USAG Athlete Representatives Should be a Level-10 or NCAA Gymnast

With the recent news that Sarah Finnegan has been named to USAG’s Board of Directors, it has rekindled something that I have perceived as a longstanding problem for USAG. While also providing me with an opportunity to not only complain about it, but to promote my radical solution to resolving this problem.

Part I: Background Information

Sarah Finnegan is being named to the USAG Board of Directors as “Athlete Director” where she is tasked with speaking on behalf of the needs and wishes of athletes. Positions like this one, and the “Athlete Representative” which serves a similar role on the team selection committee can be classified as “athlete advocate” positions. Under U.S. Olympic Committee rules, these positions can only be filled by someone who has competed in major international competition within the last ten years.

In other words: There is a 10 year cut-off

The cut-off is vital because these roles are designed to protect athletes from abuse. They are the members of USAG a gymnast is supposed to approach if she wants to report an abusive coach or misbehavior. What makes the cut-off important is the younger an athlete advocate is, the more effective he or she is at managing this task. Younger athlete advocates are more effective and more capable at this job than their older counterparts.

There are three reasons for this:

(A) You need someone who relates well with the gymnasts.
In conventional roles, usually older is better. Those who are older have more experience, more wisdom, and more authority to challenge other adults. But athlete advocate roles require being someone the gymnasts can relate with. Someone they already have a longstanding friendship with, someone they can trust with sensitive information, and someone they relate with through their mutual understanding and shared experiences. Athletes, especially teenage athletes relate better to someone who is close to them in age. Whereas a 25 year old is better than a 35 year old, a 19 year old is better than a 25 year old when many of the athletes are still in high school.

(B) You need someone who has recent experience as a team member.
The purpose of an athlete advocate is to understand how the team is being treated by coaches. The most effective way to know what the treatment of gymnasts is currently like, is being a current gymnast. Only gymnasts know how the coaches behave when they are “behind closed doors.” Gymnasts experience coaching behavior first-hand and they are the ones who see everything. If you can’t have an active gymnast serving as an athlete advocate, the next best thing is to find one who just recently retired.

Gymnasts who retired within the past 365 days can tell you what things are currently like inside USAG’s training halls. Gymnasts who retired ten years ago can only tell you what things were like ten years ago. They can’t tell you if the coaches have changed their behavior since then. In most cases, ten years is such an extreme age gap for a retired gymnast that their old coaches may have been replaced by new coaches who they never interacted with as athletes.

(C) Younger position holders are less likely to seek further employment from USAG.
Any individual who is seeking a USAG position ten years after they last competed is the type of person who plans on having a career in USAG administration or coaching. Thus, their interests don’t align with the ideal candidate the athlete representative is intended for. If anything, their interests align with the very interests this position is designed to counter.

Often times these candidates have spent those ten years building strong relationships with USAG officials, the very people whose interests they are supposed to advocate against. Whereas younger candidates are further away from a possible promotion, older candidates are closer to such elevated positions and are likely to make decisions that will protect their future career goals, rather than the gymnasts whose needs they are supposed to be serving.

For all three of these reasons, the 10 year cut-off is a vital requirement to preserve the effectiveness of a position designed to oversee the well-being of the gymnasts. It is effectively a safety regulation.

Part II: The Problem

USAG has the tendency to make an absolute mockery of the 10 year cut-off rule. These roles almost always seem to fall into the hands of someone who is at the absolute edge of the cut-off rule. The equivalent of the Titanic not having enough lifeboats for everyone because White Star Line only considered what the rules required, and not what was actually required.

Whereas White Star Line removed lifeboats to make their deck look less cluttered, USAG appears to be doing it with the specific intention of undermining their own regulatory body. And they haven’t been subtle about it.

Sarah Finnegan was just named an Athlete Director in 2021. Her last major international assignment came in 2012 which currently puts her in year 9 of 10. Sarah Finnegan will hold this position until 2024. The person Sarah Finnegan replaced was Ivana Hong, a virtually identical situation. Ivana Hong last received a major international assignment in 2009, starting her countdown of the 10 year cut-off. Ivana was named Athlete Director in 2018 which placed her in the 9th year at the time. She held that position until 2021.

The Athlete Representative which is a similar role but serves on the committee to select the Olympic and World Championship teams demonstrated a similar pattern.

The most recent person to hold this position in women’s gymnastics is Kayla Williams, who first served on the 2019 World Championships selection committee. She last competed in major elite level competition in 2009. Pushing the elgibility of the candidacy to its absolute limits.

