Friday, November 18, 2022

Goodnight, Good Luck, Good Tweets

 I will be closing down my affiliated Twitter account twitter.com/ozgymblog in the next day or so and will no longer do tweeted coverage of Aussie gym.


Thanks everyone for an absolute tonne of tweety fun since 2008. You rock.


<3 

Meredith

Friday, October 16, 2020

Gymnastics in Australia Investigation: Have Your Say

The Australian Human Rights Commission investigation into gymnastics is now taking submissions. These submissions help inform and direct their investigation - they are not considered formal reports or complaints.

You can read the conditions, and submit your information if you are over the age of 18 (if you are under 18 it must be made for you by a parent or guardian) here.

This is the time to make your voice heard, and help bring about change to what we now understand is a longtime toxic, painful culture damaging our sport. I send my love and strength out if you are having a difficult time articulating or coming to terms with experiences that you had in the sport. We all stand with you. You matter and your experiences matter.

If you are still affected by your involvement in gymnastics, consider reaching out to Adair Donaldson and the team at Donaldson Law.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

#GymnastAllianceAUS: Never Too Late To Speak

(Content warning: Verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse)


Two very tough #GymnastAllianceAUS stories to share today, one brought to my attention via social media and one raised directly with me by the individual involved.


I am, as always, very thankful for (and inspired by) every athlete that comes forward to recount their experiences. It is especially challenging - but just as critical - to hear stories of abusive gymnastics culture when this week has seen celebrations marking both International Gymnastics Day and the 20th anniversary of the Sydney Olympics. Gymnastics Australia spent the week sharing a number of reflection and tribute videos on social media commemorating the people that make this sport so special. But there are other gymnastics stories to tell as well.

Sydney Olympian and Cirque performer Trudy McIntosh - the "pocket rocket" from Kuala Lumpur '98, the name cemented in the women's Code of Points for vault - has come forward to the Geelong Advertiser to detail the cruel and pressuring behaviours she and the women's team experienced in the lead-up to and during the Games. Unfortunately, the online version of the article is behind a paywall, so my thanks to twitter stalwart Moominwhisky for providing photos of the article as it appeared in the edition here.

"Going into Sydney... it was led by fear, not encouragement. We were told, "You're going to do well or it's going to look bad on us." So my memory is of the coach yelling at us. [...] I would be lying to say it was a positive experience. It should have been our showcase, our time to shine. But it was a pressure cooker that exploded. "


I note that Trudy was conspicuously absent from GA's catchup video with members of the 2000 team. Trudy was always one of my favourites as a young gymnast in Victoria, so it was particularly sad for me to learn how miserable and frightened she was when the Olympics are all about celebration and good sportsmanship. Those Games seemed so magical for so many watching. These would have been very difficult memories for her to revisit, so it means a lot that she too is adding her voice to the call for changes in gymnastics culture.


Of even greater concern are instances of sexual abuse in the sport coming to light, especially since the release of  'Athlete A'. Former gymnast Alison Quigley has shared her story with Greg Baum, about the disgusting grooming and abusive conduct by Victorian coach and PE teacher Graham Partington three decades ago. The individual spent just 3 years behind bars for his crimes and is due for release early next year, which in this blogger's view is reprehensible for actions so heinous against minors.

What is most worrying is Alison's strong conviction that she is not alone in what happened to her at the hands of this vile predator, given his lengthy career in coaching and teaching sustained after the incidents involving her. Alison now has multiple tertiary qualifications and is a loving mum, and wants things to be safer for everyone's children as much as her own. She is courageously asking that her story be shared in the gymnastics community in the hopes others affected will come forward with their stories too, and that schools and gyms will take adequate action in addressing sexual abuse incidents. Justice must be done.

Like Trudy, and all abuse victims out there, I wish Alison happiness and healing going forward, and hope that Gymnastics Australia take notice of these accounts given the pending Human Rights Commission investigation into the sport's culture. I for one would have liked this week, in addition to all the sentimental Sydney reflections, to have seen GA make a public statement on their platforms affirming their commitment to gymnast safety and wellbeing at all levels.

 It is not too late. 


MEDIA UPDATE -Sunday 6:10pm

 I've just had a great new piece from gym writer extraordinnaire Blythe Lawrence ping my way. It goes a bit deeper into the history of gymnastics funding and development in Australia and the major issues of #GymnastAllianceAUS as recent as 2018 Worlds, with social media and reported remarks from past elite competitors.


"With government funding hinging on good results at international competitions, coaches were under pressure to get good results, and it trickled down to the athletes. The year [Olivia] Vivian turned 16, “management told me I had to make the World Championship team, otherwise we’d lose funding and the program would shut down”."


