Is Chalked Up author Jennifer Sey a liar?

Chalked UpRick at Gymnastics Coaching thinks so. The debate is raging on his blog.

Jennifer Sey is a liar by any definition of the word. Even if every word in her book is true as she remembers it. (And that’s been contested by some of her teammates from the time.)

If you disagree with me, buy her book. If not, encourage everyone you know to boycott Chalked Up. You can read it, but don’t purchase even one more copy.

If Jennifer Sey wanted to exorcise demons from over 20-years-ago as a memoir, she could have done it on her blog. That she chose to release an inflammatory book in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics smacks of opportunism.

Certainly there are athletes who have had a bad time with coaches, with training, battled eating disorders and the like. What seems to be bothering Rick is that the media, abetted by Sey, is using one person’s experience to paint the whole sport black.

But is gymnastics “weird and creepy”? – NO

Are all middle-age men coaching gymnasts “shady characters”? – NO

Much misinformation like this has been generated around the recent release of Jennifer’s book. I believe the author is a willing participant in this game of generating controversy during a book launch.

Polish-101 Gymnastics editor MRR published their take on the book here.

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10 Responses to “Is Chalked Up author Jennifer Sey a liar?”

  1. Jeena Says:

    Whoever Rick is, he doesn’t know squat about what the Parkettes were like in those years. I was a parent of an elite gymnast at Parkettes during those years and I can attest to the fact that it was much worse than the book makes it out to be. Screaming and yelling from the coaches was an accepted daily thing. I saw the boy’s coach throw a metal chair at one of the boys on his team. I heard Donna tell a girl (who was one of the best gymnasts in the gym) that she was “nothing” without her. The practice seemed to be that the better a girl got, the more she was told that she could only succeed with the Strauss’s help and that she was really not all that talented. The more successful the gymnast, the more they were belittled. The Strausses seem to truly believe that they were the talent and the girls were nothing.

    Daily weigh ins were the rule and my 68 pound, 4 foot 7 inch daughter was told she was too fat (I just flat out laughed at that). But then, all the girls, except those who were already anorexic looking, were told that they were too fat. The anorexics were told they looked good. That is not to say that the Strausses knew which girls were having an eating disorder. It just means that there was a warped idea of what a gymnast should look like. The ideal was for eveyone to look like Nadia did at her first Olympics. Even Nadia later confessed to having an eating disorder, but no one knew that at the time. All anyone could see was that the Romanian and Russian girls were stick thin and they were winning. Everyone wanted to be them.

    As for injuries, girls worked out with back braces and knee braces routinely. A girl with a cast on her leg would be expected to work out on bars over the pit. They were rushed back to working out as quickly as possible. A broken toe would only merit getting your toes taped together and the gymnast was told to get back to work. The fault is not just with the coaches, but with their parents who weren’t there to defend their daughters against the idiotic expectations of their coaches. Plus, some of the parents were so invested in the process, that they went along with anything the coaches told them to do. I do think Jennifer Sey’s mother Merle gets a bad rap here, though. I didn’t know her well, but she always seemed to have Jennifer’s best interests at heart. It didn’t help that Jen’s father gave an interview to a Philadelphia paper that said that gymnastic coaches were a case of arrested development. After that, poor Merle was given a really hard time and was pretty much shunned by the coaches. She put up with it for Jennifer’s sake, but it was pretty brutal.

    The only two coaches I would give any credit to as human beings were Fico Gonzales and Rick Krauss, both of whom have since left the Parkettes. They were the only two who gave a crap about whether the girls could feel good about themselves after gymnastics was all over. They were caring and darned good coaches and the younger kids were lucky to have them.

