By Patricia Duffy
Fans and followers of elite gymnastics in the United States may not be familiar with Tom Forster, but USA Gymnastics’ new Women’s High-Performance Team Coordinator is ready to lead the program into a new era with some unorthodox methods compared to his predecessors.
Feature Photo Courtesy USA Gymnastics
The first thing many followers of USA Gymnastics thought when they heard the news that Tom Forster had been named the U.S. Women’s National Team High-Performance Coordinator (replacing the National Team Coordinator position) was, “who is that?”
When compared to the other rumored candidates for the position—Mihai Brestyan being a popular one—Forster is relatively unknown, despite being the owner of Aerials Gymnastics (aka Colorado Aerials) and a member of the elite development national staff since 2010, most recently serving as the interim elite development program director in February 2018.
Despite the initial “who’s that?” reaction from many when followers were seemingly expecting someone else, Forster is well-known and well-respected by many coaches and athletes in the gymnastics community. He has coached athletes who were members of the national team and served as a coach at international competitions, including Pan American Games and World Championships. Forster is also a regular speaker at USAG’s own National Congress and Trade Show. At home in Colorado Springs, Colo., Forster and wife, Lori, have owned and operated Aerials Gymnastics since 1982.
One of Forster’s former gymnasts Maddie Larson, a Texas Dreams gymnast training elite, shared her excitement for her former coach over Instagram saying, “Sooo proud of my guy!! So so excited for you, Tom! I am so happy for you, and I can’t wait to see what my future and the future for all of us girls looks like with you leading the way.”
While this pick by USAG is exciting for some, others are skeptical. Jennifer Eisenbart tweeted saying, “I hope we have a chance to hear from Forster’s numerous former elites.” In a poll Inside Gymnastics published asking fans and followers their thoughts on the hiring, 70 percent of over 100 voters thus far selected “Not sure yet.” (You can vote in that poll here.)
Forster himself seemed humble yet confident in his abilities today during a media conference call in which he and USAG CEO & President Kerry Perry officially announced and discussed the hiring. The conversation—communicated in its entirety below—covered everything from coaching style to thoughts on transparency and what lies ahead in the immediate future and beyond for USAG:
Tom Forster (Women’s High-Performance Director): “I’m humbled and excited for the opportunity to lead the elite community in a forward, positive direction. It’s a really exciting time, and yet we have some challenges ahead. But I’m excited to tackle those. Really fortunate that have a relationship with all the coaches that are on the team right now. I’ve been helping them for the last six years through the elite development system. It’s gonna be great. I think it’s going to be very good.”
Question: Could you describe what you view as a healthy, constructive relationship with young, female gymnasts? And how, in your experience, do you go about building that?
Forster: “Well, the atmosphere is going to be about open communication, and the athletes have to feel supported and that they have the right to speak about issues and concerns that they have. And that they would know that, by voicing them, there will be no retaliation with whatever complaints or concerns that they have. That will be the first thing.”
“I’ve been coaching at my own gymnastics club for 35 years. There are a couple of different coaching styles, and my style is to try to inspire and motivate athletes using positive reinforcement versus negative reinforcement. My whole goal has always been that, when the gymnasts walk away from their experience at my club, that they would say what a great experience that was. I want the exact same environment for our elite athletes.”
Q: How do you envision running this position compared to the past coordinators?
Forster: “We’re still going to have all the selection camps, just like America’s always had, trying to qualify to the big competitions: the Pan American Games, the World Championships, the Olympics, etc., so that still will take place. I think that the primary difference is my role has always been more about education as opposed to selection, and I think that’s what I’m going to bring to the position. Just coordinating all the moving parts required for us to move forward: the judging community, the athletes, the coaches, the administration. Just coordinating everybody together in a positive way, so that we’re on the same page and people feel heard. I want to bring the opportunity still, at all the selection camps; that we’re still learning things… Because that’s one of the things that makes gymnastics exciting. You can still learn things, and sometimes, in the past, athletes [haven’t gotten] that opportunity, and they’re just stuck doing the same things over and over again is what it feels like. So the challenge is trying to get rid of that feeling and make it exciting and fun.”
Q: You said that you want to lead by inspiration not intimidation. How are you going to measure success? Do you have any specific goals from the start?
Forster: “One of the goals that I have right off the bat is that I want to create an avenue for athletes to anonymously complain about concerns or anything they have, be it about me or anything going on, so that they truly feel heard. I’ll express that to them at every one of the training camps, at every selection camp; that their voice matters, and that they have the right to speak up. The whole purpose of the coordinator’s job and the national staff is simply to support them in their quest and for their dream. That’s our role. That’s our sole purpose, is to support them, and I’m going to communicate that every opportunity I have.”
Q: Why do you want this job?
Forster: “I want the job because the role is solely about leadership, and I believe that I am a positive leader. I’ve tried to demonstrate that through my whole career, and yet, the leader has to have the respect of the gymnastics community and the United States. I feel I fulfill that role too, at least that’s what coaches have told me, and I see the role solely as a coordinator that has to pull everybody together to get everybody working together. I’m well suited for that particular role.”
“The last time I had an athlete on the national team was 2001 (Natalie Foley), Martha Karolyi’s first year as the coordinator, and I didn’t have an athlete since then. I got asked to be on the staff in 2010, and my role on the staff was never with the national team. It’s always been with the development stages. New coaches. When they’re brand new; they haven’t qualified under the national team yet. I’m part of our entire women’s elite program, but I haven’t been a part of the national team program for quite a while.”
