SPECIAL REPORT: Families detail Maggie Haney’s abuse of young gymnasts
It was a few weeks before the U.S. Championships and Maggie Haney, a U.S. Olympic and national team coach, wanted a gymnast to add a new trick to her uneven bars routine.
The gymnast balked. She had not attempted the skill for months. She was afraid and exhausted.
But Haney demanded the gymnast do the skill. The gymnast continued to hesitate. Haney began ridiculing the girl in front of other gymnasts, according to the girl’s mother. Victoria Levine, Haney’s assistant at MG Elite, a New Jersey gymnastics club, started screaming at the girl, the mother said.
The girl asked the coaches to spot her. They would not, Levine citing a recent medical procedure she had undergone.
The gymnast tried the trick, fell, hitting her head on the equipment and then again on exposed cement before landing in a foam pit. Haney and Levine laughed at the girl in the pit until they realized she was having seizures, according to the mother and two other parents.
The girl had suffered two skull fractures. Her mother arrived at the hospital to find a chaplain near her daughter’s unconscious and lifeless-appearing body.
“I thought she was dead,” recalled the mother, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The gymnast recovered but continues to suffer from migraine headaches.
The incident was one of dozens of examples of the alleged physical, verbal and emotional abuse by Haney of young female gymnasts provided to USA Gymnastics, the sport’s national governing body, between 2016 and this March, according to a Southern California News Group investigation.
Haney, 42, was suspended by USA Gymnastics for eight years after a hearing panel last week found she had violated the organization’s Safe Sport policy, code of ethical conduct and other policies.
Haney, the coach of Olympic and world champions and one of the brightest stars in international gymnastics coaching circles, failed “to provide a safe, positive and healthy environment with a culture of trust and empowerment,” USA Gymnastics wrote in a ruling document to victims that was provided to SCNG.
Interviews with the families of MG Elite gymnasts, confidential USA Gymnastics documents, and previously unreleased texts, emails, letters and other documents related to the investigation obtained by SCNG provide the most complete account to date of the extent and impact of Haney’s alleged abuse.
The interviews and documents outline how Haney pulled gymnasts by their hair, swore and screamed at them, body shamed, ridiculed and called them “retarded” if they couldn’t perform a routine or balked at attempting a new skill they were nervous about. Haney threatened to commit suicide if top gymnasts – including world champion Riley McCusker – left MG Elite, according to interviews, documents and testimony provided to USA Gymnastics as well as texts and emails.
Haney “engaged in severe aggressive behavior toward a minor that included teasing and ridiculing that was intended to control and diminish another person,” according to a hearing panel document provided SCNG.
Haney pressured gymnasts into removing boot casts or other protective medical devices to train or compete while injured, according to interviews and testimony and documents provided to USA Gymnastics. The issue became such a problem that some parents began asking doctors to place permanent plaster casts on their daughters’ injured limbs so they couldn’t be removed at practice or competitions, according to two parents.
TURNING POINT COMES IN 2019
USA Gymnastics documents, personal texts and emails, and interviews also outline that while the mother of Olympic champion Laurie Hernandez first complained about Haney to a top USA Gymnastics official weeks after the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, the organization’s scrutiny of Haney and MG Elite intensified only after Jessica McCusker, Riley’s mother, began to complain about the coach to three top officials starting in 2019.
Steve Penny, the CEO of USA Gymnastics until March 2017, was informed of Hernandez’s complaints twice, according to a senior vice president with the organization. In an interview with SCNG, Wanda Hernandez, Laurie’s mother, said she was never contacted by Penny about Haney.
In the spring of 2019, Jessica McCusker privately encouraged USA Gymnastics general counsel Mark Busby to contact and interview parents of former MG Elite athletes about Haney, according to parents and documents. Yet Riley McCusker, 18, continued to train with Haney at MG Elite until just days before USA Gymnastics placed the coach on interim suspension on Feb. 3, the first day of her disciplinary hearing. The interim suspension prohibited Haney from all contact with minors, including being in a gym where minors are present.
Documents and interviews also reveal the impact the abuse had on gymnasts, some still preteens, at the time and continues to have on them years later.
“I try to pray to god and ask him for help but he never listens,” a gymnast texted her mother after a Haney tirade at the gym.
Gymnasts continue to have nightmares about the abuse and suffer panic attacks, depression, have suicidal thoughts and battle body image issues and eating disorders, according to interviews and documents. For some of the gymnasts, anxiety and depression have led to self-harming behavior like cutting. One former MG Elite gymnast pulls out her eyelashes and eyebrows, according to her mother.
Interviews and documents also show how USA Gymnastics’ response to Hernandez’s complaints in 2016 and 2017, as well as the organization’s failure to act with a greater sense of urgency after at least a half-dozen parents detailed Haney’s abuse to Busby in the spring of 2019, exposed more than a dozen gymnasts to continuing physical, verbal, and emotional abuse.
