JOAN RYAN: Bela Karolyi denied ever talking to me in an article in USA Today, and of course I have everything on tape.
[“Express Yourself” intro music plays]
JESSICA: This week we talk to author of Little Girls in Pretty Boxes Joan Ryan. We discuss what this book meant to us then and now. And we reveal the winners of the GymCastic end of the year 2012 awards.
ALLISON TAYLOR: Hey gymnasts, Elite Sportz Band is cutting edge back compression warmer that can protect your most valued asset: your back. I’m Allison Taylor on behalf of Elite Sportz Band. Visit elitesportzband.com. We’ve got your back.
JESSICA: This is GymCastic episode 15 for January 9, 2013. I’m Jessica
BLYTHE: I’m Blythe
UNCLE TIM: I’m Uncle Tim
DVORA: I’m Dvora
JESSICA: Welcome to the only gymnastics talk show in the world. Starting with the top news stories on the gymternet. Blythe, what’s new?
JESSICA: Exactly. There’s no news this week. Alright so the only thing we really have for news this week is basically, I don’t know if you guys remember there was a guy named Ethan Polson who made it his 2012 new years resolution to do a backflip every single day. And there’s a great internet video of him doing a backflip in all different locations. In the snow, in the rain, outside, indoors, it’s just I love this video. It’s just beautiful. And it’s adult gymnastics, hello. So of course it’s extra rad. And then it turns out he actually found out he had cancer last year. And he had to go in and have a lump removed from his hand. And it wasn’t something simple, they actually had to reconstruct his hand afterward. But he did not want to give up his goal of doing a backflip every single day. So we’re going to put a link to this video. It is totally inspiring and even more beautiful than the year before because he did his backflip every single day even though he had cancer. And sounds like he’s doing well right now so want to wish him the best and thank him for this video. So check out that link on the site. Alright now we’re going to bring you our interview with Joan Ryan.
DVORA: Fantastic. We are really excited to have Joan Ryan, an award winning journalist, who wrote a book in the mid 90s called Little Girls in Pretty Boxes, which focused on the coaching of elite gymnasts and, to a lesser degree, figure skaters, and the abuses and the eating disorders and all that stuff that went into the training of these athletes. The book, for those of you who are not familiar with it, really changed the conversation in the gymnastics community and the community at large about eating disorders and abusive training methods. And we’re really excited to have her on today to discuss what it was like to write that book, the reaction she received, and also think about what the book means now, 20 years later. So we’re just going to start at the beginning. So from what I understand, you were initially assigned to write this series about gymnastics. And that developed into Little Girls in Pretty Boxes. So whose idea was it to write the series about gymnastics to begin with?
JOAN: Well it didn’t start with just gymnastics. My sports editor and I at the San Francisco Examiner at the time were just talking about pre-Olympic stories. This was before the Barcelona Olympics. And we hit upon the idea at looking at sports in which females excel at a very young age as opposed to the male competitors. So we looked not just at gymnastics but figure skating, swimming and diving, and tennis. Because in all of those sports we can see girls be the best in the world, you know the Joe Montanas and Michael Jordans of their sport, before they get their drivers license. Whereas boys in all of their sports, with a few exceptions with diving maybe and every now and then with tennis, are really made to go through puberty. So that was the series of articles.
DVORA: Mhm. And so the two sports you came up with were gymnastics and figure skating? Or was there another one that you were also looking into?
JOAN: In the article or in the book?
DVORA: In the article. Sorry I could not track down the articles from the 90s so I’m not sure what they say.
JOAN: Yeah, no it was tennis, swimming and diving, gymnastics, and figure skating.
DVORA: Mhm. And when you were doing the series, was there an “ah-ha” moment when you were like, “wow this seems abusive and wrong”? Or any one person you spoke with that got you thinking this way? At one point did you think that there was a bigger story to be told and that this could be a book?
JOAN: Well, it actually… doing a book wasn’t my idea. I had never done a book before and it was just beyond me to even imagine doing a book frankly. But there was a young book agent in the Bay area who came to me. She was really impressed by the series of articles. And we just met up for lunch and said, “this really could be a book.” And the truth of the matter is, you know when you’re doing term papers in college and you’ve spent so much time on something and you’re so burnt out you don’t even want to think about it anymore? [laughs]
DVORA: [laughs] yes.
JOAN: That’s how I was after those series of articles. I was like oh gosh, no way. And she just kept taking me out for lunch and said, “why don’t you just write a proposal .” And you know my [inaudible] guilt for her taking me out to lunch I was like ok I’ll do a proposal. And of course I did a really terrible proposal because I don’t know how to do proposals. And she said, “well why don’t you just rewrite this proposal.” And you know we had decided that the course of it was going to be a book that.. you know so much had been written about tennis already, so we really didn’t need to address that. And swimming and diving were so different from gymnastics and figure skating. And then there were many more parallels with gymnastics and figure skating, so we decided that was what made the most sense. ANd it was also frankly two of the most interesting sports and the most popular sports in each of the summer and winter Olympics. So that’s how it ended up, and then she shopped it around and somebody bought it for a very very little bit of money. But I was excited to just have a book contract. And took six months off of the Examiner thinking that well, you know, no story has taken me very long and six months seemed like all the time in the world for a newspaper reporter. And of course I ended up having to take another six months off to do it and then work and wrote for another six months or eight, nine months after that.
DVORA: Mhm. And in this… Books always take longer than you think they’re going to take.
DVORA: But at what point during that process did you… because you know the tone of the book is understandably sort of dark. At what point did it really become about the abuse, verbal, the eating disorders, injuries, like what was that moment when you were like, “this is what this story’s about”? Did you speak to anyone? Did you witness something that made you really uncomfortable?
JOAN: Well, it was, you know it was the number of girls that I talked to. When I was doing the articles, you know maybe I- I don’t even remember how many gymnasts I talked to because I was talking to so many different athletes from different sports. But once I honed in on gymnastics and figure skating and really started to do the research on it and hearing one story after another after another after another, and they piled up like that. That it wasn’t an aberration, to see the abuses and to see the common issues that they faced. Eating disorders, the coaches, the parents, the injuries, the need to be absolutely perfect in every part of their lives. And it turned out after a year or more of research that figure skating frankly became secondary in that book. Even though it was the more popular sport, it was on TV all the time year round, all of that, gymnastics was just so compelling and it really surprised me. I mean I didn’t know I was going to find what I did.