Before Kayla Williams it was Anna Li who was named to the position in 2019. Not only was Anna Li fairly close to the ten year cut-off, but she was effectively a loophole to the rule. Anna Li may have competed in 2012, but during the London Olympics she had been an abnormally old gymnast whose career goes all the way back to the 2004 U.S. Championships. With a 1988 birth year, Anna Li could theoretically be twice as old as the very gymnasts who were slated to come of age over the course of her tenure. Anna Li was effectively four Olympic quads removed from a position that ideally should go to someone who is no more than a single Olympic quad removed.

But that wasn’t even the bad part. The bad part was that Anna Li was a legacy athlete, the daughter of a well known Chinese Olympic gymnast who was now a coach. Not only was Anna Li part of a coaching family, Anna herself worked alongside her parents and was part of the family coaching legacy. It was an unapologetically bad selection coupled with a blatant flaw of a role designed to protect athletes from coaching abuse, was given to someone with a coaching background.

But before any of that happened, at the beginning of 2019 the position was filled by Terin Humphrey, a 2004 Olympian who continues the theme of the athlete rep position being filled by people who are at the absolute maximum elgibility limits that the role requires.

Both Terin and Anna Li lost their positions due to the direct result of a controversy. In the case of Terin, she made a Facebook post where she appeared to belittle athletes who accused their coaches of abuse and defend coaches against false accusations. In the case of Anna Li, both she and her mother were accused of abusive coaching methods and are currently under investigation. Both tenures were spectacular failures for a role which was designed to protect gymnasts from abusive coaches.

As for how any of this could happen when the selection process is supposed to be independent from USAG? These selections are usually the byproduct of USAG giving disproportionate support to the candidate of their choosing. Creating a situation where the person who is supposed to be overseeing the well-being of athletes has interests more closely aligned with USAG leadership than the very gymnasts whose interests they are supposed to be advocating on behalf of. The whole situation is textbook regulatory capture.

But there are two additional reasons that make this so infuriating.

(1) The 10 year cut-off is not a USAG bylaw, its existence is a requirement forced upon the organization by the USOC. Which begs the question as to how USAG would behave if they didn’t have to follow any cut-off rule at all?

(2) The 10 year cut-off rule is not specific to gymnastics. It is specific to every sport and is designed to reflect what makes sense for your typical Olympic athlete, not your typical gymnast. If an athlete in equestrian typically has a 20 year career, the 10 year cut-off represents 50% of a career. In women’s gymnastics where the typical senior career lasts no more than 5 years, the 10 year cut-off represents 200% of a career.

This is where “blanket rules” overseeing the Olympics start to fall apart because they don’t account for the widely different demographics of each sport. It creates a situation where a rule that is effective for equestrian ends up being significantly less effective for gymnastics. USAG knows this. They know that even if the rule says 10 years, it really should be far less than that for gymnastics. But that doesn’t stop USAG from pushing the 10 year cut-off to the absolute limit.

In the same fashion that Titanic was allowed to sail without enough lifeboats because the rules were designed for ships of a smaller size and made large ships like Titanic insufficiently regulated, USAG sails without enough lifeboats. Only difference is, the entire passenger liner industry overhauled its conduct, adopted a wide variety of safety regulations that are now seen as basic common sense, and never repeated the same mistakes it made with Titanic on future ships.

USAG is the equivalent of hitting the iceberg, sinking, and then sending its next ship straight into the same icepack without adding the extra lifeboats. For Titanic, it was an iceberg, for USAG that iceberg was named Larry Nassar.

Part III: The solution

So how to fix this problem? I think I have an answer, and based on the title of the article, you already know what it is. I think Level-10 (L10) and NCAA gymnasts, especially underclassmen are perfect candidates for these roles. And here is why.

For an elite-gymnast who has come to terms with her Olympic dreams being unobtainable, the logical decision is to drop down to L10 and work towards a college scholarship. This creates a situation where there is a massive pool of gymnasts who are identical in age to your typical national team member (NTM), has experience with being coached by national team coaches, but has no personal stakes in the upcoming Olympic team selection process.

In is a wonderful resource that is completely untapped and I think USAG should tap into it. In Point-A of this article I said you need someone who gymnasts can relate to. Who better can an NTM relate to than someone who is so close in age to her, they may even share the same birth year? I also said they need someone they can trust. Who is more trusting than an ex-teammate that you once trained alongside with for several years?

In Point-B of this article I said you need someone who has recent experience on the national team. The L10 and NCAA underclassmen are as close as it gets to recent experience. In Point-C it was suggested that this position was frequently being filled by those who see it as nothing more than a stepping stone to a higher level within USAG. Under this proposal, I think it will accomplish the opposite. By awarding it to gymnasts who are so young, they will use it as a resume booster to pivot away from the sport.

