Shannon's Story
This story reflects the participant’s personal experience as told by them and may be triggering for individuals who have experienced sexual abuse or misconduct.

I grew up in California, one of five children in my family. I was a very shy little girl. I loved to read. I was not very outgoing. My grandparents and my aunt thought that I should join something and so they decided to put me in dance. I started in tap and ballet and jazz.

One day, I was walking through our dance studio when I was spotted by a man who would become my first gymnastics coach. He was at the studio teaching an acrobatics gymnastics program and asked my grandma if I would be interested in participating. I was very small for my age. He thought I was five or six. I was eight, which was a little old to just be starting out in gymnastics. But he was willing to try, and I immediately felt very comfortable doing it. I excelled quickly.

I began to take the initiative quickly too. I started to train and practice during the summer and would ask my parents to set up different apparatuses so I could continue to train at home. I moved up the levels quickly and started traveling to compete—first to regionals, then internationally. It takes so much attention, so much time, especially when you start competing. I had the support of so many different family members getting my sister and I to the gym and to competitions. Everyone took turns.

My parents really tried to be involved in the sport, but they were also hands-off in the right ways. I always felt like I was the one that wanted to be there, even though I was around a lot of kids whose parents had big dreams for them, and really wanted them to succeed. My parents allowed me to find my own joy in the sport.

The gymnastics community, and especially the acrobatic gymnastics community, is smaller than you’d think. California was a huge bedrock for the sport. We would often travel to bigger gyms up and down state for training camps, or to work with fancy choreographers. It was exciting.

Unfortunately, the coach that discovered me got leukemia at a young age. At first, he went into remission, and he continued to coach us throughout his treatments. But then, his cancer came back, and eventually, he passed away. I was devastated. It was one of the saddest experiences of my life. I was so connected to him and his wife, and they were so good to my family.

After he passed, I went to train at another gym. Then eventually I was invited to train full-time at a high level gym that was an eight-hour drive away. It was there that I met the coach who eventually abused me. He was a dentist, and he was married at the time with a small child.

It was very normal for members of my team to stay at this coach’s home while attending camps or specialty training at their gym. Gymnastics, at the higher levels, is a very expensive sport and because acrobatic gymnastics is a non-Olympic discipline, it was even more difficult to get funding that other athletes received within USA Gymnastics. Staying with a family, in their home, was a common way that people would assist young gymnasts to make things more affordable.

This coach offered to host me at their family home. There were several other young gymnasts staying there too. The deal was that I would stay there during the week, they would facilitate homeschooling, and I would fly home every weekend to see my family.

Obviously, at 13, this would be the first time that I would not be living at home with my parents full-time. My parents told themselves it was like I was going to boarding school—that’s how they put it. They had already made difficult decisions when it came to sending me to international competitions by myself. It was too expensive to send multiple family members, so I would often travel with our coaches or with parents of other teammates who were designated chaperons.

At first, I kept to that schedule. But then things changed or a special competition would come up, and I wasn't able to fly home every single weekend.

There were other things that were different from what my parents had anticipated as well. There wasn’t a lot of adult supervision. I ended up being alone a lot. Our coaches would sometimes faction our care out to older gymnasts or even other minors. We changed hands a lot, which is something I think ultimately made us very vulnerable.

And we were all very sheltered. Most of us were in our early teens, but much younger in a lot of ways. We were used to having intensive schedules and a lot of guidance in our lives—we were always just doing what we were told. It was very regimented and we didn’t really meet anyone outside our gymnastics bubble. We traveled to all these countries, but we usually just saw the airport, the hostel, and the gym.

So even with this very full-seeming life, it was just our little gymnastics world, with the gymnastics people in it. That’s what we knew. 

For me, the abuse started when my schedule changed. I had a partner switch and ended up not being at the gym as much. From what I undertand now, that created a portal of access that had not been there previously. I had a lot of fear around that time because I was worried that I might lose access to training and might have to go back home full-time for a while. So I was kind of in this limbo.

That was when the grooming started. When I was on a more regular schedule, I would typically go straight to bed after the gym. But now that I was getting back a little earlier, Coach began to let me stay up later. 

One night, I was sitting on the couch, watching a movie and doing my homework. I’d just come home from the gym and was still in my gymnastics leotard. Silently, he started to play a touching game with me in front of the television. It was so slight at first, and it happened so quickly. Initially, he made it seem really funny. He was known for having a really big personality at the gym, and for always having a lot of jokes. He was really popular for that. 

At that time, I was very sheltered regarding anything sexual. I had never had any kind of contact like that, but as the game progressed, I knew what he was doing was not supposed to be happening. No one had touched me in that way before. I knew it wasn't tickling, but he was trying to make it a joke and coaxing me to tickle his genitalia. 

I was very uncomfortable and then I ran to the bathroom and washed my hands. 