My thanks to Blythe for her dedication in getting this important piece out to major newspapers and shedding more light on such a crucial sports issue. 


Thursday, July 30, 2020

#GymnastAllianceAUS: Investigation Imminent

There have been major developments over the last couple of days, none of which would be possible without the courageous voices of Australia's gymnasts past and present.

On Monday evening, prime time news discussion show The Project did an almost-10 minute feature on the athletes coming forward in #GymnastAllianceAUS. This included interview footage from Chloe Gilliland and a video interview by Waleed Aly with Alexandra Eade. Gymnastics Australia did not provide a comment nor a representative for response, but their existing statement was shown on screen.




You can see the full piece as it appeared here, and it is also available on 10Play.


In the last hour this afternoon, GA announced in a new statement at their website and on social media that an official independent investigation will be conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) into the culture and practices of gymnastics in this country.

Their advice and findings will be published in the first quarter of 2021, and made publicly available here.



"The Commission will facilitate a series of listening and focus groups, seek written submissions and conduct interviews with key stakeholders to understand athlete (both past and present) experiences within the sport. The Commission will also review current policies and practices relating to the safety and wellbeing of athletes and the implementation and governance structures around those policies."

Saturday, July 25, 2020

#GymnastAllianceAUS: Media and responses

What a week. 

Thank you to everyone who has expressed support for the gymnasts who started speaking out this week about the frightening and hurtful training conditions they have dealt with. Thank you to those who let me share their stories. What started as a trickle, organised amongst themselves and inspired by one another, has grown into a wave.

To any of the athletes who might be reading this: I hope that you are feeling okay. I hope that you are safe. I hope you can start to find healing, and I hope anybody reaching out to you for further comment or to express solidarity is doing so with tact and respect. Your bravery has spoken volumes.

Special shout out to elite gym Waverley Gymnastics Centre (home of former Olympic and World team members Bonora, Morgan, Miller and Folino) for asserting their support for the movement publicly on their Facebook page.

As all these stories have been coming to light, I have been particularly conscious of the news around the tragic passing of Australian pairs figure skater Ekaterina Alexandrovskaya this week. As with any young person, particularly those in a unique high-achiever space, young athletes deserve fair treatment in their training centres and safe outlets for the times that they feel anxious, afraid or in pain.



If you or someone you know is affected by this week's events, please reach out to Beyondblue or to Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Help is out there, and seeking it is not weak or giving up. It's one of the strongest things that you can do.


As mentioned in my main post below, Gymnastics Australia CEO Kitty Chiller issued an open letter acknowledging the stories coming out and mentioning the creation of a dedicated email address (again, see below for my none-too-pleased reaction to how they went about this!) and listening groups for affected athletes and their families. This statement appeared on their website but was not linked to any of their public social media accounts which I found puzzling.

Yesterday afternoon (Friday), GA released an additional statement from Chiller on their website and on social media accounts, featuring both text and video. GA has announced the establishment of an independent and confidential helpline, where abusive behaviour in the gym can be reported anonymously. 


They also announced in this statement:

 "We have established a Foundation Course Advisory Group with several athletes, who have aired their stories, offering to help develop and drive this new course. This group is charged with building an education framework based on the athlete first and athlete – coach partnership philosophy. The education framework will start with a foundation course that will be compulsory for all coaches and judges to complete in order to renew their Membership. Additionally, all affiliated clubs will be required to have their staff and volunteers complete the foundation course as well."

This is of course not the end of the issue of serious mistreatment in Australian gymnastics training centres. This is not the end of more stories coming out. This does not undo what's already been done. I do appreciate that GA is not denying or downplaying the painful stories coming out. But every voice, every story is a personal truth that still matters in this sport and real change can't start to take shape until accountability and visible, meaningful actions begin.


More. Work. Absolutely. Needs. To. Be. Done. 


In the meantime, here are just some of the media outlets that have carried the story of gymnasts coming forward this week.
The Age/SMH (also appears in the Brisbane Times)
The Age - Greg Baum's follow up article on a previous abuse investigation at the AIS
Australian Associated Press
Newcastle Herald
The Guardian
7news.com.au
BBC World News
CNN
Fox Sports
9's Wide World of Sports 
ESPN Australia and NZ
Best on Ground sports podcast




Monday, July 20, 2020

#GymnastAllianceAUS (Updating Post)

A storm is coming, can you feel it...?

Off the back of the releases of Netflix gymnastics documentary 'Athlete A' and the ESPN podcast series 'Heavy Medals', a multitude of current and former elite international gymnasts have started speaking out about verbally and physically abusive treatment experienced in their gyms.

