Kick Abusive Coaches Out of the Halls of Fame
A former figure skater writes about how common abusive coaches are and explains why they don’t deserve to be recognized for winning.
At age 12, I was invited to join an elite training facility for figure skaters. Five years later, I left the sport injured, depressed and bearing invisible scars that I still battle with today.
The elite facility had trained Olympians, World Medalists and Canadian Champions, but underneath the success stories existed a system that preyed on vulnerable, underage children and enabled abuse, all the while glorifying itself as producing “lean, mean skating machines.” I was consumed by a system that valued output over results. But that was 25 years ago. It was different then. This couldn't happen now, you say.
A quick Google search of coaching abuse in performance sports like figure skating and gymnastics shows that abusive coaches and toxic training facilities still exist. In so many other walks of life, abusers are outed and canceled. In the sports realm, especially where underage athletes are concerned, these coaches are lauded—many have cemented a place in the hall of fame of their respective sports.
Sure, they are tyrants, leaving broken and battered students in their wake. But isn't it worth it, if they get results? Don't these coaches, despite their unsavory tactics, deserve our applause because they did what no one else did?
They turned athletes into heroes.
Figure Skating and Abuse Go Way Back
Little Girls in Pretty Boxes: The Making and Breaking of Elite Gymnasts and Figure Skaters was released in 1995 and the book detailed the injuries, eating disorders and abusive coaching practices that were systemic within gymnastics and figure skating. I was 15 at the time.
The book detailed the awful cultures that underage athletes were subjected to. The head coach at my elite training facility publicly decried it as “complete garbage” and parents and skaters only spoke of the book in whispered side conversations. Parents continued to drop their kids off, drive away and leave them in the hands of the head coach, a known tyrant whose training center was an institution fueled by silence, secrecy and abuse.
My mom assumed that “coach knows best” and my father asked nothing. I was grateful for their disinterest. Skaters whose parents spoke out were publicly mocked by coaches in front of the others. The message was clear: What happens here, stays here. Speak out and you’ll be punished. I held up my end of the bargain and said nothing.
The training center was located two hours from my hometown. For years, my mom drove the four-hour round trip, five days a week from September to April. I did homework by flashlight in the back of the car and ate my dinners out of corrugated fast-food boxes. In the summers, I boarded during the week and came home on weekends.
After five years, my parents were on the brink of divorce and were no longer able to afford the hefty skating bills. I was forced to quit before proving myself. I left, having experienced physical and emotional abuse at the hands of my coaches and sexual misconduct at the hands of another skater.
I Have More Stories of Abusive Coaches Than I’d Care to Remember
We trained 20 hours a week during the school year and 40 hours a week during the summer. As the hours increased, it became easier to board with local families and attend school nearby. This began the handoff of control from parents to coaches. This is a fundamental step in sustaining a culture of abuse: Remove the children from the parents. As underage athletes, our first and final point of contact every day was our coaches. That included two hours of ice time before school, a few hours of class at the local high school and back to the arena for another three-to-four hours of on-ice and off-ice training.
During the week I didn’t call my parents; they had no idea what was going on. So what? Every teenager keeps secrets from their parents and I was no different.
I hid injuries and accidents. Coaches retaliated if parents complained or if an athlete complained about an injury. I trained through back pain that took my breath away—I found out later that it was stress fractures in my spine. I said nothing of the deep purple bruising on my knees, elbows and hips. I ignored the golf ball-sized lump of scar tissue on my hip, the result of falling repeatedly on a throw triple salchow.
I certainly didn’t tell them about the awful lesson where my partner tried our first triple twist on ice. This move involved him throwing me in the air and catching me after I completed three rotations. We tried over and over, falling each time. “Again,” our couch yelled as soon as we fell. Over and over we picked ourselves up, skated around and attempted the failed maneuver.
I was battered and bruised, but mostly I was scared. What we were doing wasn’t safe, but I couldn’t say that. Complaining would invite rage, and I was already on tenuous ground. My eyes filled with tears as the Zamboni circled us.
Crying and weakness were unacceptable. His rage spiked when he saw my tears.
“What are you crying about?!” he spat. I panicked. I had been here before. My go-to answer was “nothing” because saying “you’re yelling at me” had only incited more verbal abuse. Either way, I knew that crying was a punishable offense. I looked at my hands, as though they would have the answer. And fortunately, this time they did. Blood streaked down my arm and hand, a result of a toepick puncture in my wrist when my partner had tripped over my body during an earlier fall. “Thank god,” I thought with relief. I finally had a reason to cry. I held my wrist up, “This,” I said. He looked at me with disgust and frowned, “Get off the ice.” There was no sympathy, no respect for injuries. I put on a Band-Aid and was back on the ice.
There Are All Kinds of Physical Abuse in Sports
As far as secrets went, the training center was transparent about how important weight was. Weekly weigh-ins and monthly skin fold (fat tests) were posted on the main bulletin board for all to see. That meant that the classmates at my new school could see the numbers and they would laugh and comment to the female skaters about how much we weighed.
