USA Gymnastics announced today that Tom Forster, a coach and gym owner from Colorado, will be the new coordinator for the U.S. women’s national team. But, per the press release from USA Gymnastics, the job appears to have been renamed. Instead of calling him the national team coordinator, which was the official title when the job was created for Bela Karolyi back in 1999, Forster’s title is “high performance team coordinator.” It seems like a small stab at rebranding the job at an organization that is also in desperate need of a rebranding.
Forster will fill the vacancy left by previous coordinator Valeri Liukin, a double gold medalist at the 1988 Olympics and father/coach to 2008 Olympic all-around champion Nastia Liukin. Liukin, who had taken the reins of the women’s program from Martha Karolyi after the 2016 Olympics, stepped down in early February, right after former team doctor’s Larry Nassar’s sentencing for sexual abuse in Michigan. At the time, Liukin said that he was resigning because “the present climate causes me, and more importantly, my family, far too much stress, difficulty and uncertainty.”
Since then, the position of national team coordinator has remained vacant, though Rhonda Faehn seemed to have stepped into this role, if not officially then in terms of duties and visibility. Faehn was dismissed last month from her position as senior vice president of the women’s program.
Forster is no stranger to elite gymnastics. Along with his wife, Lori, Forster coached a trio of standout elites in the mid ‘90s: 1995 world team member Doni Thompson, 1996 Olympic team alternate Theresa Kulikowski, and 1995 American Cup champion Kristy Powell.
The below 1996 NBC fluff piece about Forster starts with John Tesh saying, “He had a novel idea: Treat gymnasts positively.” This was produced about a year after Joan Ryan’s bestseller Little Girls in Pretty Boxes was published, which focused on abusive coaching practices in figure skating and gymnastics, particularly those of the Karolyis. Being able to boast of your “nice guy” bona fides certainly meant something then.
And now. Choosing a coach whose image, at least in the media, has been mostly that of a “nice guy” is important at a time when the toxic culture of women’s gymnastics has come under scrutiny again.
The video didn’t really explain or show how Forster treated his athletes better than his peers treated theirs. We are just expected to take Tesh at his word. The clip also addressed the Forsters’ coaching disappointments, which included Kerri Strug’s decision to return to the Karolyis after six months of training in Colorado, and Thompson’s decision to leave elite gymnastics shortly helping the U.S. team win the bronze medal at the 1995 world championships. “It’s hard in that your hopes and dreams as a coach rely on these little teenagers. So as an adult, you better keep it all in perspective,” Forster said of Thompson’s departure.
(But, as the Balance Beam Situation noted, Forster seemed to struggle to maintain his perspective when Kulikowski fell of the beam at the 1996 Olympic Trials. While his wife attended to Kulikowski after she finished her routine, Forster can be seen doubled over the podium in anguish over the mistake.)
Forster, on a media conference call today, echoed similar ideas that led NBC to characterize him as a “nice guy” more than 20 years ago.
“I’ve been coaching at my own club for 35 years, and my style is to try to inspire and motivate athletes using positive reinforcement. My goal has always been that when gymnasts walk away from their experience at my club, they’ll say ‘what a great experience that was.’ I want the same experience for our elite athletes,” he said.
It’s been several years since Forster’s gym has had a gymnast on the national team. His last national team member was Natalie Foley, who was on the team in 2001. In his remarks, Forster noted that this would mean there wouldn’t be any conflicts of interest for him in terms of team selection.
Though Forster’s athletes haven’t topped the elite world for several years, the coach has been on the national team staff for several years, working with the up-and-coming gymnasts in the developmental program. Since many gymnasts (and their coaches) pass through the developmental program to the national team, this means that Forster has already established relationships with many of them.
The coaches and gymnasts must be hoping that Forster will bring stability to a program that has been in chaos since Liukin stepped down and USA Gymnastics announced it would no longer hold monthly training camps at the Karolyi Ranch in Texas. Since then, camps have been shorter and held sporadically. With just over two years until the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo—and with the 2018 World Championships, which are the first step in qualifying a team to the Olympics, in October—filling vacant leadership posts is of utmost important.
Per Will Graves from AP, president and CEO Kerry Perry actually addressed the few reporters on the call announcing Forster’s appointment. This marks the first time since she started the job in December that she has answered questions from the media.