Amid turmoil, USA Gymnastics takes small steps forward

BOSTON (AP) — The pep talk was short and to the point, a reminder to reigning world gymnastics champion Morgan Hurd that all was not lost.

The 17-year-old had just fallen off the beam at the U.S. Classic last month, ending any serious chance she had at making a run at Simone Biles in the Olympic champion’s return to competition after a two-year break. In the moment, Hurd was frustrated.

And then Tom Forster came over. The newly appointed high-performance team coordinator for the embattled USA Gymnastics women’s elite program pulled Hurd aside and put things in perspective.

“He was like, ‘It’s OK because now is not your peak time anyways,'” Hurd said. “That was the exact mindset I had.”

It was a small moment, one of many Forster shared with various competitors as he walked the floor during the first significant meet of his tenure. He plans to do the same when the U.S. championships start on Friday night. He insists he’s not grandstanding or putting on a show or trying to prove some sort of point about a new era of transparency in the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal.

The way Forster figures it, he’s just doing what he’s always done. His title has changed. The way he acts around athletes — many of whom he’s known for years while working with the USA Gymnastics developmental program — will not.

Forster will play an integral role in figuring out which gymnasts will compete internationally for the U.S. His approach is in stark contrast to longtime national team coordinator Martha Karolyi’s aloofness. Karolyi would spend meets not on the floor but watching from a table, lips often pursed and her face betraying little. It was the same during national team camps, with Karolyi often talking to the personal coaches of the athletes rather than the athletes themselves.

That’s not Forster.

“I never envisioned being in this role, so I never really thought about sitting at that big table and just watching,” he said.

It’s a departure, one Hurd called “kind of strange” but welcome.

“He’s walking around practices and interacting with absolutely everyone,” she said. “I think it’s pretty cool.”

USA Gymnastics’ response to the scandal involving disgraced former national team doctor Larry Nassar — who abused hundreds of women, including several Olympians, under the guise of medical treatment — has included a massive overhaul of the leadership and legislative changes designed to make the organization more accountable from the top down. It has also been peppered almost non-stop with buzzwords like “culture change” and “empowerment.”

A true shift will take years. Forster understands that. Still, he’s taken steps during his first two months on the job designed to create a more open, welcoming environment.

For Margzetta Frazier, the proof came in June when her phone buzzed with a number she didn’t recognize. The 18-year-old decided in the spring she was retiring from elite gymnastics and would instead focus on her college career at UCLA. At least, that was the plan until she slid her thumb to the right and answered.

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