Allegations of Sexual Abuse Resonate in the Gymnastic Community

According to three recent testimonies, Don Peters, a former icon of the U.S. Olympic American Gymnastics team, allegedly committed lewd and salacious acts with several students over 20 years ago. According to the three women who made these allegations public, Peters preformed sexual acts with several young gymnasts that he coached in the 1980s. Subsequently, the women claim that they have come forward to expose the culture of exploitation that is commonly exhibited within the field of American gymnastics.

Don Peters was a U.S. Olympic team coach who elevated the expectations for gymnastic enthusiasts in America during the 1980s. He has become known for his groundbreaking performance at the 1984 summer Olympic Games held in Los Angeles. The talented members of Peters’ team left the world in disbelief, while they continued to accumulate a grand total of eight medals.

Amidst his many accolades, Peters also founded SCATS, a Huntington Beach gymnastics club dedicated to the development of young gymnasts with aspirations of turning their dreams into a reality. The prowess of his gymnastic knowledge may have only been trumped by the multiple Olympians and national champions produced by his elite club.

In order to achieve such a high level of performance at such a young age, girls may dedicate as much as 30 to 40 hours a week to training while still attending grade school. A lifestyle such as this, presented at such a young age, may leave some of them socially isolated and emotionally dependent on their coaches. Unfortunately, the passion that Peters exhibited for the sport of gymnastics, and his students, has been over shadowed by the current accusations of sexual assault leveled against him. During his reign as an iconic gymnastics coach, Peters allegedly had sex with three of the young students that he coached.

According to Doe Yamashiro, a former U.S. national team member who trained at SCATS in the 1980s, Peters fondled her on multiple accounts, beginning when she was 16. In an account detailed by Yamashiro, Peters asked to speak with her in a hotel room, where he continued to lock the door and grope her incessantly. In her statement Yamashiro acknowledged “that was the worst; that was really the worst of it because I had never been kissed by a boy, and I wasn’t even interested in boys at that point. I didn’t have breasts. I was totally pre-pubescent at 16. And, you know, if you spend your life in the gym, you’re totally emotionally naive.”

Yamashiro’s sworn declaration also alleges that Peters had sexual intercourse with her when she was just 17 years of age. According to Yamashiro, “that incident I had a very strong emotional reaction to. That was a real physical violation and I was disgusted. I was disgusted at him and myself. And that’s it. I was in pain and I had just lost my virginity. And then I had to go to workout.”

Allegations presented by another former SCATS gymnast attest to accounts of sexual intercourse with Peters when she was 18. To further complicate the matter, the woman had previously confided within Peters about the sexual abuse she had received from her father at a younger age. In her testimony, the woman claims that Peters took advantage of her emotional state and preyed on those with weaker self esteem. While the woman has requested to remain anonymous, she has signed a sworn declaration attesting to the truth of her allegations, just as Yamashiro has.

Linda McNamara, the third woman to bring these accusations to light, shared an office with Peters while she worked as the assistant director at SCATS. According to McNamara, Peters confessed to her in the early 1990s to having sex with Yamashiro, the second former SCATS gymnast and a third teenage gymnast.

The women said they are coming forward nearly 20 years later, in an attempt to expose the sport’s exploitive culture and USA Gymnastics’ failure to pursue sexual abuse more aggressively. Because of the inherent danger associated with the sport, it is not uncommon for young gymnasts to be fully dependent on their coaches regarding their own personal safety. “So you have this thing you’re doing daily that is risking your life, and you have this coach who’s spotting you and supposedly keeping you alive,” Yamashiro said. “So it just gets really twisted, the whole thing, twisted up.” According to former U.S. Olympic and World team members, encounters such as these create an environment ripe for exploitation that USA Gymnastics has not done enough to defuse.

Looking back on the past events that have plagued her since childhood, Yamashiro has exhibited a great deal of guilt, of all things. She wishes she would have told someone sooner, as her actions may have prevented Peters from sexually abusing another child. Accordingly, Yamashiro and McNamara said by telling their stories now, they hope to trigger a culture shift in a sport that they and other former U.S. Olympic and national team members claim exploits young girls.

Jennifer Sey, the 1986 U.S. all-around champion and author of the book “Chalked Up,” acknowledged that “sexual abuse over-indexes in gymnastics compared to the general public, just like the Catholic Church.” It is believed that lewd acts, such as the ones that Peters has been accused of, run rampant in the world of gymnastics.

Accordingly, the lewd acts committed by Peters have been reported to the appropriate authorities. Peters’ sexually abusive tendencies were reported to USA Gymnastics, the sport’s governing body, who is currently in the process of conducting an intensive investigation into the recently made accusations.

According to Steve Penny, the president of USA Gymnastics, the organization may neither confirm nor deny their pursuit of an investigation because of a strict disclosure policy. However, in a Nov. 19 email to McNamara, a copy of which was obtained by the local editorial, Penny confirmed that Peters’ case was “under review.” Kevin O’Connell, Peters’ attorney, seemingly confirmed that the investigation was currently underway, but he was unable to divulge any details as well.

Under California law, sexual contact with a person under the age of 18 is illegal, even if the minor consents. The statute of limitations for prosecuting statutory rape cases in California is only three years if the perpetrator is 21 or older or more than three years older than the victim. Therefore, limitations presented by the law prevent courts from prosecuting Peters, even if the women’s allegations could be proven. However, if USA Gymnastics substantiates the allegations of sexual misconduct, Peters could be placed on USAG’s permanently ineligible list. Subsequently, those on this list would be unable to participate in gymnastics for the rest of their lives.

USGA’s current permanently ineligible list is a testament to the culture of exploitation that is commonly exhibited within the field of American gymnastics. Doug Boger, a former U.S. team coach himself, resides on the list for committing acts similar to those of Peters. Boger was placed on USA Gymnastics’ permanently ineligible list in June 2010. USAG’s findings remain confidential, however, reports obtained by reporters show he was accused of hitting, kicking, strangling, slapping, burning and sexually abusing underaged gymnasts during the 1970s and early ’80s.

The heinous crimes Boger allegedly committed during his 40 year stint in gymnastics are a somber reminder that the sport appears to have placed a higher priority on Olympic glory than addressing the exploitation of young gymnasts. USA Gymnastics is not only notoriously slow to investigate sexual abuse allegations, but reluctant to reveal any content that may tarnish their pristine reputation. Subsequently, the organization refuses to reveal any incriminating information as to why individuals have been placed on their permanently ineligible list. It has become overwhelmingly apparent that the organization is more concerned with protecting their image than the young athletes it harbors.

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