Joanne's* story, as told to Dylan Cleaver
A big chunk of my childhood was stolen. I didn't realise it at the time but now I can see that my "normal" wasn't normal at all.
From the age of 8 to 14, I was training for 24 hours a week. That's six days a week, four hours a day.
For what? For a few regional and national titles that are pretty meaningless in all reality? To boost the marketing potential of my coach and my gym? To please my mum?
These are questions I ponder. All I know for certain is that it has been a long time since I did it for me.
I started recreational gym when I was 8. After a few months I was tested and offered a place in the competitive squad. I was put with a European coach who was very good. She was the best coach I had in terms of technique.
When you're younger it is like a honeymoon period. You're not subject to any of the brutal abuse you get later on – well, I wasn't at least.
What I did notice from the start was a weird political dynamic. I wouldn't have had the words to describe it back then but even as a kid you could just sense the toxic atmosphere around the gym.
You see it's not just the athletes competing for the attention of their coaches; it's the parents – mostly mums, but not always. They want to get their "ins" with the coaches knowing that a cosy relationship will benefit their daughter's prospects.
Kids would get stuck in the middle of these power struggles between parents. It was horrible.
I know this, because my mum was one of them. Snarky texts would be shared with coaches, sometimes unflattering pictures to put down other girls about their weight.
This political game creates tension between the girls.
It will be happening now. Parents will be using this situation as a way of gaining favour at the club. They'll be telling the coaches they don't believe the athletes; that they've never seen any abuse; that they fully support them.
And although I was a member of North Harbour and saw it all happen with my own eyes, you can bet it happens to varying degrees at most clubs around the country. It's just the culture of gymnastics.
They can deny it as much as they like, but they do make you train through injuries. Often it was done in a passive-aggressive way – the "as gymnasts you have to learn to perform through pain" line – but other times it spilled into outright aggression.
I have seen gymnasts crying in pain with coaches standing over them yelling at them to stop being weak. What that leads to is girls hiding their injuries. Nobody wants to admit they're too sore to do a certain skill. So you grin and bear it, you do it, you do it badly and you get yelled at anyway. There is no win here.
There was a time I'll never forget. I had a foot injury that was getting worse to the point where I couldn't put any weight on it without pain. It made it hard to do tumbles. I was obviously struggling but my coach told me it was nothing, just completely disregarded it.
Even my mum agreed. They wouldn't let me sit down; they made me keep doing it and said they didn't care if my feet hurt. I don't know what hurt more: my feet or the fact nobody, not even my mum, believed me.
My worst injury came in 2015 when my spotter – the coach's husband – was distracted during a difficult dismount from the bar. I was dropped and the coach came running over to tell me, "It was your fault". Sympathy wasn't an option. I broke my elbow, which required two surgeries to fix.
There was a lot of fat-shaming – lots of comments about weight. Many of my colleagues, young girls remember, told me that they were encouraged to go on diets. They would be so tired because they were hungry.
When I was out with an injury that was too severe to ignore, the broken elbow, my coach encouraged my mum to feed me weight-loss drinks. When you train for 24 hours a week and suddenly you're down to zero, they worry that you're going to grow. Training excessively was seen as a great way to stunt growth. They never liked you to take breaks away from the sport.
I was 12. There was nothing wrong with my weight. Technically, I would have been considered underweight. My BMI was so low.
That led to a lot of issues for me. I'd loosely call them eating disorders but I don't want to compare myself to others. Everyone's story is different, but I can tell you that if you're looking around a gym full of competitive female gymnasts, some of those kids will have eating issues.
My coach would sometimes come to my house. It was my house. It was where I chilled out. I'd come into the kitchen to get some food as she'd make comments like, "You're going to get fat eating that". I didn't know what to do. These were just everyday normal Kiwi foods – what was I allowed to eat?
As soon as you grow a bit and start developing a woman's body, you'll find yourself being compared to the young girls in the gym. It's so gross. It's just unnatural.
