The sexual abuse crisis that rocked American gymnastics deepened Thursday when a 2012 women’s Olympic team coach was charged with trafficking and sexually assaulting a young girl before killing himself shortly afterwards.
The indictment against trainer and gym owner John Geddert once again highlighted the downsides of Olympic marquee sport that emerged from the investigations and convictions of Lawrence G. Nassar, the former US national team doctor, who molested hundreds of girls and women.
The Geddert case arose out of the Nassar investigation and Mr Geddert was suspended by USA Gymnastics in 2018 after being charged with abuse. Soon after, he announced his retirement from Twistars Gym Club in Dimondale, Michigan, the gym he owned.
Allegations against 63-year-old Geddert revealed that a coach who helped the team win a gold medal in 2012 and worked closely with Mr Nassar had committed unreported levels of abuse. It is also now clear that Mr Nassar’s crimes were far from a deviation in the sport known for its grace, beauty and athletic prowess.
The charges were brought by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel. She said the victims suffered self-harm, eating disorders, and suffered “extreme” emotional and physical abuse, including exercising while they were injured.
“Many of these victims still bear these scars from his behavior to this day,” said Ms. Nessel.
Ms. Nessel had planned a new legal strategy to accuse Mr. Geddert of human trafficking. The term refers not only to sexual exploitation, but also to forced labor of all kinds, and Ms. Nessel accused Geddert of “having subjected his athletes to forced labor or services in extreme conditions that resulted in their injuries and injuries”. The indictment was added to prevent coaches and other gymnastics leaders from abusing young athletes who might be too intimidated or scared to speak out.
John Manly, an attorney for victims of Mr. Geddert and Mr. Nassar, said the human trafficking charge could discourage other coaches from abusing or continuing to abuse their athletes.
“It’s an important step in child protection,” said Mr Manly in a telephone interview. “It tells the other John Gedderts that if you do this you will be held accountable.”
One of Mr Geddert’s lawyers did not reply to a message asking for a comment.
Mr. Geddert did not volunteer for a planned afternoon hearing. His body was found by State Police on Thursday afternoon at a rest area along a freeway in Clinton County, Michigan said in a statement on Twitter.
The suicide upset many of Mr Geddert’s victims, said Mr Manly, who spoke to some of them on the phone after hearing the news.
“They were pleased that the AG did what they did, but they were appalled that he could end it that way because they really wanted their day in court,” he said.
He said he told the women to focus on an important snack: “I said they should all put their heads on their pillows tonight and sleep well, knowing that John Geddert can never hurt another girl. “
Mr Geddert, who coached Olympic gold medalist Jordyn Wieber to an all-round title at the 2011 World Cup, was the youngest high-profile figure in gymnastics to be accused of assaulting his athletes or facilitating abuse in the sport that fights to to improve yourself.
In January 2018, more than 150 girls and women abused by Mr. Nassar made formal statements known as victim impact statements against him in a Michigan court, sharing their stories of physical and mental abuse in sports. Some spoke of Mr. Geddert’s tough coaching practices.
Makayla Thrush, one of his former gymnasts, said Mr Geddert ended her career when he threw her on the low bar of the uneven bars and tore lymph nodes in her neck, gave her a black eye and tore muscles in her stomach. But aside from the physical abuse at Mr. Geddert’s gym, Ms. Thrush and other gymnasts were intimidated and persistent psychological abuse.
“You told me not to kill myself just once, but many times, and unfortunately I let you get the best out of me,” said Ms. Thrush.
This approach, taken by many of the world’s best coaches, has been tolerated, and in some cases even encouraged, as it was believed to earn gold medals. Hundreds of gymnasts around the world checked in on social media this summer to tell their stories of abuse and to demand changes in gymnastics organizations aimed at athletes of all skill levels.
Mr. Geddert was part of a coaching system that helped the gymnasts themselves to win these medals at high cost.
Sarah Klein, a former student of Mr. Geddert who was abused by Mr. Nassar, said in a statement that Mr. Geddert “maintained a culture of fear” in his gym.
“It was well known that Geddert and Nassar were close friends and it would have been unthinkable to approach him and complain about Nassar’s actions,” Ms. Klein said.
The arrest and death of Mr. Geddert put even more pressure on USA Gymnastics, the national gymnastics organization, to find ways to stop abuse in the sport. The association is already facing a number of lawsuits filed by the victims of Mr Nassar and Mr Nassar a multi-million dollar deal she proposed last year was rejected. The association too has been through bankruptcy proceedings since 2018.
Some gymnasts, including Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast in history and the sport’s top star, said the federation has and continues to fail its voters. Earlier this month, Ms. Biles, a four-time Olympic gold medalist, announced to CBS’s “60 Minutes” that if she ever had one, she would not allow her daughter to participate in a U.S. gymnastics program because it didn’t make it sport safe .
“I am not comfortable enough because they have not taken responsibility for what they have done and what they have done,” she said. “And they didn’t assure us that it would never happen again.”
Rachael Denhollander, who attended meetings with Twistars’ athletes as a gymnast, described the charges brought against Mr Geddert as “sobering”.
“The reality is that Geddert’s abuse was never a secret,” said Ms. Denhollander. “Geddert could and should have been stopped decades ago.”
Michael Levenson and Shaila Dewan contributed to the coverage.