I kept my weight issues from my parents as best I could. I never talked about how my coach would jam his finger aggressively into my stomach with jabs like, “You’re getting fat. Your test results will need to be redone because they’re way too low for someone who looks like you.”
I was beginning puberty. Nobody cared about why my body was changing, the message was simply that I had to stop looking the way I did. Over the next few years, my weight was a constant stress. I was told that I couldn’t compete until I hit a certain weight, received taunts that I would become obese like my mother and saw pictures of pigs cut out and posted beside our weight charts.
At night, I would lay in bed, measuring the hollows between my hips, wishing they were deeper. At dinner, I would alternate between eating peas one by one to stave off hunger and vomiting up whatever food made me feel disgusting, which was mostly everything.
In the end, I was never thin enough.
Verbal Abuse in Sports Is All About Instilling Fear
I never reported the verbal abuse that I experienced. How could I tell my mom about the lessons spent, standing at the boards, being lambasted verbally by a coach? We could barely afford the lessons as it was. He would belittle and debase students. “How can you be so smart but so stupid?” “Why am I wasting my time with you?” “You’re one of the worst skaters I’ve ever coached.”
Oftentimes you could see his frustration mount and then he would step from behind the boards, place his hands on your shoulders and speak through gritted teeth. “Here’s how you bend,” he would hiss, squeezing and pinching shoulders, digging his fingers and bearing his weight down. For the parents in the stands, it looked like a hands-on coaching moment. The skater knew differently, this was a threat.
We all knew when a lesson was going badly, and you could feel the tension in the rink. Everyone would avoid eye contact and be on their best behavior. No one wanted to go down with you. Most of the abuse was verbal, but every so often one of the boys would get hit or slapped. We would all recoil and pretend that we saw nothing. Later, in the dressing room, we would exchange knowing glances, but would never speak of what happened for fear of being overheard. To speak out meant that you were the new target, and no one wanted that.
Coaches Aren’t the Only Ones to Blame for Abuse in Sports
The biggest secret of all was one I also didn’t tell my parents about and didn’t dare talk to the other skaters about. I felt that the oldest and most successful skater wasn’t safe to be around. He was more than ten years older than me and would regularly pinch the burgeoning nipples of young girls. I also didn’t tell my parents that all the skaters—male and female—changed in one big room and that this older skater regularly commented or watched the female skaters change. I didn’t tell them that his gaze felt predatory.
I didn’t tell them about the day when he gave me a purple nurple, in front of the whole dressing room, and I flew at him, dressed in a bra and pantyhose and twisted the flesh on his chest into a huge purple welt. Or that, in retaliation, he dragged me to the floor, tickling me, but also jamming his hands into my crotch and grabbing my breasts. I snapped and screamed at him, the whole dressing room froze as I screamed over and over: “Don’t ever touch me again.”
Later that week, I was called to the coaches’ dressing room and was reprimanded. Standing in front of several coaches, I was forced to apologize for what I had done to the smirking six-foot man beside me. I was out of line, I was told. Like other predators in sport, he was allowed to remain in an environment surrounded by traumatized, vulnerable young girls. Everyone turned a blind eye, but they all knew. The coaches had a duty to keep kids safe, but who is worth more? An Olympic hopeful, a potential Canadian medalist, or a 17-year-old girl?
Now, would it have mattered if I had told my parents any of this? It was clear that the adults were complicit, or at the very least, they were focused on results, and not on the future health of the athletes. The best example of this occurred during a competition. The skaters before us, training partners for a few years, suffered a serious accident. The female skater fell face first on the ice, losing consciousness, blood and a few teeth. After watching her traumatic fall, my partner and I were recruited to scour the ice, looking for her teeth prior to competing. Once a bucket of water was splashed on the blood, we took to the ice and performed, sequins reflecting on freshwater, blades cutting through bloody ice.
I skated horribly. We didn’t place as well as had been expected and I remember being shoved off the ice, all the while being yelled at. The system was broken, and no one was there to protect the athletes who were part of the system. No one cared if you witnessed trauma: Your job was to perform.
Abusing Athletes to Win is Not Worthy of the Hall of Fame
It’s now been over 20 years since I left that environment. I still have nightmares about what I experienced. I'm left with physical and emotional damage and have nothing to show for it. But the most painful part of all is that the system that did this still exists. The head coach that I trained under is featured in the Skate Canada Hall of Fame.
Some are still coaching to this day. Little Girls in Pretty Boxes was reprinted in 2018, 23 years after its first publication. Instead of detailing sweeping changes and progress, it added a new chapter about a culture that allowed a sexual predator to exist. And during those 20 years, the coaches that perpetrated physical and mental abuse continue to be elected into the Hall of Fame because they got results.
The culture that encourages and allows physical and mental abuse still exists because coaches value results above all else. But is it worth it? And what would it take to make the system safer for all athletes? Reading headlines and recent articles in the figure skating and gymnastics world makes me think that these sports aren’t interested in the sweeping change that is required to ensure athlete safety, especially for underage athletes.
The system needs pawns, and really, does anyone care about the bodies scattered in the pile of rubble, aside the gleaming medals of the winners?