COACHING APPROACH QUESTIONED
The Haney case reveals “USA Gymnastics failure to recognize the purpose of participating in sports. No one needs to be beaten up to succeed in sports. This ideology that an athlete really needs to suffer to be an Olympian is a lie,” said Katherine Starr, an Olympic swimmer and founder of Safe4Athletes, an athlete advocacy foundation focusing on abuse
“USA Gymnastics has displayed no cultural leadership on this. This ideology is how Larry Nassar existed in the system,” Starr continued, referring to the disgraced former U.S. Olympic and national team physician who was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison in early 2018 on charges of sexually assaulting seven girls, though 156 girls and women made statements at his trial.
In all, 517 survivors of Nassar’s abuse are part of an ongoing lawsuit against USA Gymnastics. Nearly all of them have balked at a $217 million settlement offer from USA Gymnastics.
Added Starr: “Criminal child abuse has become an acceptable form of coaching. How did we make that transition? We made that transition because that’s what USA Gymnastics allowed.”
USA Gymnastics said in a statement: “It is critically important that those who have reported misconduct in the past or may report in the future know that their privacy will be respected. Accordingly, to preserve the integrity of the process and the privacy of all participants, Safe Sport hearings are confidential, and we are unable to comment on the details of individual cases, including that of Ms. Haney.”
For many of the gymnasts, the USA Gymnastics hearing in the Haney case, which lasted 13 days over the course of two months, stirred up painful memories and fears. One gymnast, who asked not to be identified, tried to deal with her anxiety by starting to write a letter to Haney.
The abuse was so traumatizing, the gymnast dreaded going to practice so much, she wrote, that she hoped she would be killed in a car wreck on the way to the gym.
“I’m hurting, I’m angry,” said Wanda Hernandez, Laurie’s mother. “We have to do a better job of protecting our children.”
Haney was stripped of her coaching privileges and USA Gymnastics membership for eight years. She is prohibited from contacting any of the accusers and cannot attend USA Gymnastics events other than to accompany or watch her daughter compete. She can apply for reinstatement after eight years. If reinstated, she will be placed on two years probation.
Haney testified for most of a day during the hearing and also had supportive witnesses.
“Eight years is not enough,” Starr said. “There’s nothing in that way of coaching that brings any value or betterment to an athlete. Clearly her emotional temperament is not compatible with coaching any athlete.”
SCNG provided Russell Prince, Haney’s Florida-based attorney, a list of questions detailing the material covered in this report. Prince, who represented Haney during the USA Gymnastics matter, on Wednesday afternoon agreed to answer the questions but asked for more time.
“We want to answer all the questions,” he said. “We want to tell Maggie’s story.”
SCNG gave Prince a noon PDT Thursday deadline, which came and went without a response. Prince did not respond to multiple subsequent requests for comment via text, email and telephone.
THE ROAD TO RIO
Haney, a native Texan and former North Carolina State standout, is considered one of the best technical coaches in the world. She first gained international prominence when coaching Hernandez, who won a gold medal in the team competition at the 2016 Olympic Games and added a silver medal on the balance beam.
But the road to Rio had been anything but smooth. Haney routinely screamed and swore at Hernandez during training and competitions, according to Hernandez and her mother. She ridiculed her when she went through puberty and constantly made negative comments about her weight and physical appearance. Haney also pushed Hernandez to train and compete through injuries.
“As a parent, you don’t expect a coach to be mean-spirited or harass your child,” Wanda Hernandez said. “You don’t expect them to bully your child. You’re already aware that it’s a tough sport. A coach doesn’t need to go to a point where they’re breaking (gymnasts).”
Parents were not allowed in the gym at MG Elite and Haney warned gymnasts not to complain to their parents about her coaching methods, according to six parents and documents related to the USA Gymnastics investigation. Other parents said they were caught up in their daughters’ dreams of the Olympics or a Division I college scholarship and blame themselves for not pulling their children out of MG Elite sooner.
Wanda Hernandez said she was not aware of Haney’s abuse of her daughter until she overheard a conversation between Laurie and a teammate shortly after the Olympics.
The Hernandez family terminated their relationship with Haney and contacted Rhonda Faehn, USA Gymnastics senior vice president for the women’s program, about the coach in the weeks after the Olympics. Wanda Hernandez and Faehn said they participated in a call with Laurie Hernandez and Haney around Christmas 2016.
“The Hernandez family wanted to be clear they no longer wished to have contact with Maggie and requested that she respect this,” Faehn said. “I did share this information with Steve Penny.”
The Hernandez family’s complaints about Haney came as USA Gymnastics was scrambling to contain the Nassar sexual abuse scandal.
