Gymnasts Describe Emotional and Physical Abuse by a Prominent Coach:
Practices at Everest Gymnastics in North Carolina, one of the sport’s top training centers, often began with Coach Qi Han calling out which of the girls, including some as young as 9, would be placed in the “fat group.”
Those gymnasts were assigned extra workouts to lose weight, four gymnasts who trained with Han within the past six years said, but they didn’t dare complain. They tried not to cry, and if they did, the gymnasts said, Han might call them stupid and unworthy of his attention. Or he might throw a shoe or a cellphone at them. Or angrily shove them off a high bar as he stood on a raised platform.
Han would lose his temper nearly every day, keeping his athletes on edge as they wondered when — and how — he would explode, the gymnasts said.
Parents were rarely around. They had been barred from practices.
Last month, Ashton Locklear, 20, a member of the national gymnastics team, told The New York Times that Han had verbally abused her — a pattern that escalated to an incident in which he threw a cellphone at her. She left the gym earlier this year.
Since then, four other former Everest gymnasts have come forward with similar accusations, describing patterns of emotional and physical abuse that have been overshadowed in the sport by concerns about sexual abuse, which have come to widespread attention in recent years.
The growing awareness of abuse in the sport was prompted by the conviction of Lawrence G. Nassar, the former national team doctor for U.S.A. Gymnastics, who was accused of sexually abusing more than 150 gymnasts. He was sentenced in January to 40 to 175 years in prison.
Han is not accused of sexual abuse.
Still, the former Everest gymnasts said his treatment of them went beyond the hard-charging style typical of many coaches in the sport, with devastating consequences.
Two parents of former Everest gymnasts and Monica Avery, a coach and gym owner in North Carolina, also reached out to The Times, saying they had reported Han’s abuse to U.S.A. Gymnastics years ago, with no apparent consequences for him.
Han immediately cut off a phone call from a Times reporter last week, and did not return voice or text messages that informed him of the accusations against him.
In a statement released Friday, Everest Gymnastics said, “We do not tolerate abuse of any kind in our facility.”
“If any credible abuse allegations exist,’’ the statement said, “Everest Gymnastics encourages those parties to contact U.S.A. Gymnastics.”
The four gymnasts who came forward — Taylor Laymon, who attended the University of Pittsburgh on a full gymnastics scholarship; Allee George, a four-time all-around state champion who said she quit the sport because of Han’s behavior; and two other gymnasts, who asked to remain anonymous because they still compete and fear retribution — said they carried emotional scars from Han’s mistreatment.
“Han would kind of brainwash you into thinking all of his weird ways of disciplining you were normal, like when he would stretch your shoulders past your breaking point until you screamed, but still wouldn’t stop,” George, now a professional dancer, said. “Once you’re in there, it’s hard to get out and it’s kind of hard to explain. The people he coaches turn out to be good gymnasts. But they don’t turn out mentally good.”
Han, 47, grew up in China and as a child was chosen to train for gymnastics, becoming a member of the national team. He opened the Everest gym in 2004 with his wife, Yiwen Chen, also a former member of China’s national team. Their gym has placed two athletes on the United States senior national team.
The former Everest gymnasts said they knew Han could make them great because of his technical expertise. They had dreams of earning scholarships to compete in college, or of making the Olympics. So enduring his wrath seemed worth it.
Yet now they are reassessing their choices and are certain they would not have worked with him if given a chance to do things over.
“Han would say all of these negative things to you, like you’re uncoachable and you don’t deserve a college scholarship, and you’d hear it so much as a kid that you’d start to believe you’re worthless,” said Laymon, who graduated from Pittsburgh last spring with a degree in psychology and sociology and is now a teacher in Chicago.
“He could pretty much do whatever he wanted in the gym because nobody was watching,” she added.
Laymon said that for years she had considered going public with her accusations against Han so she could spare young girls, but that she was always afraid that somehow he would find a way to retaliate.
When Locklear publicly announced last month that she had been molested by Nassar and then detailed allegations of abuse by Han, Laymon realized she needed to open up about Han as well. There was so much at stake, she said, because abusive coaches can scare girls into silence, making them more vulnerable to sexual predators.
Han’s demeanor is not uncommon in elite gymnastics, said Avery, a coach who owns Osega Gymnastics outside Asheville, N.C., with her husband, Miles Avery, a four-time Olympic coach and member of the U.S.A. Gymnastics Hall of Fame.
“I’ve seen grown men and women witness something like that at a meet and pretend that nothing is happening,” Monica Avery said. “I bet these same people would get their dogs’ hair cut at a groomer and if it’s not cut just right, they’d complain and complain. But they let their kids get treated like that and do nothing? It’s crazy.”
Monica Avery said she filed a formal complaint about Han with U.S.A. Gymnastics in 2016 after she witnessed him kicking a gymnast who had been injured at a competition in Texas. She said she had been unable to learn exactly what had become of the complaint.
