The sleepless nights were interrupted only by nightmares.
“I couldn’t sleep at night I was so scared of Vanessa,” said gymnast Ashton Woodbury, referring to Vanessa Gonzalez, her former coach at Azarian U.S. Gymnastics Training Center, a world renown Orange County club.
It was the balance beam that Woodbury dreaded most.
It was on the beam where Gonzalez, gymnasts said, left her mark.
“I had a mental block on the beam,” Woodbury said. “And Vanessa on the beam she would smack you (on your legs) if you were sloppy with an open hand hard enough to leave a five-star mark on you.
“I had five-star marks from being slapped hard enough to leave a mark that would last a couple of hours. She would laugh, ‘Oh, ha, ha, that left a good mark.’ I had marks on me all the time.”
Woodbury wasn’t the only gymnast to receive the five-star treatment from Gonzalez, the gym’s head girls coach.
“I was slapped,” gymnast Hailey Atkins recalled. “I definitely had the five-star.”
The five-stars are part what gymnasts, parents and coaches refer to as the “Azarian way,” a coaching method at the club owned by Eduard Azarian, an Olympic champion for the Soviet Union, that followed a pattern of alleged repeated abuse of young female gymnasts by coaches over the course of years, according to a three-month investigation by the Southern California News Group.
“When I started, the very first thing I learned about was punishment and breaking kids down,” Azarian coach Rena Shikuma wrote in a complaint to USA Gymnastics. “They told me that every mistake needs to have some sort of punishment attached to it.”
Gonzalez and other Azarian coaches allegedly routinely physically, emotionally and verbally abused, bullied and belittled, and pressured young female gymnasts to continue training and/or competing while injured, according to nine previously undisclosed confidential complaints to USA Gymnastics obtained by SCNG, as well as Azarian and USA Gymnastics emails, letters and memos, and dozens of interviews with coaches, gymnasts and their parents.
“We were tortured into being good at Azarian,” Atkins said.
Among the SCNG findings:
• Certain Azarian coaches allegedly slapped gymnasts, hit them with objects leaving marks, threw shoes at them during training, and pulled them by their hair, according to formal complaints with USA Gymnastics and interviews.
• Former Azarian girls head coach Perry Davies on a regular basis tickled young female gymnasts after pinning them down and sitting on them or having their teammates help pin them down, according to formal complaints with USA Gymnastics and interviews.
• Certain coaches routinely bullied and humiliated young gymnasts and encouraged other gymnasts to laugh at girls while they were punished for failing to complete or learn a skill, according to formal complaints with USA Gymnastics and interviews.
• Gymnasts were denied nutrition breaks, and body shamed by some coaches, often in front of dozens of other gymnasts, sometimes while one of the coaches was mocking them, according to formal complaints with USA Gymnastics and interviews.
• Gonzalez had a parent take a mandatory USA Gymnastics Safe Sport course for her, according to formal complaint to USA Gymnastics by an Azarian coach and interviews.
“She made a parent take the test FOR her because she was ‘too busy with other important things,’” Shikuma wrote in her complaint to USA Gymnastics
• Despite claims by Azarian staff that they were unaware of complaints against coaches, complaints, emails and interviews reveal that the gym has failed to address complaints of abusive behavior for years.
• Bullying, body shaming, verbal and emotional abuse by some Azarian coaches have led to eating disorders, depression, anxiety and other mental health issues that have often required therapy, gymnasts and parents allege in formal complaints and interviews.
“I now see the unhealthy blackhole/loop we were in at Azarian,” a parent wrote in an email to Aimee Rogers, a USA Gymnastics investigator.
Gonzalez did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“We have always tried to address all gymnast concerns immediately. We have used our team captains to help facilitate the communication between athletes and coaches many times,” Gonzalez said in statement provided to SCNG by Susan Siljander, an Azarian parent who said she is serving as a spokesperson for the gym. “Perry and I held meetings with the girls and listened when they had concerns. We then decided an appropriate response based on the complaint. When the parents have complaints, I listen to them, think on them, get more information, and then respond. Concerns of gymnasts are not dismissed at Azarian.”
USA Gymnastics suspended Gonzalez, Davies and Amanda Hensley, a girls team coach, on an interim basis on Sept. 4 pending the completion of its investigation after the national governing body received multiple formal reports alleging physical, verbal and emotional abuse, according to a USA Gymnastics letter obtained by SCNG. The coaches are prohibited from “all contact” with gymnasts under the terms of the suspension.
Davies said in an interview he was contacted by USA Gymnastics on Sept. 5.