    I never saw any physical abuse from any of the coaches and I was there almost everyday for years. My daughter was in more than one gym over the years and I’ve met some really good coaches. I’ve also met some coaches who were bottom feeders who should not be within 100 feet of an impressionable child. The Parkettes organization is, in some respects, a good place for a girl to learn and grow. But it’s also a tough sport and it takes a lot out a kid. Bill and Donna aren’t the worst coaches in the world and their gym is not the worst place for a gymnast to be. There are many girls who had positive experiences there. It is also a gym where parental involvement is high and there is the illusion, at least, that everyone is part of the Parkettes family. I personally don’t think I would ever again let my child be an elite level gymnast if I had it to do over again. As my daughter has said, when she became elite, it became a job. Before that, it was fun and she loved it. It was hard for her to leave gymnastics behind because she didn’t know what was out there for her, so she stayed in the sport longer than she might have if she had been a “regular kid”. By the way, she actually enjoyed much of her time at Parkettes and didn’t leave the sport until several years after she left that gym.

    Coaches aren’t the only ones to blame. The parents who should be watching out for their kids best interests should look for any signs of abuse, both mental and physical. They should ask the hard questions and put their feet down when they feel that a coach is stepping over the line. That is the parents’ job. I’ve been to some good gyms where the girls are happy and there isn’t the pressure to succeed at a high level. Those are generally not gyms where elite level gymnasts train. It’s a hard sport, and some of the training is exacting and sacrifices have to be made. It’s not for everyone. A girl like Jen Sey was ripe for the picking in a sport like this. It gave her every chance to exercise her compulsive nature and I think, from reading her book, that she takes some responsibility for her problems. At times, while reading the book, I kept thinking that she has yet to leave her problems behind. She seems to be fixated on a time when gymnastics was her whole world and her parents wanted to give her that world. She blames her parents and especially her mother for a lot of things that were inherently in her (Jen’s) nature. I think she would have had eating problems even if she weren’t a gymnast, but gymnastics is the kind of sport where body image is everything. A lot of the judging is based on how you look. If the judge likes you and thinks you look physically perfect up there on the beam, you will get points for how you look not how good your routine actually was.

    If you actually read the book, I think you will see that Jen and her parents were all trying to do their best in a sport where your best is never good enough. Perfection is just an illusion and can never really be attained. Unfortunately, gymnastics coaches, judges and the gymnasts, fool themselves into thinking that it can. That’s where the problems begin. The coaches know that the sport is all politics. Evey gym has a judge in their corner who will give certain gymnasts higher scores than they deserve. If there is a certain corruption there, it’s because high level gymnastics is a business. The big gyms need high profile gymnasts to make their names and you are only as good as your last champion. They push hard and at times, they do the wrong thing. Most coaches were not gymnasts themselves and have no idea what it takes from these kids menatlly and physically.

  2. Rick McCharles Says:

    Thanks Jeena.

    Some new information there for me.

    In my defense I’ve never contested anything Jen said about what happened in her own experience. I said she was lying after she claimed that those coaching behaviours were “endemic” in the sport.

    They don’t happen in most gyms. They are not endemic.

  3. GYmnasT Says:

    Okay Jeena,
    things haven’t changed much tho. What can you really do for a broken toe??? Nastia Liukin trained on bars while she had her foot/ankle injury and look at what a great bars competitor she became. I agree with you 100% that the coaches were probably not providing a healthy learning experience for the girls at that time, but have you seen some of today’s competitors???

    …they are overweight, spoiled, rich, lazy children. If they are over the age of twelve, they’re not serious and are only practicing to be with friends. They proscribe to every fashion whether or not it benefits or hurts their gymnastics. its horrible. I’ve heard girls tell their coaches that it’s impossible for them to fix such and such mistake because of such and such reason. They refuse to make corrections and are being very disrespectful to both the coach and the sport.

    I think that needs to stop. Sure you won’t always have a completely dedicated team, but i think it has come to the point where only the really rich families can afford to send their children to gymnastics, AND follow through with the competition aspect of the sport. Because of this narrow selection of students, the gymnastics community is ending up with a very uniform personality type among gymnasts.