“People have knowledge of Han’s behavior, but have chosen to do nothing,” she said, adding: “This has to go further. We have to protect kids.”
After she filed the complaint, it would have been handled, according to the federation, by U.S.A. Gymnastics’ member misconduct committee and the executive office, which included the president, Steve Penny. Penny resigned under pressure in 2017 over the way he handled the Nassar sex abuse case.
U.S.A. Gymnastics on Thursday confirmed that in 2017 it forwarded a complaint about Han to the United States Center for SafeSport, which is responsible for investigating abuse claims in Olympic sports. SafeSport assumed jurisdiction over the case to prevent a conflict of interest for U.S.A. Gymnastics because Han was coaching Locklear, a national team member at the time.
Avery followed up that complaint with emails in 2017 and early 2018 to an investigator at SafeSport, but the investigator told her only that the lawyers were considering what to do in the case, according to an email exchange in January.
A spokesman for SafeSport, Dan Hill, said that the organization was not obliged to give updates about cases to any reporting parties and that it never discussed whether a case was under investigation.
Locklear and one of the gymnasts who did not want her name published said Han’s abuse left them contemplating suicide. Both said they struggle with eating disorders and body-image issues that started when they were at Everest.
“I remember wishing our car would wreck on the way to practice or hoping I wouldn’t wake up the next day,” said the gymnast who requested anonymity. “Or being in the shower and holding my breath as the water ran over me until I passed out.”
“Coaches have so much power,” she added, “power over college scholarships and Olympic dreams — too much power.”
Sam Cerio, a gymnast on a full athletic scholarship at Auburn, recently confirmed that Han once hit her on the head with such force that he left a handprint on her face. She declined to elaborate on the incident, which occurred in 2012 during her freshman year of high school.
Laymon, the former gymnast at Pittsburgh, said she saw Han hit Cerio. She said that, and Han’s routine abuse, had traumatized her and led to her leaving Everest.
Terri Laymon, Taylor’s mother and a gymnastics judge, said she then filed a disciplinary complaint on behalf of her daughter and her daughter’s teammates — who were all minors — with U.S.A. Gymnastics, telling the federation what Han had done to Cerio. As a judge, she said she felt it was her ethical duty to report the incident, and she forwarded her letter to other Everest parents, asking for signatures of support.
But no other parents would confirm that Han had slapped Cerio. Han denied abusing Cerio or any other gymnast, Terri Laymon said, and threatened to sue her for slander, libel and defamation of character.
Taylor Laymon said she refused to speak to U.S.A. Gymnastics investigators because she was terrified that Han would find out. Other parents at Everest began attacking Terri Laymon and issuing appeals for support of Han, writing in one email that Terri Laymon’s accusations “will only hurt our girls’ future in gymnastics if she is allowed to continue.”
Cerio’s parents regret what they did next. They sided with Han.
The parents, Becky and Mike Cerio, said they were telling their story now as a cautionary tale about nonsexual abuse in the sport. They said they had initially confronted Han and that he had told Mike Cerio that the contact was “just a tap that didn’t hurt her.”
Han then threatened to bar Sam from the gym if the Cerios did not deny the incident, Mike Cerio said.
The Cerios recalled their thought process at the time: It was a serious recruiting season for Sam, and changing gyms would raise red flags with college coaches. Han had coached Sam since she was 5 and he had taken her far, within reach of a full ride at a college with a highly regarded gymnastics program. Becky Cerio worked at the gym, and the family needed that money.
They just had to get through a few more months with Han, they reasoned then, and then they could walk away.
So they signed a letter Han had asked them to write, addressed only “to whom it may concern,” disputing Terri Laymon’s complaint. The Cerios said they assumed it had been forwarded to U.S.A. Gymnastics.
“We felt like we had no choice,” Mike Cerio said, adding that they “tried to be vague” in the letter’s wording.
Terri Laymon’s complaint died right there.
“U.S.A.G. said they couldn’t do anything unless I witnessed it or someone else makes a complaint,” Terri Laymon said in a phone interview this month. “Even though all the girls who saw it happen were minors, nothing could be done unless they gave a report. And they were all too terrified of Han to do anything.”
Other complaints about Han appear just as doomed.
Locklear’s mother, Carrie, said she had reported Han’s abuse of Ashton to top U.S.A. Gymnastics officials. She told them how Han had dismissed Ashton from the gym again and again, how he had belittled her and monitored her eating so closely that she did not want to eat anything at all — or would eat too much, and then purge. Ashton, she said, became emotionally fragile because of Han.
Carrie Locklear said she had a follow-up conversation with the U.S. Center for SafeSport in March and subsequently spoke to an investigator. She has not heard anything from SafeSport since.
Ashton Locklear, who is training in Texas and working to make the 2020 Olympic team, said she hoped more gymnasts would stand up to reveal abusers. If not now, as gymnastics officials are calling for a sea change to the entire culture of the sport, then when?
“It’s gone on for way too long,” she said.