For two years, Sara Allan, a former gymnast who grew up in New York City, had wanted to file a complaint.
In 2018, she wrote a two-page letter saying that her former gymnastics coach at Chelsea Piers, Chris McClain, engaged in a litany of emotional abuse, including insulting and berating gymnasts about their weight, eating habits and mental abilities. She addressed it to the executives of the facility, a behemoth sports complex in Lower Manhattan where she trained with its club team for 10 years, imploring them to investigate.
“It’s not just Olympic-bound gymnasts who were required to train under emotionally abusive conditions,” the letter said.
When she finally sent a more thorough complaint to Chelsea Piers last Friday, she knew she was far from alone.
In less than a month, Allan had compiled a 13-page document filled with specific complaints against McClain that spanned 15 years — from 33 gymnasts, nine of their family members and five coaches. They demanded that McClain be suspended, and, to their surprise, their pleas were quickly heeded.
Chelsea Piers suspended McClain last Saturday, the day after Allan sent the complaint. Then, on Wednesday, U.S.A. Gymnastics suspended McClain, pending an investigation.
McClain, who has been the head girls’ team coach at Chelsea Piers since 2007, did not return voice and text messages seeking comment. An emailed statement from Chelsea Piers on Wednesday said the organization immediately reported the complaint to the gymnastics federation and the United States Center for SafeSport, which handles abuse cases in Olympic sports.
“The health and safety of our community of athletes is vital to Chelsea Piers’ mission as a sports training center,” the statement said.
The case against McClain, according to U.S.A. Gymnastics, is one of the biggest involving emotional abuse the federation has seen because of how many people came forward together. It has become yet another example of the reckoning in gymnastics regarding the way coaches and officials have treated athletes, which became a priority after the Lawrence G. Nassar sexual abuse case.
Last month, the gymnastics federation suspended Maggie Haney, a prominent coach, for mistreating and verbally abusing her gymnasts, a departure for a sport that for decades has accepted a culture of tyrannical coaches and silence among athletes.
Li Li Leung, who last year became the chief executive of U.S.A. Gymnastics, told the Olympian Laurie Hernandez in a livestreamed interview on Wednesday that the federation historically allowed abusive coaching and “even rewarded it in the name of winning.” But the federation would not tolerate it anymore, she said.
Allan said that gymnasts more than ever are feeling empowered to speak out.
“Before, you were just overreacting and weak to not be able to take that type of coaching,” Allan, 27, said last week. “Now people know that whole culture is messed up, and that you can actually do something about it.”
The complaint said McClain had called gymnasts “retarded,” “disgusting” and “worthless,” and that she had repeatedly told some athletes that they should only consume tea and celery. Some gymnasts said they developed eating and anxiety disorders as a result.
Allan connected with fellow athletes with similar experiences because of a Facebook post on April 30. After U.S.A. Gymnastics punished Haney a day earlier, Allan wrote that the suspension validated her feelings about her mistreatment and affirmed that she was not just overly sensitive.
The ruling “shook me harder than I could have imagined,” she wrote.
And within a few hours, gymnasts and coaches began reaching out to describe what they considered abusive treatment by McClain. So many messages flooded in that Allan, an analyst at General Mills, left work early that day to address them.
“It was like these people were waiting for an opportunity to share their stories and for someone to document them,” said Allan, who was a four-year member of the University of Pennsylvania gymnastics team, though injuries kept her from competing.
The night of the Facebook post, one Chelsea Piers gymnast sent Allan a five-page Google document she put together with five current and former teammates, all under 18, giving examples of McClain’s abuse.
They said McClain would threaten them by saying, “If we were her children, she would slap us.” One said McClain cursed at her for getting water during practice because the coach often prevented them from taking water breaks.
If any girl’s parents complained, the coach later would tell that gymnast that she was going to make her life a “miserable hell,” the teenagers wrote. The effects of the abuse, they said, included panic attacks, trouble distinguishing normal from abusive behavior in relationships and thoughts of suicide.
