Last Friday three gymnasts who trained at Texas Dreams took to social media to describe an environment that they felt was emotionally abusive. The revelation of emotional abuse at Texas Dreams is a new dimension to how fans view this club. But concerns regarding Texas Dreams are nothing new. Texas Dreams has long been infamous for its astounding injury rate.
This article is not going to focus on the new allegations that have been made against Kim Zmeskal and Chris Burdette as that story is still developing. But it has rekindled a discussion on the Texas Dreams club as a whole, most notably its injury history that has caused fans to nickname it “Texas Nightmares.” In light of that, I’m going to bump up this article that I have been planning to write for some time now.
This is not going to be a list of all the high profile Texas Dreams prospects whose careers ended in injury. But rather I am going to present two questions that put into context just how significant the problem is. These are two questions that in my opinion, slipped between the cracks and were overlooked narratives that emphasize the problem.
Ragan Smith and Georgia
For Texas Dreams, the injury rate is so bad that the club has failed on nearly every occasion to get one of its junior prospects into a major senior level competition (World Championships or Olympics). This in spite of Texas Dreams being one of the most successful clubs in producing high profile junior prospects.
The one exception to this is Ragan Smith who as a first-year senior made the 2016 Olympic team as an alternate. Ragan Smith then became the first gymnast from Texas Dreams to actually compete in a major competition at the 2017 World Championships. Except her run ended unceremoniously with an injury withdrawal halfway through the competition. Despite her own personal injury history, Ragan Smith can be described as the healthiest gymnast from Texas Dreams when it came to not letting injuries sidetrack her senior career.
But there is one interesting tidbit about Ragan Smith’s career. Ragan first appeared on the scene via her participation at the 2012 and 2013 U.S. Classics, as well as the 2013 Junior National Championships. But did so not as a representative of Texas Dreams, but a club in Georgia called Northwind.
While it is incredibly common (if not the standard) for famous Texas Dreams junior prospects to start elsewhere before coming under the tutelage of Kim Zmeskal, none were as established as Ragan Smith had been before they made the switch. Nor was Northwind just an average gym. Its most notable coach at the time was Elena Piskun who would go on to buy out the owners and rename it Infinity Gymnastics in 2017.
Like Kim Zmeskal, Elena Piskun was also an Olympian who is a World Champion on two different apparatuses. Ragan Smith is one of the few gymnasts to have crossed paths with not one, but two iconic gymnasts of the 1990s.
What this all means is that Ragan was simultaneously Zmeskal’s most successful senior, while also being the one who spent the least amount of time at Texas Dreams before her breakout success in senior competition. The interpretation being that Ragan’s career demonstrates that the less time a gymnast spends at Texas Dreams, the less likely the injury problem arises.
But by 2017 and 2018 Ragan Smith was closing in on five years at Texas Dreams. It was at this point that Ragan had now been at Texas Dreams for the same duration of time as many of the other famed Texas Dreams gymnasts who had their careers sidetracked by injury. It was at this precise moment that Ragan herself started witnessing her elite career breakdown due to injury. The question that wasn’t asked:
Why did a gymnast who only moved to Texas Dreams in 2013 become its most successful senior in 2016?
The Athletic Career of Kim Zmeskal
When Kim Zmeskal went on a winning streak in 1991 and 1992, it made her the most successful gymnast the American program had ever produced up until that point in time. Her success as a gymnast made Zmeskal a highly revered figure within the gymnastics fanbase, even to this day.
At the 1992 Olympics Kim Zmeskal failed to win an individual medal despite being touted as a heavy medal threat. Zmeskal’s poor performance is attributed to a stress fracture on her shin. An injury she sustained in practice before the Barcelona Olympics. Kim Zmeskal’s athletic career is virtually identical to how the careers of so many of her famous pupils panned out. Zmeskal crashed onto the scene at the junior level in 1988. Five years later she was 16 years old and burned out.