After horrifying revelations involving gymnastics training centres in the United States came to light and reverberated around the world, the spotlight next fell on British Gymnastics. Numerous celebrated Olympic,World and European medallists from Team GB's ranks have spoken publicly on social and traditional media outlets about their negative experiences. Among the many harrowing stories shared, the most striking accounts came from former elites Catherine Lyons and Amy Tinkler who spoke of competing on serious injuries, forced isolation and emotional gaslighting  leading to premature retirement from the sport. 2000 Olympian Lisa Mason was also very vocal for the cause.

The hashtag gaining traction each day has been #GymnastAlliance

As one of the most popular youth sports in the country, it was only a matter of time before the movement reached Australia. Over the weekend, several former gymnasts from our senior elite national program found the courage to tell their stories, and it is believed many more are due to come. On social media they are pledging support for eachother and for a shift to safer, smarter, more transparent coaching in a modern age. The movement even has its own hashtag - #gymnastallianceAUS


For the record, this blog did not start the hashtag. It has no employment, direct affiliation or representation whatsoever with Gymnastics Australia or its state associations. This blog has previously been given media accreditation issued by GA at the national championships.


 I am not a parent, family member or coach of a gymnast. I am just a longtime fan and observer. I speak on nobody's behalf but my own, unless requested to do so.

I stand with every single male or female gymsport athlete who has dealt with difficult, dangerous circumstances and I firmly believe that every training environment should be a safe and transparent one. I stand with #GymnastAlliance and #GymnastAllianceAUS

I have created this post to centralise any statements and media coverage available online and I will do my best to update it on a regular basis. (Some statements may be over several posts)

Content Trigger Warning: Mentions of verbal abuse/harrassment of children, eating disorders, bodily injury, attempted suicide
* * * * * * * 


Mary-Anne Monckton, 2014 Commonwealth Games silver medallist and World Cup medallist


"I don't want future gymnasts to have to go through the same things we did. However, this insidious culture won't go away overnight..."

Alex Eade, Commonwealth Games gold medallist & World Championship team member
"I was scared to vocalise how much pain I was in [...] I am coming forward because I want change."


Rianna Mizzen, Commonwealth Games medallist & World Cup medallist



Jade Sharp (nee Davidson), 1996 Olympic hopeful turned coach




Chloe Gilliland (nee Sims), 2006 Commonwealth Games gold medallist and World Championship team member


"I still feel horribly about almost all parts of my gymnastics career... I felt it was easier to end my own life than give in to what they wanted me to be."





Olivia Vivian, 2008 Olympian and NCAA Medallist (Oregon State University)






"After reaching my goal and representing my country at the highest level of competition I was a broken athlete and even worse, a broken person. [Competing at OSU] opened my eyes to how this sport should be experienced.  OSU turned me back into that girl who couldn't wait to go to gym."


Georgia Bonora, 2008 and 2012 Olympic team member


"I have had some terrible experiences at major international competitions and national training camps between 2006 - 2012 that I wouldn't wish on anyone... there was a culture of fear created by people in power."

Britt Greeley, 2008 Pacific Rim Championship and 2009 Youth Olympic Fest team member

"Competing on a broken foot at age 12 and being told you were just homesick... training/competing on a broken back and being forced to keep going. Having no support from the coaches who were once your biggest fan, just to throw you down in the gutter... #JustToListAFew #GymnastAllianceAus"


Eden Tarvit, 2011-2014 National vault medallist


"[Athlete A] has brought to our attention some issues within the sport that we may not have noticed at the time. However now is the time for change, to raise awareness and to help protect our younger generation of athletes. The culture in gymnastics is based on fear. We feared our coaches and authority figures. We were not allowed to cry in the gym or show any emotion. We were treated like adults when we were kids, and in the end, we weren't treated like people at all."



Desnee Richter, 2015 Australian National medallist and Olympic hopeful

"The negative memories seem to cloud the positive... from being yelled at and belittled to the point of tears, being forced to wear sweat suits in summer for weight loss as a teen, to being told I was throwing medals away when I sustained an injury needing surgery..."



Shar-Lee Clark, Australian National medallist

"My coach caught me eating [a muesli bar] and made me throw them out in front of the entire team. I will never forget the humiliation of this."


Olivia Brown, Australian National medallist (via Instagram)

"It was the little things that stay burned into your mind years and years after finishing the sport. It was the, your hair needs to be shorter, you need to look a certain way (body type) and act a certain way."


Shannon Neate, Australian National medallist




"I'd like to include some direct quotes said to myself and my teammates while we were training as elite gymnasts:
- You're a disappointment

- Your parents are wasting their money paying for your training.
- You're not injured, don't lie
- Go back to levels gymnastics
- You're an adult and you will be treated like one (I was 15)."



