In filing suit against Azarian U.S. Gymnastics Training Center, girls team coach Vanessa Gonzalez and two other coaches in Orange County Superior Court Monday three gymnasts are seeking an opportunity they maintain USA Gymnastics denied them: the chance to confront the coaches they alleged abuse them and the gym owners who enabled that abuse.
The suit filed by Ashton Woodbury, a former Cal and Azarian gymnast, and two minor aged gymnasts alleges assault, negligent infliction of emotional distress, negligent hiring, supervision, training and retention, and fraud.
Gonzalez, Perry Davies, a former Azarian girls team coach, and Taylor Jacobs, another coach, hit gymnasts, the suit alleges. The coaches also body shamed, publicly humiliated, isolated the gymnasts and forced them to train on muscle injuries and strains, according to the lawsuit.
Woodbury and the two other gymnasts were “forced to suffer physical, psychological and emotional injury, pain and suffering as a result” of the coaches’ “abusive actions and conduct,” the suit alleges.
“Every young athlete deserves the opportunity to learn, train and grow in their chosen sport without interference, fear or abuse,” said Eric Traut, an attorney for the women.
Gonzalez and Davies have denied any wrongdoing.
In addition to the coaches, the suit also names Eduard Azarian, the Olympic gold medalist for the Soviet Union and owner and manager of the Aliso Viejo gym, Marina Azarian, his wife, Albina Azarian Myers, their daughter, her husband Trevor Myers, and the gym’s parent company Argonaut LLC. Marina Azarian and the Myers are also listed as owners in the suit.
Azarian and the other owners, according to the suit, “were aware of, or had reason to know of, the potential damage and direct threat” the coaches caused the gymnasts and “could reasonably forsee, or should have forseen, the occasions of such physical and/or psychological abuse”
“I see and understand how verbal, emotional and sexual abuse can impact the lives of young athletes, and their parents,” said Judie Saunders, an attorney for the survivors.
“It is long over due for us to demand higher accountability of coaches, gym owners and others entrusted with the care of child athletes to possess appropriate education and temperament.”
“The allegations in the case against Azarian Gymnastics addresses serious harm and injuries suffered by young gymnast. The athletes and parents in this case, are brave and should be commended for coming forward.”
USA Gymnastics, the sport’s embattled national governing body, in November told families that it found dozens of allegations of physical, verbal and emotional abuse against Gonzalez, Davies and another Azarian coach, Amanda Hensley “disturbing,” “credible” and “substantiated.”
But in a decision that prompted widespread outrage throughout the sport, USA Gymnastics, despite the nature and extent of the abuse, chose not to suspend or permanently ban Gonzalez, Davies or Hensley. Instead USA Gymnastics ruled that it would lift the coaches’ interim suspensions upon their completion of “educational requirements.”
Gonzalez was back coaching at Azarian within two days of USA Gymnastics informing families of its ruling.
Hensley was not named in the suit.
USA Gymnastics’ decision followed a three-month Southern California News Group investigation based on formal complaints, interviews, Azarian and previously undisclosed confidential USA Gymnastics documents, medical records and therapists’ reports that found some Azarian coaches regularly physically, emotionally and verbally abused, bullied and belittled young female gymnasts and pressured them to continue training and/or competing while injured.
Woodbury told SCNG that Gonzalez routinely slapped her so hard that she left marks on her legs. The practice was so prevalent, Azarian gymnasts said, that they gave the marks names – “five stars” or “turkeys,” the latter a reference to the finger-painted birds children make around Thanksgiving.
“I couldn’t sleep at night I was so scared of Vanessa,” Woodbury told SCNG last year.
“I had five-star marks from being slapped hard enough to leave a mark that would last a couple of hours. (Gonzalez) would laugh, ‘Oh, ha, ha, that left a good mark.’ I had marks on me all the time.”
Gonzalez not only bullied young gymnasts but often encouraged other girls to ridicule Azarian athletes with whom the coach was unhappy, according to confidential complaints filed with USA Gymnastics and interviews. Gonzalez and other coaches used the punishments not only as a way to correct mistakes but to also break down the girls, gymnasts and parents said in interviews, and formal complaints and emails to USA Gymnastics officials.
Gonzalez told “parents her goal is to ‘break’ kids,” according to a parent complaint filed with USA Gymnastics in August.
Davies also routinely struck athletes with a pool toy and tickled young girls.
Davies, in an interview with SCNG last year, said he tried to lighten the mood in the gym when asked about the tickling allegations.
“We tried to play games, have fun,” he said, not directly addressing the charges. “Because gymnastics is a really hard sport.”
Woodbury, however, didn’t find the tickling fun.
“I was small,” she said. “That (expletive) hurt. It was uncomfortable. It was brutal. It hurt.
“I always thought it was weird. He’s a dad to two girls. Everyone should have known better.”
Despite the severity of allegations USA Gymnastics said it “substantiated,” a top official with the organization decided in December that she was “comfortable” with Gonzalez returning to coaching.
Gonzalez was cleared by Kim Kranz, USA Gymnastics chief of athlete wellness, to coach minor-aged athletes with supervision after Kranz said she was satisfied that Gonzalez had completed an approximately 50-hour online education course that was a requirement from her return with supervision, according to USA Gymnastics emails obtained by SCNG. Gonzalez must complete a second phase of training before she is allowed to coach without supervision, according to USA Gymnastics.
Under what a top USA Gymnastics official described as a “negotiated resolution,” Gonzalez, Davies and Hensley were allowed to return to coaching with supervision as soon as they completed the positive coaching course, according to USA Gymnastics documents. Their interim suspensions were to be completely lifted following the completion of additional virtual training sessions and other measures.
USA Gymnastics, in reaching an agreement with Gonzalez, Davies and Hensley violated the organization’s own published procedures requiring potential victims to be consulted on such resolutions, alleged victims, their parents, a former Azarian coach and safe sport advocates said.
The decision was made without alleged victims and their parents (as many as 30 of whom complained) being formally interviewed by USA Gymnastics officials or the organization holding formal hearings where victims and family members could testify, according USA Gymnastics documents and interviews six individuals familiar with the proceedings.
“USA Gymnastics will give notice to, and consult with each person reportedly harmed by the misconduct if USA Gymnastics enters into the agreed-upon resolution,” according to “USA Gymnastics Safe Sport Investigations and Procedures” listed on the organization’s website the day victims and their families were first informed of the agreement. The procedure was in place during USA Gymnastics’ investigation into the allegations against the Azarian coaches. The wording for the procedure was also the same on the website the following day.
After victims’ parents and other whistleblowers complained to Mark Busby, then USA Gymnastics general counsel, and Kranz that the organization had violated its own procedures, the wording was changed on the USA Gymnastics website to read “USA Gymnastics Safe Sport may give notice to each person reportedly harmed by the Safe Sport Violation if USA Gymnastics Safe Sport enters into the agreed-upon resolution. USA Gymnastics Safe Sport may, in its discretion, provide notice of the agreed-upon resolution to Reporting Parties and Witnesses.”
Busby told witnesses that USA Gymnastics’ concerns about facing civil suits from coaches who have been suspended for extended periods or permanently banned is a major reason for the organization’s emphasis on SafeSport education in lieu of suspensions or bans for abusive coaches, according to four people involved in the conversations.
He also told an Azarian parent that USA Gymnastics has concerns about suspending coaches at a time when he said there is a shortage of qualified coaches in the sport, according to two people familiar with the conversation.
Busby, who had come under frequent and widespread criticism for his handling abuse cases, left USA Gymnastics in January.
Source: Orange County Register