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 Courtesy Kathy Johnson-Clarke

Inside asks prominent voices in the sport to share their ideas for moving forward.

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 Kathy Johnson-Clarke about what she thinks the future of the sport should look like…

The team captain of the silver medal-winning 1984 U.S. Olympic team, Kathy Johnson-Clarke has spent a lifetime in the sport. Following a competitive career that spanned nearly a decade, at a time when such longevity was unheard of, Johnson-Clarke moved into TV commentary, where she was a longtime fixture on ABC and now regularly calls NCAA gymnastics meets for ESPN and the SEC Network. In addition to covering the sport, Johnson-Clarke is committed to improving it as an outspoken advocate and tireless volunteer for organizations that include Athletes for a Better World, the Foundation for Global Sports Development and Justice for Athletes.

Johnson-Clarke has been candid about her own experiences during her gymnastics career, including emotionally abusive coaching and disordered eating; she has been a sounding board for gymnasts from across the eras, yet, through it all, she’s maintained a singular passion for the sport she loves, while refusing to ignore its systemic issues.

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

Kathy Johnson-Clarke: First off, I understand the anguish. For decades, I’ve done everything short of lighting myself on fire trying to alert those in power to the issues in the sport. Inevitably, whenever anything comes out, the knee-jerk reaction by far too many at the top is that everyone is overreacting–that these abuse stories are outliers or a single bad actor. That just getting rid of Larry Nassar or Marvin Sharp or Don Peters, fixes everything–instead of asking themselves how it is they hide in plain sight for decades.

This is my frustration. I’ve cried for communication between USA Gymnastics and the victims. I’ve gone to every [connection] I have and begged for it. We can’t move forward without that. Period. I promise if you listen to their stories, as painful as that is, you’ll see all the red flags. You’ll see where it went wrong, and what safety rules need to be put into place.

There are a lot of things we need to do, but it starts with mea culpa (an acknowledgment of one’s fault or error). We have to acknowledge the culture we have created. Even if abuse doesn’t happen–and it doesn’t happen to most gymnasts, but if it happens to one, that’s too many–the way we coach young athletes is confusing. In our community we’ve got coaches who are married to former athletes. I don’t want to damn those relationships, but moving forward we have to have very, very brightly lined rules. Coaches should never have any type of intimate or romantic relationship with any athlete, regardless of age.

I once went to a summer camp to see whether a new coach would be a good fit for me. This coach was engaged to one of his gymnasts. It was this romantic story to me at the time. I remember thinking, “Wow, she must really be special.” That’s how we normalize things.

As an adult we look at things with our adult brains, but we need to be looking at them like we’re 12, 13, 14 and, let’s be honest, as gymnasts, even when we’re 17 or 18, most of us are much less socially developed than [average] teens. So, you see these relationships, and they seem normal, and you internalize it. They got married, they had a family–it must be OK. I guarantee you if you talk to gymnasts my age, every one of them know someone who had some sort of romantic relationship with a coach. We need to stop ignoring that existed and that many of those people are still in the sport today. We don’t need to condemn those long-term relationships, but we need to acknowledge them and, going forward, it can’t be allowed or accepted, ever.

We need to be keeping track of things, looking for patterns. Not just the things that are reportable crimes, but also the things that, “just don’t seem right.” Those need to go into a database that the next gym can see before they hire someone. Doing this is USA Gymnastics’ biggest fear. They say, “We can’t make rules to better protect children because we might get sued.” My answer to that is… You’re in the business of working with children and the most important thing is to make sure the child is OK. When you hear that they got these reports and they put them in a file and did nothing. That they’d have two, three or more letters describing creepy behavior, grooming behavior… and they just ignored it because they didn’t get a signed letter from a victim… Who, news alert, is the last person you’re going to hear from? Because they’re traumatized, they’re ashamed. Ask how you’d feel if that person hurt your child? After they knew. After they’d been warned. You put it in a file? For fear of liability? What is wrong with you!?

The bottom line when working with children is that you protect them, first and foremost. Any action must err on the side of the child. It’s a lot easier to fix the reputation of an adult, to restore that, then to fix a broken child.