DVORA: Mhm. And kind of to talk a little bit about the abuse, there’s a lot of gray area I guess when it comes to coaching and pushing children to excel. And as we’ve seen, different people react to what happens, to the way they’re coached or to the way they’re taught, differently. So one person’s tough love could be another person’s abuse. I just re-read the book and you cite Mary Lou Retton, someone telling her that she’s fat, and it just rolls right off of her. She’s that personality. But someone else hearing it, it spirals her into an eating disorder. So how do you define abuse in gymnastics? What was the working definition as you were going through this process?
JOAN: It was outcome. What was the outcome of it? That you had girls training with broken bones. You had girls being pushed and being called those names who were suffering with eating disorders. And these coaches, as you know, spend so much time with these girls. Day in and day out. They spend more time with them than their parents or their teachers or anyone else. And because eating disorders are – gymnasts and figure skaters – eating disorders affect them disproportionately to the general population. That obviously any coach [inaudible] understands that that’s one of the risks. And to be pushing them you know to be calling them the names that they are, to be using that kind of tactic to a girl – any adolescent girl frankly – but a girl who is in a sport which eating disorders are disproportionately high, is barely unconscionable. There’s a way to encourage, obviously you have to have low weight, you have to be small to be a gymnast, it’s self selection. Just like you have to be tall to be a basketball player. But, there are ways obviously, healthy ways, to be encouraging girls if they want to continue at the highest level to have that kind of discipline and strength in their body in a healthy way. These are the adults. these girls, as mature as they are, as driven as they are, they’re not the adults. The adults are there to not only lead them to reach their dream, which perhaps probably is to go to the Olympics, but also to keep them safe.
DVORA: I mean as a parent working on this story and sitting in these gyms and watching practices, how did it feel to watch some of these girls get berated or train through pain? Because I you’re not technically as journalists you’re not supposed to get emotionally involved in the story, but we kind o fall do. And how did you react emotionally to seeing some of these practices?
JOAN: Well it was mostly doing the interviews. Because what you find as a journalist, because I did start out just talking to the current, you know trying to get girls that were currently competing. And what you find, and I found this in subsequent books and the book that I’m working on right now too, is that they don’t have any perspective. That when you talk to them afterward and you talk to enough of them afterward, they look at their experience and can be honest about it. So when I watched practices, and I’m not there every day for a year I’m just watching them here and there, and they know that I’m there watching, you don’t see a whole lot. As far as the abuses. It was just the exhaustive interview process that pulled those out. And the thing that really surprised me more than anything is how willing so many gymnasts and their parents were willing to talk. I thought it would be much more difficult to find people to really try to get them to share their honest experience with me, and I was most surprised by the parents and how honest they were about themselves and what they did. And they had, most of them, enormous guilt about it.
DVORA: Yeah that was kind of surprising reading the book. Just the parents for the most part do not come off particularly well. And it was really surprising that they were as frank as they were with you. They were very honest. Sometimes I couldn’t tell if they were regretful, but they were very honest to what motivated them as opposed to just saying I’m helping my daughter live her dream. You know it seems like they were at least able to acknowledge their complicity in some of what was going on.
DVORA: Oh so you just answered my next question. Do you keep in contact with anyone that you’ve interviewed for this book, or this is like way into the past?
JOAN: Yeah it’s a long time ago. So no. I did for a while, a few of them. But what’s interesting is that I still get emails, you know people reaching out. Former gymnasts saying that they read the book and that it was their experience. And I was really surprised during this past summer Olympics how much this book was still talked about. And it kind of made me feel good. Because you go into a project and you just don’t know what the impact is going to be because that’s not really what you’re thinking about. You’re just thinking about doing a really really honest thorough in-depth look at an issue. And then the outcome is going to be the outcome. So that part has been the most satisfying actually. And I didn’t set out to do that.
DVORA: Yeah I mean the book, as I said, we all read it years ago. And it stuck with us. And that’s why you know it came to us to ask you to interview you. So the book certainly had an impact and certainly forced a conversation, especially about eating disorders. So some coaches see the problem with eating disorders in gymnastics is overstated. Do you agree or disagree with that?
JOAN: Well I wish I had done a study on it. That would have been great. Because all we have is anecdotal. As journalists we just interview a million people and see what emerges. It would be great if there were a study on it. Some of the studies that I use as you see in the book are on ballet dancers. Because there haven’t been, at least at that time, maybe there have been since which would be really wonderful. You know it’s just so… it’s such an issue that I’m surprised frankly that there hasn’t been a study so we know for sure. You know how widespread is it? And what is the impact of it in short term and the long term? And how can we do better? We have to think that everybody in gymnastics I imagine is on the same page about. How can we do better?
DVORA: Absolutely. But I mean I first think we have to acknowledge that it is a problem. That it’s not just a few isolated incidents. And having a study – and I have to look into whether or not there have, it’s been almost 20 years since the book was released, so I hope that someone thought to study the problem. Having the study gives you more than anecdotal evidence, so people cannot easily disregard, “oh it’s just the people she ends up talking to, it’s not really widespread.”
UNCLE TIM: Right now I’m working on a research project, and I know that there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t go into the book. And I’m just curious if there are any lost chapters you know something you didn’t end up putting in the book?
JOAN: No [laughs] no there wasn’t.
UNCLE TIM: I’m curious. So in your book your criticism is directed primarily toward male coaches like Bela Karolyi and Steve Nunno. And I’m curious as you were researching your book, did you find any stories about female coaches being abusive?
JOAN: Just what’s in the book, and I’d have to go back and look. But I really wasn’t thinking about male versus female frankly. Bela Karolyi obviously is the most well-known coach, I mean he’s the face of gymnastics. And certainly the stories, you know when you just scratch the surface, the stories just came out in a rigor about him. So that was about it. And then one lead to another to another to another. So as far as the female coaches, the ones that I talked to didn’t seem to have quite the same tactics. But that’s not to say that they’re aren’t them out there.
UNCLE TIM: While we’re on the topic of gender, your book focuses primarily on female gymnastics but you interview former gymnasts like Bart Conner and you mention the 1990 Swedish study of male gymnasts and how degenerated their backs were. I was just curious if you ever looked into the men’s gymnastics climate? And if so, did you notice anything?
