INDIANAPOLIS — When Li Li Leung took over as the top USA Gymnastics in 2019, many offered his congratulations. Some then followed up with condolences, alluding to the tremendous reconstruction work Leung had undertaken. Three years later, the organization is still, in many ways, trying to climb out of the cloud of a sex abuse scandal that rocked the sport.
Leung believes the national governing body has made positive progress, evolving from the version of itself that failed to protect athletes from decades of abuse by the former national team doctor Larry Nasar. Leung admits past missteps and recognizes the need to rebuild trust, but believes she and others at USA Gymnastics have the right intentions, prioritizing the health and safety of athletes.
The organization settled its lawsuit with survivors of Nassar abuse last year and is now heading to this week’s US Nationals in Tampa, a showpiece event for elite gymnasts, for the first time since that resolution. legal key. The national team recently began working under a restructured leadership model that diffuses the power of a single coach. And in hopes of far-reaching cultural change – exchanging the dominant, fear-based training styles of the past for healthy, positive techniques – Leung believes the United States can maintain its competitive success in women’s gymnastics. . That’s why she’s here, running the sport from an eighth-floor corner office in downtown Indianapolis.
A former elite gymnast, Leung watched in disappointment as her sport began to fall apart in 2016 when Nassar’s abuse became public knowledge. While in a leadership position in the NBA, she waited for progress. “And then it never really got better,” Leung said.
She felt compelled to volunteer, perhaps as a board member or consultant. When she held out her hand, she was pointed to the CEO vacancy. What started as an agreement to talk with the recruiter – “Maybe I could point them in the right direction to find someone,” she thought – turned into her application for the job.
After taking over, Leung led USA Gymnastics to a long-awaited resolution in the legal fight with survivors of Nassar abuse. The settlement reached in December requires the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee, USA Gymnastics and their insurers to pay survivors $380 million.
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At the headquarters of the sport, the regulations and the resulting capacity get out of bankruptcy – which USA Gymnastics entered because, Leung said, “it was the most efficient process that was provided to [the board of directors] in order to resolve the dispute” – allows the governing body to step forward under this lingering cloud.
It also opens the door to a more direct dialogue with survivors, who are no longer bound by legal obstacles. Conversations with gymnasts past and present can take place formally through the Athletes Council and other committees or informally with athletes who contact Leung. Tasha Schwikert Moser, 2000 Olympian, now holds a board seat dedicated to a survivor of Nassar abuse – a mandated commitment by regulation.
“The past is really critical to who we will become and who we will become as an organization in the future,” Leung said in an interview last month. “I wouldn’t be here today if not for what happened. … And I think a lot of people felt like they wanted to do a good job in the sport, and that’s what made them come here.
No organization is immune to criticism, Leung said, so she expects there will always be some, but “we know our intention is the right one, and we know we’re doing what we’re doing.” it takes to bring about positive change in sport”. With that as her goal, she said, “Eventually we will get to the point where the masses or the majority will come. And we are getting there. We turn the corner and people start to really believe in the change we are bringing.
USA Gymnastics experienced continued leadership crises in the years prior to Leung’s arrival. Steve Penny, the president of USA Gymnastics from 2005 to 2017 who was in charge during the organization’s botched response to gymnasts’ reports of Nassar abuse, resigned and later faced charges of tampering with evidence, who have been fired This year. His two successors had brief terms: Kerry Perry, hired in 2017, lasted just nine months in the role, and Mary Bono, a former congressman, stepped down after less than a week as CEO per interim. The two left amid missteps and controversy.
Hiring Leung didn’t end the skepticism: Some survivors, according to the Indianapolis Star, felt ignored in the process, and Leung’s marketing background matched Penny and Perry’s past experiences. But Leung thinks his time as an elite gymnast provides useful perspective. She can relate to athletes with vivid memories of her competitive career. An Olympian said to Leung, “You’re like one of us,” which she considered a meaningful compliment.
The organization has a handful of other former gymnasts in key positions, and Leung has adjusted the national team’s leadership model to a three-person committee rather than one omnipotent person.
USA Gymnastics initially posted the position as a solo job, but, Leung said, the organization’s management decided “it was too much of a strain on an individual’s shoulders and he didn’t nor was there a single individual who could serve at all the levels that role required. to accomplish. When the role changed from one job to three, interest in the positions increased.
Announcing these new recruits – 2008 Olympians Alicia Sacramone Quinn (Strategic Manager) and Chellsie Memmel (Technical Manager), as well as Dan Baker, who has remained in his role with a slightly different title as Development Manager – USA Gymnastics , again, faced some backlash.
Olympian McKayla Maroney said that when she mentioned the details of Nassar’s abuse to other gymnasts during the 2011 world championships, “an older teammate whom I admired” chastised her for mentioning it. In the book “Start by believing“, an account of Nassar’s crimes and institutional failures, Jordyn Wieber, a gymnast who would have been present during this exchange, identifies this teammate as Sacramone Quinn, who was 23 years old at the time. Sacramone Quinn, a 10-time world medalist and captain of the silver-winning Olympic team in 2008, says she has no recollection of the incident.
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Asked about the allegation at a press conference, Sacramone Quinn said: “[If] a situation like this happens again, obviously the first thing we do is report it to the authorities. We’re going to talk to the relevant parties – the athlete, the coach, the parent – and get everyone on the same page, and we’re going to take steps in the right direction to get this taken care of immediately. It’s not something we sit on. It’s not something we take lightly. … I would never want something like this to happen again, even from a distance.
Leung said applicants are carefully screened and the organization would “never hire anyone we are not comfortable with in terms of past actions.”
Sacramone Quinn, a longtime member of the national team managed by Martha Karolyi, said she remembered a “fear-driven” environment. Now as program leader, she wants athletes to respect the staff but feel inspired to excel rather than intimidated.
“My goal, yes, is to get them to the highest level of gymnastics possible, but I want to help them shape who they are as people,” she said. “And so when they leave elite gymnastics, they’re like, ‘Man, that was a great experience. People really cared about me, not just my gymnastics, but me as a person. ”
National team members are the most prominent athletes, but the governing body is responsible for all members of USA Gymnastics – beginning with young gymnasts in the grassroots programs. Policies are designed and developed, Leung said, for the whole community, including resources and educational requirements, as well as the introduction of a “Safety Championin all member clubs. Leung sees the people inside the organization as “stewards of the sport”.
The Nassar scandal also shed light on the power imbalances and emotional abuse of coaches in sport that helped activate a predator. Cultural change can come from education and demands from the top of the governing body, but it also requires buy-in from club coaches across the country.
“It’s up to us to be the role model and lead that change as well,” Leung said. “It starts with the organisation, and it also starts with our national team staff. The reason we put together the new high performance team that we have formed is that they also believe in this philosophy.
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While USA Gymnastics is in the early stages of planning a new training and wellness center, Leung envisions a facility that is the “hub and heart of gymnastics in America,” he said. she said – not a gym where the best athletes will train in secret, which is how the Karolyi Ranch and former training ground for the women’s national team operated.
“We want this place to be a really, really welcoming environment for gymnasts of all levels,” Leung said, “and for gymnasts to come and watch their role models practice and a place that will be a focal point of the event. education as well.”
National team camps, Sacramone Quinn and Baker said, are a bit more relaxed. But athletes still want to win and understand that it takes work. And Leung believes that competitive excellence and positive experiences can co-exist.
We may not know how much has changed until the athletes of this generation retire from the sport and feel comfortable talking openly about any issues. With the competitive goals largely unchanged, the organization hopes to transform the path to those.