Former USA Gymnastics president Kerry Perry
When USA Gymnastics named Mary Lee Tracy the new elite development coordinator last week, Becca Feldman, who has been actively following developments with the Larry Nassar fallout and how the governing bodies are handling it moving forward, asked if she could write an op ed for The Gymternet.
“Of course!” I said. She got to work, combining her own thoughts and feelings while also speaking to Alyssa Beckerman, the 2000 Olympic alternate who trained with Tracy at Cincinnati Gymnastics, about what it would mean for the culture of the sport if Tracy took over.
But before she could finish, Tracy’s tenure was over, and a day later, so was USA Gymnastics president Kerry Perry’s.
What went down in that 48 hour period between Tracy being appointed to the position and then being forced to resign? Well, a lot of people spoke out against her getting the job, including Aly Raisman, who called it “a slap in the face for survivors” and said USA Gymnastics was showing “no willingness to learn from the past.” Tracy was offended by the criticism and reportedly reached out to Raisman to make amends (but not before accusing her of cyberbullying), Perry told her to resign or she’d be removed from the position for “inappropriately reaching out” to a survivor (though Raisman says Tracy never contacted her), Tracy announced her resignation on Facebook (but then took it back an hour later), elite coaches (who ignored Perry’s incompetencies for nine months but were finally inspired to act when their friend MLT was wronged) called for Perry’s removal, and late Monday night, the OC Register reported that Perry was done.
As an elite coach with 30 years of experience, Tracy was well-known in the gymnastics community for her abusive ‘old school’ coaching tactics, perpetuating a culture of submission and fear in the gym, creating athletes who would be too afraid to challenge or question her or other adults in the sport and beyond.
This culture, also prevalent throughout many other elite gyms in the country as well as in the Karolyis’ national team training center, put medals and winning above the safety and well-being of the athletes. Gymnasts won gold medals, but at what cost? Suffering through eating disorders to stay thin enough, training and competing with broken bones to keep from being blacklisted, and being sexually assaulted on a regular basis under the guise of treatment were all results of the elite gymnastics culture in the U.S., with Tracy a leading figure in this world.
Worst of all, Tracy publicly and proudly defended Larry Nassar when accusations against him first surfaced in 2016. I’ll never forget the aftermath of Jamie Dantzscher coming forward: Nassar simply posted a photo of his daughter, who was diagnosed with autism and was often the face of awareness meets at Michigan State and the University of Michigan, and hundreds of people responded to his post with their support, Tracy included.
I almost get it. If my father or brother or friend of 20+ years was accused of assaulting a teenage girl over a decade ago, I’d be shocked and horrified, and even if there was concrete evidence that it happened and even if I believed the victim without a doubt, I’d still be in disbelief, unable to comprehend that a person I loved and respected could do something so horrible.
After several months during which over 50 women made accusations against Nassar followed by the FBI discovering child pornography on his computers, most of his early supporters dropped like flies, but Tracy was still there, hanging on to her experiences with him as proof that he couldn’t be a bad guy, as if the dozens of other terrible experiences with him weren’t valid simply because she never saw it.
“My Olympians have all worked with Larry,” Tracy said in December of that year. “We were all defending him because he has helped so many kids in their careers. He has protected them, taken care of them, worked with me, and worked with their parents. He’s been amazing.”
A lot has happened since then. Now over 400 victims of Nassar’s sexual abuse have come forward, including two of Tracy’s own athletes, despite her claims that none of her gymnasts were affected. Morgan White, a member of the 2000 Olympic team who was forced to withdraw after suffering an injury in Sydney, came forward earlier this summer, and just yesterday, Amanda Jetter, a member of the national team from 2008-2012 who also competed for the University of Alabama, tweeted that she too was assaulted.
No one really stands up for Nassar anymore, save for his own attorney, but although Tracy now claims to have been fooled by him “just as his victims were” and although she no longer publicly makes excuses for him or celebrates him as an amazing doctor, she has instead moved on to trying to discredit his victims, which is just as problematic as voicing her support.
Tracy and other club coaches continue to routinely post on social media — both publicly and in closed groups — about how people like Aly Raisman are “trying to ruin the sport.” Tracy and Kelli Hill, who is currently on the international elite committee, publicly called Raisman a liar when Raisman detailed her negative experiences at the ranch. Another coach posted a link to Raisman’s net worth — estimated at two million dollars — and the comments on this post, mostly from other coaches, suggest money is her true motivation for “staying relevant.” And a question posed in one of these groups asks “how do we fight the negative publicity of #MeToo, Aly Raisman, Nancy Hogshead-Makar, and Rachael Denhollander?” as if they’re the problem.
But they’re not the problem. These coaches — including Tracy — are the problem, and they don’t get it. At all.
After two years of gymnasts and athletes from dozens of other sports coming forward and using their voices to affect positive change, after two years of learning why it’s important to amplify rather than stifle the voices and opinions of girls and young women, these coaches still demand silence because the mental and physical health of their athletes still matters less to them than their own reputations.