“They told me I was suspended,” Davies said. “That’s all I’ve received. I don’t know what I’ve been accused of. (USA Gymnastics) didn’t even talk to me.”
“Really right now I’m in complete shock,” continued Davies, who has coached nearly 200 state champions during a 20-year coaching career. “I’ve always tried my very best to take care of the kids, to make sure they were in a safe environment.
“I would never do anything to hurt a kid. So I’m flabbergasted. I categorically deny doing anything harmful to a kid.”
Hensley did not respond to requests for comment.
Eduard Azarian, through Siljander, agreed to an interview with SCNG. Azarian requested that the interview be done in person at the gym. SCNG agreed to the condition. But less than 24 hours after agreeing to the interview, Siljander cancelled the meeting and said the interview would not be re-scheduled.
Siljander later said in an email to SCNG that “No representative of Azarian or coaches affected by the suspension will give an interview until they have reviewed the documents from USA Gymnastics that set forth claims against them.”
“Azarian is a family gym,” Eduard Azarian said in a statement to SCNG. “We try to instill real values and help these athletes become productive and joyful members of society. We believe gymnastics is a proving ground that teaches hard work, discipline, and grit. We hire coaches and attract families that want the same. We stand behind our coaches. We know they provide the best instruction and care for our athletes. Are there sometimes conflicts? Yes, as in any family. But when these conflicts are brought head on to the gym or the staff, they are addressed. We have never received complaints of the type claimed by USAG.”
The suspended coaches continue to have their supporters at Azarian.
“Although we try to stay out of the drama of the gym in general, there are others who revel in it (many of whom left Azarian in co-ordinated ‘waves’ over two weeks) and unfortunately there are a number of us who are now paying the price,” James Daniel, an Azarian parent wrote in an email to SCNG. “My daughter is now being deprived of coaching from coaches she cares about and admires at a critical point in her journey. With that said, a couple of observations:
“Our family, nor anyone we know, has (not) seen ANYTHING resembling bullying or verbal abuse – let alone physical abuse (they have cameras everywhere) at Azarian. The coaches can be firm, but this is to be expected as gymnastics is a hugely demanding sport – and candidly we have seen worse at other gyms which is how we ended up at Azarian in the first place. My daughter is challenged by her coaches – specifically Vanessa and Amanda (named in the allegations), but they have been nothing but professional and motivating. My daughter is extremely distraught that she may not have them as coaches moving forward to the point where she has expressed that she would consider leaving the sport.”
But at least one Azarian coach has joined other parents and gymnasts in insisting Gonzalez’s suspension should be permanent.
“In my own opinion, after witnessing Vanessa punishing and belittling and making fun of, and verbally and emotionally abusing girl after girl, year after year, I think she should be banned from the sport,” Shikuma wrote in a complaint to USA Gymnastics. “I do not think she should be allowed to work with kids ever again.”
Girls felt a sense of dread
Eduard Azarian arrived in the U.S. in 1992, bringing with him one of the most revered names in international gymnastics.
Azarian was born in Armenia, then part of the Soviet Union, the son of three-time Olympic champion Albert Azarian.
Albert Azarian led the Soviets to the team title at the 1956 Olympic Games then added a second gold medal on the rings. Four years later Azarian became the first person to successfully defend the Olympic rings title, a feat since duplicated by only one other gymnast.
Eduard Azarian followed in his father’s footsteps, winning a team gold medal at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. After working as a coach with the Soviet national boys and girls teams, Azarian and his wife Marina immigrated, eventually taking over the gymnastics center in Aliso Viejo.
Azarian would produce a string of U.S. junior national champions and national team members on the boys side. He was named national coach of the year in 2014.
The girls program, gymnasts, parents and coaches said, had a different legacy — dread.
“I was there for 4 years, and mentally, those years were the worst years of my gymnastics life, despite my all achievements,” gymnast Megan Ray said in a complaint to USA Gymnastics. “I dreaded going to the gym and would pray we’d hit every red light on the way to practice just so I could delay getting there.”
Some of Woodbury’s most lasting memories of Azarian also involved automobiles.
“We would alternate cars after practice,” Woodbury, now a gymnast at Cal, recalled, referring to her Azarian teammates. “‘Your car or mine?’ Every day after practice we’d get into somebody’s car and cry. That’s not normal.”
It didn’t get any better when she got home.
“I used to lie awake all night (stressing) about the next day,” said Woodbury.
Or when she went to school.
“I’m in French class, got my laptop out. ‘Ding.’ I get a message (from an Azarian coach) and it made your heart drop like an ‘Oh, my god’ moment. ‘We need to talk,’” said Woodbury, who trained at Azarian from ages 10 to 17 before leaving for another gym in 2018. “It just messes you up in the head and stresses you out for the rest of the day.”