JOAN: No, I just looked at female gymnasts. As I said at the beginning of the interview that we were looking at sports that girls could be the best in the world at what they do at a very young age before they go through puberty, and male athletes almost without exception, which includes gymnasts. When you get to be the best in the world and you’re the Olympic champion, the men have gone through puberty. So what we were looking at to answer the question “what toll does it take on a girl’s body, still developing body and still developing psyche, to be training at this incredibly high level where it basically is a full time job in a sport that is perhaps the most demanding in the world. So that’s why I looked at girls and not boys, because it’s a very very different type of pursuit because of their ages. And also the relationship with the coach is different too because you’re a child. As I said before you know when you’re a child and you’re being coached, that coach has a different responsibility than if he or she is coaching adults.
UNCLE TIM: Ok. And do you think that pushing a young girl to excel at an elite level before puberty is in itself abusive? Or is it more the conditions that create the abusive situation?
JOAN: It’s absolutely the condition. There’s nothing wrong with a young girl pursuing excellence and trying to be the best in the world in anything that you can do. Whether it’s piano or dance or whatever. But the tactic and also the complete disregard for the fact that this girl is 13, 14, 15 years old, that makes it ripe for abuse.
UNCLE TIM: And after your book was published Kerri Strug wrote a book called Landing on my Feet: A Diary of Dreams. And she says that a lot of the criticism of elite gymnastics was sexist at the time. And she thought that female gymnasts were no different than high school football players and that the coaches were no different than those in basketball. I’m guessing you encountered this argument as you were writing the book, and how do you respond to that?
JOAN: Well anybody who’s seen high school football or high school basketball and then seen elite gymnastics can’t make that comparison. I mean it’s just on the face of it it’s absolutely ludicrous. What a high school football player does and what a high school basketball player compared to what an elite gymnast does, are you kidding? It’s crazy.
UNCLE TIM: Ok. And now we’re going to pass you over to Blythe for a few more questions.
BLYTHE: Well, Joan, what I was wondering was after the book was published in 1995, what the reaction was both from the public and from the gymnastics community. Did you get thank-you notes, did you get hate mail? What did people say to you?
JOAN: Both, in almost equal measure. Yeah, it was remarkable, frankly. The gymnastics community was completely up in arms, you know I was satan in their midst. Bela Karolyi denied ever talking to me in an article in USA Today, and of course I have every thing on tape. I was thinking why would he say that and then I thought, well perhaps he wasn’t connecting the person who interviewed him with the person who wrote this pretty scathing book. Because when I interviewed Bela Karolyi, as you guys know as journalists, it’s not an attack. When you go out to do any kind of investigative piece it’s about finding the information, and so luckily when I talked to Bela I had already done a year of research and just had chapter and story, after story, after story. So when I did talk to him, and we had about a three hour interview, I just asked him about each one because I wanted to know what his memory was of those situations, and what his memory was of those girls. So we actually had a very pleasant interview of me just getting information from him, so I’m thinking he didn’t connect that person to the person who wrote the book. But what was the most satisfying thing about the book were all the gymnasts who came forward, who showed up at my book readings, who tracked me down at the newspaper, and said, “Thank you for writing my story” and “Nobody’s ever really acknowledged what it was like for so many of us”. Because on Olympic coverage, we basically see the up close and personal, and it’s all the Kerri Strug realizing your dream. What about all those girls who were discarded along the way? You know, their bodies are piled up on the roadside. Nobody tells their story.
BLYTHE: It brings an interesting point up, and this is not just the case in gymnastics, but there seems to be this idea that success in sports has to come with sacrifice. You know, blood, sweat, tears, everything like that. Do you think it’s possible to have a productive healthy experience in elite level gymnastics and still do well and still be in contention for gold medals if your competitor, either nationally or internationally, is going to certain extremes?
JOAN: Well, that’s the big question. We saw that in baseball, could you be the best without taking steroids, could you be the best without cheating in that way? And I think the question is still out there for gymnastics, frankly, and I’m not smart enough to answer it. Can you compete against the Chinese and the Eastern Europeans who are still embracing the abusive, unhealthy tactics for a short term goal, for this little window when that gymnast is of the size and age that she can be the best in the world, right? So as parents, as coaches, really as a nation, we have to decide what sacrifice is worth it. Is it worth a gold medal to have these thousands of girls not make it, and be lesser for it, and risk horrible injury, risk horrible eating disorders in order to win a gold medal? Or in 20 years, have gymnastics develop tactics in order to pull the very best you can out of every gymnast without resorting to pushing them so hard that there are dire consequences. And I don’t know the answer to it.
BLYTHE: I wanted to go back to the Karolyi’s for a second because I’m not sure if you know, if you haven’t really kept up with the sport, but after the 2000 Olympic Games where there was some upheaval amongst the team members towards Bela, and you had team members saying things in press conferences like, “When we fail Bela blames us, and when we succeed he takes all the credit”, and now we have Marta Karolyi as the U.S. National Team Coordinator. She’s embraced a sort of decentralized training system where the national team gymnasts work out with their personal coaches at their home gyms for most of the year, and they come to the Ranch every four to six weeks for verification camps and to kind of be together and have this national team spirit that gets fostered. And Bela is not, as far as most people can tell, really involved these days. Are you surprised that Marta has ascended to this position, and what was your impression of her when you were researching the book?
JOAN: I didn’t really talk to her when I was researching the book, because Bela was the coach there, so I focused on Bela. And as far as the decentralization, I haven’t looked at it so I don’t if that’s better or thats worse. I really don’t know because I haven’t been following it closely, certainly not as a journalist.
BLYTHE: Mmhm. Did you do any research on training techniques in other countries, especially the Eastern Bloc: Russia, Ukraine, China?
JOAN: No. No, I focused just on the United States.
BLYTHE: And do you feel that- it seems like in the 80?s there was a Cold War mentality; the US versus the Soviets. Do you think that the desire in the United States to beat the Soviets, especially in gymnastics which has these very Soviet roots in a lot of ways? Did that contribute to some of these extreme measures being taken that you saw and wrote about?
