Why No One Did Anything About My Gymnastics Coach's Sexual Abuse
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Disgust flows freely after reading each new story about Penn State. Why, we wonder, would someone willingly ignore reports of heinous sexual abuse of a child? Why would someone as “good” as Joe Paterno brush aside the alleged despicable and predatory actions of a coach on his staff, a coach representing his Nittany Lions? By all accounts, Paterno was the hero coach, a model of highly invested and supportive team building, a molder of men, a teacher and a mentor. As a thinking, feeling adult, it seems so obvious what the right choice would be. Report Jerry Sandusky to the police. No matter what.
So why are good people likely to do not so good things? Well, in the microcosmic world of hyper-competitive athletics, a high-performance culture where winning trumps all, obvious moral choices become blurred. The sport, the team, a berth on the squad, a medal on the stand – that becomes the priority. The parents, coaches and teams put everything else aside in honor of the win. I know this firsthand.
I was the 1986 national champion in gymnastics. I competed on broken bones, with black eyes, and went days without food. I broke my femur and had the cast removed more than a few weeks too early so that I could get back to training in time to compete at the U.S. Championships. I broke the opposing leg’s ankle in the process — but I competed and won. Two bum legs, but I got the trophy. There was never any question about what I’d do. Long-term damage didn’t matter. My mental and emotional health didn’t matter. Winning did.
During this time, I met Don Peters, the coach of the U.S. national team and the head coach of a Southern California private club called SCATS. He was personally responsible for producing scores of national team members. And as the 1984 Olympic coach, he led that team to silver-medal glory and a record eight medals, including Mary Lou Retton’s gold medal in the all-around.
Peters was revered. He was a legend in our sport, even if he was relatively unknown to the outside world. And within some corners of the team, he was rumored to be involved with one of the gymnasts at his club, Doe Yamashiro, one of my teammates on the national squad. I first wrote about it in my 2008 memoir “Chalked Up: Inside Elite Gymnastics’ Merciless Coaching, Overzealous Parents, Eating Disorders and Elusive Olympic Dreams.” Earlier this fall, Yamashiro said publicly that Peters began fondling her in 1986, when she was just 16, and began having sex with her when she was 17. This week, USA Gymnastics permanently banned Peters from coaching and kicked him out of the sport’s hall of fame.
Some of us whispered about it at the Goodwill Games in 1986. Doe was with Peters all the time. She was shy and he kept her away from the rest of the team. She didn’t hang out with us in between practices, doing girly things like makeovers and diet soda binges. He squirreled her off to some private place. We wondered what happened when they were alone. I recall mentioning it offhandedly to my parents and other coaches at the event. Everyone waved it off. I almost giggled about it when I said it, so perhaps my revelation was not to be taken seriously. But it made me so uncomfortable, how else was I to share it?
As I wrote in the book, “It got to the point where we all joked about it. ‘Where’s Doe?’ one girl would say, and we would all fall into a pile in fits of laughter. Nobody asked Don, ‘What’s going on here?’ Everyone just let it happen.”