    But yes… those that are really dedicated. Those that live heart and soul for the glory of the sport. Who eat, sleep and breathe the sport. Those are the girls and boys we should be relying on… and there aren’t very many of them out there.

    Not to mention colleges are cutting their gymnastics programs like high school drop-outs cut class.

    Parents… I’ve had many issues with parents. I’m sure i’m not the only little girl to have her dreams smashed by parents who don’t believe in the sport. My mother was another. I think parents have an important role in the career of their children. Parents should be there for support and guidance. To help the gymnast make the decisions that will best support and aid HIS/HER own goals, not their own.
    oftentimes parents can be over bearing, unsatisfied, have unrealistically high expectations, or be unsupportive. I believe that parents have the toughest job of the gymnast-coach-parent team. They should be able to balance the personality of the coach. For example, if the coaches expectations are really high, the parents should be really supportive of both the coaches expectations AND what their son or daughter is capable of achieving and their actual achievements. Oftentimes I see parents that try to ditto the coaches personality to maintain a consistent environment/view for their child. I don’t believe this is the correct thing to do, especially if the coach is not making very informed decisions.

    In conclusion, I think that coaches should maintain an agressive personality with their gymnasts. One that should be feared, respected, AND loved. Degrading the gymnasts would not qualify. Harming theim does not qualify. By being strict and relentlessly correcting, strengthening, conditioning and teaching the gymnasts how to grow into better people and gymnasts can a coach create champions. Some coaches have lost the dividing line between demanding obediance and imposing it. Yes there is a difference. Demanding obediance is an expectation; one that the gymnasts should seek to meet. Imposing obediance is the action where the coach takes an unwilling gymnast and forces him/her to do as he/she says.

    I haven’t yet read Jennifer Sey’s book, but I intend to. I don’t think the sport deserves that kind of bashing from its veterans, but maybe there are still some things we can learn from what Sey recalls from her experiences.

  4. lars Says:

    It is probably true. The sport does seem to leave a lot of scars on elite gymnasts. Not only Sey but Christy Henrich, Vanessa Atler, Kristy Phillips, an ex AIS athlete, Ruth Moniz. Much more recently Chloe Sims reported an eating disorder.

    And to be more current check out the recent discussion as a response to Sey’s book plug on Sunrise. Here’s the link:

    http://au.lifestyle.yahoo.com/b/sunrise/7967/gymnastics-under-fire-in-new-book-by-us-star/

    A gymnast from WAIS and from Sydney’s elite both have some negative things to say about the sport.

    When parents say they go to meetings every 8 weeks to address these issues, it doesn’t seem like a lot to me. I think most gymnasts are okay but there are still a lot who are left with severe psychological and physical problems or both. Most probably just can’t fill the void and experience an immense sense of loss after leaving the sport. I believe interview should be conducted with the Australian elite who have retired.

    When I see most gymnasts interview the majority seem to lack education and I question whether their intelect is nutured much. A lot have squeeky immature voices and lack articulation suitable for their age. Often I will hear an 18 y.o. giving answers as if 12y.o and with the insight of a child rather than a normal 18yo. who you could interview on the street. As in, has not experienced life in a full and dynamic way. This is okay for now but what about when they grow up and have little career options due to lack of education. Or find it difficult to relate to adults as the only real adults they have related to are their parents (not much) and their coaches (quasi parent figures anyway). Can teenage gymnasts interact in a confident and normal way? A full education can never be taken away from a person but the sport of gymnastics ends on an elite performance level.

    I also question the coaches and the fact that they need to keep, prove and defend their jobs. So of course they will do whatever it takes to succeed. It is their job.
    I would say if you are a parent of a gymnast it is up to you and your child to decide if abuse is occuring. I would not trust coaches. there is too much at stake for the. Some may even lose their visas and have to go home to China or Russia . Who knows. If I was sent here to coach from a disadvantaged country and I had children of my own in Australia or USA I would do almost anything to protect my own children. In a way, they would be more important than the lives of the gymnasts when it comes down to it. The coaches have to suceed and I would alwaysrecommend parents to keep that in mind.

