What Rhonda Faehn's 1988 Olympic Experience Tells Us About The Culture Of USA Gymnastics

Illustration for article titled What Rhonda Faehn's 1988 Olympic Experience Tells Us About The Culture Of USA Gymnastics
Photo: Carolyn Kaster (Associated Press)

Earlier this month, Rhonda Faehn, the recently ousted senior vice president of the women’s program at USA Gymnastics, appeared in front of the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, Insurance, and Data Security to talk about abuse of athletes in the U.S. Olympic program. Faehn was the only person testifying voluntarily—former USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny and former Michigan State president Lou Anna K. Simon were both there under subpoena—and she brought receipts with her. The emails and text messages Faehn submitted made it clear that Penny had misled her and others, including the victims and their families, that he had reported the allegations against Larry Nassar immediately to the authorities when in fact he had not. It also showed Penny urging all involved to remain silent about what gymnasts Maggie Nichols, Aly Raisman, and McKayla Maroney said that Nassar had done to them. The emails demonstrated that 15 people at USA Gymnastics, including former board chair Peter Vidmar and current COO Ron Galimore, were aware of the allegations against Nassar. None of them, Faehn included, ever made an independent report about Nassar to the authorities.


Beyond those receipts, Faehn’s submitted packet contained several letters of support. Some came from athletes that worked with her during her long career as a college coach, first at the University of Nebraska and then at the University of Florida. Others are from coaches and gymnastics officials. The letters all attest to Faehn’s good character.

It’s not shocking that Faehn left out any hate mail from the packet she presented to Congress, but there was one surprise buried in all that predictable praise. One of the letters referenced an interesting gymnastics anecdote involving Faehn’s stint as a 1988 Olympic team alternate and her years training with Bela and Martha Karolyi during the latter part of her elite career. Don McPherson, a coach of former national team members and a gym owner in Illinois, talked about Faehn’s role in incurring a 0.5 deduction for the U.S. team when she was the alternate. “At the time, athletes were not allowed on the podium unless they were competing,” McPherson wrote. If equipment needed to be moved—say, a springboard after a gymnast mounted the apparatus—only a coach could do that. “Kelly Garrison mounted the uneven bars. The springboard in place was still sitting. Springboards were not allowed in the field of play. So Bela sent Rhonda up on the podium to move the springboard.”

Faehn did as she was told and pulled the springboard off the mat. The stairs to dismount the podium were on the other side. Faehn’s options were either to cross the podium to get to those stairs, jump down on the side she was on, or stay crouched in the corner. Reaching the stairs would have required Faehn to cross in front the judges. That left jumping down or crouching, and Faehn opted to crouch in the corner until Garrison-Steves finished her routine.

In the broadcast, Bart Conner doesn’t appear to make any mention of Faehn. He doesn’t note that her presence was unusual in any way.

But Faehn’s presence on the podium during the routine was unusual, and after video review and a vote, a panel voted 3-0 to apply a 0.5 deduction to the team; Jackie Fie of the U.S. was the head judge on the uneven bars and abstained from the vote. This was a significant deduction, equivalent to a fall in the sport’s old 10.0 system, and it would end up bumping the U.S. team from bronze medal position to fourth in the team rankings. There was immediately some suggestion that this decision was politically motivated. It was instigated, in part, by Ellen Berger, the head of the women’s technical committee. Berger was from East Germany and the immediate beneficiary of this was, as it happened, the East German team; they ended up with the bronze, just three tenths ahead of the Americans. But the rule that Berger cited was in the rule book. It wasn’t a super well-known rule, but it was in there. “Bela never knew the rules in all the years he coached,” McPherson wrote.

It would take some time for the news to reach the team, which was already back at the Olympic Village. Missy Marlowe, a member of the team, told me that the team didn’t immediately realize there was a problem. “During the competition, no one thought twice about anything,” she told me. The board needed to be pulled, and quickly—after the gymnast jump to the high bar off the springboard, she transitioned to the low bar, and could have collided with the board if it hadn’t been yanked away. Marlowe said the team finished the rest of the compulsory competition, which was the first segment of the team event in those days, and went back to their housing at the Olympic Village thinking everything was fine.


