NEW YORK • Her stomach turned.
She had to read the news twice.
Hailee Hoffman, a former Stanford gymnast, could not believe what she was seeing.
Mary Wright, her coach when she trained at Olympus Gymnastics outside Salt Lake City, was named to the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame, and the timing that day in August could not have been more awkward.
Days before, Hoffman had filed a formal complaint against Wright with the US Centre for SafeSport, an independent body that handles abuse and misconduct cases in Olympic sports.
She accused Wright, who has coached Olympians and national team members from several countries, of years of emotional, physical and verbal abuse.
“I feel morally obligated to speak out because Mary’s abusive coaching was so seriously damaging that it’s taken me years to process the extent of it,” said Hoffman, 24.
“It’s crazy to celebrate someone like that, especially right now when the sport is trying to get away from its toxic culture.”
Wright did not answer several e-mail and phone messages. USA Gymnastics stood by the award, saying no complaint had been received at the time the decision was made to bestow it in 2017 or before the day of the announcement in August.
The Centre for SafeSport forwarded Hoffman’s complaint to the federation two days after the award was made public.
USA Gymnastics said in a statement that it “would reconsider the induction if and when a case is adjudicated, if necessary”.
FINDING HER VOICE
I feel morally obligated to speak out because Mary’s abusive coaching was so seriously damaging that it’s taken me years to process the extent of it.
Four other gymnasts and three parents of children who trained at Olympus Gymnastics also told The New York Times that they – or in the case of the parents, their children – were abused by Wright.
One coach who worked alongside Wright for more than a decade said she was aghast when the latter was named to the Hall of Fame because she believed Wright had treated her gymnasts harshly.
All but one of those people who confirmed Hoffman’s accusations asked to remain anonymous because they are still connected to the sport and feared retribution.
Kelle Land, whose young daughter trained at Olympus Gymnastics for four years, said she was preparing to join Hoffman’s case against Wright.
Land was so turned off by the coaching at Olympus, she said, that she switched to another gym.
“Mary would be downright mean, awful and hurtful to the girls, and it was almost like she wanted to see how badly she could emotionally degrade those kids or physically break them,” she said.
“You would think USA Gymnastics would do everything in its power to get these bad coaches out of the system and not, at the very least, applaud them.”
The accusations have surfaced as hundreds of gymnasts worldwide have spoken out recently about an oppressive culture in the sport that they feel has been driven by tyrannical coaches who scare young athletes into obedience.
The gymnasts said it went beyond tough coaching and crossed into emotional or physical abuse. Many spoke out after watching the Netflix documentary “Athlete A”, which chronicles gymnastics’ punishing culture and the sexual abuse inflicted on more than 200 girls and women by Larry Nassar, a former US national team doctor who is serving a lengthy prison term.
Morinari Watanabe, president of the International Gymnastics Federation, said in an online address last month that the mentality of coaches trying to gain “absolute power” over their athletes is an antiquated, dangerous way of coaching.
“If we don’t break it, the problem will continue forever,” he added.
Hoffman said Wright perpetuated the sport’s abusive culture. She claimed Wright had publicly ridiculed her, calling her stupid, lazy and fat, and pressured her to train while injured, including on what turned out to be two broken ankles.
Hoffman, who retired from the sport after her 2019 season at Stanford, said training under Wright caused panic attacks, depression, a recurring battle with bulimia and a damaged self-esteem that has affected her personal relationships.
To keep Wright from harming more children, Hoffman plans to push for her to receive a lifetime ban from the sport because “the pain she caused so many young girls was just so lasting”.
Wright, 70, started coaching gymnastics as a teenager in her native New Zealand, before moving to the United States in 1975, where she quickly rose in the sport.
For about a decade, starting in 1979, she worked with Don Peters, the 1984 Olympic coach, as his assistant at Scats Gymnastics in California.
Peters has since been barred for life after accusations he had sex with several gymnasts under him in the 80s.
At Olympus Gymnastics, the Utah club Wright opened in 1993, she prided herself on helping dozens of gymnasts, including Hoffman – more than 100 in all, by her count – earn college scholarships in the sport.
In recent years, Wright had been working with New Zealand’s national team and is now one of many coaches there under investigation by an independent commission organised by Gymnastics New Zealand, the national programme, for emotional abuse, physical abuse and bullying.
The independent review, led by David Howman, the former director-general of the World Anti-Doping Agency, is looking at specific cases of physical and psychological abuse at both the club-and national-team levels, and also examining the sport’s culture.