Why I'll allow my gymnast daughter to continue despite shocking report

Carolyn and her daughter. Supplied
Carolyn and her daughter. Supplied 

For a few years I worried that my eight-year-old daughter would never find her 'thing'.

Her two older brothers both have their passions – my eldest is into theatre and music, and my middle child loves his footy and martial arts. But my youngest just wasn't thrilled by much in an extra-curricular sense.

I tried to get my daughter interested in netball, soccer, AFL, tennis…nothing really grabbed her. Then, a couple of years ago, she came to me and asked if she could try gymnastics. I was hesitant at first because gymnastics has a bit of a reputation.

Photo: Supplied
Photo: Supplied 

I worried about strict diets, eating disorders, tough coaches who don't care about the emotional needs of the children they're coaching. I imagined a lot of shouting and a lot of crying. 

So I waited until my daughter had been asking for six months before I finally relented and said we'd give it a try. 

And although the first day we walked into my daughter's gymnastics school, it seemed like every second person was hobbling around in a moon boot, or had some body part strapped up, my daughter fell in love on the spot. 

Since that moment, not a day has gone by that my daughter hasn't been practising her splits and back bends at home, as well as attending a weekly class. As a parent, I'd begun to relax because the school has been wonderful, and all the coaches have been patient and kind. Nobody has mentioned dieting. I told myself that maybe those were old stories. 

Recently, my daughter tried out for, and was accepted into, her school's junior competitive squad. She's thrilled, and is now training four hours a week without a word of complaint, as well as using cartwheeling as one of her primary means of transport. 

It was around the time she was accepted into the squad, a couple of weeks ago, that the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) released a damning report on gymnastics in Australia, finding "significant cultural challenges".

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Those challenges include pretty much all the things I was worried about: a culture of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, which many gymnasts describe as "toxic". 

The report noted that the "athlete population in gymnastics is predominantly young and female", and highlighted a power imbalance between athletes and coaches, who have been accused of body-shaming and bullying. The report also stated Australian gymnastics has a culture which helped "create an environment where abuse and mistreatment can thrive".

So at a time when all my daughter's gymnastics dreams are coming true, it feels like the nightmare I was dreading is also true, existing alongside, threatening to use this innocent girl's dreams to grind her into the ground.

Photo: Carolyn's daughter loves gymnastics. Supplied
Photo: Carolyn's daughter loves gymnastics. Supplied 

Over three quarters of Australian gymnasts are girls. The average age is just eight years old, and over 90 percent of gymnasts are under the age of 12 – so we're talking about a highly vulnerable group of children.

I'm encouraged that I am allowed to watch my daughter's classes – which I always do – and I've never seen so much as a harsh word come from any of the teachers there. Nobody has mentioned weight or diet, and I haven't seen anything inappropriate going on. But I'm not so complacent that I won't keep watching. 

I've been waiting to hear a response to the AHRC report from my daughter's gymnastics school, but they have been silent so far. 

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images 

Gymnastics Australia has responded, however, saying it "unreservedly apologises to all athletes and family members who have experienced any form of abuse participating in the sport".

"While important work has been undertaken in recent years to improve policies, education and support mechanisms for our athletes and coaches across child safety and athlete wellbeing, there is clearly more to be done.

"The Gymnastics Australia board and management acknowledge this work needs to be underpinned by transformational cultural change across all levels of gymnastics in Australia."

All of which is fine but it's actions that will speak the loudest. In the meantime, I will sit by as I watch my daughter's passion unfolding, hoping that I can continue to watch her blossom and grow as a gymnast and as a person.

But I will continue to encourage her to share her feelings with me, to model self love and boundaries, and to teach her what is okay and what is not okay from people in positions of power. 

And I'll never stop watching.