JOAN: I didn’t really look at it from that angle so much, frankly. I think that in our country we generally feel like we’re going to be the best in the world…[[laughs]]
JOAN: …no matter who’s out there. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was part of it. Certainly Bela being from Romania, Eastern Europe, coming here and introducing and solidifying his training regimen and philosophy here certainly seems like a direct challenge to the Soviets and the other Eastern bloc countries at the time. I can’t say if that was specifically in the national governing body’s mind specifically about gymnastics.
BLYTHE: I see. And for parents who listen to this podcast, what would you say the warning signs are, either for a coach or a parent or gym owner, that things are wrong or could be about to go wrong? And what preventative action can you take?
JOAN: I think as a parent, I think sports are great. I was a sports writer for years, and I have a son, and I think that sports really should be an essential part of any child’s life, frankly. And I think gymnastics is a particularly good sport for young kids to be involved with because you are involving the whole body, and balance, and agility, and it’s fun, and all of those things. When you have a girl who shows incredible promise and has great talent, then the parent needs to look at it and needs to follow her. The parent isn’t leading the way, the child is. How much that child wants to do, how devoted that child wants to be. So as a parent, you’re there to make sure that she’s safe, that she’s healthy, you’re watching practices when you can to see how does the coach treat these girls. You know, look at the other girls from the gym, do they all seem happy, are they getting something out of sports? Because really every parent has to look at sports as a child development tool, not as my kid is going to the Olympics. I mean, you know, six/seven girls go the Olympics every four years in gymnastics. The odds that your daughter is going to the Olympics are almost non-existent. But then why is she in the sport? She’s in the sport because it’s going to make her a better person. And if it’s not making her a better person, if it’s not really feeding into her sense of confidence, her sense of competitiveness, feeling strong, somebody who can speak up for herself, and disciplined, and setting goals, then there’s no point in being in it.
BLYTHE: Understood. Do you believe it’s possible for a coach to change, to really change, if there’s been some questionable practices in the past?
JOAN: Well, I sure hope so. I mean, I hope that there’s chance for all of us to change at any point in our lives. And I think a coach who’s really gifted in coaching and if he’s had some elite gymnasts, certainly more than one or two or three, then he really should be using those gifts in a really positive way. It is hard to imagine that any adult human being who confronted with the outcome of their own actions with a group of athletes, that he really looks at, “Oh my gosh, these girls have eating disorders, XYZ has an eating disorder. XYZ has permanent back issues and competing on a broken wrist, and looks unhappy and is starting to show really unhealthy behaviors”, how that adult person wouldn’t run to the first resource to try to change and say the whole point of this is to produce really terrific, healthy human beings with a very few that are actually going to compete at the very, very highest level. That would be your life’s work, right? Your life’s work is in sports, and it is in youth sports. It happens to be youth elite sports, but still youth sports. So your life’s work, I would think, is to look around and look at all of the girls who are paying for your gym, and that they are better for having spent time with you.
BLYTHE: One thing that I did want to bring up that I didn’t find too much in the book was in recent years some sort of things have come out, that there is a predatory nature in some coaches, even elite coaches, absolutely took advantage of gymnasts sexually. There have been a couple of cases that have been in the press in the past few years and I was just wondering if that was something that the gymnasts that you talked to spoke about.
JOAN: Yeah, some of them did. I mean there’s at least one or two examples in the book. Those are really, really tough. Nothing is in the book that I couldn’t verify, and this sexual predatory behavior was something when girls did bring it up, and there weren’t a million of them, but enough, if I couldn’t verify it with either another gymnast, or with a coach, or parent, or whatever, I didn’t feel comfortable putting it in the book. That’s just not the way I work, but it was extremely disturbing to hear this undercurrent, and get this sense that there was this undercurrent there. And I wish I could’ve done more on that level, really, but I didn’t figure out how.
BLYTHE: I see. I don’t know if we will actually include this in the podcast, but the coach who has really, kind of, been unmasked as having done this is Don Peters of SCATS. And that has been verified now by a couple of his ex pupils and has been banned by USAG and whatnot, and is definitely no longer coaching gymnastics.
JOAN: Yeah I hadn’t heard about him. I talked a lot to Kathy Johnson, obviously, who spent time with him.
JOAN: And his particular name was not one that came up, frankly.
BLYTHE: I see. Was there anything in the book that you wish you had included, or excluded, or done differently? Hindsight being 20/20, of course.
JOAN: Oh boy, you know, not really. One of the things that I’m really proud of as a journalist, that you guys can relate to, is that I wasn’t a gymnast, I wasn’t a figure skater. I was going into this solely as a journalist. I really had to do my homework. I really had to learn a lot about these two subcultures and everything that went into it. And I knew once I had finished the book that there would be a blow back, you know, that there would be a lot of people very upset with it. So I was very careful with it, I knew that if there were any errors in the book, any mistakes, however minor, that they could dismiss the whole book. And I’m most proud of that that didn’t happen. That the reporting stood up.
BLYTHE: Absolutely. A lot of things that we read from, I don’t want to pick on any of the news agencies, but when they cover the Olympics or the American Cup or whatever, they kind of get some of skills wrong. They say, you know, you do a round off double back on the beam, which is not really possible. Did you have a proofreader or a fact checker? Were you showing chapters to anybody and having to say, “If I describe this element wrong can you correct it please?”
JOAN: Oh gosh, yeah. I must have. I had to have because there’s no way, especially those things. I still at the end, with the figure skating I would know the different jumps, I don’t know now but I was watching it I would know the different jumps, about how they entered into it and all that stuff. But I still couldn’t figure out the gymnastics stuff, it all happened so fast. So I must have, and I’m embarrassed to say I don’t remember.
BLYTHE: Do you watch the Olympics today?
JOAN: Can I? Oh yeah, I love it.
BLYTHE: Do you?
JOAN: Yeah, I do. I mean I really look at the gymnasts and they have changed, they are not the same as they looked when I was doing the book. There’s older gymnasts, there’s gymnasts who come back for more than one Olympics, their bodies look stronger. There are going to be exceptions, and I’m just talking about the American team because the Chinese and some of the other teams obviously still look like they’re 12. I think that, and again I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, I’m just looking at it as a viewer, but they look better.
