Ashton Kim, with Kim Zmeskal-Burdette looking on
When Ashton Kim, a former elite-level gymnast who trained at Texas Dreams for ten years, posted her story about the abuse she endured at the gym, I was shocked. And I wasn’t.
For years, gym fans have speculated about the goings-on at Texas Dreams. I get questions about their high injury rate for “You Asked, The Gymternet Answered” every other month. I remember feeling like something was shady back when we saw young gymnasts who went through podium training mysteriously not compete the next day at national-level competitions. I saw Ragan Smith in a boot for a year and was like, this is not normal.
But I’d never heard stories about abusive behavior, and if anything the good that I witnessed outweighed any of the negatives I speculated over, but couldn’t confirm. I saw Chris Burdette give a heartwarming little pep talk to Nica Hults after she had multiple falls on bars in the elite qualifier at the WOGA Classic in 2011, and then watched her go on to absolutely kill it on beam. I heard Kim Zmeskal-Burdette joking about her gymnasts farting because the uneven bars were squeaking during podium training at nationals. I’ve talked to both coaches, and to numerous gymnasts and parents, including one young gymnast who just two weeks ago said Texas Dreams saved her life after she escaped the horrors of her old gym, which let her compete with a concussion so bad, she couldn’t remember who her parents were.
And so when weighing on the scale between bad and good, Texas Dreams easily fell onto the “good” tray. I’ve seen coaches scream at, swear at, and berate their gymnasts at meets, throw temper tantrums when their gymnasts fall, and storm out of the arena because a score didn’t go their way. I’ve heard of coaches slapping and shoving kids at practice, and almost no gym is free from stories about psychological abuse, from weighing kids and calling them fat to playing mind games to make them work harder whether or not they’re physically or mentally capable of doing so. But the most I’d heard about Texas Dreams was that Kim was “strict,” and that’s probably why she pulled girls from meets, because she had rules about only those who were “ready” being allowed to compete, and that’s not really a bad thing, is it?
How we think about abuse in gymnastics has changed so much post-Larry Nassar, I can’t believe some of the things I used to see as “normal” or could justify as being “worth” the end goal. Most gyms post about the benefits of doing gymnastics as a child, and whether promising Olympic glory or just promoting a basic recreational program, self-discipline is always high on the list. While that’s not inherently a bad thing, and in fact can be quite useful in life outside of the sport, what I’ve learned over the past few years is that many coaches confuse disciplined athletes with the need to control every aspect of the athlete’s life, and it’s this culture of “control” that not only leads to, but also disguises, abusive situations.
A few years ago, I never remotely questioned something like the implications of having athletes line up in height order while chanting to Martha Karolyi. It was weird and even a bit funny, but was it abusive? I didn’t think so, at least not in a world where physical, sexual, and emotional abuse exist. But now, things like this jump out to me as such a red flag, because there’s a reason Martha demanded soldier-level behavior from her athletes, and it’s the same reason why most coaches don’t let gymnasts wear shorts, or demand that athletes cut their hair to a certain length, or require team-level gymnasts to homeschool as young as six – exerting control in every aspect of an athlete’s life creates a culture where an athlete is unable to think for herself, make decisions for herself, advocate for herself, or even trust that her own feelings are valid, leaving her blindly obedient to and dependent on the person in charge. This is abuse.
All of the measures of control taken to get to this point are also abusive, but because these things on their own are not inherently problematic, it’s easy to overlook them, and that’s why this form of abuse is the most dangerous. It’s barely noticeable to the people experiencing it on a daily basis, let alone to parents or other outsiders, which is why a gym like Texas Dreams can show up all smiles and hugs and rainbow leotards at competitions, and why they can get a reputation as the “good gym” despite everything we now know to be happening behind closed doors.
Relative to gyms where abuse is more obvious, it’s easy to call a gym like Texas Dreams a “good gym,” especially when in addition to what we’re seeing outright, it’s also getting rave reviews from so many current and former athletes and parents. But this is just another cultural diversion, because when the gym’s culture exists to enforce unconditional control, it’s impossible for athletes who are still involved or only recently removed from that culture to recognize that the situation is so unhealthy or problematic. The culture literally blinds them to the reality of their situation. Getting the people you are actively abusing to praise you is gaslighting to the extreme, which is why so many of Larry Nassar’s victims defended him for years before finally coming forward themselves, and is why Kim has long praised the Karolyis to the point of sadly becoming just like them.
