Colorado Springs News, Sports & Business

Gazette Premium Content Safety of kids at gymnastics clubs called into question

BRIAN GOMEZ Updated: October 14, 2011 at 12:00 am

Owners of Colorado Springs gymnastics clubs say their facilities are safe places to train, despite a recent overhaul at a local complex that was run by a convicted sex offender and had a coach with a checkered past. Still, former national team members are pressuring the sport’s national governing body to increase control and implement stricter regulations.

It has been more than a week since Mike Zapp agreed to sell ArtSports World, a 26,000-square-foot center on Vondelpark Drive that has specialized in trampoline and tumbling for 21 years, in fallout from his appointment – and subsequent firing – of Doug Boger, a Springs resident placed last year on the permanently ineligible list of USA Gymnastics.

Ten retired gymnasts told The Orange County Register that Boger, a 62-year-old former national team coach, sexually or physically abused them while they trained in Pasadena, Calif., in the 1970s and 1980s. Boger was acquitted on four counts of battering and child abuse in 1982, and he worked at ArtSports as an assistant coach for nine months under Zapp, who was convicted of second-degree sexual abuse in 1987 in Oregon for touching the breasts of a 12-year-old girl – charges that landed him 20 days in jail and probation.

Outrage by parents of ArtSports gymnasts about Boger prompted Zapp to fire him Oct. 5, then after heat from Indianapolis-based USA Gymnastics and the threatened resignation of head coach Richard “Tex” Womack, Zapp signed off on the sale Oct. 6 to Womack, a former roommate with Boger while they attended the University of Arizona in the 1970s.

In an email, Zapp dubbed ArtSports a “safe place for not just the kids, but (for) staff and (for) all who visit.” He called the sale to Womack the result of a “frenzied slandering of a good business,” insisting “other gyms in the area attacked my integrity several times.” He added, “I’ve been open and accurate about the misdemeanor. I’ve always maintained my innocence. Except for this single blemish on my record, I have never received any other allegations in over 45 years of coaching.” Boger couldn’t be reached for comment.

There’s an observation deck for parents, as well as more than a dozen security cameras, at ArtSports, which isn’t a member of USA Gymnastics but mandates background checks for 50 employees and an annual safety certification, according to a statement emailed by ArtSports management after Womack declined comment. Instructors also aren’t “allowed to be alone with a student in our facility at any time,” the statement said.

The statement continued: “There has never been any impropriety or criminal misconduct” at ArtSports. “The recent false allegations against one coach (Boger) concerned incidents that occurred 32 years ago – for which he was tried and found not guilty. The media has sensationalized this to look like a present-day situation, but this is an absolute fabrication. … Unfortunately, because of the bad press, he no longer teaches at ArtSports.”

TRANSPARENCY AT LOCAL GYMS

Keeping everything in the open is the name of the game at Aerials Gymnastics, a USA Gymnastics-sanctioned club with three locations in the Springs, all of which have lots of windows, an observation area and security cameras. Aerials also has a policy at the two gyms owned by Tom and Lori Forster, with 1,200 athletes, that prohibits 55 coaches from contacting students outside of class – no calls, no texts, no Facebook posts, no Tweets.

“We just don’t want to take any risks,” said Lori Forster, in business since 1983. She said she has “never had anything questionable come up” with her coaches, as “the gymnastics community is pretty small. You pretty much know who you’re getting.” But her message to parents remains the same: “Sneak in and don’t even let us know you’re there. Come in and sneak upstairs and watch us.” She said, “That’s how secure we are with our coaches.”

Stars National Gymnastics Village is contemplating a social media policy, said co-owners Michele Maccagnan and Susie Milani, who boast 500 athletes and 20-plus staffers, with sanctioning by USA Gymnastics. The club doesn’t have security cameras, but there’s an observation area, and Maccagnan said coaches go through a “pretty thorough” interview.

“Transparency with everything, that’s how we live,” Maccagnan said, noting that she and Milani “have to be the ones responsible to ask the questions and to make sure that there is transparency and that we know what’s going on.” Milani added, “There’s no way that we would ever hire somebody that we wouldn’t trust our kids with.”

Windows overlooking practice mats are a staple of The Little Gym of Colorado Springs, not sanctioned by USA Gymnastics, with seven employees and 455 athletes. A “full-view policy” prevents children from wandering off, and if kids aren’t potty trained, they’re not allowed into the facility, as coaches are prohibited from assisting them in the bathrooms.

“Parents can see everything that goes on in the gym,” said Tressa Bishop, who owns the club with her husband, Jim. “There are no areas that they cannot see into, and they’re on the same level.” She described the hiring of Boger, a Colorado trampoline and tumbling champion in the 1960s, as “appalling” and predicts the situation will make parents take a “harder look at the type of facility and the type of supervision. … It raises an awareness.”

Zapp’s conviction was common knowledge in gymnastics circles, said Randy Lane, who operates Kinetic Gymnastics, a USA Gymnastics-sanctioned club with seven employees and 200 athletes. When parents would ask him about enrolling their children at ArtSports, he would often respond, “You don’t want to do that. Do you know about this guy?”

So Lane’s rule of thumb is simple: Only hire coaches you know personally. Plus, Lane is almost never out of his facility. “I am here all the time,” Lane said. “I’m always looking out for stuff. I’m always in the gym. Whenever my coaches are in the gym, I’m here.”