BLYTHE: Absolutely. Wow, and we kind of think so, too. So it’s nice to hear that, and it’s nice to hear that even after writing a book like that you can still, hopefully, enjoy the beauty of the sport.
JOAN: Oh yeah! I still think it’s the most amazing, you know, you watch this and you can’t believe that humans can do this. I covered boxing and football, and gymnastics to me is the most demanding sport there is. By far, it’s the most demanding sport there is. In football, and boxing, and basketball, you don’t have to be perfect, right? You can make a mistake, it can be a bad mistake, and then make up for it later. In gymnastics, there’s no going back. So it amazes me that anyone can do it. I really enjoy watching it and I think maybe because there’s 20 years since I did the book, I enjoy it more now and I can watch it just as a viewer. And just be a happier that they look happy, for the most part, with a couple of exceptions every year. Most of them look pretty happy, they seem pretty happy to be on a team, they smile and it doesn’t seem completely forced all the time, I mean sometimes it does, but I just love watching what they can do. It’s really one of the most amazing things you can see.
BLYTHE: Joan, this has been a fabulous interview and we thank you so much for coming and taking the time to speak with us today. One last thing, can you let people know where to find you? Website, Twitter, that kind of thing?
JOAN: Yeah, my website is JoanRyanINK.com
JESSICA: So, what did you guys think? Like, I was really…I’m really happy with that interview, how that went. I think you guys did an amazing job with that, and I’m just really proud of this crew right now cause you guys did a kickass job, and I was really—it was really interesting that when we asked her if she had left anything out of the book, because there was the mystery missing chapter, she said no, but when we pressed her about the sexual abuse, she said yes, but of course she can’t print that because it’s libel, and Dvora was saying, “You never want to out a victim”, of course, so…it was really interesting that it wasn’t who we thought it was. We thought for sure it would be Don Peters, and it wasn’t.
DVORA: Yeah, I meant that was—it was very interesting, because I’m rereading the book, and I’m reading the stuff about Kathy Johnson and her experience, and Don Peters was a positive figure, you know. Came and encouraged her and believed in her. And it was just, it was interesting to read, again, with the knowledge of what he has done to his gymnasts, and how, you know, and how he was positive for Kathy Johnson, but obviously a negative for a lot of other girls, so…and, clearly, just judging from the accounts, she said no. She had no idea. I don’t think she would have kept him even if she could have outwardly said, you know, “Don Peters abused some of his gymnasts”, if she had known that I don’t think she would have kept his as positively as she did.
JESSICA: Yeah, I mean it’s interesting to think also, I mean, we could speculate on predators, like that someone is not, you know.
JESSICA: That you can’t take advantage of someone, so don’t try.
DVORA: She’s older, he’s not into her, in a sick way.
BLYTHE: Well, that is, that is sort of…it was more, she’s older, she’s not as easily taken advantage of. But also, I see what you’re saying.
DVORA: Yeah, yeah.
BLYTHE: His predilections might have been too old to be a victim, let’s put it that way.
JESSICA: Anything else that stood out for you guys?
BLYTHE: I liked how she said that, when the book was published, she thought the whole gambit of reaction, from people saying, “This is wonderful, you’ve given me a voice that I have never had before,” to what I imagine would be some incredibly nasty letters and phone calls.
DVORA: Yes. And when she said that Bela just denied even speaking to her, I’m sure she has his recording somewhere. It’s like the stupidest denial to make.
BLYTHE: She said that. She said, “Well, it was all on tape, so…”
DVORA: Yeah, it’s just like the stupidest denials, like anyone…I’ve worked as a journalist, and people have said that, “No, you told me that was off the record,” and I’m like, “Do you want to listen to the recording? Because you can do that. We can sit down and listen to the recording, and the parts that you said stipulate that they were off the record did not make it into the article, and the parts where you did not stipulate are in the article. Like, we can play this.” So, you know, this is the most ridiculous, but then, it’s also interesting that, obviously…I don’t know. I mean, USA Today or other publications let him get away with saying stuff like that? You know, that could be very easily…I wonder like what those articles were like, whether they bothered asking Joan Ryan, “Can you verify?” And I think it speaks to one of the things she pointed out in the book, is just how utterly charming Bela Karolyi is, especially back in those times. And, I mean, that’s a flat-out lie. And he flat-out lied and I’m wondering if they bothered calling him on it.
BLYTHE: I did think it was interesting when we asked about Marta, and she said, I don’t know how to put it, you know, Bela was the light of the gym and everything else was just in shadow. You know, he was the larger than life figure, and she sort of blended into the background, such that a person who is writing a book like this doesn’t even notice, really, her existence. That’s interesting. And that was sort of played out when Marta became National Team Coordinator, that always talked about kind of, The Woman Behind Bela, The Woman in the Shadows. And, yeah.
JESSICA: It was really interesting, because anyone who knows gymnastics and who knows that she is the actual coach, he’s just a motivator. He doesn’t actually coach technique.
BLYTHE: Definitely he’s in the limelight.
JESSICA: Yeah, right. And so, it’s, yeah.
BLYTHE: Definitely motivating girls, giving bear hugs and stuff like that.
JESSICA: Yeah. Right. And, I mean, the other thing that I think is we’ve kind of been, it’s interesting to learn as we talk to more elites, that in general, the feedback we’ve gotten from elites now is that they like Marta and they think she’s pretty fair, and that’s in stark contrast to what we heard about Bela from, you know, the gymnasts in her book, clearly, and also the 2000 Sydney team, which is the team that, you know, after that, he was out. So it’s really interesting, and it makes sense, then, you know, that she focused on him and not on Marta.
DVORA: I was so happy that you brought up the 2000 Sydney team when you were speaking to Joan, Blythe, and that has just encouraged me. I feel like we should get them, I would love to have them on, because they’re really the team that overthrew him, you know.
JESSICA: I’ve always wanted to hear that story and how it went down because, even recently, there was an interview with Larry Nassar, who is the trainer and doctor for the team, who’s been for 25, 30 years, and he said that they always have a special place in their hearts because they changed everything, and I was like, whoa. And I’ve always wanted to have him on the show, because we want to know who really sees what goes on, and who really has, you know, such a hard job, it’s him. And, you know, I’ve met him, and I worked with him when I was in college, and he is just the more amazing person, and so, yeah. That was totally fascinating.
