After hearing the news that Tom Forester’s tenure as USAG’s lead coach will come to an end at the end of the month, I was as thrilled at the opportunity it provides for USAG to move beyond what has only been yet another troubling coaching tenure.
But beyond that, I want to produce an article on the three moments that Tom Forster should be remembered for. The moments that not only highlight what his coaching tenure was like, but best demonstrate why he was held in such low regard amongst gymnastics fans.
The 2021 Olympic press conference
Entering the 2021 Olympics USAG was on an unprecedented hot streak. In women’s gymnastics the Americans were winning with ease and were advertised as a gold medal favorite that was as certain to win as its basketball team. Tom Forster himself bought into this narrative and went as far as to assert he had the luxury to select a mathematically weaker lineup because as he saw it, even while handicapping itself the United States could still walk away with a win.
That win didn’t happen and while there was plenty of blame to go around, it was the four American gymnasts who had performed on the podium that absorbed the spotlight in one of the biggest defeats in American Olympic history. It was the four young adult women, all of which were in either their late teens or early 20s that went before the media in a post-competition press conference and faced the difficult questions.
Chief among them was Simone Biles who had more difficult questions to answer than anyone else as fans, the media, and social media was still trying to catch its bearings as they processed her bout with the “Twisties” and subsequent withdrawal. And yet even Simone had the courage and integrity to go in front of the cameras and subject herself to the difficult questions that would certainly come. To support her team in a time of defeat and make sure they did not stand alone.
As their national team coach, Tom Forster had more reason than anyone else to be there, but he wasn’t. It was more than unprecedented to watch a coach abandon his team and watch them face the media alone, that simply doesn’t happen in high-level sports. Any proper coach would have been there. To console his athletes in their time of need. To put himself in front of the cameras in an attempt to absorb as much blame as possible in the name of shielding his athletes from that very same criticism.
But that didn’t happen with Tom Forster and it will always remain perplexing that a high level coach abandoned his team, at their most critical time, and was so unwilling to take any of the blame for himself.
Morgan Hurd’s Olympic Trials
By the time the 2021 Olympics came around Forster’s popularity with the gymnastics fanbase had already reached rock bottom. It was a few months prior and a question regarding the Olympic Trials that was the point in which fans had lost faith with Tom Forster. The reason for that was Morgan Hurd. Over the past five years Morgan Hurd had risen to become a fan favorite of the American gymnastics program and her credentials had more than justified her reputation.
By 2021 Morgan Hurd was a veteran of the sport and statistically was one of the ten most accomplished American gymnasts in international competition. But Morgan would ultimately be one of the gymnasts most negatively impacted by the Covid-19 Pandemic. The one-year delay of the Tokyo Olympics proved to be too costly as mounting injuries sidetracked her career in 2021.
It was widely felt that even though she was only a shell of her former self, Morgan Hurd possessed enough athletic talent to at least be given a chance to compete for a spot on the team at Olympic Trials, even if she was doing so as an extreme longshot. Others had stronger feelings who believed that even if Morgan Hurd had no chance of going to Tokyo, the least USA Gymnastics could do to reward a gymnast who had given so much to USAG was to give her the honor of participating in 2021 Olympic Trials.
In American gymnastics, the World Championships is technically its second most prestigious competition after the Olympics. But in actuality the Olympic Trials is its de facto second most noteworthy event. With nearly 6 million viewers watching in 2021, a figure that was down from previous Olympic quads where it has ranged between 8-10 million viewers, the Olympic Trials will always be the largest stage an American gymnast will ever compete on in non-Olympic competition.
That was six million people who never got to learn the story of one of America’s most important and historically significant gymnasts. Morgan Hurd had been a leader of the American program in one of its most difficult and turbulent times. It was ultimately Tom’s decision to not let Morgan Hurd compete at Olympic trials, even while letting her in would cost him nothing. Even worse, to exclude Morgan did more to defy previous precedent than uphold it.
Shannon Miller competed at Olympic Trials in 2000. Alicia Sacramone, Nastia Liukin, and Rebecca Bross were all part of it in 2012. There was plenty of reason to add Morgan Hurd to the list so she could end her career on a high note. To go out in front of the largest audience in non-Olympic competition an American gymnast can hope to compete in front of. To be given the glory and recognition that she deserves, to have a moment of dignity befitting of the caliber of gymnastics Morgan Hurd was when she won five medals for Team USA.
For the American program to acknowledge her greatness by saying we may not be able to send you to the Olympics, but what we can do is send you to the biggest event there is that is not the Olympics. It was USAG’s final way of saying that despite the injuries and lack of recognition amongst the casual fans who only pay attention once Olympic Trials come around, Morgan Hurd’s career mattered.
But that didn’t happen in 2021, nor did it ever happen anywhere else. The history of the U.S. Olympic Trials features the inclusion of every great American gymnast that ever was, that was until Morgan Hurd. The exclusion of Morgan Hurd was as much an insult to the official record book highlighting all the great American gymnasts who have been part of Olympic Trials, as it was to Morgan Hurd herself. And the lone individual who bore all of the responsibility for one of the most unpopular decisions regarding participation in Olympic Trials was Tom Forster.