If readers are willing to award this position to a high school aged L10, she would use it as part of her college application in the extracurricular activities section. If an NCAA gymnast were awarded this position, she would use it as part of her professional resume as she seeks a prestigious internship if she were an underclassman. Or an entry level position at a prestigious firm upon her college graduation if she was an upperclassman.

I have high hopes that there is a qualified L10 or NCAA gymnast who could do a remarkable job. Former elite gymnasts frequently find themselves at prestigious institutions at the Ivy League, Stanford, Cal, UNC, Michigan, and UCLA. Gymnastics at the NCAA level is disproportionately heavy in academic excellence. This can be seen with Florida which is occasionally dismissed by gymnastics fans as a less prestigious academic choice, even though it ranks towards the top among FBS schools.

This idea may sound crazy, but I think it has potential. Even if it requires a significant overhaul to make the term length smaller, shuffle the schedule to produce fewer required in-person meetings, and less time commitment for someone balancing this position with schoolwork. It also requires USAG and USOC to support a radical overhaul of its rules which makes this proposal equally as unrealistic as it is radical.

But I wanted to take the time to lay these points out, because while readers my disagree as to the feasibility of this proposal, I was at least able to draw attention to the problem and start a conversation on finding a solution.

3 thoughts on “USAG Athlete Representatives Should be a Level-10 or NCAA Gymnast

  1. During my tenure, we had athletes that were on the current National Teams.. I best remember Kelly Garrison in 1988 talking about the vaulting event and the collar that was eventually required to be placed around the Board… Kelly knew better than anyone… she was a 1988 Olympian !

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  2. I agree that the athlete reps should be closer in age to the current group of elite gymnasts. However I do think there are some important practical considerations you’ve failed to take into account here.

    1. USAG may not be able to use minor age individuals on its board for legal reasons. Additionally, I feel it shouldn’t for developmental reasons – as you may know, teenagers do not have fully developed adult cognition yet; that maturity typically happens around age 25. And a highschooler who has not gotten the distance from her career necessary to process it and understand all of the factors at play may fail to see how one aspect of an abusive situation plays into and relates with the others. (I’m not guaranteeing that an older ex-gymnast would have that either, but the most prominent voices in the gymnast advocacy movement have mostly been folks like Raisman or Pinches who have been retired a few years and had time to work through this stuff. Almost all of them, whether retired or not, are veteran competitors of major age.)

    2. You mentioned that the athlete reps need to be someone the gymnasts can relate to and an athlete their own age would be best for that. However, I feel this has to be balanced with professional distance. We’ve heard plenty of stories over the years about the interactions between friends and frienemies on the US national team, often over REALLY stupid mean-girls type stuff (the Morgan/Simone finsta drama, anyone??). An athlete who was a member of the national team only a year or two ago and has personal friendships with many of the athletes on it will also have personal disagreements with many of the athletes on it. I certainly wouldn’t trust that in the athlete rep position on selection committees where personal bias may affect choices, and I would be nervous about how it may affect the ability of a less-popular or younger athlete who is not buddy-buddy with the director to be heard if she had a legitimate complaint.

    3. I’m frankly really annoyed by the fact that you say Anna Li’s return to competition post-UCLA doesn’t count. Whether or not you like it she was in the gym thirty hours a week and going to camp every month just like anyone else on that Olympic squad. Given current trends in the sport towards athletes staying around longer and peaking later, if we are going to act like being notably older than a junior elite “slated to come of age over the course of her tenure” is a disqualifying factor, we’re going to get to the point where literal current elites who never took a break like Anna’s cannot hold this position! Simone is nine years (i.e. more than two quads) older than several of the gymnasts who will compete for Olympic spots this year, and would have graduated NCAA two years ago if she had followed a traditional path – are you telling me that you would not accept her as a good choice for athlete rep were she to run?

    Overall I think a better solution here would be:

    – Keep the requirements for the athlete rep and director roughly as they are, but require the entire term to be served within the ten year time limit

    – Add an athlete advocate position to the board, held by an independent party (i.e. didn’t grow up in the USAG system and ideally doesn’t have paychecks signed by USAG) who has actual professional qualifications in child advocacy and/or abuse prevention

    – In each discipline have an athletes’ council or union led by 10-20 athletes and recent retirees with a VARIETY of backgrounds in the sport – DP, elite, Xcel, NCAA and so on – who work with concerns of athletes at all levels and address the board regularly either themselves or via the athlete director, with the weight of a dozen voices rather than just one.

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