The sexual abuse crisis that rocked U.S. gymnastics deepened on Thursday when the coach of the women’s Olympic team in 2012 was charged with human trafficking and sexual assault on a teenage girl, before killing himself shortly after.
The charges against coach and gym owner, John Geddert, once again highlighted the dark side of Olympic champion sports revealed in the investigation and verdict of Lawrence G. Nassar, a former United States national team doctor who abused hundreds of girls and women.
The Geddert case grew out of the Nassar investigation, and Mr. Geddert was suspended by USA Gymnastics in 2018 following charges of abuse. Shortly afterwards, he announced his retirement from the Twistars Gymnastics Club in Dimondale, Mich., The gym he owned.
The charges against Mr. Geddert, 63, revealed a previously unreported level of abuse by a coach who helped the 2012 team to a gold medal and worked closely with Mr. Nassar. It is also now clear that the crimes of Mr. Nassara were no deviations in a sport known for its grace, beauty, and athletes who performed daring physical feats.
The charges were filed by Michigan State Attorney Dana Nessel, who said the victims suffered from self-harm and eating disorders and suffered “extreme” emotional and physical abuse, including forcing them to train while injured.
“Many of these victims still bear scars from his behavior to this day,” Ms. Nessel said.
Ms. Nessel planned a new legal strategy by accusing Mr. Geddert for human trafficking. The term refers not only to sexual exploitation, but also to forced labor of any kind, and Ms. Nessel accused Geddert of “subjecting his athletes to forced labor or services under extreme conditions that contributed to their suffering injuries and damage.” The charge was added in an effort to prevent the coach and other powerful people in gymnastics from abusing young athletes who might be too intimidated or scared to speak out.
Mr. John Manly, Victim Attorney Gedderta and Mr. Nassara said trafficking charges could deter other coaches from abusing or continuing to abuse their athletes.
“It’s an important step in protecting children,” Mr Manly said in a telephone interview. “He’s telling another John Gedderts that if you do, you’ll be responsible.”
Mr. Geddert’s lawyer did not respond to the message asking for comment.
Mr. Geddert did not report for the scheduled afternoon arrest. His body was found Thursday afternoon at a rest stop along the Interstate Highway in Clinton County, Michigan, State Police it is stated in a statement on Twitter.
The suicide upset many victims of Mr. Geddert, said Mr. Manly, who spoke to some of them on the phone after hearing the news.
“They were glad that AG did what she did, but they were horrified that he could end it because they really wanted their day in court,” he said.
He said he told women to focus on one important thing to take with them: “I said everyone should put their heads on the pillows tonight and sleep well, knowing that John Geddert can never hurt another girl.”
Mr Geddert, who coached Olympian Jordyn Wieber to a multi-color title at the 2011 World Championships in 2012, was the latest prominent figure in gymnastics to be accused of attacking his athletes or allowing abuse in a sport struggling to correct the law.
In January 2018, more than 150 girls and women who Mr. Nassar abused, they made formal statements known as statements about the victims being beaten against him in a Michigan court, telling their stories of physical and mental abuse in sports. Some spoke of Mr. Geddert’s harsh coaching practices.
Makayla Thrush, one of his former gymnasts, said Mr Geddert ended his career when he threw her on a low bar of jagged bars and ruptured a lymph node in her neck, giving her a black eye and tearing her abdominal muscles. But apart from the physical abuse in the gym Mr. Gedderta, Ms. Thrush and other gymnasts said they were intimidating and persistent mental abuse.
“You told me to kill myself not just once, but many times, and unfortunately, I let you get the best out of me,” Ms. Thrush said.
Such an approach, advocated by many of the world’s top coaches, was tolerated, and in some cases even encouraged, because it was thought to bring gold medals. Hundreds of gymnasts around the world took to social media this summer to tell their stories of abuse and to demand changes in gymnastic organizations that satisfied athletes of all levels.
Mr. Geddert was part of the coaching system that helped win these medals expensively for the gymnasts themselves.
Sarah Klein, a former student of Mr. Geddert, whom Mr. Nassar abused, he said in a statement that Mr. Geddert “maintained a culture of fear” in his gym.
“It was widely known that Geddert and Nassar were close friends and it would be unthinkable to approach him and complain about Nassar’s actions,” Ms Klein said.
Mr Geddert’s arrest and death are putting even more pressure on USA Gymnastics, the state’s governing body for gymnastics, to try to find ways to stop the abuse in sport. The federation is already facing a battery of lawsuits filed by victims of Mr Nassar and the multimillion-dollar settlement he proposed last year was rejected. The federation too has been going through bankruptcy proceedings since 2018.
Some gymnasts, including Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast in history and the main star of the sport, said that the federation failed its voters and that it continues to do so. Earlier this month, Ms. Biles, a four-time Olympic gold medalist, told CBS’s 60 Minutes that she would not allow her daughter, if she ever had one, to participate in the U.S. gymnastics program because she failed the sport safely.
“I don’t feel comfortable enough because they didn’t take responsibility for their actions and what they did,” she said. “And they didn’t assure us it would never happen again.”
Rachael Denhollander, who as a gymnast attended meetings with Twistars athletes, the charges brought against Mr. She called Geddert “sobering.”
“The reality is that Geddert’s abuse was never a secret,” Ms Denhollander said. “Geddert could and should have been stopped decades ago.”
Michael Levenson i Shaila Dewan contributed to reporting.
If you are considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the United States at 1-800-273-8255 (CONVERSATION). A list of additional resources can be found at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.