“I thought it was over,” Wanda Hernandez said.
But Faehn said she observed Haney approach and hug Laurie Hernandez during training at the American Cup in March 2017. Hernandez at the time was giving VIP tours at the event.
“After this incident, Wanda contacted me and asked if Maggie had signed a letter stating she would no longer contact Laurie,” Faehn wrote in an email to SCNG. “Maggie had signed the Responsibilities Manual that is part of the annual national team agreement. This manual included the Participant Welfare Policy and Ethical code of conduct, and it stated that the ‘Personal coaches shall not engage in any form of Prohibited Conduct.’ At this time, USA Gymnastics Safe Sport didn’t exist, but I did inform Steve Penny of the incident at the American Cup. I was advised to speak with Maggie again about respecting the wishes of the Hernandez family to not contact Laurie.”
Haney, however, continued to contact the Hernandez family. Faehn said she received an email from Anthony Hernandez, Laurie’s father, in September 2017.
Hernandez, Faehn said, was “asking for help with an incident where Maggie drove to their property to drop off fan mail that had been sent to the gym. After speaking with the directors of Safe Sport, they asked me to have Wanda file a formal report. After the report was filed, Maggie was sent a warning letter from USA Gymnastics’ Safe Sport department. I was not made aware of what Wanda’s report included, but do recall our conversations focused on Laurie and the family’s misgivings about continued unwanted contact from Maggie. From the time of the Safe Sport report until my departure in May of 2018, I was not aware of any other reports.”
Wanda Hernandez said she expressed concerns about Haney with then -Gymnastics CEO Kerry Perry in 2018.
“I asked her to have Maggie stay away from Laurie,” Hernandez said.
It is not clear what steps, if any, Perry took. She was forced out in September 2018, just nine months after she was hired.
‘EVERY DAY WAS A STRUGGLE’
Haney’s abuse continued at MG Elite, according to parents, gymnasts, texts, emails and documents related to USA Gymnastics’ investigation.
Gymnasts were often on edge, frightened of being the target of Haney’s rage and ridicule, according to interviews and documents.
Girls who were unable or reluctant to perform skills or displeased Haney in training or competition were screamed at, berated and ridiculed, according to six parents and documents. A mistake could lead to Haney telling a gymnast she was lazy, fat, uncoachable or disrespectful, according to interviews and documents.
Haney and Levine regularly called gymnasts retarded or said they should be in the “retarded group,” according to parents.
“They used ‘retarded’ all the time,” a parent said.
One gymnast was so nervous performing an uneven bars routine in front of Haney and Levine that she began shaking uncontrollably, according to a parent
“Do you have Tourette’s?” Levine joked, the parent recalled.
Haney and Levine then began laughing at the girl, the parent said.
Levine was placed on an interim suspension by USA Gymnastics in March and was prohibited from having any unsupervised contact with minor-age athletes while the organization investigates allegations of verbal and emotional abuse against her. Levine’s attorney said she denies any wrongdoing.
Mistakes or lapses of concentration led to gymnasts being kicked out of training on a regular basis, usually sent to an upstairs classroom at the gym that several parents described as a “glorified closet.” Poor performances in training and meets or if Haney thought a gymnast looked fat would prompt her to threaten to call college coaches recruiting the gymnasts and tell them the girl wasn’t worth pursuing.
“Going to practice every day was a struggle for me,” a gymnast wrote in a letter. “Each morning I would wake up on the verge of tears, not really sleeping the night before because of how scared I was to see my coaches and face the abuse they had for me that day. A day in this gym was painful. For example, we would go to our events after stretching and conditioning, everybody just watching the clock tick with hopes for the day to soon be over. Practice in most people’s eyes is a time in which you are supposed to learn and make mistakes. However, mistakes at this gym are never tolerated. If you fell during your turn or made an error, you would face a consequence. Consequences included, but not limited to, getting screamed at, harshly insulted, facing torturous amounts of extra conditioning, or sometimes getting thrown out of the gym for the day.”
The abuse took its toll on gymnasts’ confidence.
“No one can coach me,” a gymnast texted her mother after a rough training session with Haney. “I’m uncoachable.”
In another text, the gymnast wrote: “I stink at gymnastics. I hate myself.”
Gymnasts tried to hide their menstrual periods from Haney because she told them menstruating was proof that you were fat, according to five parents. One gymnast was so panic-stricken when a teammate walked in on her in the bathroom as she was experiencing her first period that she begged the girl not to tell Haney.
ABUSE TURNS PHYSICAL
It was just not ridicule that gymnasts feared from Haney, according to interviews and documents.
When one gymnast hesitated to do a skill, Haney screamed at her, “Oh, my god, I’m going to take you and push you into this cement wall. Do the (expletive) skill!” according to an MG Elite mother.
