I got the text from my mom: “Did you hear about Carl?” No, I hadn’t heard about Carl. I assumed she meant my childhood gymnastics coach, though I don’t know why my brain automatically went there. I hadn’t seen or heard about Carl Lechner in 20 years. “He’s been arrested on child-pornography charges. And a girl said he molested her.” And then: “He never did anything to you, did he?” No, he never did anything to me. I understand that he has pleaded not guilty to the charges, and has yet to be convicted of any crime. And none of my friends ever told me about anything he’d done to them, either. So then why was I so unsurprised by the arrest? I first walked into TAG Gymnastics in South Florida as a 5-year-old girl. Carl and his wife, Elena, owned the place. They were also coaches. It was a family business, and Carl and Elena treated you like family, too. Over the next seven years or so, the gym would become my second home. I took to gymnastics like a fish to water. I was long, lean, flexible. I was coordinated, athletic. My body type was not one that allowed me to be a powerhouse; vault and tumbling on floor exercise were never my strengths. But graceful splits and steady balance made me a natural for excelling on the balance beam. I got scores near perfect in the compulsory levels and placed high in the event at most meets. Elena and another coach, Zsuzsanna, were the ones I worked most closely with because they coached beam. Carl typically worked on vault and bars, though he made appearances to spot tumbling on floor exercise. As a result, I was not one of Carl’s favorite girls, did not receive a lot of attention from him. Zsuzsanna and I had the closest relationship among the coaching staff. Carl lavished attention on the girls he liked best — though I never witnessed anything inappropriate. The favorite girls were often at the gym even when they weren’t working out, and he treated his gymnasts like daughters, even inviting them over to the home he shared with Elena and their two sons. He often acted like a big kid, throwing girls around and making dumb jokes. It never bothered me that I wasn’t one of his favorites; in fact, something about Carl always creeped me out. Maybe it was his orange mustache or the shorts he wore that were a little too short, revealing too much of his pasty white legs covered in thick orange hair. Maybe it was his high-pitched voice that put me off. Whatever it was, I never felt comfortable around him. So 20 years later, when the local news flashed his mugshot on TV screens across South Florida, I wasn’t exactly surprised. First came the seven child-pornography charges. Then a woman came forward to say that she had reported molestation to the police back in 2004, but the case had been dismissed after being mishandled by police at the time. My gut tells me more allegations may come. Carl taught gymnastics for at least 30 years. And Carl is not an outlier in facing legal allegations; a new, incredibly damning investigation by the IndyStar found that “at least 368 gymnasts have alleged some form of sexual abuse at the hands of their coaches, gym owners, and other adults working in gymnastics. That’s a rate of one every 20 days. And it's likely an undercount.” This problem permeates every level of U.S.A. Gymnastics (which considers itself “a leader in child safety”), from neighborhood gyms to respected Olympic-level coaches.
What if it had been me, touched inappropriately by some coach?
Gymnastics as a sport is unique in terms of the physical contact required between coaches and athletes. Many of these athletes are young girls, and coaches have incredibly intimate access to their bodies — donning skintight leotards — in order to help these athletes master the skills. Coaches “spot” gymnasts who are working on new tricks, which means they provide hands-on assistance to them. They also tweak the positionality of arms, legs, and torsos during stretching and balance skills. In other words: Coaches have essentially unfettered access to the bodies of their athletes; they are trusted and allowed to touch their young protegées. This relationship likely makes it harder to spot inappropriate touch from the outside. It also may make it easier for coaches to cross physical boundaries with their students, and it may be confusing and harder to spot the violation for young children who have already been told this person is allowed to touch them intimately. As a young girl, I never thought twice about having my gymnastics coaches touch my legs, my hips, my butt. It was part of the sport, it was how I learned, how I got better. Since Carl’s arrest, I have thought about him sometimes. But often, I have thought about all the girls he has coached over the years. I have inquired on Facebook whether any of my friends had negative experiences with him, or wanted to talk to me about him. I called my best friend, with whom I carpooled to the gym after school four days per week, and asked her the question my mother asked me. “Did he ever do anything to you?” No, she said. But still, I wonder. What if the allegations are true? And what if it had been me, touched inappropriately by some coach? I think about, as a mom, how hard I try to keep my daughters safe, how careful I am about what happens in my home, about the words I teach them to use to tell me if someone is touching them inappropriately. And yet how easy it would still be for a predator to gain access to them under the guise of coaching, of sports. And how it could even happen under my watch, with my blessing. I think about all the girls who reported, only to have the adults around them do nothing. IndyStar’s investigation found that, again and again, coaches moved to different gyms or were quietly fired; children’s stories were not believed. I wasn’t touched inappropriately by Carl, but I could have been, by him or another gymnastics coach somewhere in America. And for the girl(s) who were, I hope they find someone to believe them. And if they read this, I want them to know: I believe you.