The 1986 Summer Olympics are an iconic moment in American sports history. The women’s gymnastic team won silver at the games, with legendary team members like Mary Lou Retton, Julianne McNamara, Pamela Bileck, Michelle Dusserre, Kathy Johnson, and Tracee Talavera. Who can forget Mary Lou Retton’s pair of perfect 10 gold-winning vaults? The team set a record of eight medals that summer, and the members remain icons in female sports’ history. Don Peters served as the Head National Coach at that time and is largely credited for coaching the team for victory. He’s a gymnastic Hall of Fame member and long-time champion coach.
But there’s a darker side to his success. Last month, a dozen former students spoke out of abuse at Peters’ hands. All of the victims were teenage gymnasts at SCATS, a prominent Orange County gym.
Doe Yamashiro, a former U.S. national team member who trained with Peters at SCATS in the 1980s, told the Register that Peters repeatedly fondled her, beginning when she was 16, and had sexual intercourse with her when she was 17.
A second former SCATS gymnast told the Register that Peters had sexual intercourse with her when she was 18. The woman said she had earlier been sexually abused by her father, abuse that Peters was aware of, she said. The woman has asked not to be identified in this story but has signed a sworn declaration attesting to the truth of her story, as has Yamashiro.
Linda McNamara, a former assistant director at SCATS who shared an office with Peters, has also told the Register that Peters confessed to her in the early 1990s to having sex with Yamashiro, the second former SCATS gymnast and a third teenage gymnast. [Source]
How did this happen? A professor at Virginia Commonwealth believes that the young age of gymnasts contributes to emotional and physical isolation of the athlete. Gymnasts peak in their mid-teens, and elite athletes often train for 30-40 hours each week. This requires tutoring instead of traditional education with peers. They depend on their coaches for emotional protection and personal safety.
“There is a special relationship between a coach and an athlete, particularly in an individual event sport like gymnastics, swimming, tennis,” said Charol Shakeshaft, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth. “The coach is very important to the success of the athlete, and there are no other places to find that support, or at least that’s what the athlete believes, usually because the coach has taught the athlete that message: ‘Without me, you wouldn’t be able to do this.’
“In these relationships, the girls both love and hate their coaches,” Shakeshaft said. “They are grateful for the good things the coach has done, and they don’t like the bad things. Yet, they are afraid that if they speak up, they will lose all the good things and additional bad things will happen to them. The coach will hurt them, they will not be believed, they will lose their chances at the Olympics, etc.”
Because of the sport’s gravity-defying nature, young gymnasts are also dependent on their coaches for their own personal safety.
“So you have this thing you’re doing daily that is risking your life, and you have this coach who’s spotting you and supposedly keeping you alive,” Yamashiro said. “So it just gets really twisted, the whole thing, twisted up.”
All of which creates an environment ripe for exploitation that USA Gymnastics has not done enough to defuse, said former U.S. Olympic and World team members.
“It’s my belief that (sexual abuse) over-indexes in gymnastics compared to the general public, just like the Catholic Church,” said Jennifer Sey, the 1986 U.S. all-around champion and author of the book “Chalked Up.” “I’d like USA Gymnastics to overtly say they put the athlete first, but they don’t put the athlete first.”
Sey and other former U.S. national team members said USA Gymnastics ignored a series of red flags with Peters, especially in regard to his relationship with Yamashiro. They believe USA Gymnastics officials should have questioned why Yamashiro traveled with Peters to competitions and events, some in foreign countries, that she was not participating in.
“I feel like they protected Don and they protected the sport,” Sey said of Peters, now 62, and still the director of SCATS.
According to the Huffington Post, Peters resigned his coaching position at SCATS shortly after the OC Register published the story and is facing a lifetime ban from gymnastics if allegations are proven true.