SAN JOSE — First you’ll see the emotional support dog, Beacon, the fluffy golden retriever running around the SAP Center with his tongue out and heart open, ready to wag his tail and burrow his adorable snout into anybody who needs it.
Then you’ll see the name behind every banner and piece of signage: USA Gymnastics, a name once synonymous with betrayal and trauma after the 2018 sexual abuse scandal that rocked the sport.
Beacon will be in San Jose this week to help, his cheerful presence part of USA Gymnastics’ makeover from being an organization that let down an entire generation of little girls to one that is trying to once again become a safe place for elite competition.
“It makes me a little emotional,” said Li Li Leung, who took over as president and CEO of USA Gymnastics in 2019. “In terms of the state of the sport, we have come a long way.”
The headline of this week’s U.S. Gymnastics Championships at the SAP Center will undoubtedly be Simone Biles, the greatest of all time who is the easy favorite in a stacked field. It’ll be her second competition since returning from her two-year break from gymnastics after she dropped out of most of her events at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics while suffering from a case of the “twisties,” a mental block that restricts gymnasts from completing their midair twists.
Her return earlier this month came as somewhat of a surprise given her newfound focus on mental health and the state of the sport when she left it.
It was just three years earlier, in 2018, that she testified in court against the former team doctor, Dr. Lawrence G. Nassar, who was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for multiple sex crimes.
More than 150 girls testified against him. Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, the Michigan judge who gained national fame for her willingness to let so many victims offer their emotional testimonies, told Nassar after the sentencing, “I just signed your death warrant.”
USA Gymnastics needed more than a makeover; it needed a complete tear-down.
Leung, who had been a vice president for the NBA before taking the job as president of USA Gymnastics in 2019, led the charge. She hired a brand new executive leadership team entirely made up of women.
“That was not intentional,” said USA Gymnastics chief communications and marketing officer Jill Geer. “But in hiring the best people for the role, we are all women.”
Since 2017, USA Gymnastics has changed 70% of its staff and claims to be the first American sporting organization to create an athlete’s bill of rights. It reads, in part, that all gymnasts have the right to “train and compete safely,” and, “have their personal health and wellness prioritized.”
The organization began to encourage their athletes to speak up about anything and everything they care about on social media platforms. It instituted more training to educate coaches and athletes about grooming and abuse. It started a mental health program where athletes and coaches are eligible for reimbursements for mental health visits.
“Changing our culture to one that prioritizes athletes safety and health first and foremost was the thing to lead with,” Geer said.
Are their efforts working?
Participation in gymnastics hasn’t suffered, Leung said, with membership in USA Gymnastics holding steady around 200,000.
Last year, the organization polled more than 150,000 members and found that 90 percent agreed with the statement, “Of the athletes I know, they feel physically safe.”
“It was really recognizing that we’re heading in the right direction and what we hope will be a great turnaround story,” Geer said.
What USA Gymnastics needed most was the voices of their most powerful athletes to return.
Biles casually started training again at her Houston gym last fall. She increased her training regimen in January, met with her coaches and decided over margaritas at a Mexican restaurant that she was going to compete again.
In her return earlier this month, she dominated the U.S. Classic by a whopping five points, a rough equivalent to a 20-stroke victory in a golf tournament.
Stanford women’s coach Tabitha Yim said Biles “looked even stronger than before.”
Olympic gold medalist Sunisa Lee, who will also be competing in San Jose this week, told reporters at the Classic that Biles “looks amazing, like it doesn’t look like she took a year off, or any time off, and, like, how do you do that?”
Biles, 26, is the oldest competitor at the U.S. Gymnastics Championships this week. Three-time Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas, now 27, also announced this summer that she’d be returning to competition next year.
“Right now, things are happening in the sport you might never see again,” Geer said. “Athletes competing a bit older, competing through their mid 20s, is uncharacteristic in the sport.”
Upon her return, Biles made one thing clear: “This time I’m doing it for me,” she said in an interview with CNBC. “I worked a lot on myself. And I believe in myself a little bit more.”
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After the Michigan judge sentenced Nassar to a lifetime behind bars, she then spoke directly to the victims in the courtroom: the power would shift back to them, she said.
When Biles steps on the mat in San Jose on Friday, it’ll mark both an individual triumph and a triumph for an entire generation of gymnasts.
Chances are, she’ll win the whole thing.
Just by showing up she’s already captured the most courageous victory of her career.