It’s also why gymnasts like Ashton Kim and Kennedy Baker took years to call out their Texas Dreams coaches. Both Ashton and Kennedy had moments in their careers that felt weird, or even downright wrong, especially as both also experienced racism at the gym. According to both women, Chris reportedly made racist jokes on a regular basis, while Kennedy alleged that Kim once grabbed her and cut off her braids before a competition in an extreme violation of Kennedy’s bodily autonomy, all because her hair was too long (though Kim let her white athletes simply twirl their long hair into buns). Yet despite everything, both ultimately stayed at the gym for around a decade, and then took another five or so years to be able to process and talk publicly about what they endured.
Part of me is torn now when I hear of current athletes and parents talk about how amazing their experiences are with gyms like Texas Dreams. I feel like it’s not my place to discredit or invalidate people’s experiences by insinuating that they’re brainwashed by the culture when I’m not there on a daily basis to see things for myself. It’s possible that they are victims an abusive culture that they are so ingrained in, they can’t see it from an outsider’s perspective, but it’s also possible that things have changed, or that their personal experiences happen to be wildly different from what others go through.
But using these stories on their own to confidently claim a gym as “good” is irresponsible. Experiences aren’t gospel truth, and NOT questioning things as outsiders is what helps abusers get away with it for so long. When Ragan Smith was in a boot for a year, for example, I and tons of others questioned exactly what was happening, why she wasn’t taking time off, how she was doing hard landings and then going right back into the boot…something seemed really messed up here. Eventually, one of Ragan’s family members tried to shut down the conversation by saying that none of us knows anything about her medical care, and that if her surgeon is clearing her to do gymnastics, we don’t have any right to question it. Fair point, I thought at the time, but now I think that if we as outsiders don’t question these things, who will?
We can believe that athletes and their families are being truthful in how they perceive and portray their own experiences, because maybe they were great. Just as I began writing this paragraph, Ragan – who began training at Texas Dreams in late 2013 and stayed at the gym until she left for college last year – posted on Instagram in response to the recent accusations, saying she’s “never experienced anything but love and support from Kim and Chris” and she “knows in her heart that Kim and Chris do everything out of love and care for their athletes.” This is on the line with absolutely everything I’ve heard about the gym from kids and parents over the years, and while I’m not surprised to hear stories about abuse, I’m also not surprised to continue to hear stories like this. For Ragan, it might be entirely accurate and truthful. With most of the athletes alleging an abusive culture having been out of club gymnastics for years, it could be fair to say that Kim and Chris have made changes, or maybe Ragan’s previous gym experience was so bad, Texas Dreams felt like a safe haven for her.
However, we don’t know this for certain, and shouldn’t jump to snap judgments that a gym is “good” because it is comparatively better than other gyms, or because athletes and parents still enmeshed in its culture say so, especially when others have called them out for abusive behavior. Again, abusive and controlling cultures exist so that the very victims of the culture will defend their coaches and experiences to the death. It takes a lot of time away from a gym like that to realize what exactly you went through, to process your feelings, and to recognize that things that happened to you weren’t right. I hope for Ragan’s sake that she did have a positive experience and that her coaches did change over the years, but I also hope that she and others who feel this way listen to their older teammates’ stories, especially those who are BIPOC training under white coaches, who often have vastly different experiences from their white teammates.
I like to think that I’m generally good at reasoning my way through piles of contradicting evidence to come to a somewhat sensible conclusion. In the past, when hearing a few icky things among dozens of stories praising Texas Dreams, I’d reason that while they had a few questionable areas, who doesn’t? In a sport buried in endless tragedies, being mostly problem-free means you’re practically a godsend, and so I avidly referred to them as a “good gym,” one where I’d send my kids if I had future potential elite athletes flipping around my house.
In hindsight now, however, I see why the “good gym” label is an issue in itself. If there’s a possibility that even one child can experience something even remotely off, whether it be outright/noticeable abuse or the rules and behaviors that make up an abusive or controlling culture, then we cannot possibly generalize that it is “good.” Nothing is black and white, nothing should be lumped into “one or the other,” and while we can talk about things being relatively or comparatively okay, labeling a gym “good” becomes an issue when survivors of abuse at that gym do come forward because the “good” label makes it easier for the abusers to discredit or even gaslight their victims, making it even harder for these young women to speak up.