DVORA: Yeah. And again, I’m just so happy that Blythe, that you brought it up, because it occurred to make that they’re the ones who, where other coaches couldn’t stand up to him, the gymnasts stood up to him, and even some of the coaches like Kelli Hill, who seemed to kind of balk. After that, he ceases to be a factor in USA Gymnastics. It’s really, that’s a great story.
BLYTHE: And that 2000 Olympic team are still totally outspoken. At the 2010 US Championships, when they got their bronze medal in a kind of Olympic-style ceremony, in Hartford, they were given about 40 minutes with the media beforehand, and they had maybe 15 journalists in the room, asking them questions. And they let loose. Some of it is on Gymnastike, but not all of it, and they absolutely, as adults who have had a decade to reflect on the experience, you could tell there was a lot of just trauma and hurt and probably some regret around the experience that they had, and there were some who were not afraid to say so. And yes, even in 2000, they never were, but…yeah.
JESSICA: Yeah, I think one of the quotes from that is, is it Jamie Dantzscher? We can take this out if I’m totally wrong with my facts here, but I believe that at that conference Jamie said, “We were treated like crap and I’m so proud of how did and how we handled it”, right? Or, “We were treated terrible”, or, “We weren’t treated well, and we…” She said specifically, we did great despite how we were treated, and that’s what I’m really proud of. Something like that, right?
BLYTHE: Something like that, I don’t remember what the exact quote was, but Jamie certainly was the most outspoken of the group.
DVORA: Yeah, and yeah. I wish….so, not all of it made it onto Gymnastike, but was there anything that stood out in your mind in the 2010 conference since you were there, Blythe, that has not been talked about? Like what they said, anything specific?
BLYTHE: What struck me was how, ten years on, there was still a lot of hurt and what seemed like an open wound. And I’m sure that it’s not like that in their daily lives, but when they were brought before the media and said, you know, it was just so unfair for them. They didn’t get to have the great Olympic experience, in the aftermath. They didn’t get to say that they were Olympic medalists. It was just…and you could tell that that had been so hard for them, and they had sort of gone through, the last people to go through, the old system, shall we say. And to have nothing to show for it….there was hurt, and there was sadness, and I think when they sort of got in front of everybody, it sort of came out. Not necessarily for every member of the team.
JESSICA: What really stood out for you in the book? There’s something, reading it now, for me, reading it when I originally read it, I felt both, what’s the word I’m looking for…I felt validated for my gymnastics experience, which, this might surprise everyone who is listening to this and knows how I love gymnastics, but I hated gymnastics so much when I left that I went outside and smashed every single one of my trophies with a hammer. Yes. I did not have a positive experience at the end of gymnastics, and hated it, hated it, and couldn’t even watch it on TV for years, and then I found a way to be involved in it that was good and healthy for me, and fell in love with it on my own terms, which is, I think, why it’s so frustrating for many of these elites, because they’re in and out—not that I was elite, please—and one of the things that really stood out to me now, you know, the thing that was hard was defending the sport from people who thought this summarized all of gymnastics and stereotyped it all, which is, of course, not true. And she makes that very clear in the book, too. But the thing that really stood out when I reread this book, the line that I loved that I wanted to put on a wall in every gym, is on page 36 of my edition from ’95, she says, “Most gymnasts begin the sport so young—as toddlers—that the plague of injuries seems normal. No-one tells them that their bodies belong to them, and not their coaches or parents.” That is just huge. It is, no-one, you know, there isn’t that moment in gymnastics, I feel like, when you’re a kid where someone says to you, you know what, that it’s your body, it’s your life, and it’s ok for you to say no to these adults. That doesn’t…
UNCLE TIM: And I think that’s something that Jill Hicks was really big on in her interview, and really came through, and it’s interesting to see kind of these parallels between what was written in the book, and some of our interviews like that, so, yeah. And it seems like it still is an issue for people, otherwise Jill wouldn’t have been talking about it when she was on our show.
DVORA: Yeah, that’s…that’s a really beautiful quote. I think what’s—I just, my book arrived late, so as I was rereading it yesterday, so it’s pretty fresh in my memory, I was a little bit overwhelmed by, because it almost like, it turns into like a list of injuries and eating disorders. So I was a little overwhelmed. Back when I read it when it came out, when I was a kid, I reacted like a kid who loved gymnastics, and obviously I was not, I was doing it at a very low level so I was not encountering bad. Like, my coach made me get up on the bar after my palm had ripped. That was the worst thing that ever happened to me, and I never, I didn’t have injuries or anything to speak of. And so, I love the sport, and I don’t like to see bad things written about it. And I kind of reflexively got really defensive, and just thought, that, Oh, she’s a liar. And obviously, then, you grow up. And you read it, and you go off and become a journalist, and realize that she was probably not lying. She was definitely telling the truth. And so re-reading it, it kind of, at times—I love gymnastics, as everyone knows. And I feel uncomfortable when I hear about that type of training that some girls have to go through at a very young age, when they’re still growing. And I understand that that’s a necessity, that they have to develop these strengths and these skills young, and hopefully they are getting positive coaching, but I don’t know if that is the case or not. It annoying, watching gymnastics, and knowing that the process behind it isn’t really, necessarily a positive experience for the girl. Or may not be, depending on who their coach is and what system they compete in. And kind of re-reading it and seeing the list of injuries and, you know, and the eating disorders, kind of reinforce that uncomfortable feeling I get at times, when I’m watching gymnastics. Especially if I look at a girl who looks a little beaten down and looks unhappy, it’s like, am I enjoying the product of a very negative system?
UNCLE TIM: When I read this book, many years ago, I mean, I didn’t have the reaction that some people had. I actually kind of believed what she wrote, and I realized that maybe my experience at a gym was different from other peoples, and I also, you know, had friends who would go to camps and have coaches say, “You know, you should lose five pounds,” that kind of stuff. And so I did realize that there was this side to gymnastics. In terms of men’s gymnastics, I mean, I think that it’s very different. I mean the, it’s not, the pressure’s not to be, you know, thin and as light as possible. I mean, part of it is to be big and strong, or at least have a good strength to weight ratio. And so, I don’t think that, at least in terms of the eating disorders, those things are an issue. But, you know, obviously as we talked about a little bit with Justin, some of the sexual issues can be.