You talk to these victims, take them back to these memories etched into their brains by trauma, and they tell you, “There’s no way in the world an adult didn’t suspect, didn’t have a wait-that’s-weird moment.” That’s why we have to stress to parents, to gym owners, to coaches, to the janitors… everybody has to be educated. Everybody has to be a reporter. If it’s nothing, that’s what an investigation is for: to figure it out. I’d rather investigate “nothing” 100 times than let one child’s abuse be ignored.

There is no conversation to be had until someone acknowledges the wrong they’ve done. I have two coaches on the banned list and know that abusive coaching leads to sexual abuse. If I let you verbally abuse me, believing that this is how I become great, and other people are seeing it, it’s all normalized. I mean, it’s almost like a badge of honor–look what I can endure.

One of my coaches, Bill Sands, used to say: Is this an injury or an owie? There’s a big difference. Some of these things you can push through, but coaches need to learn the difference.

And gymnasts need to learn to speak up–to know that they have a voice in their training, and they must use it. But that’s not just going to happen by saying the words. You have to nurture that. To teach them they have the power. A great coach will push you to your limit but not beyond.

U.S. Olympic medalists Kathy Johnson Clarke and Bart Conner will provide analysis throughout ESPNU’s coverage of the 2016 NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships. (ESPN)

You have to understand the mentality of an elite athlete. It’s really hard to say, “I can’t.” You never want to look weak or incapable, and you sure as heck don’t want to show either. That’s where the danger lies–where coaches can take advantage of that determination. You’ve got these unusually talented kids that are extraordinarily resilient athletes with big dreams who are willing to do anything and everything to achieve them. If, as a coach, you abuse that, the fault is yours. Coaches know when athletes are close to that threshold–I guarantee they do–and that’s when they have to ask, because most elite athletes won’t complain. Sometimes all it takes is a conversation for those floodgates to open. Coaches that don’t have those conversations–who don’t want to know–that’s abuse. A kid needs to understand that their coach cares about them, that they’re in this together.

What I would like to see happen is to create an awareness and education program–created by an expert in child safety not a gymnastics person–that every coach, club owner and gym employee must take and pass to be certified. Education has to be ongoing and offered to every parent and gymnast, too. Certification that shows every employee in that building has passed, not just a criminal background check, but cleared a database for other behaviors that have been flagged. Every club that does that needs to have a banner on the wall that says this is a safe club, or whatever, with a giant hotline number so that anyone who sees something can call and report it immediately and anonymously. Underneath should be a poster with the basic rules of what is and isn’t OK, so people know if what they’re looking at is something that shouldn’t be happening. And, most importantly, that hotline cannot be manned by gymnastics people. Stop hiring from within for positions that require experts and impartiality! It can’t work if you call the number and say, “Hi, I want to report this coach,” and the [person] who answers is that coach’s friend. It’s just insanity.

Inside: Can USA Gymnastics, as an organization, make those changes? Should they survive?

Kathy: There are still far too many people that believe Larry Nassar was our only issue. This is just not true. And to start questioning people for speaking up, speaking out? It’s horrifying. When will we understand that you do not have to personally witness sexual abuse to believe it happened?

You won’t ever hear me say one negative word about those that suffered abuse, and they have my 100% support. I want them to continue to use their voices as we move foreword to try and create a better place for the next generation. Because there are little boys and girls out there dreaming the same dreams that we dreamed. That’s the only thing that hasn’t changed.

At some point, we have to allow people to learn and join the fight for better or we’re going to lose the sport. But they have to want to change. To believe. To listen.

I understand that we haven’t seen that yet. We haven’t even seen the acknowledgment, in most cases, that anything was done wrong. The most important thing to understand about the justified outrage is that it was mostly preventable. Even when USAG did not take action, even after it became a huge media thing, the survivors did not immediately start speaking out. USAG had ample time to do the right thing, and they allowed their fear of liability and bad press to keep them from doing the right thing. That was an utter, total failure.

We’ve got to find something we can all buy into. We have to all, as a community, be on board as to how we build something better. We’ve gotten used to winning and I don’t think people want to lose that, but we also have had enough traumas that we need to recognize that some things are just not acceptable, period.