Emily Little, 2012 Olympian and World Cup medallist


"I grew up in an elite system and was mistreated at times. However we can change things for the better... I love this sport, I have gained so much from it, but we can do better."



Luke Wadsworth (men's artistic gymnast), national medallist and World Championship competitor


"My experience with gymnastics was 90% amazing, it's still my favourite sport... however, I heard and saw things looking back that were 100% not ok and being a teenager or young adult it's hard to know what to do when these people are who you look up to, who you have to impress to make teams..."


Kent Pieterse (men's artistic gymnast), Commonwealth Games medallist and national medallist

I recently interviewed Kent about his experiences of racism in the gym and he offered his support yesterday on Twitter to all those speaking out on social media.



Jazmine Casis, National medallist
"I stuck around because I believed that I needed this coach/treated this way to achieve my dreams... When it came to nationals I was not prepared and landed a tumble and my ankle went... I ended up having 2 surgeries and never being able to train at full capacity again. We took this further up in the organisation but was told there was nothing that could be done about it."


Yasmin Collier, National medallist and Pacific Rim Championships competitor (via instagram)

[Our coaches] left five 12 year olds defenceless in an airport. We remember being so scared and remember making suitcase barricades to keep the 'weird men' away."




Paige James, National medallist, Youth Olympic festival competitor and first Indigenous Australian gymnast to make a national team


"I was 14 at another gymnastics camp at AIS and I was struggling to perform a skill. Instead of words of motivation, support and encouragement, I was publicly shamed by being screamed at that I was a pathetic excuse of a person, I was a disgrace to gymnastics, a disgrace to my family and I was a disgrace to the whole Aboriginal community."



Aya Meggs, National medallist and Nadia Comaneci Invitational team member



"There were so any times when the type of adversity we had to overcome was unnecessary...Training camps and travel was a major source of anxiety. I'd get a stomach ache before and after every meal for fear of being caught eating too much."



Amelia McGrath, National medallist and Pacific Rim Championships medallist


"All the highs come with tremendous lows, in and out of the gym: Anxiety, obsessive tendencies, depression to the point that mum used to help me shower because I couldn't do it myself. Waking up every morning to feelings of fear and dread. Disordered eating, tremendous and frankly unusual amounts of stress, being weighed every Monday morning from the age of ELEVEN."



Livia Giles (Gluchowska), Former Polish-Australian rhythmic gymnast turned physiotherapist and competitive wrestler.

"It makes me shake in rage at how anyone allowed it to happen in the first place. Deprived of food at training camps, not only in Poland but at the AIS in Australia... the Aussie swim team would sneak us food between room inspections."



Trinity De Lance Au-Yong, National club gymnast

"Watching all my role models I grew up with coming out and sharing their stories has made me feel like I could come out and share my story too. The toxicity I experienced in gymnastics from the age of 6 to 10 has played a big role in my life... my mom reported it multiple times about all [that] was done and got yelled at, and told it was my fault."



Sophie Stuart, State Championship medallist and state squad member


"I was belittled constantly and told I was never good enough... at my first junior Aus team camp I was yelled at endlessly because I was unable to do a difficult skill. I was told that I was an embarrassment and that I ruined the camp for everyone, never to be invited back.  Hopefully sharing my story will help others create a positive impact..."



Isobel Looker, State Championship medallist and state squad member


"When I was a gymnast, I used to tell my mates that I would 'never put my kids into gymnastics' because of the trauma it would inflict on them. I laughed at the time but I didn't realise the seriousness of this statement... we need CHANGE."


Ebonie Boucher, state and national medallist

"At face value gymnastics seems like this sport filled with flips, tricks and fancy leotards, but behind closed doors it's a whole different world. We were living in constant fear of not performing a skill correctly or meeting the coach's standards, continually being fat-shamed and never being able to shed a tear no matter the circumstances as "Olympians don't cry"... I wonder if the ever coaches knew how many tears were shed by their gymnasts in their home!"




Carrie Freestone, former state-level gymnast turned crossfit athlete


"Me. This is my struggle. I hurt my elbow training on vault. My coach insinuated it was nothing. Told my parents it was nothing... This is not just an 'elite' problem. This treatment is not just reserved for Olympic hopefuls. This happened in a suburban Brisbane gym with other Regional, State and National level gymnasts."



Eadie Rawson, state and national medallist (via Instagram)

"From an extremely young age, we were placed in an environment where we were publicly shamed, and embarrassed in front of peers and superiors. These and many other outdated ideologies, and coaching methods continue throughout any athlete's career, which has lasting effects long after stepping out of the gym... this needs to stop now to protect the young gymnasts in these environments today."