When I came back, I didn’t want to go and sit with him again on the couch. He said something like, ‘Oh just keep watching TV. That was fun, wasn't it?’ He made it seem like it was just a game we were playing. And then he went to bed.

One morning, a few days later, I was sleeping alone in the room I shared with the other girls. Coach’s bedroom was nearby, and he and his wife had to come through our bedroom to use the only working shower on that floor, since the one in their master bathroom was allegedly broken. 

I understand now that was a tactic. It was also an open joke at the gym, because it took them so long to have the shower fixed. Back then, it was a common thing to hear him or his wife coming into the room to take a shower. 

I was sleeping on my belly that morning, and I woke up with him sitting there on the edge of my bed, rubbing my back. He had tears in his eyes. I was so startled and scared, because I didn't expect to see him, and I didn’t know why he was upset. He didn’t say anything. After a while, he stopped, got up, and went into the shower as usual. 

Another night, after his wife had gone upstairs with their baby, he and I were downstairs alone, sitting near each other while I did my homework. Before I knew what was happening, he quickly leaned over and kissed me on my lips. He said, ‘Oh, I didn't think that they would be that soft.’ 

I knew this level of intimacy was not normal or appropriate. But I didn't know how to share these ‘blips’ in my reality with anyone else. I didn't know how to explain what was happening, and I certainly wasn’t aware at the time that I was being groomed. All I knew was that before, I was in a place where I felt safe, in my normal little routine, and then all of a sudden, things changed drastically. That security I once felt was gone. 

I had been living with them for a year before he really escalated his abuse. 

The first time he tried to rape me, his wife was out of the house. He took me to a downstairs bedroom across from the garage, because he wanted to be able to hear when she got home. He just laid me down, and took off my clothes and proceeded to facilitate oral sex on me. Then he attempted to penetrate me. He did all of this without any dialog of any kind. He never asked if I was okay. 

As it was happening, I began shutting down. That’s the only way I can describe it. He couldn't complete the rape because I was so small, and that made him upset, and then angry. At one point, he stopped, and something along the lines of, ‘I'm going to come back. This is going to happen again. We're going to figure this out.’ 

By then, his wife had arrived home and just that quick, he pulled himself together. He walked out and left me by myself in that room, with no clothes on. 

I got dressed and went upstairs. His wife had no idea anything had happened. He told me to go to bed, because it was past my bedtime and I needed to get up early for the gym. Again, I had no context for understanding what was happening. 

From that day forward, for the next six months to almost a year, he would come into my bedroom whenever he could. Before I was even awake, would start molesting me, which eventually led to him raping me. He would try every single day.

He would come into the room when I was taking a shower, and he would molest me. He would ask if he could pick me up from homeschool and bring me to his office, and he would molest me. He would offer to do my dental work, but instead of completing it, he would molest me. 

He molested me at the gym, when we were supposed to be running errands, and while I was doing my homework. He molested me on the way to the airport when I was going to see my family, and on the way home when he came to pick me up. Suddenly, he wanted to take me everywhere. To rent a movie. To go to the gym. Sometimes in the car on the way to these places, he would molest me in front of his little child. 

There were an endless number of opportunities he could create on any given day. There was no escaping him. 

Eventually, he started to tell me that no one could find out about what was happening. He said I needed to stay quiet—that this was between us. He said I was special and that I was the only one that understood him. But how could a child ever understand an adult man? 

I didn't speak much at all during this period, to him or anyone else. I was way too intimidated and scared. I was already shy anyway. I’m sure he saw that. 

Over time, he started to indoctrinate me against other adults, including his wife. He’d tell me they weren't on my side, or didn't love me the way that he did. I stopped doing things I used to enjoy with his wife, because in my little mind, I just didn't like her or my other female coaches, because he told me I shouldn’t. 

The more he did it, the more I began to feel like I didn’t have anyone to trust. I became argumentative and reticent to participate in new things. 

I don't know what my breaking point would have been, but I got close. I was on high-alert all the time, because there was no safe space for me. At times, he would even molest me in the middle of training. He would stroke me or catch me inappropriately, and for the most part, only I knew it was happening. 

At one point, his wife asked why he was holding me for so long after a catch. But people around us were used to him being inappropriate, so there was nothing overly suspicious about his behavior. He was everyone’s ‘best buddy.’ And if anyone ever challenged his appropriateness, it always devolved into a joke. He’s a great guy. He works all day and then devotes all this time to us

Eventually, people around me began to notice the shifts in my personality—things that should have been huge red flags for anyone that knew better. My parents began to notice as well. They could hear I was upset on the phone, and they started urging me to consider coming back home for a little while. They just thought that it was a result of competing at a higher level, and training so hard. That I was tired, and overwhelmed by school, and all the travel. 