The 2019 Gymcastic interview
But even before the events of 2021 there were early warning signs that Tom Forster was unfit to hold a high-level coaching position and leadership role. Most notably during the 2019 World Championships where he gave a bizarre interview with Gymcastic. In the interview Forster treated Jessica O’Beirne with contempt and at one point appeared to belittle her. In that moment O’Beirne did everything a member of the media was supposed to do. All of her questions were respectful and fully appropriate for the situation at hand.
O’Beirne wasn’t looking for a dramatic storyline or trying to create a false narrative that wasn’t there, she was merely looking to answer the very questions regarding team strategy that gymnastics fans were pressing her to find the answers for. Questions that were so basic, it was like asking a football coach who his starting quarterback would be and which wide receiver would they target the most.
When it became clear that Forster was intentionally trying to be difficult to work with and after displaying so much patience, O’Beirne appeared to wave the white flag and worked towards winding down the topic of team strategy and pivot the discission to the team rallying around Sunsia Lee. But Tom Forster wasn’t done and in a scolding tone he made commentary of how in sports the goal is to score more points than the other team. The implication being, he had so little respect for O’Beirne’s credentials and ability that Forster felt he had to explain to her how sports work like she were a 4-year old child.
It’s the type of behavior that was unbecoming of even a high-school coach, let alone a coach who was overseeing one of Team USA’s most high profile programs. At the time, the interview was dismissed as Tom being an aloof and quirky individual. But what that bizarre interview foresaw, a sign that Tom Forster was about to lead Team USA down the wrong path. That the man himself did not have the answers and if any member of the media put him in a position where he was asked to provide answers and be accountable for his own actions, a requirement that is a prerequisite for any high-level coaching job, Tom Forster wasn’t going to provide it.
4 thoughts on “The Three Things Tom Forster Should Be Remembered For”
I wish people would stop belittling what team USA accomplished at Tokyo. They WON silver. They did not get defeated. Stop treating the team like they failed. They did their best and won medals! Forster will not be missed, and he failed in many ways as coach, but the ladies of team USA did not.
I agree with Whitney. The US did as well as it could in Tokyo. Simone has always been the difference maker since her Vault and floor exercise scores brought 3 points to the team total. When they lost her, that was the end of gold and no one else replaces those scores.
I am also extremely sick of Morgan Hurd fans behaving like her rightful spot at Trials was stolen. She fell a total of around 6 times in two competitions. She didn’t deserve to go.
I agree with this comment so much. I find it really frustrating when people talk like part of the reason Forster was bad at his job was that the US “only” won silver – it feels dangerously close to going back to the “medals over athlete wellbeing” days in a way that makes me really uncomfortable. Regardless of how clumsily he’s phrased it in interviews, Forster gave the impression of genuinely wanting to make positive changes, I think he was just too ill-suited for this leadership role to come up with meaningful ones, and got unprofessionally defensive when challenged.
While “not perpetuating abuse” is a very low bar to clear, and while he IS a man who was frustratingly bad at his job in a way that was occasionally cruel to the athletes (especially Morgan, I agree with this part of the article a lot!), there’s something about the vitriol directed at Tom that I’ve found really uncomfortable. There have been episodes of Gymcastic where I’ve heard Jessica express more anger about something Tom Forster has done re: team selection or not answering her questions or whatever than she has about literal abuse stories that she’s covered in the same episode. She said “I know the Karolyis are bad but” multiple times in her coverage of 2021 worlds warmups fiasco. I’m a bit disturbed by this pattern in gymnastics fan commentary, and I hope that it dies down soon.
The current crop of US gymnasts are so excellent, they deserve better than Tom’s lack of a clear selection process, poor justification for team selection (which led to a lot of online abuse of Grace, too), and lack of communication. They deserve better than the pressure to win gold as default with anything less viewed as a failure, too.
The section on Morgan Hurd and the Olympic Trials leaves out a really important detail – communication. Forster said after the fact that to qualify for trials, Morgan would’ve had to place top… (I don’t remember the exact number) on one event at nationals. To which she immediately responded, “well that would’ve been nice to know”. Morgan had some bad meets, so leaving her off the Trials roster was justifiable, but not communicating to her what she had to do to make the cut given that she was only competing 2 events was a real failure of leadership! (I also do think letting her compete at Trials would have been the decent thing to do regardless, considering how she carried the US team throughout the quad, but that’s less concrete).
Through his tenure, Forster’s actual decisions have rarely been the problem so much as his justifications for them and/or lack of communication. He’s been working with a good enough field of gymnasts that pretty much any team choices he made would’ve been justifiable, but the fact that he withholds those reasons from the people who deserve to know them the most – or doesn’t tell them until it’s too late for the information to be useful – has been a problem.