There was a time a judge was brought in, a national judge, to watch our routines and make comments. As soon as my mum left the room the judge turned to me and said, "Your legs aren't as skinny as they used to be."
I'll try to explain what a comment like that feels like when you're 12. For a start it's an overwhelming sadness. Then it's embarrassment. Throw in a bit of guilt too, because you've obviously done something wrong.
You look at yourself in the mirror and you suddenly don't like what you see.
Do you know how long it takes to get a comment like that out of your head? I'll tell you when I know because I can still hear it.
This judge, brought in by the club, had other ways of whittling away at my confidence. I was in a group that was being prepared to compete in overseas meetings and she would tell me I needed to get out of that programme and go back to something more my level. Thanks for that.
While some of the abuse can have dangerous consequences, some of it is just petty and so unnecessary. Let me illustrate.
I was working with a coach one day and I was having trouble with a certain skill on the beam. It happens. Like all sportsmen and women, some days it's just not happening for you. I was old enough by now to know to listen to my body and it wasn't giving me good messages this day.
It was a really difficult skill and I was struggling with it on the low beam – a flic layout (back handspring immediately followed with a connected back somersault). She wanted me to do it on the high beam. I went up to her and quietly said I just can't do it today because I'm not feeling comfortable. She was insistent: "No, you have to do it. It's not your decision to make".
So I thought, "okay maybe I am being a bit stupid."
On my first attempt, my foot slipped after the first handspring and I continued rotating into the second somersault skimming past the beam with my ribs and landing on my upper back, narrowly missing landing on my neck.
When I sat up adjusting to the shock, the coach came over and told me to "get up" and "do it again". She never checked to see if I was hurt.
After refusing because I was scared – yes, scared – the coach told me that my "training session was over". I was made to wait outside for the remaining hour in winter, without a jacket, until my mum could pick me up at 8pm.
About 20 minutes later the coach came to get me, saying she wanted a word. She took me into the staff room and told me that she had to make me perform on the high beam against my will to "show the other girls" that she was "in charge".
My safety was compromised for her own sense of authority.
You're probably wondering why you stay in the sport. I've heard that quite a bit. Just get out. Looking back it is hard to explain. I can only say it's because we are victims of classic gaslighting: you're being told all the time it's just normal, it's just what happens.
So yeah, the negative culture of gymnastics can have serious esteem consequences that can take years to get over.
I'm still dealing with it. By telling my story like this I hope some of the weight can be lifted.
*Name changed on request. Joanne is now 16.
North Harbour Gymnastics responds
In response to Joanne's allegations, North Harbour Gymnastics chief executive Mike Thompson issued the following statement:
North Harbour Gymnastics acknowledges and is open to receiving the allegations published and treat them with the utmost seriousness and importance. We will investigate them with urgency.
The board met on Saturday and have been discussing matters daily since. We are confirming an action plan and reconfirming the work that has and is being done currently.
We held an open forum on Tuesday night to discuss the allegations and work that had been done over the last few years and will be done going forward – 58 attended.
In motion are the following:
1. Confirming Sports Chaplaincy and Employee Assistance Programme services for independent and anonymous counselling support for gymnasts, families and staff.
2. Establishing a representative task force to address concerns and recommend a path forward.
3. Engaging an independent safety officer in addition to our current Health and Safety Lead to ensure the safety of coaches and gymnasts.
4. Engagement of independent safeguarding consultants to advise our work.
5. Confirmation of an updated member protection policy (including staff) and complaints procedure (which was received 27th July and is in its second draft).
6. The one case we have specific knowledge of will be independently investigated.
We don't have the ability to investigate anything else currently as we don't know when they took place or the coaches involved.
7. 360 degree review of the programme.
8. Anonymous survey of members to get quantitative data on programme satisfaction.
9. More forums.
Mechanisms for safe and anonymous feedback and complaints will be confirmed at a local level shortly.
The national Interim Complaints Mechanism has been put in place and is available currently via the GNZ website.
We encourage all feedback as we continue to strive for an environment of fun, positivity and safety.