That’s all it comes down to. These coaches have built lengthy, prestigious, and prosperous careers on the backs of children, and instead of protecting or supporting them and putting their safety and well-being above all, they’re concerned instead with how they and the sport are viewed in the public eye, and why? Not because they care about gymnasts or the sport. It’s because they care only about themselves.
There are plenty of club and elite coaches in the U.S. and around the world who don’t rely on abusive, psychologically-destructive, or fear-based tactics who have reached the pinnacle of success with their athletes, proving that positive coaching not only works, but that athletes thrive when they’re treated right. We’ve seen how much better things can be when gymnasts are happy and healthy, and anyone who cares about the future of gymnastics should be listening intently to the Nassar survivors and any other athletes speaking up about everything from poor conditions to outright abuse. The best people to change the sport are the ones who experienced what needs to change.
But Tracy won’t listen to the survivors, she won’t listen to her former gymnasts who find her unfit to be in a position at the developmental level, and she won’t listen to the community at large when they question her comments about Nassar, deleting comments on her Facebook if they skew at all negatively towards her and the things she’s said, and this is why USA Gymnastics never should have considered her for a role, let alone handed her a job focused on the development of young athletes.
“Can you change the culture of an elite athletics program by relying on those who contributed and defended that culture?” This is what Becca Feldman asked when she began her op ed about Tracy’s hire.
“In the wake of the biggest sexual abuse scandal in the history of athletics, USA Gymnastics commissioned a report by former federal prosecutor Deborah Daniels that concluded the organization ‘needs to undergo a complete cultural change, permeating the entire organization and communicated to the field in all its actions,’ and for an organization attempting to undergo such fundamental changes, [the appointment of Tracy as the new women’s elite development coordinator] puzzled many in the community,” Feldman wrote.
With then-president Kerry Perry pushing buzzwords — empowering, empowerment, empowered, culture of empowerment — through “cookie cutter statements” promising that the organization is “creating an empowered environment where athletes are free to speak out about any issues they have with the program,” bringing Tracy in seemed to contradict everything this “new culture” would stand for.
When Feldman spoke to Alyssa Beckerman, she said the environment Tracy created in her gym was “toxic and competitive,” and questions whether someone with Tracy’s past would be able to evolve to coach in the cultural environment recommended by the Daniels report. “The rules were not to speak unless asked to. If you spoke without prompting, you were considered deviant, disrespectful.”
For Tracy, speaking up is a weakness, not a strength. In response to people who question her ability to change, her ability to fit this new culture, and her ability to do her job, she deleted comments and and accused everyone of speaking out — including Raisman — of being “cyberbullies.”
In a frantic and opinionated post-Nassar community, I try to be a voice of reason. As a survivor of sexual assault, I recognize the importance of moving forward in the healing process but I also know that this can’t be accomplished without understanding and coming to terms with what has happened. I push for change but accept that it’s not going to happen overnight. I was never an advocate for “burning it all down,” and despite being consistently disappointed, I am always rooting for USA Gymnastics to at some point do the right thing so that the current generation of athletes can put the focus back on competing (albeit in an environment that is healthy and supportive rather than toxic and dangerous). I want to give people the benefit of the doubt, I know people can change, and I hope for the best from everyone, even if they have let us down before.
When Tracy was named the new developmental coach for the women’s program, I was one of the few who thought, “well, she has a questionable past, but she has also spent the past two years learning why things need to change,” and I hoped with all of my heart that she was one of the people who was working to learn from mistakes to make this a better sport.
But her reaction to criticism shows that she hasn’t changed, not one bit, and that her continued refusal to listen to athletes and make their voices, their safety, and their lives the priority above her reputation proves that she can’t be trusted with the care of the young athletes — generally between the ages of eight and twelve — who attend the developmental camps. Frankly, I don’t know how she was hired to begin with, but this is USA Gymnastics we’re talking about, so the fact that they either didn’t do their due diligence or just straight-up ignored her history really shouldn’t surprise me.
I do like that Perry was quick to listen to survivors and others in the community who questioned Tracy’s hiring, and I think that those running the women’s program are actively trying to fix a seemingly impossibly broken system in a sport they love and want to see move forward, but the fact that Tracy was hired in the first place shows that the people in charge don’t know what they’re doing, and beyond Perry’s resignation, there’s still so much that needs to be done.
After the dumpster fire of incompetence displayed by USA Gymnastics over the past week, however, I no longer have any confidence that this can be done without totally and utterly dismantling the system. In all of my patience and understanding and hope for change over the past two years, we have yet to see any actionable learning or any real results.
Yesterday, Raisman tweeted her thoughts about USA Gymnastics’ statement concerning Perry’s resignation, quoting the “definition of insanity” in response to the governing body’s search for yet another new leader.
“Before we get excited about new leadership, we need to be sure they won’t be selected, approved, hired, and/or supervised by the old guard, who — inexplicably — are intent on preserving the same culture that led us into the ugliest, most dangerous era in the sport’s history,” she wrote, and she’s right. The old guard hasn’t ever gotten it right, and putting the future in their hands yet again is the wrong choice, one that will result in more incompetence, more dysfunction, and more failure.
It’s time to start over.
Article by Lauren Hopkins and Becca Feldman