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The new Netflix documentary "Athlete A" casts an eye on U.S. gymnastics and the horrific sexual abuse inflicted on hundreds of young athletes by Larry Nassar, despite a number of voices that warned of the toxic culture of the sport.
One of these people is writer Jennifer Sey, who is a producer for the Netflix documentary and a former champion gymnast herself. Sey spotlighted the abuse inflicted on gymnasts in pursuit of fame and potential Olympic laurels in her 2008 book "Chalked Up: My Life in Elite Gymnastics" — though it would take years to uncover how scores of these athletes were being systemically abused.
In the documentary, Sey can be heard speaking on the phone with Indianapolis Star reporters and editors about abuse and toxicity in U.S. gymnastics — referring specifically to her former coach Don Peters, who is accused of sexually assaulting a number of underage gymnasts and was banned by USA Gymnastics in 2011, the Orange County Register previously reported.
"Looking back, I was hoping someone, anyone, an adult with some common sense would have done something. But no one did. And the effect on me was: 'You girls don’t matter. He does. Because Don Peters creates winners, and that is the most important thing,'" Sey wrote for Salon in 2011 when Peters was banned, noting that she had heard rumors about Peters during her time as a gymnast but no one felt empowered to speak up about it. Peters has denied the accusations.
"More broadly, emotional and physical abuse was actually the norm and we were all so beaten down by that and made so obedient that when we knew there was a sexual abuser in our midst, we would never say anything," Sey recalled to Indianapolis Star reporters in a scene captured by the documentary.
"The standard methodology of coaching in elite gymnastics was cruelty," she told the documentary.
She recounted her experience with gymnastics in an interview earlier this year, explaining how she rigorously trained to make the national team, and worked with a gym where she was regularly berated and insulted by coaches, she told WBUR.
"It was sort of control through fear tactics," she told the radio outlet. "And I was OK with it. I wasn't happy. And I quickly became, probably, depressed. But I, again — I was holding so fast to this idea that I could achieve this thing. And my whole worldview was kind of wrapped around that. And I thought, 'This is just the price that you pay.'"
She soon began accumulating injuries, culminating in her breaking her femur at a 1985 championship event but she quickly went back to the gym to continue training for events despite numerous injuries. Sey became burnt out and lost her love for gymnastics.
"I was sitting there thinking — you know, with my ankle in a bucket of ice — 'This is probably as good as it's going to get,'" Sey told WBUR. "And I remember it very distinctly. That was the real first time I ever was like, 'Maybe this is enough.'"
She went to Stanford in 1988 after ending her gymnastics career, and began working at Levi Strauss about 10 years after graduating college, where she rose through the ranks to the executive level. But her harrowing experience with the sport drove her to write about it.
"I sat down to write it not really thinking that I would ever get published, but just to sort of make peace and kind of understand it myself, I guess," she told WBUR. "I was nearly 40 and still sort of wrestling with it. But then I wrote it in almost like a fever state. I think in three months, or two months, I wrote a draft. And I sent it to a friend who was a novelist. And she said, 'It's a book. This is a book.'"
Reaction was swift, with Sey telling the outlet she received vicious condemnation from gymnastics insiders when the book was published in 2008, but also responses from gymnasts who empathized and felt like she gave voice to their concerns.
But Sey's book would prove to be a bellwether for a much larger problem in professional gymnastics.
Although Sey wrote about gymnastics' toxic culture in 2008, it would take until 2016 for the sports' scandalous culture to break into widespread public consciousness with the Indianapolis Star groundbreaking investigative series that detailed USA Gymnastics' broken handling of sexual abuse allegations.
Soon after, the Star uncovered more than 150 allegations of abuse against national team doctor Larry Nassar — who was eventually criminally charged, convicted and sentenced to serve up to 175 years in prison.
When Nassar was arrested in September 2016, hard drives containing 37,000 images of child pornography were discovered in his possession, including pictures of a number of his victims, according to NPR. Sey noted that she did not directly cross paths with Nassar due to her retirement in 1988 but found his behavior "creepy" because he reached out to her on a number of occasions.
"He had friended me through social media, which is weird, because I was a voice within the community," Sey told WWD in an interview. "I remember receiving notes from him over the years, commending me on speaking up, which is really creepy now that I think about it. But that’s how he hid in plain sight."
Sey herself has written extensively on abuse in the sport, noting that the athletes exulted at the Olympics every four years are also often young kids ripe to be exploited.
"Women’s gymnastics is a sport in which the athletes are very young and barely clothed, and many of the coaches are male. It is a sport in which screaming insults at children is considered an accepted motivational technique, in which competing with severe injuries is the norm, in which discouraging athletes from eating is common practice and in which abuse, broadly defined, is standard," Sey wrote in a 2017 New York Times op-ed.
She explained in the Times piece that while she wasn't a victim of sexual abuse, the culture of gymnastics was such that young athletes were discouraged from speaking up about trauma they'd suffered for fear of being ostracized.
Sey said earlier this year she doesn't think much has changed.
"I mean, my coaches are still coaching, and they're incredibly abusive, and I don't think they've changed," Sey told WBUR. "If you are starving and you're told you're fat, if you're in pain and you're told you're lazy, you don't believe your own perception of the world. Imagine how disorienting that is for a child."
"U.S. Gymnastics would like us to think there is one bad apple, and now that [Nassar is] gone everything is fine. But he’s a product of an abusive culture and they have not even started to declare a zero-tolerance policy. They have not done an independent investigation, there are people who worked there when Nassar worked there who still are there," Sey told WWD.
Currently, Sey still works in senior leadership at Levi Strauss and maintains an active Twitter where she is promoting the documentary. She did not respond to a request for comment.
"Athlete A" is available to stream on Netflix.
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