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Canadian gymnasts call for probe into years of abuse: ‘We can no longer sit in silence’

FILE - A Canadian gymnast performs in the women's trampoline gymnastics final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Friday, July 30, 2021, in Tokyo. AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko

Longtime rhythmic gymnast Rosie Cossar remembers a particular Canadian team practice that was scheduled to last five hours but went well past that.

She said couple of her teammates collapsed from exhaustion. Cossar said the coach kept pressing play on their music, and saying: “Again.”

Read more: Dave Brubaker, ex-Canadian women’s gymnastics coach, banned for life after internal probe

Cossar was the team captain, and at 18 the only athlete at the age of majority. They were in St. Petersburg, Russia and had an afternoon flight to a World Cup in Ukraine. Cossar told the coach they could do no more, they were going to go pack for the flight.

“Her reaction was, `What makes you think you can change my plan? You think you’re the coach now, OK, you’re the coach now,’ and then she stormed out of the gym. And then we were meant to make our own way to the airport. Like she just disappeared completely,” said Cossar, who’s now 30 and retired.

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Cossar said the incident happened about a decade ago, but Cossar said the coach, who she didn’t name, is still with Gymnastics Canada, and that the sport is rife with hundreds of similar complaints, most involving minors, about numerous coaches in both artistic and rhythmic gymnastics.

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On Monday, more than 70 gymnasts wrote to Sport Canada asking for an independent investigation into what they say is a toxic culture full of abusive practices.

“I really want to emphasize that gymnastics is a sport of children,” Cossar told The Canadian Press. “We all start when we’re very young. I started when I was five. You spend more time with your coaches than you do with your parents. You travel the world with your coaches, sometimes you live with them, it’s a very intimate setting.

“When you grow up in that kind of toxic environment, it has lasting effects on your life. That’s your developmental stages, you don’t have any sense of identity or confidence or of what’s right and wrong. You’re extremely vulnerable.”

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Read more: Former Regina gymnastics coach charged with sexual assault involving teen girl

In their letter to Sport Canada’s director general Vicki Walker, athletes said that the fear of retribution has prevented them from speaking out for nearly a decade.

“However, we can no longer sit in silence,” they wrote. “We are coming forward with our experiences of abuse, neglect, and discrimination in hopes of forcing change.”

According to the letter, there have been multiple complaints and even arrests for various forms of emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

Former Canadian women’s coach Dave Brubaker was banned for life by Gymnastics Canada in 2021 following an internal investigation. Brubaker was found not guilty of sexual assault and sexual exploitation in 2019 after being accused of sexually assaulting a young gymnast years ago.

Brubaker denied the allegation.

His suspension remains in place.

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“We know that there are many more examples of harm that have not yet come to light, and we know that abusive behaviours continue in gyms across this country today,” the gymnasts wrote Monday. “The current Board and CEO of GymCan have failed to address these issues and have failed to earn the trust and confidence of athletes.”

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Other coaches include Marcel Rene who received a lifetime suspension from Gymnastics Ontario in 2021 and Rima Nikishin who is currently serving a suspension by the Alberta Gymnastics Federation pending the investigation of complaints. The specific reasons for those two suspensions were never explained by either gymnastic association.

Read more: 2 more Edmonton coaches suspended after complaints; Champions Gymnastics also suspended

Former coach Michel Arsenault, who had been facing multiple counts of sexual assault and assault in connection with five former gymnasts in Montreal, was granted a stay of proceedings in 2021 after being suspended by Gymnastics Canada in 2017.

Arsenault denied the accusations

Kim Shore, a former member of Gymnastics Canada’s board of directors, said she’s taken calls and emails from over 100 distraught parents in the past five years.

Accusations about one coach alone included slapping two athletes in the face, plus “hair pulling, forcible overstretching to the point of injury, telling girls they’re their fat, stupid, ugly, ‘you’re so ungraceful, you must be a boy,”’ Shore said.

“She used to pinch their bottoms to make them clench their cheeks,” Shore said. “She would put her fingers so far up that their jumpsuits would get wedged between their bum cheeks.”

The coach is still permitted to train gymnasts in Canada.

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Gymnastics Canada didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The gymnasts joined a growing chorus of complaints from athletes in bobsled and skeleton to rowing, rugby, track and field, synchronized swimming, wrestling and women’s soccer.

“It can’t be isolated, if it’s one sport, maybe. But now we’re seeing four or five sports come out ? there’s a serious problem with how sports is being run in Canada,” said Rob Koehler, the Montreal-based director general of Global Athlete, an international athlete-led movement founded to address the balance of power between athletes and administrators.

Koehler would like to see a thorough investigation such as the Dubin Inquiry, which looked into Canadian doping in 1989, or the McLaren Report that uncovered statewide doping in Russia in 2016.

Read more: Canadian gymnastics coach accused of sexual assault says apology letter was misinterpreted

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“Surely, we will see some type of leadership, I hope,” said Koehler, whose organization aided the gymnasts in writing and presenting their letter. “I’m never 100 per cent confident, but some type of leadership saying we need to take a pause here and evaluate the current landscape of our system in Canada to either correct the wrongdoings to ensure they never happened again.

“But sport seems to be more interested in isolating and insulating itself from any scandals versus exposing it to make it better ? I don’t think this wave of athlete activism is going to slow down.”

Koehler said it’s disappointing around 90 bobsled and skeleton athletes, who called a month ago for the resignation of their acting CEO and high-performance director due to what they say is a toxic and unsafe culture, have received virtually no response beyond Sport Minister Pascale St-Onge’s plans to do a financial audit.

Also, Rowing Canada announced last month it is planning an independent review of its high-performance culture and governance following concerns voiced by members of the rowing community in late 2021 and early 2022.

And an independent review into Rugby Canada’s high-performance programs painted a damning picture of a dysfunctional organization at odds with its athletes, staff and supporters.

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Cossar, who competed for Canada at the 2012 Olympics, said the situation is particularly concerning in her sport because the athletes are mostly minors.

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“It took me years to realize that a lot of the things that were happening were not OK. I did the sport for 16 years, probably the last six years of my career is when I started reporting things,” said Cossar, who said she documented numerous incidents of abuse and harassment in emails to Gymnastics Canada while she was competing.

“The first 10 years, I was just in the thick of it.”

Shore said the fact parents are groomed by coaches adds to the lack of safety, which was a theme in the infamous Larry Nassar trials in the U.S. Nassar serving a life sentence after sexually assaulting dozens of young women and girls under the guise of medical treatment.

Shore took her own daughter out of the sport when she was 13 due to its toxic environment.

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She said the letter “comes as a result of athletes trying to work with GymCan for years to improve the culture and safety of the sport.

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“Now with over 75 athlete signatures, no longer can GymCan make this about one or two disgruntled athletes,” Shore said. “Add in the coaches who have also signed the letter and it is over 100 people, working as a collective body, speaking up about the toxic environment they are training in and the very broken system that perpetuates.”

The letter also its concerning some complaints directed at Gymnastics Canada CEO Ian Moss, who “wields significant power over athletes’ careers.” The position of a safe sport officer is currently listed as “vacant” on the organization’s website.

The letter was written by 71 Canadians gymnasts past and present, including Olympians and national team members.

Copies were sent to St-Onge, Canadian Olympic Committee president Trisha Smith, CEO of Own the Podium Anne Merklinger, and Moss.

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