A parent recounted in an interview how her daughter was so stressed out about what awaited her at Azarian later that day that she had a panic attack during class at her middle school.
“She started crying in class,” said the mother, who asked not to be named because of her daughter’s age. “The teacher freaked out. (The gymnast) was afraid to say why.”
Other gymnasts had similar experiences.
Ana Garces-Saldana recalled how her daughter Natasha’s “behavior changed” after she joined Azarian.
“She was way more on edge,” Garces-Saldana said in an interview. “Way more stressed. The stomach, the panic attacks.
“She would literally make herself sick.”
Another mother detailed in a complaint to USA Gymnastics how “for a year my daughter would complain that she would have a stomachache around noon each day and we couldn’t figure out why. We even asked her Dr. about it and he said since it’s at the same time each day, it is probably what she is eating in the morning. So we stopped giving her milk thinking that she is lactose intolerant. She would sit in school and watch the clock and would get more and more anxiety about having to go to gym. That all stopped when she quit so now we know it wasn’t the food but it was anxiety and emotional distress.
“When she quit and went to a new sport we saw 2 girls who quit as well from Azarian. We shared our stories and one of them went through the exact same thing with the stomach issues for about a year as well. I felt so bad because I realized at that time she really was traumatized and it wasn’t just her being emotional.”
A gymnast reported a similar experience in a complaint filed with USA Gymnastics.
“That’s when all the stress hit me,” she wrote. “I started throwing up before gym or during gym because I couldn’t take the stress. At first, my mom thought it was the stomach bug, but the Coach Vanessa thought that it was stress related. My mom didn’t understand that, being new to this sport. But she did talk to the head coach about her frustrations with Vanessa in an email she sent to him. After that email, she met with Perry and Vanessa directly and she was told that throwing up before practice was ‘normal’ to sometimes throw-up before practice from stress. That some girls just feel that way because they can’t handle the pressure.”
For many like Atkins, the dread became all-consuming.
“The only thing I could think of,” she said, “was what Vanessa was going to do to me at practice.”
Coaching through fear and punishment
No one was more feared at Azarian than Gonzalez, gymnasts and parents said.
“Vanessa, everyone and when I mean everyone, I mean, EVERYONE is scared of her! She yells at you, calls you names, puts you down in the dumps, makes your gym day go from the best day ever, to the worst day anyone can have in the entire world!” a gymnast wrote in a complaint to USA Gymnastics. “I know, it’s traumatizing.”
Said Atkins: “Everyone in the gym was so scared of Vanessa that your mind was not on gymnastics but trying to make sure Vanessa didn’t yell out at you.”
Gonzalez began coaching in 2002, according to her Azarian bio. After working at SCATS, the world-famous Huntington Beach gym that has produced U.S. Olympic and national team members for parts of five decades, Gonzalez was hired at Azarian where she kept her gymnasts constantly on edge, athletes, parents and coaches said.
“These poor girls were subjected to such an unstable environment of never knowing what kind of mood she was in that they were stressed before they even got to the gym,” Shikuma wrote in her USA Gymnastics complaint. “I knew of kids who would puke before class every day because they were so terrified of what mood she was going to be in that day.”
Said Atkins: “Nothing was ever fun. It was always punishment.”
Even the slightest mistake resulted in punishments, gymnasts and parents said in interviews and complaints to USA Gymnastics.
“The punishment was over the top,” said gymnast Natasha Garces-Saldana.
She recalled being told to do handstands for 10 minutes for minor mistakes.
“If you fell, time was added,” she said.
Gymnasts were required to do 20 or even 30 rope climbs up a 15-foot rope, gymnasts and parents said. Some gymnasts were forced to continue the rope climbs even after the inside of their legs were rubbed raw or bleeding, parents and gymnasts said.
One parent recalled a rare occurrence where she was allowed in the gym during practice, seeing 5- and 6-year-old gymnasts crying hysterically as they were forced to do repeated rope climbs.
Gonzalez, Megan Ray said in her complaint to USA Gymnastics “punished me for my mistakes, and the punishment would greater as the mistakes continued on. I would do over 20+ rope climbs in one day with 2 pound weights on each foot as a punishment for a minor mistake.”
Failing to master a skill or showing hesitancy to attempt a dangerous new move could also result in Gonzalez kicking gymnasts out of practice.
A mother recalled encountering a girl hiding in the gym’s bathroom after being kicked out of practice by Gonzalez. Another mother said she arrived one night to pick up her daughter after practice only to find the girl sitting in the dark in the parking lot alone. She had been kicked out of practice. The girl was 7 years old at the time.
