USA Gymnastics hearing on abuse allegations against Vanessa Gonzalez postponed
USA Gymnastics general counsel Mark Busby reached out last month to Ashton Woodbury about her physical, verbal and emotional abuse complaint against Azarian U.S. Gymnastics Training Center coaches.
“Mark was supposed to talk to me to prep me for the hearing, get me ready to testify at the hearing,” Woodbury, now a gymnast at Cal, said. “I told them I was ready to talk any time. I was always available.”
But Busby never called, Woodbury said.
Woodbury, the Orange County Register has learned, is one of at least three key witnesses who were initially not invited by USA Gymnastics to testify in Wednesday’s virtual hearing on multiple allegations that Gonzalez routinely physically, verbally and emotionally abused, bullied and pressured young gymnasts to train and/or compete while injured.
Woodbury said no one from USA Gymnastics followed up with her about her complaint or the hearing and that she was unaware of the hearing until another witness informed her of it on Monday. She contacted USA Gymnastics on Tuesday but was not provided a link to appear at the hearing until early Wednesday morning, shortly before its scheduled 9 a.m. start.
“It’s so unorganized,” Woodbury said. “I feel really left out of the loop. I told them I was ready to talk. It’s just really unorganized and really frustrating.”
Woodbury’s frustration continued Wednesday morning. After taking an exam early Wednesday morning, Woodbury skipped a class to testify in the hearing only to be stuck in an on-line waiting room for more than two hours before being informed by USA Gymnastics that the hearing was being postponed to a yet to be determined date. The delay caused Woodbury to also miss an hour of a second class.
“It’s ridiculous that key people that are such a big part of this case are being left,” said Keri Moffitt, the mother of a former Azarian gymnast. “Key people in a huge situation are being left out.It’s almost like they’re trying to silence us.”
Rena Shikuma, a former Azarian coach and the original whistleblower in the case, said she was not initially invited to testify in the hearing and was only invited after confronting USA Gymnastics officials about being left off the witness list. A USA Gymnastics official blamed a secretary error for Shikuma not initially being invited to testify, she said.
Shikuma said she waited on-line for 4½ hours Wednesday before finally receiving an email from USA Gymnastics informing her that hearing was postponed.
Shikuma and Moffitt said Busby told them that Gonzalez would likely be required to undergo education classes instead of being suspended. Busby’s remarks came even as USA Gymnastics received additional complaints alleging abuse by Gonzalez, Davies, Hensley and other Azarian coaches, according to four people familiar with the complaints.
“He told me I just have to tell you in these kinds of cases we think it’s best to educate these coaches and send them back to the gym,” Moffitt recalled Busby saying. “How do you educate a coach has abused children? If you’re a parent and you abuse your children you don’t get your children back.
“This is dangerous to kids. These people can’t be educated after being so bad for so long.”
A three-month Register investigation based on complaints, interviews, Azarian and USA Gymnastics documents, medical records and therapists’ reports, showed that gymnasts, parents and certain Azarian coaches allege that some Azarian coaches regularly physically, emotionally and verbally abused, bullied and belittled, and pressured young female gymnasts to continue training and/or competing while injured.
USA Gymnastics suspended Gonzalez, and two other Azarian coaches, Amanda Hensley and Perry Davies, on an interim basis Sept. 4 pending the completion an investigation of the coaches. The coaches are prohibited from “all contact” with gymnasts under the terms of the suspension.
USA Gymnastics has jurisdiction over emotional misconduct, bullying, hazing, physical misconduct and retaliation related to safe sport complaints involving affiliated members or gyms. The U.S. Center for SafeSport has jurisdiction over cases involving sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, grooming, and child abuse within Olympic sports in this country.
Under USA Gymnastics policy, “if a report indicates an immediate danger or threat to the gymnastics community, USA Gymnastics may impose interim measures, including suspension for the duration of the investigation.
This is the second time Gonzalez’s hearing has been re-scheduled. A hearing scheduled for last month was postponed in part because of the volume of complaints against her, according to three people familiar with the hearing.
Wednesday’s delay was due to USA Gymnastics needing more time to finish a hearing on allegations against Hensley that started on Tuesday, according to Shikuma, Woodbury and two other witnesses.
USA Gymnastics did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Moffitt filed a complaint against Gonzalez earlier this year. She said she was asked by Busby two weeks ago if she wanted to remain anonymous or was willing have her name released to the accused coaches, a step that would allow her to testify in the hearing.
“I told them I would testify,” Moffitt said.
Busby and Jennifer Tarnowski, a USA Gymnastics paralegal, told her they would follow up with her, Moffitt said.
“And I heard absolutely nothing,” Moffitt said.
Moffitt said she sent USA Gymnastics three follow up emails inquiring about the hearing.