It was not. According to Marlowe, Martha Karolyi appeared in their suite and the team gathered and told them about the deduction. Marlowe said she specifically blamed Faehn for what happened. “And I just remember Rhonda saying, ‘No, I did what Bela told me to do. He said to go to the corner and just crouch down and make sure you’re not in front of the judges’ vision. And that’s what I did.’ And she [Karolyi] said, just said, ‘No, no, no. Five-tenth team deduction, Rhonda.’”

“And then that was that,” Marlowe said. “It [was] like, you know, she [Karolyi] gave her a kind of disapproving head shake and was like, ‘Well, we can’t do anything about it now.’”


Faehn confirmed Marlowe’s account in a message to me on Facebook. “She [Karolyi] said because [of] my staying on the podium, I cost the the bronze medal for the U.S.” Faehn wrote. “Of course, it was devastating for me to hear her say [these] things. I told her that I did exactly as Bela asked me to do and I had specifically asked Bela what to do after I removed the board, and he said, ‘Just stay low behind it so that you aren’t in the judges way.’ Martha didn’t want to hear that.” Faehn said that the team comforted her after this and assured her that it wasn’t her fault.

I asked Martha Karolyi about the springboard incident and the meeting that followed and received a statement from her attorney. “The gymnasts and coaches were disappointed when the half-point deduction was applied to our score, and we lost the bronze medal,” it read. “Our alternate, Rhonda Faehn, removed the springboard used to mount her teammate onto the uneven bars so her teammate would not trip or land on it and stayed on the podium during her teammate’s routine, which was common practice among gymnasts from other countries as well. But the President for the International Gymnastics Federation Technical Committee, Ellen Berger, applied the half-point deduction to us because she was East German. With the half-point deduction, the East German team was able to pull in front of the U.S. overall, narrowly taking the bronze medal.”


Elsewhere in the statement, Karolyi disputed what Marlowe and Faehn said about what happened later at the Olympic Village. “I did not have any kind of confrontation with the team,” Karolyi stated, “and absolutely did not blame Rhonda.”

In case it wasn’t clear: Faehn, who was then just 17 years old, was not to blame for what happened to the U.S. team. It wasn’t her job to know the rule book backwards and forwards. Besides, the gymnasts weren’t exactly encouraged to think for themselves; she was trained to listen to her coaches, and she did.


“The person to blame was Bela Karolyi,” said Mike Jacki, who was the president of USA Gymnastics at the time. “Because he put Rhonda out on the floor to pull the board,” Jacki said he spoke to Juan Antonio Samaranch, who was then the president of the IOC, about the ruling. Samaranch explained that it was a “field of play” decision and that the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) had jurisdiction. There was nothing to be done.

What happened to Faehn in 1988 has some striking parallels to what happened to Mattie Larson in 2010. Larson, a member of the 2010 silver medal world championship team, made two significant errors on the floor exercise, the last event for the U.S. The Americans lost to Russia by about two tenths. Larson, a Nassar survivor, said that Karolyi and the national team staff blamed her for the loss and that she was shunned by the coaches, including her personal coach, after the competition.


Not a lot of information was communicated to the team in the aftermath of the deduction. Marlowe remembered going with Kelly Garrison-Steves to speak with Bryant Gumbel and being wholly unprepared to answer his questions about the incident. “No one from USA Gymnastics talked to us about it at all,” she said. (Kelly Garrison-Funderburk declined my request for an interview.)

Jacki told me that back then, his organization—the USAG was then the USGF—communicated with the gymnasts’ personal coaches, all of whom were present in Seoul; it was up to the coaches to speak to their athletes. “Delene [Darst] talked to all of the personal coaches that were there,” he said. Darst, like Fie, was a Brevet judge and part of the U.S. gymnastics delegation sent to South Korea. In a follow up email, he wrote that Darst also spoke to some of the gymnasts though not as a group and perhaps not all of them. “She was approached by the girls over the remainder of the Games,” he wrote.


Jacki pointed that it was typical at that time for the federation to communicate with the gymnasts through their coaches. The federation sent mail intended for the gymnasts to their clubs. The coach was always the conduit. “That is what the coaches wanted,” he said.