JESSICA: And Blythe, is there anything that stood out to you this time reading it? And as a journalist, I imagine the first time you read this, you weren’t a full time journalist, and now, you know, interviewing someone who is doing the same thing that you’re doing for a living.
BLYTHE: The first time I read this I was, like, twelve, and it was shocking, and provocative, and yet I didn’t have that reaction of, “Oh, I hate this, this can’t be right, this can’t be true.” I believed it. And today, I have no problem believing it. But what also seems fair, that should be said, is like, the stories are the very worst in the sport, and they represent one really extreme end of the spectrum, and I think that for every kid who struggles with anorexia, and for every kid who gets pushed around by their coaches or their parents to this extent, you know, there’s like a thousand kids who have a great experience in gymnastics. And my experience in gymnastics—now, I was not training at a very high level, either—was absolutely fabulous. I never had anything but terrific coaches, and parents who actually didn’t want me to do gymnastics, they thought that I would kill myself, and it didn’t seem like a legitimate argument at the time, but you know, these days, again, more perspective, I guess. But from reading it now, I’m kind of like, wow, this is a really well-written book. Really well-written. And I would recommend it to anybody that has an interest in the sport of gymnastics, with the caveat that this is one extreme. That’s all.
UNCLE TIM: And I liked how in the interview she said she does like the sport of gymnastics. It wasn’t just this terrible, terrible experience. She does think that gymnastics can be a good thing. I thought that was an important thing because I feel like some people thought she was just anti-gymnastics and hated the entire sport.
BLYTHE: You know what I think has improved the sport immensely? Social media. Because before, all that we had to go off of when we thought about the life of an elite gymnast was like an NBC fluff piece in which the words pain and sacrifice were really highlighted. But now, you can follow a gymnast on Twitter and you can see them just kind of being adolescent. You can follow a gymnast on Facebook and you get a deeper sense of their life. It’s not always in the gym being yelled at by a coach and doing push ups. They get to do some real things and cool things and they have family and friends. It just gives you a different perspective. And we didn’t have that in the 90’s especially. Although that being said, it definitely seems like stuff was worse in the 90’s and not just from reading Little Girls in Pretty Boxes. In her 2000 update of the book where she adds a new afterword and talks about Dominique Moceanu and Kerri Strug, she has a great phrase where she says something like “the emaciated, sullen little team that they put out on the floor in ‘92”. And when you look back at that, that is kind of how it seemed. There were no smiles. There was no real joy. You can also make the argument, I suppose that if they had won, there might have been a bit more of that. But it just seems so much harsher then than it does now.
DVORA: Yeah and I don’t even think it’s contingent on whether they win because you see the Russians. They didn’t win this year. They obviously ran the emotional gamut. They were happy in preliminaries, sad after team finals. But they also seem much more expressive than they used to. I don’t think it’s just a matter of winning. Just because in ‘92, they got the bronze. I think that was not a particularly happy group of girls. And they did look incredibly small. Compared to four years later, they were a little older. We had a young team in 2012 and they did not look as small and unhappy. Half of our team was like 16.
BLYTHE: And the statistics when you look back at ‘92, Shannon Miller was 4 feet 7 inches and I think like 75 pounds. And even today, Gabby Douglas is like 4’11, 5’0 and you know 95 pounds. It’s just not the same animal at all.
JESSICA: I like how you brought up the social media aspect too. Not only because it’s like yeah we get to see teenagers being teenagers now, which is great. But you can’t get away with the stuff that was done back then because some parent who’s watching will videotape it and put it on the internet. I just feel like if you can hear what’s going on, unless every single parent there is complicit, which happens, people wouldn’t get away with the stuff they do now. It would be on YouTube in .5 seconds.
DVORA: And the coaches cannot be the mouthpieces for their gymnasts the way they used to be.
JESSICA: Our beloved Spanny is out today. As you know, she is in a lovely Emily Kmetko way and sometimes that gets in the way of podcasting so we wish her the best this week and I’m going to go ahead and give you our results for our GymCastic Champions, the winners of our end of the year awards. I just want to thank you guys, first of all, for all of the amazing feedback. We had so many votes. We’re blown away by all the feedback. You guys are amazing! Actually, we decided we’re going to leave open the listener survey part. So if at any time, you have feedback for us, you can put that form in. I’ll move it over to the About page so you guys can keep giving us feedback. All your feedback is really helpful and we listen to it and as you can tell, you’ll notice some changes on the show this week. So let us know what you think of the changes if you like what we’ve done with the format this time. Alright so, our GymCastic Champions. The winner of the Unexpected Delights category, the GymCastic Champion for 2012 is Aly’s parents while watching her do gymnastics. Congratulations to Aly’s parents. Coming in second place was Samuel L. Jackson tweeting about gymnastics. So I think that that means we should absolutely have him on the show.
UNCLE TIM: We’ll have to bleep him a lot.
DVORA: That’d be awesome! This way Jessica will get to figure out a variety of horn sounds to use. Not just one. There will be a chorus of them.