Some things I witnessed over the years as a fan:
* 2004 Olympics: After a fall on her beam dismount during the preliminary round of competition, Lisa Skinner was loudly admonished on camera by national coach Peggy Liddick, "You did that 4 years ago!" after dismounting the podium. Video of this incident is no longer available at Youtube as it cuts off early but I captured it on VHS during the broadcast


2008 Courier Mail article: "Broken Bodies are Tragedy of Beijing Olympics"

"Something must be going wrong – everyone is getting injured, everyone is retiring," Arrowsmith said."All the people I trained with, all the people I competed against – it's like the lost generation, we were one of the best groups."


* I was once sent a screengrab of a former senior gymnast's claim on social media that they and their teammates were encouraged by the coaches and chaperones at an international competition to avoid eating any pasta or bread during the trip. I have not reached out to this individual and as far as I'm aware they have not made a #gymnastalliance statement

The Australian Gymnastics Blog recognises that in recent years Gymnastics Australia and its state associations have affirmed their commitment to SafeSport, among other safety and wellbeing programs. But it is my opinion that this absolutely does not undo or rectify any past poor treatment of gymnasts and inappropriate comments to the media.


*** UPDATE WEDNESDAY JULY 22ND ***

The Age (and its Fairfax sister papers around the country) has published

Gymnastics Australia CEO Kitty Chiller has issued

I still maintain there are many more stories to come out and I will update them where I can with the permission of the athletes involved.This is not over after just one statement to media.

As always, I stand with every athlete in our gymnastics disciplines and send them my best wishes at a challenging time for the sport. We see you, we value you, we support you.

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Skin in the Game: A Q&A with Kent Pieterse


3 years is a long hiatus, but as the old saying goes: there's no time like the present...


In May and June of 2020, a lengthy series of worldwide protests broke out against racial discrimination and police brutality towards the black community, in response to the death of American citizen George Floyd at the hands of white police officers. The waves of the debate reverberated profoundly here in Australia, where there has been a significant history of oppression towards first nation and migrant black Australians. For those readers unfamiliar with Australia's history, this deep pain ranges from colonialism's slavery and forced family separations to constitutional and ongoing socioeconomic inequality, and racial attacks both online and in communities. The 'Black Lives Matter' support movement has gathered in strength, urgency and amplification of its important messages.

In light of this increasing movement, many organisations around the world have expressed their solidarity with those protesting, and asserted a greater commitment to diversity within their structures and the wellbeing of POC (person/s of colour). A number of athletes, musicians and other public figures have been stepping forward to share their experiences with racial remarks, stereotypes and unequal treatment. Some were exasperating, some were genuinely life-threatening; some had been very recent, some were childhood incidents, all were shocking - but not altogether surprising - to learn, as the world has such a long way to go in its striving for peace and fairness.

One such individual making his voice heard is Kent Pieterse.


Image courtesy of Spotify


Kent was a member of the Australian men's artistic gymnastics national team for several years, and represented the country at numerous international competitions during his career, most notably the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. I've followed Kent on social media for a while as I greatly enjoyed his performances on the competition floor here in Melbourne. Now retired from the sport but still coaching, Kent recently posted a series of tweets where he recounted some racially discriminatory remarks made by a senior coach while he was training and the lack of support received from team-mates. I reached out to Kent asking if he would be comfortable elaborating on these experiences, as I felt that as a white person with European heritage it is important at such a critical time in our history to elevate the voices of the marginalised, to listen and to learn.

 As a sport, artistic gymnastics has undoubtedly been shaped by a white-centric gaze and white European techniques. In 2020 the very notion of 'artistry' itself, in a field governed by an open-ended scoring code, is being continuously disassembled and debated by enthusiasts while Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Morgan Hurd, Christopher Remkes, Courtney Tulloch, and a multitude of non-white gymnasts continue to push the boundaries of what is possible on every apparatus. 


I am extremely thankful to Kent for his time and his honesty in responding to my questions.


****************
"I think John Orozco and I have quite similar stories in the sense that we struggled to find where we fit in, but we were both two black guys who wanted to do the best we could for our country but we were made to feel different because of how we looked..."


Hi Kent. Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions.


First and foremost, where can we find you these days during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown period? What activities have you been up to? I see music is still one of your big passions!

That’s a fantastic question!

As far as work goes, I’ve been fortunate enough to still coach gymnastics classes over Zoom live calls, as well as having an online LMS (Learning Monitoring System) which my club had put in place during the shutdown to help kids continuously keep up with and practice their skills and activities at home.

