The Systemic Abuse In The US Gymnastics World
America. The land of the free and the home of the brave. We live in a country where we thrive
America. The land of the free and the home of the brave. We live in a country where we thrive on success, money, fame, and notoriety. Some of the most popular things our country has to offer- aside from financial success greater than the majority of the world has ever seen- are great entertainers, both in the acting world and the sports world. There is nothing more American than gathering around the television (or, if you’re lucky, sitting in a stadium) to watch The World Series or The Super Bowl. While the recent pandemic of coronavirus has affected us in ways not many of us saw possible- with almost all sports on hiatus for the time being- we (hopefully) will return to a world one day where the normal life of daily sporting events is back.
Aside from what we consider the most prominent forms of athletics in our country- football, baseball, and basketball- one of the other things our country gets to look forward to every two years is a form of competing on the international stage. This, of course, is the Olympics. Olympic events include figure skating, skiing, cycling, and gymnastics. While many up and coming athletes think of the Olympics as a “be all end all” dream that one can only hope to make it in, we know that where there is light there sometimes can be very dark. Think of Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. Think of Marion Jones using steroids. While these are major headline-making pieces, sometimes it’s the stories that don’t get told that are even more harrowing.
Which brings us to Katharine Lawson.
“Growing up in Virginia Beach, Virginia, I was homeschooled and a high-level competitive gymnast,” Lawson began with sharing her story of how she started in the business of trying to “make it to the top.”
“I did gymnastics from the age of 2 to age 18, and after I did gymnastics, I coached gymnastics for about eight years,” she continued. “I wanted to be an Olympic gymnast when I was younger.”
While this sounds like every normal athlete’s beginning- perfecting their craft at a young age and continuing to train to the top- Lawson had a different, darker story to tell- and, sadly, it seems she is not alone.
“One of my teammates was also Gabby Douglas, who was the Olympic all-around champion,” Lawson detailed, helping to aide in explaining the notoriety of her gym. “She made a movie and spoke out against the gym where we trained together because of racism, but that wasn’t the only type of abuse going on in the gym.”
Understandably, anything a child goes through in their formative years- and in their teenage years as well- can have an impact on the rest of their life. And, sadly, it seems this was the case for Lawson, and what she went through at the gym.
“I am 29; it’s been about 20 years, I still have difficulty talking about the things that happened to me at the gym because they are so demented and I was so young and vulnerable when they happened,” Lawson shared with us. “My coaches would regularly comment about my weight but also would talk about my breast size- the male coaches- and they would directly ask me what size my boobs were when I was about 13.”
“I have a different body type than a lot of gymnasts,” Lawson continued explaining. “I’m naturally very curvy. My boobs came in when I was 13. And all my friends were jealous. Even with the high-level athlete that I was, I was like a C cup. One of my guy coaches would always ask me about my breast size. I didn’t know how to respond… “
While this seemed suspect- as we couldn’t imagine what breast size would have to do with being a competitive gymnast- Lawson explicitly confirmed our suspicions, noting, “I think it was a sexual thing.”
“He would get a little weird when he was stretching me,” she continued. “I remember feeling awkward when he would stretch me. I remember he would stretch me, and I would feel kind of uncomfortable. And it was when I was 15. You’re stretching in a sexual position when you stretch out your splits. This is going to make me feel sick to my stomach- but I can remember him always needing to stretch me. I wasn’t really supposed to be one of the ones that were stretched because I wasn’t an Elite. He would always do these stretches… the same coach- there’s four of them there that were pretty bad- the same coach I had my friend who was a little more heavyset and every time she would land her dismount on the bars he would act like when she landed that she was so heavy that he would get shot up into the air like a seesaw kind of thing. He would tease her in front of everybody else just because she was a little bit bigger. That kind of behavior was so commonplace in this gym that nobody questioned it.”
As far as her weight being under scrutiny, Lawson told us, “They would pinch my body fat, they would point out my cellulite and things like that. I might’ve been a little overweight for their standards, but it would also cause an eating disorder. I was making myself throw up, or I was eating too much and then going in my room and crying about it.”
Lawson went on to detail how punishment was used in the class- especially if any emotion was shown whatsoever about the outright embarrassment the students were undergoing. “Anytime somebody would cry, we would have to do more push-ups or pull-ups, and would be embarrassed in front of all the children present. I would also be sent to the rope climb for 4 hour long periods where I would spend the entire time hysterically crying and shivering with anxiety that I would be yelled at again or belittled by my coaches.”
“It literally was like being in a third world country and being trained to be a soldier,” she added. “It would be comparable to being raised in the middle of Africa with nothing to eat, and you’re constantly physically challenged and constantly in fear. That’s literally how we were raised. We weren’t allowed to eat. We had to sneak food. We were training 4-7 hours a day. Sometimes they wouldn’t turn on the AC because they wanted us to sweat more. My one friend fell and broke her ankle, and she had to get up and keep going… it’s such a deep and dark abuse.”
The story of Lawson’s first day at the gym that she shared with us paints an equally disturbing picture.
“I had heard some bad things about this gym,” Lawson began explaining in regards to her first day at this gym. “I was eleven years old, and I was really scared to go in and train because I had heard so many horror stories. And that was one the first days she (my Mom) told me I had psychological problems, and I needed to get checked into a mental ward. I remember all the things she was saying, but I was eleven years old, so there was no reason I needed to be in a mental ward at 11 years old.”
Lawson was understandably upset after these comments from her Mom- who she described to us as having a relationship with akin to the movie Precious– so it makes sense she entered the gym upset.
“That day, I went into the gym on my first day, and I was hysterically crying when I walked in, and instead of asking me what was wrong, I immediately got punished for crying,” she continued detailing. “I had to run longer- like 45 minutes to an hour- I was sent over to the rope climb because if you were a crier, you weren’t allowed to be involved. I would sit on the rope climb for like four hours- for like the entire practice. It was kind of like if I came into the practice crying at all, it kind of became a regular thing that I knew that was my fate.”
Being punished to run more or go to the rope climb wasn’t the only abuse Lawson endured at the gym, though. She went on to explain that, “Many times I was forced to train on sprained ankles when I was sick with the flu, or strep throat. It wasn’t just the experience with me; this was the experience with all of my teammates.”
It seemed the abuse didn’t end in a one-on-one manner, but rather Lawson became slammed with an offensive moniker that only further perpetuated the abuse she was enduring.
“I was known around the gym as the ‘cry baby,’ but this bullying wasn’t initiated by the young children I trained with, it initiated with the coaches who regularly called me that,” Lawson revealed. “I would come into the gym crying because my mother was abusive at home, and they would continue the abuse and bullying in my training.”
Understandably, Lawson’s mental health began to be affected in a very detrimental manner. “I was suicidal by age 12,” she confessed to us. “ It was throughout my entire childhood. I would never actually attempt it, I just would think about it a lot, and I really didn’t have a lot of reasons to go on.“
“Of all my friends that I trained with growing up- I only know of one who didn’t need to go to therapy or who doesn’t struggle to this day with severe anxiety, depression, body image issues, or PTSD from our training,” Lawson further added, explaining that she was not the only victim at her gym.
When hearing Lawson’s story, it’s an obvious thing to ponder why she didn’t quit and walk away from the gym if it was giving her this much-added stress and abuse in her already turbulent life.
“I wasn’t allowed to quit even though I wanted to,” Lawson explained to us. “I was really good at it when I was younger… that’s actually the circumstances with a lot of young gymnasts. I don’t know what it is about the Mom or the Dad drilling it into them. It was especially hard for me because I wasn’t flourishing, and I was also not allowed to quit.”