Constable: Olympic abuses definitely not part of Elgin gymnastics academy's experience
As another Olympics draws to a close, we not only marvel at the amazing talents of the USA Gymnastics women's team, but we hear their pain. Considered the greatest gymnast of all time, Simone Biles withdrew from some of the competition citing mental health issues and said her tears were "because of everything I've been through."
Biles and at least 150 other female gymnasts have spoken about the sexual assaults that team doctor Larry Nassar perpetrated for two decades, earning him a 175-year prison sentence. But there were more issues.
"Gymnasts spoke out, not just about sex abuse, but also about other forms of trauma that the sport had inflicted on them: psychologically abusive coaches who demeaned them at every turn and forced them to train while injured; officials who commented on their weight, leading them down the path to eating disorders; and institutions that knew enough to intervene but ignored the problem," reported the website FiveThirtyEight.
"American Gymnastics Tries to Execute a Dramatic Shift in Coaching of Young Athletes," read a headline in The Wall Street Journal. "Abuse allegations and criminal charges have recast what was once considered tough but necessary gymnast training."
Yet, in Elgin, the sound coming from the balance beams at Midwest Elite Gymnastics Academy isn't sobbing from a victimized gymnast or yelling from an overly demanding coach. It's laughter and cheering. MEGA President Bill Williamson, who owns the facility with former Schaumburg state champion gymnast Steve Merena, says to not even watch the girl attempting a cartwheel on the narrow beam.
"The more interesting thing is to see what her teammates are doing," Williamson says as the girl's teammates let everyone know she landed the maneuver. "They are cheering like crazy. They know what it takes to get there."
For the far more than 99.9% of female gymnasts nationwide who didn't compete in the Olympics this month, the focus isn't on gold, silver or bronze.
"Most of the kids do it because they love the sport. It's a lot of fun," says Williamson, who was a basketball player during his days at Barrington High School but now loves gymnastics. "A lot of people think this is an oppressive environment. But more and more clubs are getting away from that. We started our business with the idea it could be different."
MEGA does feature elite coaches, dozens of competition banners hanging from the rafters, and a competitive program with about 120 athletes who have gymnastics aspirations.
"We had four girls who graduated this year all on full rides to college," Williamson says, noting that about 95% of MEGA's athletes are female. "That's so much harder than people realize. A lot of those girls started when they were 5."
One of them, Madison Steskal of Elgin, headed to George Washington University in Washington on a gymnastics scholarship and scoffs at the idea gymnastics creates a caustic environment.
"It's so the opposite. We all build each other up. I think it's a really cool environment," says Steskal, who has overcome several injuries. "I grew up here. Everything I've experienced has taught me so much and will help me in life. It's something I do. It's not who I am."
Reading news stories about the issues revealed by Biles and the seemingly endless stories of physical and emotional abuse in the gymnastic world is "frustrating," says MEGA girls head coach Roger Pasek, 32, who won 22 state medals and was a national champion at Dundee-Crown High School before becoming an All-American gymnast at the University of Illinois. "That's not our sport. That's not what we do."
He did compete in one elite competition, "and it wasn't very fun," Pasek remembers.
"The main thing is they have to enjoy the sport," Pasek says. "If they are having fun, everyone performs better."
After getting a hug from a gymnast who now competes for The Ohio State University and stopped by MEGA for a visit, coach Kristen Traversa, 33, turns her attention to the girls on the balance beams.
"We pride ourselves on teamwork and building each other up," Traversa says.
Boasting an enrollment of more than 900 kids before COVID-19 cut into those numbers, MEGA has programs for children as young as 18 months, toddlers, grade-school students, preteens and teens, who get coaching about something more than winning medals.
"Gymnastic coaches are movement education professionals," Williamson says, noting his stable of about two dozen coaches teaches kids skills they can use in other sports and beyond. "They learn how to listen, follow instructions and do it in a safe environment. Because, let's face it, before they come here every home is a gymnastics club."
Just as most kids with a passion won't grow up to play in a World Series, be first-chair violinist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, or win Tony Awards on Broadway, young gymnasts find joy simply by participating.
"A lot of them got into it because of watching the Olympics," Traversa says. "But they do it because they love their teammates and the challenges of learning new things."