Those stories motivated Allan to compile as comprehensive a complaint as possible.
“I wanted to rip the Band-Aid off and prevent accusations from trickling in and coaches planning retaliation,” she said. “It’s already painful to relive all of this, but I said, let’s just try to make the biggest impact with the least amount of pain possible.”
Over the next several weeks, Allan spoke for hours with other gymnasts about their shared experience. She told them her own story. McClain, Allan said, once stretched her shoulders so mercilessly that it tore her labrum. And within six months of being coached by McClain, she said, she developed an eating disorder that led to stress fractures in her hip and back. She feared that the coach would humiliate her in front of the group, as McClain had done with another gymnast, if she perceived her as being too heavy. Allan received treatment for her issues with restricting food and overexercising for years after she retired from the sport.
Gymnasts weren’t simply corrected when they made a mistake, Allan said in an interview: “It was blown up into you as a person are flawed and you’re not going to succeed in life and you’re not talented and you’re not going anywhere in life.” And most of McClain’s gymnasts were between 8 and 18, so they were inclined to believe it, she said.
Allan, who lives in Berkeley, Calif., conducted 20 interviews of gymnasts, coaches and family members, took scrupulous notes and compiled spreadsheets about their experiences. Last week, she shared a copy of her complaint so people could sign onto it.
More than half agreed to have their names published in the complaint. The others asked for anonymity because they were afraid of retaliation.
“It was so incredibly painful to see how many people have been affected,” said Gabriella Benedetti, 23, who was coached by McClain and now coaches at another gym. “I thought it was just me, but it wasn’t.”
She remembers McClain screaming at her when she was 10, saying, “What’s wrong with you? Do you have a learning disability or something?” Several years later, McClain labeled her as a bad influence when her body changed during puberty and warned other gymnasts to avoid her.
While McClain could be “horrifyingly, outlandishly” mean one day, she could be overly nice the next, Benedetti said, comparing it to being in a relationship with an abusive partner. That treatment messed with her young mind so much that Benedetti said she could not step foot in a gym for years after she retired and has had recurring nightmares about McClain.
“I want Chris to know that we’re older, stronger and we have a voice and we’re not afraid to use it anymore,” Benedetti said. “We are no longer our 10-year-old selves. We can finally understand what you’ve been doing all these years. We were all children and you need to be held accountable for your actions.”
Another former gymnast, Maya Bach, read Benedetti’s story in the complaint and realized that her experience with McClain had been similar. McClain had also told her that she loved her, only to flip and harangue or ignore her. Bach also said she once had a stress fracture on her spine and the coach insisted she keep practicing.
“I’d come home crying almost every single day,” said Bach, who is 26. “I was repeatedly told that this is what it took to be a gymnast and I wasn’t even thinking of making it to the level of elite.”
Bach’s father, David Bach, said he was shocked to read the complaints because he hadn’t seen any glaring signs of abuse. While many parents sat in the stands at Chelsea Piers to watch practice, he said he couldn’t hear what McClain was telling gymnasts.
When he would confront McClain about his daughter often coming home in tears, he said McClain would tell him that she just needed to overcome her fear of certain gymnastics skills and trust herself. He considered that an acceptable answer.
Bach said that a generation ago, parents might not have thought twice if a child came home crying after meeting with an authority figure, like a priest. But now, alarm bells should ring and parents shouldn’t blindly trust coaches, he said.
“There have to be hundreds of traumatized girls because of this coach,” he said. “It’s going to be like #MeToo.”
Allan continues to field calls from gymnasts coming forward about McClain and recently formed a private Facebook page for those who said they endured abusive coaching at Chelsea Piers. She said it has been draining for the girls and women to recount their experiences. But now that they found each other, they will continue to support each other.
“I hope that it doesn’t always have to come to this, 50 people over 15 years complaining about a coach,” she said. “I’d love to see people in the sport communicate better so problems can be fixed as issues come up. But this is a good start.”