On the surface, I was still a successful gymnast, and I guess that’s what disassociation is. You have to be able to leave your body, leave your mind, but then continue to hyperfocus in other ways. In my head, I was terrified that if anyone found out about the abuse, I wouldn’t be able to do gymnastics any more. I felt I would lose everything that I’d been working toward for so long. And he very much felt like the person who was in control of all of that.

Eventually, one of my teammates came forward and exposed him. 

At that point, the ball started rolling. He lost his gym, and his wife divorced him. USA Gymnastics was contacted, but it was determined he should not be reported to the police. The parents of his victim thought that it would ruin her life if word got out. No one thought to investigate whether there were other victims, in part because he convinced them that there weren’t. 

USA Gymnastics ultimately stripped him of his title as a World Team coach, but they later credentialed him to attend the World Championships, against the wishes of our gym. This was a man that they knew was charged with child sexual abuse, rape, and molestation. And it didn’t end there. 

He was stalking us at the gym and other places, doing things that should have gotten him thrown in jail right away. Some of the parents on our team were professional people—doctors and psychiatrists, even—and they just said he was having a hard time with his divorce. No one reported him. There was this mentality of ‘My kid is good because of this man. He’s been so good to us.’ 

At the time, my parents were also trying to figure out a different coach for me to live with. They didn't know that he had been sexually abusing me, and like the rest of the adults around us, they were indoctrinated to be overly trusting of the gymnastics community. The general sentiment was, ‘God, she's worked so hard, the team is ready: World Championships is not that far away.’ Everything was about keeping the team together. 

We did end up going to the World Championships. And there he was on the floor, trying to get hugs in. When I won that year, he picked me up, and whispered in my ear, ‘This all happened because of me. I don't want you to ever forget that.’ It was wild. 

We found out later that other people within the sport had reported his abuse of other little girls to a top official at USA Gymnastics and she suppressed them. She got people demoted for reporting him. She's the one that made sure that he was credentialed for that World Championships after his Head Coach title was stripped. And she's still in USA Gymnastics now. 

It’s surreal thinking back on that. I’m still trying to unpack that experience, and to put it into context with all the lengths the adults around us went to make it happen. That they could look at us with a straight face, and say, ‘You know, we're here for the good of the sport. We're good people making difficult decisions.’ 

We were just the collateral damage. 

Years later, just before the Larry Nassar story broke, our gym received more reports from multiple victims, and eventually, they decided to pursue their own case against my coach. By that time, many of his victims were too traumatized as adults to testify against him. But I did. 

It was the start of a long journey for me. The judicial process took 13 years of my life: gathering witness statements, investigating, and testifying; 13 years of lawyers and cases and settlements. In so many ways, it was too long.

He continued to coach for years after his first victim came forward. It wasn’t until a new 13-year-old victim was discovered that he was charged. Her parents found text messages from him on her phone, and his ex-wife discovered he’d been using his nine-year-old son’s Facebook account to groom and prey on other young girls in the sport. 

We’ll likely never know how many victims he really had. So much went unreported, and he moved around from gym to gym. He eventually went to prison for a short time, and is now a registered sex offender. I’ve heard that there are still parents asking him to coach their children over FaceTime—just another loophole in the system. 

I’m grateful that I was able to participate in the justice process, because in the end, it was both healing and empowering for me. I was in my mid-twenties at the time, and up until I did it, I wasn’t sure that it was something I could go through with. And so, I don't blame anybody for not participating in our cases. 

I was lucky in that the abuse never took away my love for the sport like it did for so many others. Many of his victims eventually stopped training, or got eating disorders or other issues and quit. This awful thing eventually ruined their careers. Some of these were athletes that would have been magnificent if this abuse had not occurred. 

I’m also grateful, having traveled around the world, that I live in a country where people can be legally held accountable. But there’s still so much we have to improve about the process. It takes so much time, and requires so much energy from the survivors. So many people in USA Gymnastics and on the Olympic committees never faced justice for what they did; some are still serving in those organizations. That’s so painful, and will likely always be painful for us as survivors. 

The truth is, that portion of your life beyond the abuse is also abusive; the trauma continues as you go on. 

I think it’s important for victims to realize, if you're going to be a part of the legal process in any capacity, you need to get as much mental health support as you possibly can. That’s the only way that I've been able to do all these things I have done. And it took me a very long time to figure out what I needed—I’d been dissociating for so long. 

Even now, every time I do an interview or tell my story, including this one, I have a session scheduled with my therapist either right before or immediately after I get off the phone. I do that for myself, because I know I need to continue to process every single thing that comes up, and all the nuance that’s required by speaking about these situations. But it’s so important that we keep speaking about them. 

I would love for everyone who has been a victim to be able to put their abuser in prison someday. But not everybody’s path is mine. I’ve met a lot of brave survivors over the years, and seen how they process things in their own lives. 

We all need something different, and justice doesn’t mean the same thing to every person.