But I also want to say… It wasn’t all bad. I think we could do it differently, do it better, but we don’t need to throw everything away. When you train like we have trained women in the U.S.—overtrained, actually—you believe that unless you do it that way, you won’t succeed. And everyone bought into it, because it worked. But that’s only true if you looked at the ones on the [medal] stand.

We need to talk about the ones by the side of the road–the ones who didn’t make it. Are they going to be OK? Those are the experiences we need to learn from. Most of the people aren’t going to get that big prize at the end, so we have to be very, very careful that our gymnasts are going to be OK no matter how they finish and, right now, too many of them are not.

When I [interview gymnasts] and they tell me that what they love is competition and what they hate is training, there’s something really, really wrong there. You’re in a meet, what, every few months, maybe? And the day in, day out reality of your life is training, which you say is misery? I just want to throw up my hands…Why are we doing this?

At some point, we all fall down. No matter how high you climb, there’s always a crash and we need [a National Governing Body] that can be that safety net. That can catch them when they fall. And some people are going to need a bigger net than others, but we have to be ready to catch them all. We need to get to a place where the majority of our elite athletes are able to say, “If it all ended today, I’ll be glad I did this.”

Inside: What kind of leader do you think the sport needs to make a change?

Kathy: That question is a complicated one because, so far, they’ve refused to bring in experts. They need someone who is an expert in child safety. Who is that? Well, it’s not some gymnastics person they’ve just put into a position of overseeing safety.

Stop focusing on everything through a marketing prism! This is not going away. Putting lipstick on it, trying to dress it differently… It’s not going to work.

People say, “You should do it Kathy,” and I’m like, “Are you crazy?” I have no executive experience. I have no corporate knowledge. And, while I have been on many boards, taken [many] classes and know more than a lot of people, I am not a child safety expert.

Whoever takes this position has a monumental task ahead of them and has to be able to hit the ground running. Saying someone without the expertise can do that is just naïve.

It’s like having brain cancer, but instead of using a brain surgeon, you hire a plumber ‘cause you really like their style.

Inside: How do we begin to move forward and heal?

Kathy:We can’t over simplify. We are in this unfortunate and, frankly, untenable position where people are choosing sides. Take, for instance, Bela and Martha Karolyi. They have done so many great things for the sport of gymnastics in this country, and I say that as someone who had very [negative experiences] with Bela in 1984. That having been said, they did damage to individual gymnasts, to the program, and I don’t know if they even noticed; they were so singularly focused on winning.

If we don’t talk about that damage, we can’t move forward. We can no longer turn a blind eye or a deaf ear. We have to nurture girls from a very early age that they have power, they have a voice, and they can use it anytime.

We need to have true and honest conversations, where there are no sides. That’s what I’ve tried to do. Coaches have abused me, and I’ve had wonderful coaches. Gymnastics can be both. It’s very complicated and complex and we all need to hear each other and be honest–even about people we love and care about.

We must acknowledge that this outrage is absolutely justified. That it didn’t “just happen.” It happened on their watch, and it happened because nothing was in place to protect the children you were supposed to take care of.

We can’t be afraid to remove someone. When we know a behavior is unsafe and unhealthy, whether it’s grooming behavior or just confusing, they must be removed. You can’t have confusion around children, because then when bad things happen, they don’t recognize it.

We don’t really want to hear the details about abuse, but the devil is in those details. We have to look, long and hard, and learn from it. We have to investigate every single place where an adult should have known something.

We need to listen to all the victims, and not just [those] of sexual abuse. We need people to be honest with what was negative and what worked, but that there’s a better way with less risk. No one wants to find out years later they damaged a child–it’s horrifying–but we should like the idea of continuing to damage future children even less. There is a lot going on that is, collectively, very damaging, and we need to put it all on the record and move forward.

The changes are going to be uncomfortable–and they should be—because until it’s not just lip service, we’ve learned nothing. A lot of people seem to think we’re just going to ride it out, like we always have before. Some people get mad at me, but I’m not fighting with gymnastics. I’m fighting for the kids who want to be in the sport, the parents who want to bring their kids into a gym and have them be OK. I’m fighting this battle because I love gymnastics and think it’s beautiful, and I want to save it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.