It is a common observation by gymnastics fans to point to Zmeskal’s time as a gymnast in the early 1990s as the reason injuries are so common with her club. Zmeskal is not using bad coaching tactics, she’s simply using the same tactics she was trained on that are now out of date in the modern era. But what this narrative misses is that even by the standards of her own era, the way Zmeskal was coached was problematic.
In 1992 and 1996 the Olympic year doubled as a World Championships year. Kim Zmeskal benefited heavily from this unusual schedule. In my points data the 1992 World Championships account for 60% of her career point total. For nearly every gymnast, having as many medals as Zmeskal does is only possible by dominating two full seasons of competition. But for Kim Zmeskal, that wasn’t the case.
Every individual medal of Zmeskal’s career came at two competitions, the 1991 and 1992 World Championships. And they were held only seven months apart. Zmeskal was a groundbreaking gymnast, but she had virtually no longevity during her career.
Note: In 1990 Zmeskal competed at the Goodwill Games and a string of European competitions. Her results do not indicate she was the favorite to win an individual medal had a World Championships been held that year. Thus, her missing out on a chance to medal in 1990 is not an ideal explanation as to why her time as a top medal threat was so short.
Not as widely known as her run from 1988-1992, Zmeskal actually made comebacks for both the 1996 and 2000 Olympics. Her 1996 attempt ended after she tore an ACL. Her Sydney comeback was marked by a career ending injury in January of 2000. In the previous year she had suffered two additional injuries including a ruptured Achilles tendon.
It can’t be overstated just how badly Zmeskal was let down by coaches in regards to pacing/injury prevention during her time as a gymnast. It is only natural for Zmeskal to train her gymnasts in the same same fashion as she was taught how to train. And it led to similar results. The question that wasn’t asked:
Was Zmeskal subjected to major coaching mistakes during her gymnastics career and is she repeating them on Texas Dreams gymnasts?
Of all the articles I will ever produce, this is the one that I will always hate the most for having written because it tears down at Zmeskal’s coaching and athletic accomplishments. But three gymnasts came forward with statements about their time at Texas Dreams leaving them in emotional distress, needing therapy, and struggling with anxiety. With that in mind, it is time to draw more attention to the previous criticisms to add context to the current criticisms.
The Texas Dreams injury rate is atrocious just when listing all the high profile junior prospects who burned out before they could hit the senior level. For many, they have had to deal with injuries affecting their NCAA careers as well. But things look even worse when the finer details of Zmeskal and Ragan’s careers are analyzed as they demonstrate the scale of the problem.
Up until this year the controversy regarding Texas Dreams has been that of a coach who had her heart in the right place but simply wasn’t managing her gymnasts the right way. It must be noted that the controversy regarding emotional abuse is more pointed towards Zmeskal’s husband than Zmeskal herself. But she still bears responsibility as it is Zemskal’s job to know what is going on inside the gym.
I never wanted to see Zmeskal become associated with allegations of emotional abuse. When ex-Olympians get caught up in coaching abuse allegations of their own, it often means they were failed when they were athletes having been brought up the wrong way, only to then repeat those same mistakes with the next generation. It is a heartbreaking situation all across the board.
As an athlete, Kim Zmeskal came across as someone capable of extreme kindness, graciousness, and wisdom beyond her years. She handled the Barcelona heartbreak exceptionally well. She continued to honor the legacy of Hilary Grivich, her childhood friend and training partner who died at 19 years old. She also helped raise funds for Christy Henrich. Kim Zmeskal earned her positive reputation, which is why I am hoping that she finds redemption. This can be done by reforming her club so that emotional abuse is eradicated and rethinking her approach so that the injury rate is curtailed.
There are many coaches whose actions are so cruel that I feel there is no other option but total expulsion. But there are also others where I feel that having them reform their ways is the better option. So that they can serve as a model for others. If they can change and still find success, then every other abusive coach has no excuse but to not do the same themselves. Three gymnasts have expressed a concern that Kim Zmeskal and Chris Burdette are part of the problem. Now it is their turn to be part of the solution.