U.S.A. Gymnastics’ Talk of Reform Falls on Skeptical Ears at Senate Hearing

Ashton Locklear, a member of the U.S.A. Gymnastics national team, detailed years of abuse in the sport.

WASHINGTON — Ashton Locklear, a world champion gymnast who hopes to compete at the 2020 Olympics, did not believe much of what U.S.A. Gymnastics told lawmakers on Tuesday at a Senate hearing about keeping athletes safe from abuse.

U.S.A. Gymnastics is sorry that Dr. Larry Nassar abused so many gymnasts, said Kerry Perry, the organization’s president, in her testimony. U.S.A. Gymnastics is athlete-centric now, she said. It is making it easier to report abuse.

To Ms. Locklear, it was just more spin.

“Nothing has changed,” said Ms. Locklear, who spoke publicly for the first time in an interview Tuesday about being sexually abused by Dr. Nassar as well as experiencing emotional and physical abuse by her longtime coach. She is one of just two known Dr. Nassar victims still competing on the United States women’s national team. Simone Biles is the other.

“The same culture in the sport exists,” Ms. Locklear said. “Athletes are still afraid to speak out. The same mind-set exists, and I know that personally.”

More than 80 victims of Dr. Nassar, the former national team doctor, attended the hearing, including 11-year-old Mimi Wegener. She is a gymnast from Michigan and was 8 when Nassar began abusing her. She had advice for U.S.A. Gymnastics, the United States Olympic Committee and Michigan State, where Dr. Nassar worked.

“I feel like they could do a better job,” Mimi said in an interview after a news conference during which she wiped away tears. “I want to help make sure it doesn’t happen to another kid.”

The goal of these Senate hearings, lawmakers said, is to ensure that the abuse doesn’t happen to other kids. They grilled Ms. Perry; John Engler, the interim president of Michigan State; and other Olympic officials about flaws and loopholes in the system to safeguard athletes. They pointed out that two gymnastics coaches who had been suspended by U.S.A. Gymnastics were still coaching in California.

Credit...Gabriella Demczuk for The New York Times

They chastised U.S.A. Gymnastics and the U.S.O.C. for trying in court filings to deny responsibility for Dr. Nassar’s abuse and, in turn, for the damage he caused the athletes. They asked how parents and Congress could trust organizations that don’t even concede that Dr. Nassar worked for them.

“There’s a moral responsibility here,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut.

Ms. Perry agreed that U.S.A. Gymnastics has a moral obligation, but Ms. Locklear and other survivors said they did not believe the organization was living up to that obligation. Athlete victims do not feel supported in their relationships with Olympic sports organizations and universities, according Aly Raisman, the Olympic champion and outspoken Nassar survivor who attended the hearing.

Ms. Locklear, 20, an alternate on the 2016 Olympic team, said athletes are still at risk for sexual, emotional and nonphysical abuse in the sport, despite U.S.A. Gymnastics’ characterization to lawmakers that the sport is improving its protection of athletes. She said she left North Carolina and her longtime coach, Qi Han, earlier this year to train in Texas because of what she characterized as emotional and physical abuse. She said she told U.S.A. Gymnastics and the U.S. Center for SafeSport, which investigates abuse in Olympic sports, about the abuse in 2017.

“They know about his abuse and they did nothing,” she said.

U.S.A. Gymnastics officials were not available for comment. A spokesman for SafeSport said it does not comment on individual matters.

When reached by phone on Tuesday, Mr. Han vehemently denied mistreating Ms. Locklear. He said he was shocked by her accusations, which included yelling, randomly telling her to leave his gym, and throwing a cellphone at her.

“I don’t know where this is coming from,” Mr. Han said. “I never did any of those things to her or said any of those things to her. Ashton was my gymnast and my job was to protect her.”

Ms. Locklear said Mr. Han’s treatment of her and Dr. Nassar’s abuse had pushed her into depression and that she had even had fleeting thoughts of killing herself. Her mother, Carrie, who worked at the gym, said she sensed her daughter was struggling in 2014, around the time Dr. Nassar first abused her. They discussed the possibility of changing gyms after Ashton Locklear complained to her mother about Mr. Han’s treatment. Carrie Locklear said the family could not afford to make a move.

Ashton Locklear said Mr. Han would scream at her during workouts and throw her out of the gym, saying things like, “Your face tells me that you don’t want to be here.” She described having to follow him around the gym for hours, weeping and begging him to take her back. That would only make him angrier, she said.

He once threw his cellphone at her and hit her leg, she said. During meals, she said he would hover over her to tell her what, exactly, she should eat, she said.

“He would constantly say I was stupid and that he would tell Martha that I was bad and she would hold it against me,” Ms. Locklear said, referring to Martha Karolyi, the former national team coordinator. “I had to walk on eggshells. This is why athletes are afraid to come forward. Coaches have this power over their athletes that keeps the athletes scared and silent. I still feel like I’m terrified.”

Ms. Locklear said that when she told Mr. Han that Dr. Nassar made her feel uncomfortable, he put up his hand to stop her.

“‘You should never be disrespectful about someone who is trying to help you,’” she recalled Mr. Han saying. “‘You should be thankful because you don’t even deserve any of this.’”

Mr. Han denied saying that and his lawyer, Melissa Owen, said Mr. Han’s gym was vigilant about encouraging athletes to speak out about abuse, especially after Dr. Nassar’s abuse became public in 2016.

Mr. Locklear said it was only late last year when she realized that Dr. Nassar had abused her because she had thought his treatments were legal and medically necessary. She decided to speak publicly so she could help make gymnastics a safer place for younger athletes. She said that unless the cutthroat culture at local gyms that instills fear in young gymnasts subsides, the athletes would remain vulnerable to all types of mistreatment.

Ms. Raisman, who has made similar arguments, tried to talk to Sarah Hirshland, who is taking over as the U.S.O.C.’s new chief executive, after the hearing ended, but Ms. Hirshland rushed out of the hearing room.

According to Ms. Raisman, Ms. Hirshland said, “I’ve been instructed I can’t talk to you.”

Ms. Raisman responded: “You can’t just say ‘hi’ to me?”

Ms. Hirshland, who will become chief executive in late August, said no.

Later, though, Ms. Hirshland sent an apology email to Ms. Raisman, according to a U.S.O.C. spokeswoman.

It was all a misunderstanding, the email said, and she was sorry.

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