QUESTIONING THE SYSTEM

Boger’s name appears on a list of 79 people whose membership has been forever revoked by USA Gymnastics – Boger is marked as a California resident since that’s where he was certified, and the only Colorado residents in the group are James Craig III, an Englewood resident currently serving 18 months in prison for fondling a teenage girl he coached, and Steven Todd Siegel, a Littleton resident arrested in 2002 for soliciting child prostitution.

The list – on the USA Gymnastics website at usagym.org – was last updated Sept. 2, but critics argue it’s far from a complete gathering of coaches gone awry. “I don’t know how accurate the list is,” said Stacey Gunthorpe Reynosa, who trained with Doe Yamashiro, a former national team member who told The Register that she was repeatedly groped by 1984 U.S. Olympic coach Don Peters at 16 and coerced into having sex with him at 17.

“Certainly, not all coaches are pedophiles,” Reynosa said, adding “there are some really outstanding coaches out there. But people really need to do their homework. Parents need to do their homework and not just sort of relinquish their child to someone who promises he or she will make their daughter an Olympian. … You have to be really, really careful.”

A major issue with the list is that USA Gymnastics doesn’t provide reasons as to why a person has been banned, said Charmaine Carnes, who told The Register that Boger began molesting her when she was 8 and started having sex with her when she was 12. “They’re not going out of their way, at this point, to really make parents aware,” Carnes said.

Carnes added that the way in which USA Gymnastics handled Boger’s situation – Boger wasn’t investigated by USA Gymnastics, formerly the U.S. Gymnastics Federation, when he went to court in 1982, and complaints over Boger resurfaced in 2008, yet he didn’t get put on the banned list until 2010 – shows a “real inclination to wanting to sweep it under the rug. … I have a very hard time believing that they had no idea.”

“These girls are in the gym more than they are at home, sometimes more than they are at school,” Carnes said. “So it’s pretty important who they’re with. … There’s no doubt in my mind that some of that stuff is still going on today. We have a tendency to like to still stay hush-hush about it, like it’s a taboo, when it should be brought out into the open.”

Former junior national team member Julie Whitman, who alleged in The Register that she was physically abused by Boger, noted Boger would have no problems passing a “simple background check because he was never convicted.” She asked, “How can a convicted sex offender (Zapp) own a gym and be able to participate in USA Gymnastics-sanctioned events? And how can an individual on the permanently ineligible list (Boger) be allowed to continue coaching?” Of USA Gymnastics, she asked, “Where is the oversight?”

Some have called for USA Gymnastics to make governance changes that would prevent athletes and coaches from non-member clubs from participating in sanctioned events, like the national championships. However, that’s not nearly enough to clean up the sport, said Jennifer Sey, the 1986 all-around national champion whose 2008 memoir, “Chalked Up,” tells of her injuries and an eating disorder, as well as alleged emotional abuse by coaches.

“The level of abuse that exists in the sport is the same now as it ever has been,” Sey said, adding that she doesn’t “know how (USA Gymnastics) could make the argument that it’s not happening anymore, when these individuals (Boger and Zapp) were still coaching. I think it’s a pretty fair assessment to say they probably haven’t changed all that much.”

Sey maintains that “little girls want to please, and they will do almost anything asked of them.” For USA Gymnastics, “they talk about protecting the sport,” she said. “The sport is the athletes, and you cannot protect the sport without protecting the girls.”

Sabrina Mar, the 1987 Pan American Games all-around champion who alleged physical abuse against Boger in The Register, asserted “there are more things (USA Gymnastics) could be doing.” She said, “These coaches are mentors to our children, and they’re very much like teachers. We just sort of take for granted that these people have been screened and that they’ve been vetted, and you just don’t even think about it.”

“Gymnastics has a tendency to look very pretty on the outside,” Mar added. “All these beautiful, little girls. And they’re becoming Olympians. And everything is rainbows and unicorns. And they don’t care to look at what’s possible sometimes.” She warned that “in every sport, there are bad people. You have to be aware that they’re there.”

SAFETY MEASURES IN PLACE

Coaches with convictions are revealed to USA Gymnastics during background checks by the National Center For Safety Initiatives, the vendor also used by the Springs-based U.S. Olympic Committee, USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny said in an email. The NGB has a “participant welfare policy” that has been included with every membership card the past two years, Penny said, and safety measures are hot topics in membership periodicals; in lectures at educational conferences; and in speeches by Penny at member club events.

“Athlete safety is the No. 1 priority for USA Gymnastics, and inappropriate conduct with athletes is unacceptable,” Penny said, adding that “evolving best practices in this area are a source of pride for the organization and frequently reviewed. Gymnastics professionals in the United States are committed to providing the highest level of safety and security.”

Penny characterized the ArtSports incidents as “troubling for many reasons,” although he cautioned that “USA Gymnastics does not have any legal jurisdiction over the business practices of gymnastics facilities, which are private companies. … It is my opinion that ArtSports knew the risks of hiring an employee who had been put on (the banned) list by USA Gymnastics. We remain optimistic that new ownership and leadership at ArtSports could result in a positive direction for the Colorado Springs facility.”

About the need to keep children away from foul coaches, Penny said, “USA Gymnastics will continue to examine its policies, procedures and practices in this area and always be proactive in protecting our athletes at the highest level.” He said he usually asks himself, “Is USA Gymnastics doing everything it can?” His response? “I am confident we are,” he said. “And the organization will continue to be bold in protecting our young athletes.”

Contact Brian Gomez: 719-636-0256 or brian.gomez@gazette.com. Twitter: @gazetteolympics. Facebook: Brian Gomez. For more Olympic coverage, visit www.gazette.com/olympics

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