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Environment ‘I’ve hidden all my gymnastics trophies away’ – five ex-gymnasts tell their troubling stories
“I’ve put all my medals and trophies away because I can’t actually look at them, because gymnastics reminds me of a bad time.”
BBC Sport is sitting down with five former gymnasts – Sophie Jameson, Olivia Williams, Abbie Caig, Georgina Clements and Amber Leyland have agreed to tell their stories, in light of the widespread allegations of abuse that have rocked the sport in recent weeks.
This summer, Olympic dreams should have been realised. Instead, multiple claims – including from Olympians such as Becky and Ellie Downie, and Amy Tinkler – of a culture of fear across gymnastics in this country have been made by those who feel they can no longer stay silent.
They are nervous. Caig admits she nearly backed out, but all of them are united in the importance of speaking out.
“I’d suppressed the emotions and buried them away,” Caig adds. “I feel like speaking out now is going to allow me to get everything I want off my chest and I can finally move on.”
The five women, now aged from 18 to 23, trained at the City of Liverpool Gymnastics Club for differing periods between 2008 and 2019.
The club coached four of the five women who donned the Team GB leotard at the London 2012 Olympics – but behind the scenes, some gymnasts say their experiences of training at the club were a lot different to that memorable event.
“It was not a happy place, and it should have been a happy place, and a fun place,” says Caig. “It was a sport that we all loved but for me, it turned into a sport that I absolutely hated.”
Their stories are, by now, all too familiar. But in the quest for medal glory, these gymnasts blame British Gymnastics, the sport’s governing body, for prioritising success over the wellbeing of individuals.
“Maybe they turned a blind eye because of the talent,” says Jameson.
“Maybe they thought that the treatment we were given was working. It produced many champions, many Olympians, maybe British Gymnastics thought that’s the treatment they deserve.”
In a statement to BBC Sport, British Gymnastics said: “Any mistreatment of gymnasts is inexcusable. It is vital that concerns are made public, whether that is through the media or our processes.”
Since last month, UK Sport and Sport England have co-commissioned an independent review aimed at “bringing about positive change” in the sport.
A confidential helpline, run jointly by the British Athletes Commission (BAC) and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), has also been set up for British gymnasts who say they have suffered bullying or abuse.
British Gymnastics added: “We have continued to receive complaints in recent weeks which our integrity unit is assessing as quickly as possible.”
The City of Liverpool Gymnastics Club declined to provide a statement to BBC Sport but it is understood it strongly denies any allegations of bullying or mistreatment of athletes, and the gym maintains no such complaint or allegation has been made to it, and that the welfare and safety of athletes was at all times its first priority.
Liverpool City Council, which runs the gym, confirmed to the BBC that it has received eight complaints about the gym in the past five years but none related to the five women interviewed for this piece.
A spokesperson added: “Any complaints received to the city council have been dealt with in accordance with our procedures and any actions will have been taken as appropriate. Allegations of bullying or harassment are clearly a cause for concern and any submitted to the council will be investigated.”
‘I’d go home at night and just cry’
All but one of the five gymnasts BBC Sport spoke to have retired from the sport, with Williams moving to college gymnastics last year in the United States. Two are now coaches themselves.
But the impact of their experiences as gymnasts has had a long-lasting effect on all five of the women, who say they now suffer from anxiety.
“It started before you even got into the gym, as soon as you got up it was ‘right, I’m scared of going in’,” says Leyland.
Caig agrees: “I’d wake up and feel physically sick, knowing that I had to go to school, and get through that part of my day, and then go and train. To be honest, I wanted to stay in school, I’d rather have detention than go to the gym and train.
“It just wasn’t an environment you wanted to be in at all.”
To this day, Clements and Jameson both admit they still “struggle to make friends” because of their anxiety.
“I’d go home at night, close my bedroom door, and I’d just cry,” said Jameson.
“When I look back, it makes me really sad, because that’s made me the way I am today – I am so anxious.”
Clements adds: “I blocked it out of my head for years.
“It’s gone on for years, and until we’ve got older, we’ve not realised how bad it actually was, and actually looked back and thought ‘that shouldn’t have happened’.”
Many of the gymnasts who have spoken publicly since the allegations of abuse within gymnastics started to emerge in July have referred to issues with their weight.
Former British gymnast Nicole Pavier, who did not train at the City of Liverpool, previously told BBC Sport how gymnasts were sometimes weighed twice a day and weight-shamed.
Jameson says that frequent weighing throughout her gymnastics career led to the development of an eating disorder.
Gymnasts are well versed in pushing through the pain barrier in a sport which is physically tough, but all five gymnasts remember times when they felt it went too far, when they were in so much pain from injuries that they could not continue training.
On one occasion, Caig claims she was left alone on the bars while her training group was taken to another apparatus by a coach.
Caig says she struggled to complete her routine because she was “exhausted mentally, emotionally, physically” and was left with “raw and bleeding” fingertips.
She alleges she only stopped when another gymnast alerted a different coach because the bars were too slippery from Caig’s blood for her to complete her routine.
Leyland’s parents say they withdrew their daughter from the gym after she was hurt at the age of 11 while training on the beam.
“I landed awkward and I heard a click in my foot. I heard it, one of the other gymnasts next to me heard it, but I was told to carry on,” she says.
“It was up to me to ring my dad to come and pick me up and take me to the hospital, where they told me I’d broken my foot in four places.”
‘My mum feels that she failed as a parent’
All five say they struggled to tell their parents of their experiences at the time.
BBC Sport was told that parents often had no idea what their children were doing during training, that they were not usually allowed to view sessions and that glass in the doors at the Liverpool gym was often covered, or the view obscured with screens.
Most of the gymnasts only told their parents of their experiences once they had retired, while the parents of others have only heard about what their children experienced in recent weeks, since the first allegations were made public.
“My mum has been heartbroken. She has actually cried to me and says that she feels that she failed as a parent,” says Jameson.
“Our parents were probably just as manipulated as we were as gymnasts. It’s not their fault, they didn’t know what was going on, and they couldn’t watch anyway, even if they wanted to know.”
Jameson, Williams, Caig, Clements and Leyland join an ever-extending list of current and former gymnasts to speak about their experiences in the sport, including Olympic bronze medallist Tinkler and her Rio 2016 team-mates the Downie sisters.
For Williams, it was moving to an entirely different environment in the US that allowed her to find her voice.
“I moved to college gymnastics a year ago and it has taken me the whole year to get used to being coached normally and respectfully, and being able to have a voice, to learn I can express how I actually feel without being shut down or shouted at,” she says.
Caig adds: “I don’t think we realised how bad it really was. Us coming together speaking, I feel like I’ve got a lot off my chest.”