“And I heard nothing back,” she said.
In addition to being verbally and emotionally abused by Gonzelez and Davies, Woodbury alleged in an interview with the Register and in a formal complaint to USA Gymnastics that Gonzalez routinely struck her so hard that she would leave a hand print on her upper leg.
“I had a mental block on the beam,” Woodbury said. “And Vanessa on the beam she would smack you (on your legs) if you were sloppy with an open hand hard enough to leave a five-star mark on you.
“I had five-star marks from being slapped hard enough to leave a mark that would last a couple of hours. She would laugh, ‘Oh, ha, ha, that left a good mark.’ I had marks on me all the time.”
Gonzalez has declined multiple interview requests. In response to an email detailing specific allegations against her, Gonzalez wrote in an email: “Thank you for reaching out and your willingness to hear our side. As you must already know, we signed a non-disclosure earlier this week which prevents us from discussing any of the allegations or claimants. I am however, hopeful that there will be a time where we can sit down and I can respond to all your questions.”
Shikuma filed a more than 5,000-word complaint with USA Gymnastic in July detailing the repeated alleged physical, verbal and emotional abuse of young female gymnasts by Gonzalez and other Azarian coaches over an eight-year period. The complaint is one of at least 13 filed with USA Gymnastics alleging physical, verbal and emotional abuse and bullying by Azarian coaches.
“In my own opinion, after witnessing Vanessa punishing and belittling and making fun of, and verbally and emotionally abusing girl after girl, year after year, I think she should be banned from the sport,” Shikuma wrote in a complaint to USA Gymnastics. “I do not think she should be allowed to work with kids ever again.”
In the complaint, Shikuma, 38, is not only critical of other Gonzalez and other Azarian coaches but also acknowledges her own mistreatment of gymnasts and how her career suffered when she ultimately rejected the abusive coaching methods of some other coaches in the gym.
“From my start date of Feb. 7, 2012, to my end date of Feb. 1, 2020, I have witnessed horrific mental, verbal and physical child abuse at Azarian Gymnastics,” Shikuma wrote in the complaint to USA Gymnastics. “As a coach being trained there, I was told to do awful things to the kids I am not proud of. I thought that it was okay and now I realize it’s not. 4 years ago I stopped being abusive to the kids and got silently and slowly demoted because of it. By the end of my career there I was barely able to coach pre-competitive kids because I was too friendly.”
Gonzalez and Davies have been characterized as caring and supportive by more than a dozen Azarian gymnasts, parents, staff and relatives in a letter writing campaign and on social media since the initial Register investigation. The coaches’ supporters said they did not witness any mistreatment of gymnasts by Gonzalez or Davies during their time at or around Azarian.
But complaints to USA Gymnastics, interviews with gymnasts, parents and coaches, as well USA Gymnastics and Azarian emails, letters and memos paint a different portrait of Gonzalez.
Gonzalez told “parents her goal is to ‘break’ kids,” according to a parent complaint filed with USA Gymnastics in August.
Ana Garces-Saldana, the mother of an Azarian gymnast, recalled a conversation she had with Gonzalez about her daughter.
“Vanessa said, ‘I need her to cry. I just need her to cry,’” Garces-Saldana said.
“What?” Garces-Saldana recalled responding.
“She needs to cry,” Gonzalez answered, according to Garces-Saldana.
“I pulled her (out of Azarian) shortly after that,” Garces-Saldana said.
Gonzalez also bullied and humiliated young gymnasts and encouraged other gymnasts to laugh at girls while they were punished for failing to complete or learn a skill, according to formal complaints with USA Gymnastics and interviews.
Gonzalez also had a parent take a mandatory USA Gymnastics Safe Sport course for her, according to a formal complaint to USA Gymnastics by an Azarian coach and interviews. “She made a parent take the test FOR her because she was ‘too busy with other important things,’” Shikuma wrote in her complaint to USA Gymnastics.
The delay with the Gonzalez hearing is reminiscent of USA Gymnastics’ handling of the high profile case involving U.S. Olympic and national team coach Maggie Haney earlier this year. More than a dozen gymnasts and their families, including Olympic gold medalist Laurie Hernandez and World champion Riley McCusker, accused Haney of verbally and emotionally abusing and pressuring them to compete and train while injured. In February, nearly 3 1/2 years after Hernandez first complained to USA Gymnastics and after months of delays, 13 days of hearings began.
Busby and USA Gymnastics told the survivors and their families, and Haney and her supporters that the hearing panel would have a ruling by April 22. But April 22 came and went without a ruling. Busby said the organization actually meant it would have a ruling by April 29 but gave the wrong date because of a calendar error, four people familiar with emails from Busby and USA Gymnastics Safe Sport.
Haney was eventually suspended by USA Gymnastics for eight-years.