    I believe the physical, intellectual and emotional development gymnasts is retarded. But most overcome it when they finish and go on to do normal things and regain a normal life when they finish.

    General and State level gymnastics is fine, the elite probably not.
    I think the old German, Russian and Chinese models of gymnastics training are creul and I hope they don’t still go on.

    On a positive note I think the sport of gymnasts is great. However, stringent psychological analysis needs to be conducted from someone outside the sport all the time. Daily or weekly. If abuse is suspected it needs to be reported. THat is the law.

    Don’t leave the emotional needs of your child in the hands of coaches or anyone in charge of the sport. Parents know best.

  5. lars Says:

    I apologise for incorrect spelling is last post after ranting about lack of education in gymnasts. Ha..a.ha..ha…..ha

  6. Barbara May Says:

    I enjoyed reading Jennifer’s book and as a former gymnast, I could relate to a lot of the things she wrote about. Especially about the pressures coaches put on older gymnasts to stay thin. And the life long pain associated with gymnastics injuries.

    My normal training weight in high school was around 135 lbs. (I am almost 5’5″ tall) In grade 11, after spending a week in the hospital because I had pneumonia and loosing 30 lbs, my coach said to me “you look great, keep the weight off”.

    I didn’t know how to respond. I had been near death, could not walk up a flight of stairs without stopping to rest and my breasts and bum had disappeared. The sad part is that when I regained my strength, and returned to a healthy training weight I believed that I was fat.

    This belief was reinforced by my University gymnastics coaches who routinely suggested that we loose weight.

    Recently, (now that I am in my forties) I have been able to look at pictures of myself as a gymnast and realize how absurd this belief was. I see a chiropractor regularly and have found relief from the back pain I suffered with for 20 years.

    I do have some wonderful memories from gymnastics and like Jennifer, I did have some fantastic coaches. In addition I learned some very valuable life skills about hard work and achieving results.

    Overall, was it a positive experience? I’d have to say yes. However, if my children wanted to become competitive gymnasts, I would limit their involvement to 2 or 3 training sessions per week.

  7. Lani Gorzen Says:

    I want to share my story of sexual inappropriateness from my coach when I was a young gymnast. Is this the right venue to do this?

  8. LCM Says:

    Lani,
    If you have experienced ANY sexually inappropriate behavior from one of your coaches as a gymnast you should tell someone immediately (and not on a blog) such as the gymnastics federation or state gymnastics association or USGA. if that coach is still coaching the chances are there are new gymnasts under his care that could be in danger.

  9. Cas Says:

    I haven’t read the book but can attest to the inappropriate training techniques in the 80″s. I had a good coach, he was respectful to all the girls on the team and tried to keep in with the newest training methods. He did the “no sugar, butter, or fat” faze, the daily weigh ins, and working us out till we wanted to puke. He also would have a fun day once a month, and allow us to be silly when the time was needed. The higher the level of any sport the more demanding and harder the expectations you have. To be good you need to work hard, to be great you need to work harder and have the desire to do what it takes. This does not mean to do anything that would harm a child or humiliate them, but to work 120% every time. I hate to see a black mark on Gymnastics because of a few bad coaches. Most of the coaches I have had or know are in the sport for the love of the sport. Not the money or to be around little girls, just because they believe in the beauty of gymnastics and want to share the love of this wonderful and fun sport with others that love it too. Cheers to my coach for teaching me the love of the sport. Tim Niles ! Thanks

  10. GeorgiaGirl Says:

    I just read the book. I am not a gymnast, but my daughter is. I thank Jennifer Sey for telling her story. I believe her. It helps me to know what to watch out for, how to support my daughter, and when to step in as a parent and do what is best for my child. I do not care if she ever becomes an elite gymnast. I want her to love life, be strong, and buils character. The first time she is told to lose weight, after I smash that person’s face that’ll be the end of it.

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