In the wake of the horrific USA Gymnastics serial sexual abuse scandal, a mother struggles with the decision to send her young daughter to gymnastics.
The horrific details of former USA Olympics team doctor Larry Nassar's crimes have left me, like everyone else, shocked and sickened, but I can't look away.
As a parent, I feel compelled to click on each disturbing news story and watch every anguished victim statement, delivered over the last several days by more than 150 inspiring and courageous young women. I've read persuasive editorials arguing both for and against the decertification of USA Gymnastics by the USOC. And, as I wrote to a friend last week, I feel like the scope and horror of the abuse has dampened my enthusiasm for a sport I have loved my entire life.
How could I listen to Olympic gold medalists bravely recount their stories of repeated, terrifying assault suffered at the hands of a serial abuser, and then wrestle my 4-year-old into her leotard and drive her across town to her gymnastics class? But that's just what I found myself doing on Monday.
A Lifelong Gymnastics Junkie
Although I was a decidedly untalented and unaccomplished gymnast myself, I loved watching and doing gymnastics as a child. I decorated my bedroom walls with posters of Mary Lou Retton, Betty Okino, and Tatiana Gutsu. I repeatedly watched VHS tapes of Kim Zmeskal's and Shannon Miller's best routines, and wore out a narrow strip of grass in my mother's backyard mastering the aerial (no-hands) cartwheel. I read each issue of International Gymnast magazine, cover to cover, the day it came in the mail. Upon leaving for college I had my subscription transferred to my dorm, much to my roommates' bewilderment and amusement.
My connection to the sport has continued into adulthood, as I've covered five Summer Olympics for NBC, and for four of those Games—Sydney (2000), Athens (2004), Beijing (2008) and London (2012) —I was in the arena for portions of the women's competition.
As a parent, I've enjoyed introducing my daughter to the wonders of gymnastics as both a participant and a spectator. She was barely two when I enrolled her in her first mommy-and-me tot gymnastics class (during which I was once chided by the management, much to my embarrassment, for attempting to do a glide kip on uneven bars during what was intended to be a kids-only "free play" session). Together she and I have watched and rewatched the floor routines that clinched Simone Biles and Aly Raisman the 2016 Olympic all-around gold and silver medals, respectively, and I'm happy to exempt those viewings from her daily allotment of screen time. I consider the Olympics to be not just high-quality entertainment but also a lesson in emotional intelligence. My daughter often asks me, "Are they crying in happiness?" when she sees Biles's and Raisman's joyful, tearful reactions to their results in Rio.
Gymnastics could give my daughter more than just the athletic benefits of improved flexibility, coordination, strength and concentration. It could also teach her many intangible and invaluable lessons: how to be a supportive teammate; how to be brave when learning something new; and, of particular importance for girls, how to stand proudly and un-self-consciously in a leotard, to celebrate what one's body can do instead of lamenting what it does or doesn't look like.
A Parent's Mixed Feelings
There's no way to reconcile my love for the sport, and what it could potentially offer my daughter, with the revulsion and sadness I feel about the Nassar case. When I read about his abuse, I mourn not only for the athletes, whose lives have been irrevocably damaged, but also for their parents, who must now struggle with the agony of knowing their daughters were assaulted—oftentimes in their presence—and the guilt of having been unable to protect them. And it's not just that the parents were unable to shield their children from Nassar's evil acts: in the interest of helping their daughters achieve their athletic dreams, these parents unwittingly facilitated the abuse by sending their kids directly to the monster himself, whether it be at Karolyis' ranch or at Nassar's office at Michigan State. Unfathomable. I'm not sure how a parent recovers from that.
My daughter takes a weekly class at the local "gymnastics academy," and I used to drop her off and then rush to my own gym for a run on the treadmill. But lately I hesitate before leaving her gym's premises: should I stay with the other parents, hovering in the hallway, to make sure no instructor seems to be taking a special interest in my child? For now, with reservations, I go. I can't let USA Gymnastics' spectacular, decades-long failure prevent me from trusting our local gym with my child's well-being for an hour a week. If I lost faith in all institutions to protect my daughter, I'd never let her leave the house.
I may have to reevaluate in several years, if my child has the opportunity to travel for competitions (in any sport) where she might have to stay overnight in a hotel. Would she be supervised only by coaches, or would parents or other chaperones be present? I suppose it will be a judgment call based on the trust I've developed in the adults in charge.
But for this week, I feel that the benefits of gymnastics trump the sickening failures of the sport's leaders. Gymnastics is fun! Flipping or flying through the air is a wonderful feeling, and I don't want to deprive my daughter of that experience because USA Gymnastics, in its criminal negligence, allowed a monstrous child abuser to ravage young lives unchecked for decades.
Nassar is going to prison for the rest of his life. And this week, at least, my kid is going to gymnastics.