don’t question what happens.

There’s a fine line between, “If you don’t make that correction, you’ll get hurt,” where the authority is healthy, to a culture of silence. For us, it was literal silence. We were not allowed to speak. You know that old joke where when someone asks you to jump, you ask how high? Well, in elite gymnastics, it was someone asks you to jump and you just nod [laughs].

That does a lot to you, psychologically. You try to be as meek and as serious as possible. “Stoic” was this huge compliment at camp. We all strived for that. Being someone who never complained was a compliment… So, you don’t speak out, because it’s ingrained in you that if you do, you have poor integrity, that you’re a bad gymnast, a bad teammate. Asking questions is very taboo. I did that, and I paid the price.

Inside: What do you feel that price was?

Alyssa: When people say, “If this was happening for so long why didn’t anyone say anything?” And that… That just infuriates me! Are you kidding me!? I mean, we were taught not to speak. Not to complain. We had been conditioned, and we all behaved accordingly. I was actually considered a problem because I had coaches who taught me to speak up for myself. But that’s not what they wanted at the Ranch…You couldn’t even talk to your teammates—to have that release—because we were all so afraid, and they pitted us against each other. We were isolated, and all of that promoted a culture of silence. When your sense of self worth is determined by a hit or missed routine, there’s no way you’re going to stand up to the system.

We were taught not to speak. Not to complain. We had been conditioned, and we all behaved accordingly.

I look back at interviews I did then and what I said… And, well, it was what I had to say. I couldn’t really express how I actually felt until I was done and, even then, Mary Lee pulled me aside and warned me not to say anything, that it would only sound like sour grapes.

Inside: How do you feel that mentality can change?

Alyssa: I had coaches that got it. I know that there is a better way—a right way.

Gymnastics is not something you dabble in. It’s something you dedicate your life to doing. You spend so much time with this adult, and coaches need to understand that responsibility goes beyond learning a new trick on bars.

Alyssa Beckerman during her time representing Team USA.

The culture is formed from the top down. Coaches need to feel like they have a voice, too. Everyone is put in a constant state of fear because of the system.

The subjective selection makes it a free for all. It’s no longer only relevant that you score well at a meet, it’s important that you are liked. With an environment like that, of course you never dissent with Martha [Karolyi], because she holds it all in her hands. I saw some of the coaches buckle under that pressure. It was their only option, because otherwise their kids don’t get picked.

I know a lot of people don’t think we can do away with selection, but if we can, we should. At the very least, there should be some compromise, have a selection committee that are strictly observers and completely outside of USA Gymnastics. Of course, it’s such a small community, I’m [skeptical] that could happen. It would be much better to just pick the team based on results, and I think we could do that. I really do. We need to bring back objectivity… If you take out the subjectivity, it takes the pressure off coaches and athletes to behave a certain way, to be in lockstep with whoever [USA Gymnastics] says is the leader.

I’m not saying they should do away with camps; just use them to focus on technique, team bonding and a mock meet here and there. But girls should not fear for their careers if they don’t have the right eye contact in lineup.

You hear a lot that Larry Nassar was a tumor on an otherwise perfect system and… NO! Larry preyed upon a broken system. That’s how it happened. It was broken already. It’s the only way somebody like that persists for that long. Silent girls scared they won’t make a team.

Everything else was so messed up, that this seemed trivial.

A survivor once told me this about what Larry did—and I asked her permission to share it anonymously—she said, “Everything else was so messed up, that this seemed trivial.” I mean, can you imagine? We were dealing with so much already, that being abused was just one more thing. Larry being incarcerated? That’s one battle won, that’s not the war.

Someone like Larry will always prevail in a system like that.

Inside: Can USA Gymnastics successfully make that shift? Should they survive?

Alyssa: Honestly, I’d be in favor of dissolving. I am more and more leaning toward that. At this point, I think we need to wipe the slate clean, Create a whole new structure. I can’t say I see anything worth saving, necessarily, except that it would come at the cost of these new, young girls coming up. They’re really afraid right now.

I get it. I feel for the girls in it right now. I can’t imagine training in this kind of upheaval. I would have said the same things they are.

There’s a bigger picture at play that we’re trying to fix. I work with kids every day, and I can’t even imagine saying some of the things that were said to me as an elite gymnast. Working with kids is too big a responsibility to allow the status quo.

Inside: Who do you think can lead that charge?

Alyssa: Maybe it should be a survivor, or at least someone who understands. But they’ve got to have a lot of tools besides gymnastics knowledge. Whoever it is needs to listen to survivors. That is vital. Crucial. It cannot be business as usual. It can’t be wait-until-this-dies-down and just resume, which I think is the fervent hope by many.

So much needs to be done, and one person can’t do it. I think there needs to be an independent group, outside of USA Gymnastics, and not SafeSport, that investigates all our sport’s issues. Not just sexual abuse, but emotionally abusive coaching, eating disorders… Some group that can continue to offer support and education on these issues, continuously, moving forward.

We should be making sportsmanship our No. 1 priority.

I do think it will all come back to the coaches. If we continue to have this same small clique that helps each other out to perpetuate their own positions, nothing will change. I’ve seen coaches call each other when a gymnast wants to leave, saying, “Don’t take them.” I’ve seen them call colleges and say, “This one is a problem, don’t give them a scholarship.” Even if those calls aren’t heeded, what message does that send to the girls who stayed? It says never leave, or I’ll [ruin] you. They’ll do anything not to get on a coach’s bad side.

We should be making sportsmanship our No. 1 priority. Coaches need to cultivate that, but, instead, they’ve forgotten about it in their mad dash for glory. It’s not all of them, but that behavior is rewarded. And what is condoned continues.

Alyssa Beckerman during her time representing UCLA.

There are no penalties for bad sportsmanship amongst coaches. These adults say these horrible things about survivors on social media, and they’re still elevated. Kerry Perry came in with zero knowledge about gymnastics and I won’t say any names, but the people that were influencing her, well, it was a small circle; The old guard acting like the victims are just [PR] problems.

This isn’t new. I remember when [the Joan Ryan book] Little Girls in Pretty Boxes came out. It was the same people freaking out, saying the same things about the girls who spoke out, making the same excuses.

You know how you send kids into another room to think about what they’ve done? That’s what all those people need. They need a time out from gymnastics. They need to think about what they’ve done for a long time.

My Olympic experience was horrible. I don’t tell anybody I went to Sydney. If they find out on their own and say something like, “That must have been amazing,” I just reply, “Yeah, it was great.” I lie because the truth is complicated, and most people don’t want to hear it.

The year after Sydney, I sat at a table with new National Team members as part of this mentoring program USAG started, and I asked these really blunt questions like, “Are they feeding you?” I was never asked back.

If you never learn to speak out, age doesn’t matter. We need to nurture our gymnasts so that they become strong women that speak for themselves.

I left the sport thinking nothing would ever change, but now I have some hope.

The structure needs to be changed completely so obedience isn’t the desired outcome. That doesn’t develop young women, it develops silent children. And that goes for gymnasts who are 19, 20, 21, as well as 14. If you never learn to speak out, age doesn’t matter. We need to nurture our gymnasts so that they become strong women that speak for themselves.

Whoever [leads] has to be listening to victims, to our sport’s veterans. Survivors need to have a bigger role. They need to have their say, and not just on CSPAN, but inside the sport’s power structure. They need to be incorporated into a new culture. They’re not victims anymore, they’re our leaders, taking the sport to a better place. They should be celebrated as heroes. They’re heroes to me!

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.