McPherson’s 30-year-old anecdote has some interest in its own right, provided you’re the right type of gym dork—it’s a little glimpse into the politics of gymnastics during the Cold War, a time when the Americans were lucky to come away with one or two medals. (In 1988, Phoebe Mills was the only U.S. gymnast to medal; she won the bronze on balance beam.) But turn it another way and it’s about more than just an Olympic medal lost to a country that wouldn’t even exist a year later. It speaks to the culture of the time—one of secrecy and confusion, in which gymnasts were mostly left to handle tough situations alone and where the adults failed to do what they were supposed to.


That the kids shouldered blame that rightly belonged to the grownups, of course, was not just a product of that time. The athletes, who were mostly under the age of 18—the exception was Kelly Garrison-Steves, who was 21 and married when she competed in Seoul—were treated like adults when it came to competing and children without agency when it came to virtually every other aspect of their lives. They bore all the responsibility, and enjoyed none of the freedom.

This culture, as it happens, was part of what was under review by the Senate committee. Faehn, having seen it both as an athlete and as an administrator, was uniquely qualified to talk about it. “I would absolutely say, throughout gymnastics, that for each and every quad, every time period, I believe there was very, very difficult situations,” Faehn said when questioned about the culture of gymnastics. She stopped short of talking in detail about her own experiences, even though Senator Bill Nelson from Florida directed a very inappropriate question to her in his opening remarks:


“I wanted to get her to answer directly did she know about the alleged abuse and was she ever, was there an attempt, if Nassar was there at the same time that she was, was she attempted to be abused?”

Faehn’s elite gymnastics career didn’t overlap much with Nassar’s tenure at USA Gymnastics. He was just getting started as a trainer for the team, working the occasional event in the late 1980s. Still, it was an outrageous and oafish act for Nelson to ask a woman under oath to state whether or not she had been sexually abused as a minor. Faehn doesn’t owe the public the details of her experiences as a gymnast, what pains or trauma she might’ve suffered. That truth, whatever it is, is hers alone, regardless of how much the committee may dislike her or believe she did something wrong.


Faehn was there to answer questions about what she knew and didn’t know, and about what she did and more significantly didn’t do in her role as senior vice president of the women’s program when she became aware of Nassar’s sexual abuse of gymnasts.

By and large, the survivors who spoke to the media after the senate hearing hadn’t heard what they so desperately wanted to hear, which was someone, anyone, taking some responsibility for what happened. Penny, the former president of USA Gymnastics, pleaded the fifth repeatedly and left the hearing early. Lou Anna K. Simon defended MSU’s horribly botched 2014 Title IX investigation into Nassar.


That left Faehn. She was the only one there voluntarily, and she brought along proof that she had been told to stay quiet after she brought the athletes’ complaints about Nassar’s abuse to her boss’s attention. It seems, from her testimony and from the emails she supplied, that Faehn believed that Penny had reported the doctor to the FBI right away. Is that accountability? How do we evaluate what she did and didn’t do?

Emily Stebbins, a former elite gymnast and Nassar survivor, doesn’t think Faehn went far enough in accepting responsibility in her testimony. “When people come to you, like Rhonda, they feel like they’ve done their job but they sort of know in the back of their mind that nothing is being done about this,” Stebbins said after the hearing. “They think they did their part. You just see all of these little people thinking they did their thing but no one took the one step that should’ve been taken, which is to go to the police or the authorities.”


But Stebbins noted that once the first mistake was made—not reporting Nassar to the authorities right away—everyone was left to scramble, make excuses, shift blame. “This is survival for them now,” she said. “They know they made the wrong decision. They know what they should’ve done because now they’re reading it and saying, ‘It wasn’t my fault. I went to Steve Penny.’”

It’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to even try to assess individual levels of responsibility for each of the actors—Penny, Simon, Faehn, Vidmar, Galimore, and many, many others. The responsibility for the sport’s defining tragedy falls, however unequally, on a lot of people, even those who might’ve believed that they had done the right thing, that they had done enough.


“Is there one person who is responsible for this?” Stebbins said. “No, it’s a collective whole. No one did the right thing as a group.”

Correction (2:27 p.m. ET): This article originally stated that McPherson coached in Indiana. He actually coached in Illinois.

Dvora Meyers is a staff writer at Deadspin.