Kerry Perry (CEO & President): “Let me follow up on that. As I mentioned in the opening statement, one of the really important criteria that we look at is to consider—not just the individual that has the respect and the technical skills—but also has a collaborative and an ability to [create] a culture, if you will, as we’re transforming. Tom has demonstrated, over many many years, not only in his own gym but throughout the gymnastics community, [that] he is that unique leader, at this time, in this organization, that can bring forward all of the things that we need and align with our culture in a way that gives coaches, athletes, our organization, that important role of empowering and making sure everybody understands that their voice is important. That is critical to our future. Tom mentioned one of the things that he also mentioned in the interview process. That is: how do we approach our athletes, the coaches, everybody within the organization and make sure that they know and feel that they can speak up. That they should speak up. And that their comments are invaluable in our path forward. He talked about some of that just now, but I will say that, in support of Tom and our path forward, he is really somebody who can align and lead a very, very important group in the women’s program in a way that we specifically anticipated and looked for in a candidate of this nature.”
Q: Are the recent changes in policies in regard to training camps and selection processes going to continue?
Forster: “There’s a bit of a challenge in that. We definitely want to be as transparent as possible, but I get a little nervous about showing the rest of the world what we’re doing. From a strategic point, it’s a little precarious, but I can’t really worry about that now, just the environment that we’re in. We’ve got to be transparent, and we’re going to be.”
Leslie King (USAG Vice President of Communications): “Tom doesn’t officially start until July 1, so we haven’t sat down and talked about it, but our plans are to continue to make available what we can. Sometimes it’s not possible, but if nothing else, to provide imagery from selection camps. Similar to what we did last year. We have to get Tom and Annie [Heffernon, the Interim Vice President of the women’s program] and everybody together and really plot out, once we know where we’re going to be, what’s possible and what we can do.”
Q: What can you tell us about the selection process under your watch? How will that be different, and what role will you play?
Forster: “There are set regulations and job descriptions. I don’t have a say. This is the role of the person in the coordinator position, and I’m going to meet those. I don’t get to change those. But what I bring to it is my personality and relationships that I have with the athletes and the coaches. The role itself is still the same. The emphasis and the style of leadership will be, obviously, a little different.
Q:Is there an update on the search for a new national team training facility? Until there is one, will camps continue to be held in different locations at different gyms?
Perry: “We are in the process, right now, of determining where the interim training facility [will be]. We’re getting ready to finalize that, and we’ll make an announcement on that [in the] very near future, for the national team. We are presently looking at issuing what’s called “request for proposal” for the permanent site. We put out a request for information a little while back to really understand what the market would bear and what the excitement around this facility would be, and our permanent facility is much greater than just a training center. It’s a wellness center. It will host some of our congresses. We’ll have education opportunities. We want to look at competitions, adding those. And so those responses were very encouraging. We had a lot of interest, and now we’re in the stage of formally putting out that request for proposal. You’ll continue to hear more, as we go down this path, about that.
Q: Thinking ahead to Tokyo—obviously there’s only two years, we’re halfway through the quad—how do you see this program having evolved? What do you see/want the atmosphere to be like around this program by the time we get to Tokyo?
Forster: “The atmosphere—what I’m hoping it’s going to be—we should see higher numbers of participants in the Olympic Trials. Of course, there are many factors that determine that. Girls that decide to pass and go on to their collegiate careers. Injuries. Those kinds of things—the number of participants—I think, can be, it isn’t always, but it can be kind of a test of the culture. Again, injuries play a part in that. Girls deciding to go to college can impact that. My hope is we’re going to have higher numbers of girls that participate because the environment is fun, it’s exciting, it’s positive. They feel empowered, meaning that they have a voice, so they’re excited to stay and participate in it.
Q: Kerry, do you foresee a time, when the issues [currently facing USA Gymnastics] are settled, that you will be fielding questions and speaking more deeply, more specifically, to the victims, to the victims families and future gymnast’s families that want to get involved in this sport? Is there going to be a time when we’ll be able to speak with you about this very difficult chapter for so many gymnasts and USA Gymnastics?
Perry: “You all may not be aware of this, but I have crisscrossed the country and spoken to many athletes, including survivors, of abuse, and that’s an ongoing commitment that I had from day one and will be continued throughout my career with USA Gymnastics. I want you to know that. My vision—you may or may not know this—is that as we move forward, through resolution, which I’ve made very public, we are focused on resolution with all of these different cases. I want to see USA Gymnastics side-by-side with our survivors and [them] helping us to make the kinds of changes and differences in the organization that I think will really transform us to such a level that we become the standard-bearer for change—for any organization that has faced these kinds of challenges. That is really near and dear to my heart. I look forward to that day, and I will, every single day, make sure those voices, of all of the survivors, all of our current and past athletes, are constantly heard through everything we do.”
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Patricia Duffy is the New Media & Marketing Manager at Inside Publications, LLC. Duffy is a graduate of the University of Georgia (A.B.J. ’17), where she majored in journalism with a sports media certificate and minor in sports management. When she’s not tweeting about her love for Simone Biles’ dog, Duffy enjoys watching Parks and Rec, frequent visits to the Costco food court and reading about recipes she should, but probably won’t, try.