You are also very correct about the music! Just before COVID-19 made everything go into complete shut down, I managed to finish set up and make my studio in the back of my house (bless my amazing fiancĂ©e for being super patient and supportive of it!) I’m currently working on my first full-length album which has been something I put on hold for quite some time as I wanted to focus all of my attention to my last year of gymnastics in 2018 and to do more producing and song writing during 2019. I’m hoping to have it completed and released sometime this year or latest early 2021.


So to give people a bit of background to you in case they didn't know already, you were born in Durban in South Africa. At what age did you come to Australia and what was that transition like?

I moved to Melbourne on the 1st July 2005 with my parents and two siblings (older brother and younger sister), it was solely based on the fact that my parents had both been here and really liked the place. My mother also had family that lived in Perth and Melbourne, so we decided on Melbourne over Perth. I was 11 at the time and as you can imagine, it was already halfway through the school year which made it difficult for me to get a gauge on what the level the education was like (when I was in primary school here in Australia, the year 5 and 6 students were in the same class split up into different colour rooms). I was also starting to go through the early stages of puberty which made for a lot of emotional days missing the rest of my family and friends back in South Africa.

To be honest, it took the rest of that year to transition into familiarising myself with the Australian culture and customs as well as the way things are done (or perceived) to most Australians about the rest of the world. As most people know, a lot of South Africans moved to Australia at the end of the apartheid to start new lives, but I was very surprised that most of my class members genuinely didn’t know about South Africa or thought I lived in a hut and had a lion as a pet. I also had a bit of fun with this and actually went along sometimes before saying “No, I lived in a house just like the one you live in.”



You had already started gymnastics back in Durban. What was starting in gymnastics here in Australia like for you? What kind of barriers did you find yourself navigating? What things came to you easier than others?


I was very lucky to be given a chance to do the entrance test for the then Victorian Men’s Gymnastics High Performance Centre (HPC for short), three days after arriving in the country. I arrived on the Friday night around 11pm and was up and ready to check the gym out by 8:30 the next morning! I remember walking through the entrance and seeing predominantly white male gymnasts with the exception of 3 male gymnasts who were of colour (two were Asian and one was mixed race/biracial). I knew this was going to be tricky in itself, as I didn’t have someone who could relate to where I came from and the hardships that were still happening within South Africa (the country of South Africa we know today only came about in 1994 after the abolishment of apartheid, so realistically it’s only a 26-year-old country where everyone was now treated as equals). I think it took a good two weeks until I was comfortable enough to start talking and say hi to my team mates when making my way to my locker or swapping between the apparatus we were training on.

I think having the self-motivation and drive to push myself without being asked what to do came easier to me than to some of my team mates. From a young age I was taught that if you want something, you need to be willing to work hard for it and not give up. This helped me through some really tough times and taught me to also show my character and my worth through my actions, more than just talking about it and nothing ever eventuates out of it. I also took pride in being a gymnast and not just venturing off and doing a sport like athletics, soccer or rugby which I could have excelled at. They just never felt challenging enough for me and never gave me fulfilment like gymnastics did.



Image by Russell Cheyne/Reuters/Globe and Mail 2014


Throughout your gym career you really flourished on vault and on floor, can you talk a little about any experiences you had dealing with people's perceptions or expectations of black athletes, in terms of beliefs around athletic power and/or speed? Was there an expectation or an ideal that you felt that you had to live up to in the gym on your specialty events, and how did that affect how you trained or felt about yourself?

Initially in the early years as I started making national squads and teams to compete at international meets, there was definitely a couple of times where I’d get the occasional “But you’re black, you have so much power!” or, “This should be easy for you with the leg strength you have.” I remember during a junior training camp at the AIS in 2009 or 2010, a few of us were having lunch and I said “I always worry each time I do vault that if I don’t quite land properly, my left kneecap will break or snap again”. (This was due to me originally splitting and re-breaking my left kneecap back in 2006 and again in 2008.) One of my team mates said without hesitation, “Look at the size of your legs compared to mine, must be all that black power. You’ll be fine.” My response was, “but I’m human, just like you…”

I think as time went on I learnt that I can be a major factor for our team results on floor and vault at a state and international level, as I had a very clean and consistent Tsukahara 3/2 twist on vault and at least 3 different floor routines varying in difficulty depending on what the situation was, and if I needed to hit a clean set or bump up difficulty to catch another team. It was tougher for me during my time as a specialist as I knew I would struggle to find the difficulty on rings being more on the taller side of the gymnastics world. I knew that if I could work on being more of a backup and focusing on execution, I could also be a reliable choice for a solid consistent score. Funny enough out of all the events 
my favourite was high bar, so even though I’m known for my tumbling and vaulting, I’d always look forward to smashing out a high bar routine and at some points in my career, it was my highest start score of the 4 events that I did as a senior.