Before, when I’d get those tons of “why does Texas Dreams have so many injuries” questions, I’d reason that they had a lot of elites which means they’re going to have more injuries, that all elites get injured no matter where they train, that their conditioning program needed to be reevaluated, that most of their gymnasts unfortunately aren’t built in a way to be able to handle longevity at the elite level, that they were unlucky to have kids go through growth spurts and get injured simultaneously making the comeback process a billion times harder…there are lots of reasons why elite-level gyms have a high number of injuries, and even the best, most nurturing coaches in the world are going to deal with some of their most promising gymnasts burning out or peaking too soon or having freak accident falls that lead to career-ending injuries.
But because Texas Dreams was always a “good” gym to me, I never once used “because of abuse” as a reason. That’s an issue. I think my reasoning for holding back, or not even legitimately considering it, is because I couldn’t possibly insinuate abuse having never heard actual accusations, and that’s fair. But what I could have done, and will do going forward when people ask similar questions, is talk about how while we can’t say for sure what’s happening behind closed doors at any gym, often the reason for such a high number of serious and repetitive injuries is over-training, and over-training is often related to a culture that uses abusive methods to get results.
In Texas Dreams’ case, based on what gymnasts are now sharing and on a video from years ago that has resurfaced, in the absence of any aggressive or outwardly abusive behavior, the coaches still got what they needed from their gymnasts by essentially bullying them into it. Want a kid to throw ten vaults in a row? Tell her she’s not as good as another girl on the team, and this is totally fine because kids are competitive and want to prove that they’re the best, so she’ll go until she can’t move anymore. Want a kid to finally land the new floor skill she’s been unsuccessfully training? Tell her she can’t go to nationals even if she gets the scores, insinuating that she’d be an embarrassment to the team, and she’ll work on that skill until her bones break or her Achilles ruptures because going to nationals is her dream. If anyone complains, gaslight them by saying you’re just joking, and that everyone else on the team thinks you’re SO funny, so why can’t you just get a sense of humor and deal with it?
Admittedly, I spent a long time unconcerned by behavior like this. I think this is again because it’s not “as bad” as seeing coaches screaming or hitting kids, but also because much of this kind of psychological trickery and competitive culture is so normalized in every aspect of life. My parents taught me to swim when I was three by throwing me in the water and promising to catch me, but instead letting me sink and flail and figure out on my own how to not drown, and when my dad took the training wheels off of my bike, he said he’d hold me up the whole time, but then let go (which I’m pretty sure happens in every family sitcom from the nineties). And competitive culture is literally proven to get results, which is why schools and corporate environments often pit people or teams against each other, so that people will be motivated to work harder and succeed.
Gymnastics is dangerous enough without throwing trickery and competitive culture into the mix, though, and that’s the kind of nuance I’ve learned to recognize over the past few years. My parents pushed me, but were there to pull me back up if I needed it, whereas Kim and Chris were disappointed in their athletes when they got injured while being forced to train skills that weren’t safe, and my workplace has never threatened to stop paying me if I wasn’t perfect at my job. Something that might be okay or normal outside of the sport can so easily be taken advantage of and become abusive within it. Even – or especially – when a gym looks safe and inviting from the outside, we can’t assume that this means all is well, and we have to remain vigilant in questioning behavior that seems strange or inappropriate, otherwise coaches and gyms will continue to get away with it.
In thinking of and referring to Texas Dreams as a “good” gym or the “fun” club in the years I’ve been writing about gymnastics, I’ve unknowingly contributed to a culture that controls, abuses, and ultimately silences athletes, and that has to change. It hurts knowing that yet again I’ve fallen into the trap of people I once trusted and respected, to the point of not only supporting them, but also amplifying them as being proponents of healthy attitudes and behaviors in gymnastics. I admire many other coaches in the sport, but am now wary of taking them or their public personas at face value, because what do I know about how they behave when it’s just them and their athletes inside the gym? Nothing. I’m trying to find a balance now between sharing my opinions of coaches and gyms in a positive way, but also remaining cautious about making it clear that my opinions are based on my knowledge and experience only, and that I cannot definitively say whether something or someone is “bad” or “good.”
I’m endlessly saddened by the recent allegations against Kim, Chris, and their gym, but I’m inspired by Ashton and Kennedy sharing their stories. Not only are they helping themselves and other gymnasts at Texas Dreams come to terms with what happened to them, but they’re also alerting the world to a type of abuse that often goes so unrecognized, and forcing people to change the way we think about how athletes are treated in this sport. None of what Ashton, Kennedy, and countless others endured at Texas Dreams is okay or justifiable, and no athlete should ever have to feel like this culture is normal.
Article by Lauren Hopkins