Kathy Johnson’s Facebook Letter
Kathy Johnson Clarke·Friday, November 17, 2017
What’s on my mind? A lot. Here goes.
Predators know their way around good mothers and fathers. They know their way around any environment or program not created specifically to keep them out. If steps aren’t taken to deny a predator, pedophile or abuser access to young people that person can seek out the most vulnerable, naive, trusting, spirited, reckless or rebellious among the unsuspecting. Just as many of those qualities exist in most young people a skillful predator can use them against their prey.
There has been gross negligence on the part of many, which is what created the culture in which really exceptional kids with unsuspecting parents, many of whom were good, involved, invested, loving parents while some may have been to varying degrees either less involved, caught up in their child’s gymnastics development or success, or simply “flying blind”, completely trusting, and unaware of potential dangers. If people insist on asking or telling victims “why did you, why didn’t you, if only you, if only your mom or dad, didn’t you know…the list goes on and on and on, we will NEVER create the safest possible environment because we are shutting down the very people we need to listen to and learn from.
It’s just not as simple as being “blessed” with a good mother, father, coach or having some super power to ward off anyone seeking to take advantage of you. If we think like that it further shames victims, which is EXACTLY what their abuser depends on. That and fear.
I am truly happy for those left unscathed and whole, but I am in touch with those who were not and are not. It is for them to tell their own stories, but I will remark on one who was lucky. She got spooked by what we now know was “grooming” and done to lure her into trusting her coach’s “methods” to improve her gymnastics. She bolted. Coach told us she had mental problems and it was too hard for her to train and live away from home. We believed him. She left her dream, the place where she was happy and wanted to be, and didn’t tell the other girls because she didn’t know what to say and didn’t want to ruin everyone else’s experience there. It was such a fun place. Fortunately, her father reported it to USGF. Unfortunately, the story gets fuzzy there.
Now I wonder about some of the other girls and the stories I was told about why they abruptly left so many years ago, just as I wonder about the “stories” my teammates heard when I left. I was not a victim of sexual abuse, but I now know some who were. At best, it was a dysfunctional, albeit fun and unique, place to live, train and go after big dreams. At worst, it was a recipe for disaster, a nightmare for some.
Because we normalized what I now know to be grooming type behaviors by creating a big gray area in which we lived, played, trained, joked and grew up, a predator could easily cross over the line without someone noticing. Because there were other types of abuse that were normalized – verbal, psychological and emotional abuse, over-training, over-dieting, under-eating, exhaustion, injuries and questionable motivational methods – most girls didn’t know the difference between healthy and unhealthy, positive or negative reinforcement, and more dangerously, normal grown up behavior and creepy, inappropriate, even criminal behavior. To make matters worse they had no idea how, when or if they should confide in someone, much less to whom they should turn. They simply quit, went home, endured it, developed other issues or problems that masked or hid it, then buried it for years, if not forever.
Now, with that tale in mind insert elite gymnasts, the toughest athletes on the planet, training and sacrificing all to fulfill HUGE dreams to make World and Olympic Teams in an increasingly competitive atmosphere and the “work hard, focus, don’t whine or complain, endure anything and everything you can to be the best you can be” mentality is increased exponentially, and you see where we find ourselves today.
Had it not happened at our National Training Center or to the stars in our sport, and had those incredibly brave young women not had the courage to come forward and speak out for themselves and others who may or may not tell their stories, we could have continued to do too little, too late, to really change the culture that allowed all this to fester and grow.
I believe more will come forward. Please open your ears, eyes, minds and hearts and listen. And as you do, know this:
Abuse is complicated, insidious and achingly more prevalent than people realize. By simplifying it or believing that if only they had done “x” or been “y” or had “z” they would have been safe we do more harm to those who were so damaged by someone they trusted, believed in, and even loved, and more important, we empower the abusers!
Ask yourself, do you WANT abuse victims to keep their painful stories to themselves, to hold on to it forever because it is old news, uncomfortable to hear or about someone you know, like or want to continue to believe in and respect? Two of my coaches are on the banned list. I loved both of them even when they weren’t perfect or hurt me in other ways. I can forgive them for those. But, until they fall to their knees and say how horribly WRONG and deeply SORRY they are to have preyed on my friends, teammates, or fellow gymnasts and offer the entire gymnastics community an apology I stand with and alongside the survivors, and I stand for culture change and bright line rules to educate, prevent, report and prosecute abuse.