What The Hell Is USAG Even Doing?
9:12 AM EDT on March 16, 2022
Earlier this week, the Orange County Register's Scott Reid broke the news that Valeri Liukin will coach Team USA in the DTB Pokal Team Challenge and Mixed Cup international gymnastics competition. About two weeks earlier, Reid reported that Liukin was, and still is, the subject of an ongoing SafeSport investigation that was initiated after multiple former gymnasts reported suffering verbal and psychological abuse while training with Liukin at the World Olympic Gymnastics Academy in Texas, and at the Karolyi Ranch in Texas. Reid's reported also contained this detail: Liukin, while being investigated for multiple reports of abuse, was still being considered by USA Gymnastics for the role of high performance team coordinator for the U.S. women's national gymnastic team. That is the most high-profile job in all of gymnastics in the United States.
The abuse described to SafeSport, per the Register, included Liukin screaming at gymnasts, belittling them, and forcing them to run in the Texas heat while wearing sweatsuits in order to lose weight. More from the report:
“Being called fat, worthless, weak, stupid, idiot, etc. was a normal occurrence,” McKenzie Wofford, a former U.S. national team member who trained under Liukin at WOGA, wrote in a complaint filed with the U.S. Center for SafeSport. “Going into the gym, I was terrified about what was going to happen that day. While there were multiple incidents that were traumatizing.”
Liukin regularly forced gymnasts to run on a treadmill or in the Texas summer heat in sweatsuits if he deemed them overweight, even though some of the girls weighed less than 80 pounds at age 14, 15 or 16, according to SafeSport complaints and interviews.
A WOGA gymnast was allegedly forced by Liukin to work out even though she had just completed doctor-ordered bed rest after an eating disorder left her heart weak.
The Register reported that one gymnast, Megan Marenghi, said she also saw Liukin scream at his own daughter, Olympic gold medalist Nastia Liukin, and push her against a wall. Another gymnast, McKenzie Wofford, said she got sick while training at the ranch. In response, Liukin called her a baby and forced her to show the trainer her diarrhea in front of everyone.
Liukin's name might sound familiar for several reasons. He was an Olympic gold medalist for the Soviet Union in the 1980s. His daughter, Nastia, became an Olympic gold medalist herself, winning the Olympic all-around gold for the United States in 2008, and now is a gymnastics commentator for NBC. WOGA alumni include Olympians Carly Patterson and Madison Kocian, and UCLA star Katelyn Ohashi. He was once considered the obvious heir apparent to Bela and Marta Karolyi.
His name also has been brought up in the context of abuse before.
In 2006, a former gymnasts sued WOGA, as well as Liukin, saying she had been sexually abused by her coach, Chris Wagoner, while training there as a teenager. Liukin's name eventually was dropped from the lawsuit, which WOGA settled in 2008 for an undisclosed amount, per the Indianapolis Star. Wagoner pleaded guilty to sexual assault and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
In 2016, Liukin was named the new USA Gymnastics women’s national team coordinator, succeeding Marta Karolyi, as expected. He stepped down a little less than two years later—days after more than 150 women spoke at the sentencing for former national team doctor Larry Nassar, describing how Nassar sexually abused them, how coaches verbally and emotionally abused them, and how the culture of gymnastics encouraged the systemic abuse. Liukin told USA Today at the time that he wanted to "move on in a different direction." But his name came up at the sentencing, with former gymnast Mattie Larson saying Liukin was among the adults whose cruelty after she made two mistakes at the 2010 World Championships caused her to spiral into a deep depression.
"It truly bothers me that one of the adults who treated me this way, making me feel completely invisible, is the new national team coordinator Valeri Liukin. It troubles me that he is now in that position," Larson said. "And I hope, for the sake of the current and future national team members, he has changed."
Former WOGA gymnast Vanessa Atler worked with Liukin early in his coaching career, and she had a lot of positive things to say about him during her 2017 interview on the GymCastic podcast. She said Liukin improved her performance on bars, was a very nice man, and would give her a hug after every practice. But he also was obsessed with weight and had gymnasts weigh themselves three times a day.
“You’d weigh in the morning, and then you'd write down your weight. And after workouts you’d write down your weight. And then at night time ... you’d write down you weight, which is so stupid," Atler said. "Because it doesn’t mean anything. and I remember they said don't drink water because it makes you look bloated."
After she had surgery, Atler said she gained five pounds. It probably would have come off on its own once she got back to the gym. But Liukin freaked out.
(Liukin responded to the podcast in a statement to People magazine, saying, “My recollection of working with Vanessa is different and includes many positive experiences. Coaching techniques and perspectives have evolved since then, and I have grown as a coach through experience and expanding my knowledge. Today, I firmly believe an athlete’s focus should be on training smart, with increased education in the areas of balanced nutrition, fitness, healthy lifestyle and communication. This is the basis for our approach in women’s gymnastics.”)
Former WOGA gymnast Ohashi did not mention Liukin by name in her writing about the body-shaming she endured as a young teen in gymnastics. She said this to the Associated Press after Liukin stepped down in 2018:
I know he’s a lot different with the national team than he was ever with us and that’s something good to see and I think he was doing positive things with it, but I think to really create a different change and change our mentalities of "we’re not worth anything if we don’t win medals" wouldn’t have happened if he was still there. I think it’s a really good thing and something beautiful has like happened from all of this horrible tragedy and I think it’s really good to see.
According to the Register, the SafeSport investigation goes back to Jan. 27, and USAG's leadership has known about it since at least Feb. 9. Liukin did not respond to the Register's attempts to reach him for comment. USAG, in regards to the national team coordinator position, said it had "neither offered nor filled the position." Why Liukin was even being considered, after stepping down before, after what Larson and Atler and Ohashi said, after the SafeSport investigation, isn't explained.
Reid also reported that USAG was no longer considering Cecile Canqueteau-Landi, best known for coaching Simone Biles, a seven-time Olympic medalist, including four golds, and clearly one of the greatest gymnasts in history. Why Canqueteau-Landi might have been passed over isn't clear, and when asked USAG offered the same statement as before, saying the process was ongoing.
In theory, it shouldn't be this hard to find a person to lead the national gymnastics program who can do the job well (unlike Tom Forster) and doesn't bring with them a long history of child abuse (like the Karolyis). In practice, putting a non-abuser in charge seems to be beyond USAG's capabilities. That says a lot about USAG. It also says a lot about the type of people who end up vying for the top spot in gymnastics. As Spencer Barnes, the co-host of the GymCastic, said on the most recent episode: "This is just the inevitable outcome of who are the top elite coaches in the U.S."
For decades, gymnastics coaches have told gymnasts that this is what it takes. It takes competing on broken bones. It takes ignoring immense pain. It takes putting themselves in physical danger. It takes starving themselves. It takes ignoring school and friends and family and definitely never complaining about anything—because that will only lead to punishment at the gym. And those running gymnastics seem to have genuinely believed that repeating this dangerous dogma made someone an ideal coach for the sport's most elite athletes. Gymnasts across the world have, for years now, been calling this out for what it is: abuse. The problem remains is will anyone at USAG actually do anything to meaningfully break the cycle.