Right now it feels like we are at a real 'turning point', with the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and systemic racism in the US spreading wider than ever, and starting to bring about major cultural reflection and change. What have been some of your thoughts on seeing this activism and solidarity in action?

I think over the last few weeks that the Black Lives Matter protests have been happening, it’s really shown me just how little I know about the indigenous and Torres Strait people of our country. I’ve been talking to a lot of my Indigenous and Torres Strait friends about their stories, their culture and their ancestors and heritage. I think it’s fantastic that we acknowledge the lands of the tribes that lived on them, but as far as educating and informing our youth, young adults and even our older generations about this amazing history of the first people of Australia, unfortunately we are not doing nowhere near enough! I think I only learnt about the ANZAC’s in high school from year 7 all the way through to year 12 during history and I understand its importance, but we also need to discuss the other heavier things like “The stolen generation” and how “Australia Day” is actually “Invasion Day”.

What conversations or changes do you hope it will spark here in Australia?

As a person who has been an Australian citizen for over 13 years now, we shouldn’t only accept and acknowledge the good things about our country, we also need to accept and acknowledge the bad so that we can better ourselves and our people. Also, it’s 2020! Why do black people in the USA still have to fight to be treated equally or fear that it could be their last day alive when driving or walking down the street because they fit the description of a person who robbed someone or one of the most common excuses being “You look/looked threatening?! We are all human beings at the end of the day, period.


As they kept going on it changed from feeling beyond pissed to unappreciated, worthless and quite frankly, “What’s the point of continuing when I’m never going to be good enough in your eyes?” 

You recently wrote some tweets sharing specific past experiences you had in the gym where you felt your identity was singled out. You mentioned one incident where a senior coach used a racially derogatory choice of words to describe the way that you were standing on the floor mat. How did you react to that at the time, and looking back now would you have reacted any differently?


I remember initially feeling "beyond pissed", as this was a person who I thought had my best interests and wanted to see me succeed and excel in our sport. As they kept going on it changed from feeling beyond pissed to unappreciated, worthless and quite frankly “what’s the point of continuing when I’m never going to be good enough in your eyes?”





Did it change your relationship with that coach or the way that you viewed them? 

My relationship and the way I viewed that coach definitely changed after that conversatio
n.


You also talked about other coaches and teammates not really understanding, or dismissing it, when you raised the incident. What would you have liked to hear at the time?

I think this hurt even more to be honest. Knowing that some of my team mates and coaches who I spent more time with than my own parents, siblings and friends just said “ignore them” or “GET OVER IT”. I can’t tell you how many times I heard those three words when trying to explain the importance of calling someone out for being out of line and disrespectful to others but also when a racist comment, a snarky comment about someone’s “manliness” or a homophobic comment was thrown around with no consequences or repercussions at all. I felt that they would never step up and help when I needed it the most and that’s not just on the competition floor and at training, but just in life.

What is some advice you would give to coaches or to teammates that have a gymnast raise an issue like this with them?

My advice to coaches and my former team mates is, listen to your athletes and you team mates, if they’re going through something and are asking you for help, be there! It seems like a mighty big thing to do but if someone knows that you are invested in them, I guarantee that it will be returned later on down the track. To sum it up “treat people the way you want to be treated”.


You also claimed you were told by this same senior coach, "You're nothing special, you're lucky you are even on the squad". How was this different to the kind of feedback given to other members of the national squad? 

I remember many incidents where a few of my team mates weren’t having the best day and the coach would say “It’s alright, you will get it next time” or “Don’t be so hard on yourself” whereas for myself and a few of my other team mates there was always an urgency to nit-pick all the small things we did wrong. I can promise you this, there was even a time where you would go into a trial for a competition and at the start of the week you could pre-determine who was going to be on the team. As long as they never injure themselves during that time, you knew they would be going to that international meet.Was the person called out for saying these things?

There were a couple of times when this coach was called out for the feedback they gave, but as far as what they said to me, I don’t think any discussion or being called out on it occurred.


[E]very time Prashanth and Chris go out there and represent our country, there is potentially a POC child watching them and saying “I want to be like him and do what he can do!” I say this because that’s what Prashanth was for me.



Have any other ex- or current Australian gymnasts expressed to you that they have had similar experiences, and feel supported by your speaking out?


