Gymnastics Is a Brutal Sport. Does It Have to Be?

She chalked up her hands and hopped up to grab the low bar. Andy shifted positions and took out his phone to film. To an outsider, this exchange might have read as routine, but for a gymnast it amounted to a notable expression of autonomy. (“I really am following her lead,” Andy told me later.) She settled on the Hindorff, a move that took less force. She swung once around, cleared the bar a second time and released it, flinging her legs up into a V straddle. Reaching out in front of her, she tapped the bar between her legs.

Andy was so surprised that he dropped his phone. Chellsie, he explained later, had not successfully touched the bar for a Hindorff in eight years. He’d expected relearning its position in the air to take months. She seemed to be taking weeks.

Memmel’s success is coming after years away from the gym, but even for younger gymnasts, the break caused by the coronavirus has occasioned surprising reflections about the nature of athletic success. Few competitive gymnasts had ever taken a midseason break this long. The 19-year-old Delaware gymnast and national team member Morgan Hurd, a favorite going into Tokyo, told me that before the shutdown, the longest time she could remember being away from gymnastics was just several days — four years earlier, when she went to Myrtle Beach. During the shutdown, she lugged a mat home from her gym and wrestled it up the carpeted stairs to her bedroom, where she stayed conditioned by searching for workouts on YouTube. On March 7, a week or so before the shutdown, Hurd won the American Cup; no woman has won that competition in a games year and not qualified for the Olympics. But when we spoke a month into lockdown, she said the time off hadn’t hurt. “I feel like I got physically stronger,” she said. Last July, the 29-year-old British Olympian Becky Downie posted on Twitter: “Lockdown has taught me gymnasts can definitely have ‘off season’ if you stay conditioned, your skills go nowhere. … now I look back & think of all the holidays I could have had in 20 years. Where did this myth come from!!!”

In June, Netflix released a documentary, “Athlete A,” on Larry Nassar’s victims. Its release spurred a further wave of allegations and reflections, although largely not about sexual abuse. Instead, athletes in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Britain, Brazil and Belgium began posting on social media, using the hashtag #GymnastAlliance, about the kind of routine physical, verbal and emotional mistreatment — like body shaming and forced training on injuries — that have long been the norm in gymnastics. Several countries began investigations into their national governing bodies, and the Netherlands even suspended its women’s national Olympics program; in the United States, the posts formed a kind of second-wave #MeToo in the gymnastics community, centered on training practices and their costs.

Many accusations of abusive training practices in gymnastics have previously come from high-profile athletes, a fact that sometimes helped perpetuate the misconception that abusive training was happening only at the highest levels of the sport. In the United States especially, the gymnasts sharing their stories on Twitter and Instagram were college or club gymnasts, not pros. The Nassar survivor Rachael Denhollander tweeted, in reply to a story that one former gymnast, Cassidy Hyman, posted about feeling pressured to compete in a Level 5 state championship with two stress fractures: “I cannot even express my anger at this. Permanent, preventable back injuries incurred as a LEVEL FIVE.” At Level 5, gymnasts are not yet doing release moves on bars. They stand on the low bar and reach out to grab the high one, as though on a jungle gym. After training for up to 40 hours a week and two years of home-schooling, Hyman finally quit the sport at 14 with mental blocks so severe she was unable to do a back walkover on the balance beam, a skill she had been doing for years.

It has been 26 years since the publication of Joan Ryan’s “Little Girls in Pretty Boxes,” a groundbreaking investigation of the harm caused by gymnastics. Many of the practices that gymnasts posted about last summer, especially the pressure to be thin, echoed those widely covered in the 1990s. But some of these athletes were making a more novel point, which was that they had come to believe that the harsh coaching they experienced, and the punishing levels of exercise, weren’t necessarily even helping them win. “I didn’t always need to do all those extra turns,” said one former athlete, Ashton Kim, whose post on Twitter claimed that her head coaches overtrained and emotionally and physically mistreated her. “It was unproductive at a certain point.” In her post, which included a letter to her head coaches at the gym Texas Dreams, Kim added, “You can’t deny that we were overtrained to the point of exhaustion.” (A representative from Texas Dreams declined to comment.)

Last year, Maggie Haney, who coached the 2016 gold- and silver-​medalist Laurie Hernandez for 11 years at MG Elite, received an eight-year suspension, the harshest sentence for nonsexual abuse that U.S.A. Gymnastics had ever handed down. After Haney appealed, the suspension was reduced to five years, but it was still the harshest sentence for nonsexual abuse that U.S.A. Gymnastics had ever handed down. It was especially remarkable because Haney’s behavior, which was said to include hair-pulling and telling her gymnasts that she would commit suicide if they stopped working with her, occupied a space that U.S. gymnastics governing bodies had, until then, largely declined to call abusive. (“Although victims may share their own stories publicly, U.S.A. Gymnastics does not share information on reports or investigations,” U.S.A.G. wrote in a statement to The Times. “Each case is unique and is treated by U.S.A. Gymnastics’ Safe Sport department as such.” Haney denied verbally, emotionally or physically abusing any gymnast: “It is astonishing that a few girls, families and agents continue to use the U.S.A.G./Safe Sport for personal and/or financial gain. These organizations have been put into place to protect truly abused athletes,” she wrote in her own statement to The Times. She added that “U.S.A.G. has used me personally as a scapegoat to divert attention from their own colossal misdeeds.” Haney is suing U.S.A.G. for what she claims was an unfair hearing.)