Sometimes Haney got physical. Haney pulled gymnasts by their hair off the balance beam or out of foam pits, according to five parents. When a gymnast fell on bars during a photo shoot for a leotard company, an enraged Haney pulled the girl by her hair to her feet, according to the gymnast’s mother.
The abuse continued, parents said, because Haney instructed gymnasts not to share what took place in the gym with their families or others. When a parent did text or email Haney with a complaint or concern, the coach read it aloud in front of the entire group of gymnasts. Other times Haney told parents their daughter was lying, according to interviews.
Riley McCusker won a gold medal with the U.S. squad in the team competition at the 2018 World Championships but, like Hernandez before her, was still not immune from Haney’s wrath.
McCusker’s relationship with Haney began to unravel during the FIG World Cup individual all-around March 23, 2019, in Birmingham, England.
Haney berated McCusker for a poor performance on the vault, according to two people familiar with the investigation. McCusker finished second to Russia’s Aliya Mustafina despite finishing ahead of Mustafina in three of the four events. But McCusker’s vault score of 13.133 was 1.233 less than the Russian’s and was the difference in the final standings.
A Great Britain gymnastics official told a member of the U.S. party if a coach spoke to a British athlete as Haney had to McCusker, they would never be allowed to coach again, according to interviews and documents.
McCusker stayed at MG Elite but her mother Jessica began complaining about Haney to Tom Forster, USA Gymnastics’ women’s national team coordinator, and Annie Heffernon, the organization’s vice president for the women’s program.
Forster intervened on behalf of Riley McCusker during interactions with Haney at U.S. national team camps, according to interviews and documents. Jessica McCusker told other parents Forster had “saved” her daughter several times.
Despite his knowledge of Haney’s abuse, Forster posted a series of photos that included Haney on his Facebook page in late March in which he referred to Haney and other Team USA coaches as “great.” Haney was placed on interim suspension by USA Gymnastics, Forster’s employer, weeks earlier.
Forster and Heffernon did not respond to requests for comment.
In the spring of 2019, Jessica McCusker urged Busby, USA Gymnastics’ general counsel, to contact families who had left MG Elite that she knew had issues with Haney. McCusker’s communication to Busby coincided with another parent filing a written complaint against Haney with Busby. Jessica McCusker also pushed parents to contact Forster and Heffernon directly.
Some of the parents said they were aware McCusker had shared their names with Busby. Others were caught off guard by Busby’s calls and resented being blindsided, especially when Riley McCusker continued to train with Haney.
Busby did not respond to a request comment.
Jessica McCusker agreed on multiple occasions – and as recently as this month – to speak on the record to SCNG about the Haney case after the hearing. She did not respond to calls and texts from SCNG after the ruling, then asked SCNG to submit a list of questions in writing to her. A detailed list of questions was provided to her. She again did not respond to multiple texts or voicemail messages seeking comment.
Despite the scrutiny of Haney, Riley McCusker continued to be subjected to abusive behavior. Haney screamed at her and kicked her out of the training, according to interviews, texts and emails, and Riley McCusker was struggling mentally and physically. Jessica McCusker told parents that her daughter said, “I hate myself.”
Riley McCusker missed the World Championships last fall because of a muscle ailment frequently linked to overtraining. McCusker’s parents issued a statement on social media supporting Haney. McCusker resumed training with Haney but an SCNG report of USA Gymnastics’ investigation of Haney heightened tensions between the coach and gymnast and her family.
McCusker finally left MG Elite and began training at Arizona Sunrays in Phoenix after Haney was placed on interim suspension. Riley McCusker later submitted a letter critical of Haney to the hearing panel.
‘A TIME TO REFLECT’
Like many of the MG Elite parents, Wanda Hernandez wrestles with a swirl of emotions, mostly anger and hurt for the gymnasts and their families, what they went through and the emotional anguish that still lies ahead for many of them. She hopes the scandal is a wake-up call for USA Gymnastics and wants athletes and their parents to be given a bigger voice by the organization.
“This is a time to reflect and make real change,” Hernandez said. “USAG, let’s include families that have been impacted to have a voice in the change or want to be change agents. Let’s create policies where we don’t wait almost four years (to act). Let’s team up with wellness groups that can be available to athletes.
“Coaches, check each other. You see another colleague being disrespectful, talk to them. Don’t be a bystander watching them and staying silent…
“Let’s begin to do the work to heal, and share ideas on what we can do to make this sport a safe place for athletes. Yes, this is a tough sport, but let’s make it clear there is no room for abuse here.”
She also hopes Haney will change.
“I hope she can self-reflect,” Hernandez said. “If it’s one (gymnast)? But two, three, four, five? Now it’s time to look at yourself and see what needs to change. And it starts with, ‘Hey, listen, I’m sorry I hurt you.’”
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