Yes, they have. I think a lot of them just like me, didn’t know when was the right time to speak out or say something about what was happening behind the scenes. I guess it was this big play of “Hey everyone! We’re one great big family!” but in reality, it was more “I’m going to stand here next to you and put on a fake smile, even though you treat me like absolute s**t when these people or no one is around.” You’d be surprised how many amazing and talented gymnasts left the sport because of this and how many to this day, still feel the effects of those moments that they had to endure, simply because no one knew.


Many of Australia's MAG international medals and rankings over the years have been thanks to gymnasts who came from non-white, non-European backgrounds, including Prashanth Sellathurai, Naoya Tsukahara and Chris Remkes. Can you talk about what it means as an athlete to see diverse representation within lineups?

It's so important! You have to remember that every time Prashanth and Chris go out there and represent our country, there is potentially a POC child watching them and saying “I want to be like him and do what he can do!” I say this because that’s what Prashanth was for me as a junior gymnast and I know that’s what Chris is for many junior and young gymnasts of today.

Kent (back left) and Naoya Tsukahara (foreground) and Australian team, 2014
Image courtesy Instagram

Prashanth Sellathurai (second left) and Australian team, 2010
Image courtesy ABC.net.au

Christopher Remkes (far right) and Australian team, 2018
Image courtesy Zimbio


Diversity helps us to break the cycle and the mould of stereotypes!

Imagine if we said this to every person of the same race: “Oh, you’re Black so that must mean you play basketball and want to go to the NBA.” or, “Oh, you’re Asian so that must mean you play table tennis and want to go to the Olympics.” Firstly, that’s stereotyping and low-key racism at its finest and secondly: is that all you know those races for?! It’s like every time I (and I’m sure many other people of these races) have to say back “You do know that we’re not all just really good at one thing, right?”

I think it’s important for people to see diversity as a normal thing and shouldn’t be surprised if a team is made up of all races and not a predominant one.


As an Australian gymnast with South African heritage, what did it mean to you to compete at a Commonwealth Games (in 2014)? 
Everything! Being on that competition floor I knew I wasn’t just representing my country, I was representing my birth country and heritage for both Australia and South Africa! To be able to say I went to the Commonwealth Games and almost came home with a bronze medal on vault against some of the world’s best vaulters… To even be mentioned in the same sentence as them was insane to me! The craziest part was I originally wasn’t even named on the team! For all my family, friends and all their friends back home in South Africa and Australia, it gave them hope to keep working towards their goals because if I could make it and achieve one of the goals I had set out for myself, so could they. It gave me and everyone around me hope, hope to keep working towards where you want to go.

Image Courtesy BBC Sports Scotland 2014


A lot of athletes and public figures lately have been sharing their stories within the Black Lives Matter hashtag on social media. Are there any that have really resonated with you, and why?

I think John Orozco and I have quite similar stories in the sense that we struggled to find where we fit in, but we were both two black guys who wanted to do the best we could for our country but we were made to feel different because of how we looked. Obviously, his story differs in some areas but I can also relate to not feeling welcomed by my own heritage (being mixed race/bi-racial and not knowing my Dutch and Belgium heritage). All in all, I really did resonate most with his story.


What are some actions you think Gymnastics Australia as an organisation could take (or should take) to meaningfully address racial inequality within gymsports in Australia, and show commitment to supporting the wellbeing of POC?

I think having more representation and events revolving around and celebrating how diverse our country is and how diversity is what makes Australia great!

It would be awesome to have more workshops or talks that involve our past POC gymnasts and them talking about their experiences inside and outside the gym and how it shaped them into the person they are today, as well as using local businesses within the POC community to collaborate with to get more people excited about how inclusive gymnastics is.


Finally, is there anything else that you would like to add?

I just wanted to say thank you to everyone who supported me through my 13 years as an Australian gymnast and for those who continue to support me during my coaching and educational career. Gymnastics has given me so much and even though not all of it was good, you learn to take the good and the bad, it’s the same with life.

 I wish all my team mates and anyone associated with gymnastics in Australia the best both past, present and future and I hope we can all catch up and have great times and memories together.

A big thanks to you Meredith for reaching out and also, I want people to go out and see the world (whenever we’re allowed to do that again) and experience it for themselves, don’t have a bias/swayed image or depiction about a place beforehand. Go and meet the people, hear their stories, enrich yourself with their culture, heritage, cuisine and places that they are proud of!

And finally: “Just be a good person”. Uplift people, show love, empathy, encouragement, positivity and most importantly support.


If people want to know more about my story and the ways that I am helping out the POC community and our gymnasts currently in Victoria, please feel free to email me at kentpieterse1@gmail.com or on Twitter and Instagram @kentpieterse. I’m always happy to catch up over a cup of coffee or tea and see where I can possibly help.


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