JESSICA: Exactly! Maybe that would be our explicit episode. We can’t censor Samuel L. Jackson! That would be un-American! Wipeout of the Year, the Gymcastic Champion for 2012 is Daniel Purvis for falling on top of the judge who then grasped his thighs vigorously until he was safely on the ground. He is our winner. Video is up on the site. It’s so funny you guys. He won with 66% of the vote so congratulations Daniel Purvis. In the fashion and presentation category, the Gymcastic 2012 Champion is Gabby Douglas for her post Olympic appearances in fantastic styling. Congratulations Dougie. We’re proud. Spanny is going to be overjoyed by this result. Our runner up was Maroney’s gold shorts in Glamour magazine. So that is pretty awesome. First time that people have really liked a gymnast’s spread in a magazine that wasn’t a guy with his shirt off. In our CILF category, the overwhelming winner, a last minute entry, was Justin Spring with 54% of the vote. Very very impressive. And you know we had, if you look in the comments section of the site, there were many more entries for women in this category. We didn’t have any women. We’re all as Dvora put it in the last episode, we’re all oriented in the same direction towards men on this show. So until we have a straight guy on this show, this is how it’s going to go. We’ll just talk about men. So if you look at the comments section, there are many female coaches nominated and pretty much, they’re all from WOGA again. WOGA, bringing the hotness. Congratulations. For our moments of tears of joy or sorrow, the 2012 Gymcastic Champion is Jordyn finding out she didn’t make the All Around in London. And she got 48% of the votes and the runner up in that category is Aly’s face at the end of her floor routine in Team Finals in London when she realized she clinched it for everybody. I love that those are the back to back winners, runner up and the champion. Because it’s perfect. One was like all of our hearts ached and the other one, all of our hearts were overjoyed and it was just beautiful to see that moment. And that’s what sports is all about, those crazy intense beautiful moments. The best photo spread for 2012, also referred to as the slutty category, nude category. Our winner with 52% of the vote is Epke Zonderland. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. If you googled those pictures or you looked at Gymnastics Coaching, they boldly put the photo right up because they don’t worry about those things in Canada. You can take a look at that picture and see why he won with 52% of the votes. The runner up in that category is Danell Leyva for his ESPN Body Issue. The Worst of 2012, the Champion for the worst of 2012, not surprisingly is tiebreakers with a whopping 61% of the votes. Yeah we’re not pleased about that. The runner up in that category was actually Porgras’ retirement, is the runner up in that category. For our wishlist for 2012, we asked who should come out of retirement and the champion, are you ready for this you guys, is Vanessa Atler. Yes. Vanessa Atler won. Because everyone knows that she is the freaking best thing ever and totally loves her. It’s amazing. She got more votes than Beth Tweddle, which I just love that. Love that. Love that. I think that’s the best thing ever. Someday we will have her on the show and we will reward her a special little something for winning this. So congratulations Vanessa. Truly still beloved by the gymnastics community. For the ESPN Body Issue for next year, we asked who do you want to see. Who would you like to see do this next year? And our champion is, not surprisingly if you listen to everyone on the show except for me, Philipp Boy, won with 55% of the vote. Not a shocker. Apparently he is the hottest man in men’s gymnastics ever. The runner up is Paul Ruggeri. Hmm Paul! What do you think of that? Tweet us and tell us. I think you should get in contact and you and Philipp Boy should do it together. Just a suggestion. I mean if you want to make people happy.
DVORA: The internet would explode if that happened.
JESSICA: Yes! It would explode with joy. Ok that’s too much. Wish list for 2013 for fashion asked what should the changes be in fashion for 2013 and the winner in this category with 67% of the votes, not surprising either is to convert men’s gymnastics uniforms to shorts only. Or as Rick from Gymnastics Coaching said the tighty whitey championships. We weren’t really thinking tighty whities but Under Armour should sponsor men’s gymnastics like they sponsor Georges St. Pierre who has a gymnastics-esque body. So yes, converting uniforms won. I just want to thank everybody so much for your feedback. And some of the feedback from the listener survey I want to share with you right now. We had a lot of fun with this episode. It’s our end of the year episode. We just had a good time. We just said what we thought and let our inner feelings out about how we feel about watching hot men be recorded publicly. And so one of my favorite comments from the feedback section that we got, and there’s no name attached to this, so this is one of the comments we got that I thought was hilarious because some people liked what we said and some people thought we went too far. We had a good time and it was the end of the year. So this is the comment: “You were correct on the last podcast. Straight men were underserved in the survey. That being said, most straight male listeners, self included, typically see female gymnasts as girls, even though they actually may be full grown adult women. It might not be fair, but it is what it is. Though, we don’t really think of female gymnasts they way you think and graphically describe the male gymnasts, no harm, no foul. Keep up the great work.Man you female hosts sound like a bunch of guys in a bar. It’s awesome!” Thank you so much for that. We appreciate that and take that as a fantastic compliment.
DVORA: I’ve never been prouder of anything ever than to be compared to a horny guy.
JESSICA: I’m going to put that on one of our t shirts too. I’m keeping a list of awesome quotes from the show to put them on t shirts. Uncle Tim, do you want to talk about your newest suggestion for GymLine and what else it could be used for besides a fantastic service to answer questions about butt glue?
UNCLE TIM: Sure so the past podcast has sort of been about the darker underside of gymnastics and we recognize that some of these issues still exist in gymnastics today. But at the same time, we fully recognize that gymnastics can be a very very powerful experience and a good tool in your life. And so for the next couple of weeks, we ask that you guys write to us and tell us about how gymnastics has been a good influence in your life. Whether it be from a gymnasts’ perspective, coaches’ perspective, or as a fan. Write us an email. We’ll read some of our favorite ones in a couple of weeks.
ALLISON TAYLOR: This episode is brought to you by Elite Sportz Band. elitesportzband.com We’ve got your back.
JESSICA: Visit elitesportzband.com, that’s sportz with a z and save $5 on your next purchase with the code gymcast. That’s going to do it for us this week. Thanks so much for listening. Next week, we’re going to have Elizabeth Price on the show. So send us your questions for Ebee. We’re also going to talk about how the AAU lost their right to represent gymnastics in the Olympics. It’s a history scandal you’re not going to want to miss. We also now have a new way for you to support the show besides rating us on iTunes. We now have an Amazon store, which has our very best gymnastics essentials and recommendations.So if you want to read Little Girls in Pretty Boxes or Dvora Meyers’ memoir Heresy on High Beam, if you want to find out all the books we’ve read and we think you should read including the original gym mom book, Shannon Miller’s mom’s book which is full of very interesting stories and insights, check out the Amazon store. When you shop from there, you can shop regularly and go through Amazon, and a little portion of what you buy will help support the show. Remember you can find any links to what we’re talking about, videos and whatnot will be posted on the site. And you can find us on Twitter, Tumblr now. We’re now on Instagram. We are on Google Plus. And remember you can always send us your feedback, questions for Ebee, you can send them to email@example.com. You can call us on GymLine, ask us your gymnastics questions. Ask a question that you want us to answer on the air. The number is 415-800-3191. You can find us on Skype at Gymcastic Podcast. And that is going to do it for this week. For masters-gymnastics.com, I’m Jessica O’Beirne.
BLYTHE: I’m Blythe Lawrence from The Gymnastics Examiner.
TIM: I’m Uncle Tim from Uncle Tim Talks Men’s Gym
DVORA: And I’m Dvora from Unorthodox Gymnastics
JESSICA: See ya next week!