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.
Ana Garces-Saldana recalled a conversation she had with Gonzalez about Natasha.
“Vanessa said, ‘I need her to cry. I just need her to cry,’” Garces-Saldana said.
“What?” Garces-Saldana recalled responding.
“She needs to cry,” Gonzalez answered, according to Garces-Saldana.
“I pulled her (out of Azarian) shortly after that,” Garces-Saldana said.
Shikuma, echoing gymnasts’ and parents’ interviews and complaints, said Gonzalez and Davies frequently made “comments to the kids that would belittle them.
“Put them down,” Shikuma wrote in her complaint. “Tell them they would be put into a different group. They wouldn’t allow them to compete that level. Tell them they weren’t good enough for the sport. Tell them they should quit because there was no way any college would want to take them. Tell them to go kick a ball. Go become a cheerleader. They’d say these things to their FACE. To the girls. Sometimes it would be quietly so only they could hear, and other times it would be in front of the class and completely and totally humiliate these young girls in front of their peers. Instead of trying to work through the kids’ fears and struggles, they belittled them. Embarrassed them. Tore them down.”
Few if any of Gonzalez’s methods were more humiliating than punishing gymnasts by requiring them to stand with their noses touching a gym wall often while she encouraged other girls to laugh and ridicule the gymnast, according to complaints and interviews with gymnasts and parents.
Shikuma in her complaint recounted an incident with a 10-year-old girl.
“Vanessa couldn’t get her to make a correction so she yelled at her to go stand with her nose against the wall,” Shikuma wrote.”The girl thought she was joking. She wasn’t. She made her stand there as (the girl) bawled her eyes out. Then she proceeded to make fun of her out loud to the rest of the class about how she sucked and make sure you don’t ‘suck like (the girl’s name)’ or you’ll be next. I witnessed this happen twice to the same kid. This kid, mind you, was nominated ‘Gymnast of the Year’ by (results website) Meet Scores Online.”
Shikuma also detailed a similar incident with a 7-year-old girl.
“Vanessa made the little girl stand with her nose against the wall and then proceeded to tell the rest of the class to walk by and point and laugh at the girl,” Shikuma wrote… “None of the girls wanted to but Vanessa insisted they do it. She made each girl walk by and point at the girl standing with her nose against the wall. And said, ‘now make sure you laugh as you walk by too!’
“HOW MESSED UP IS THAT?!!!!!! She just taught an entire class of young, impressionable girls how to be a bully. How to torture another human being. That it’s okay to point and laugh at your friend if they’re struggling. If they’re having a hard time instead of supporting them, you should point and laugh at them. Just writing this out makes me so furious I can barely find the words to describe the anger I feel. That, in and of itself is the most disturbing story and gets me to the bones every time I hear it. If I would have been there to see that I would have said something. That’s just going too far.”
‘I always got smacked on the beam’
But often Gonzalez and other Azarian coaches would take their punishments even further, gymnasts and parents said in complaints and interviews.
“I always got smacked on beam,” Woodbury said.
The practice was so well known that, according to Shikuma, coaches in the gym referred to it as the “turkey,” a reference to the Thanksgiving turkeys schoolchildren make with paint-covered handprints.
Woodbury also said Gonzalez regularly threw shoes at her while she tried to maneuver on the balance beam, an apparatus that is fewer than 4 inches wide and nearly 5 feet off the ground.
Gymnasts were also regularly struck while working on the vault, according to complaints with USA Gymnastics and interviews with athletes and parents.
Woodbury and other gymnasts said Davies struck them with a plastic pool floating noodle in an attempt to increase the gymnast’s speed down the runway.
“Hit you in the butt and back, the back of the legs,” Woodbury said. “It made you want to go faster. If you were too slow they would smack you. If you didn’t run fast you got hit. It stung.”
Davies, when asked about allegations that he and other coaches had physically abused gymnasts, insisted in an interview that he’s “never done anything harmful to a kid.”
“I don’t feel like myself and my coaches have done that,” he continued, referring to physical abuse. “I don’t feel like we’ve ever done anything horrible to a kid.”
But Shikuma’s recollection of working with Davies on vault contradicts his assertion.
“I was put on a vault rotation and asked Perry how he’d like me to run the rotation,” Shikuma wrote to USA Gymnastics. “He grabbed what they call a ‘french fry’ which is just a long piece of hard foam covered with soft plastic and told me to go down to the end of the runway and hit the girls with it. I tried. I wasn’t doing it right.
“So he grabbed it out of my hands and started whacking the kids as hard as he possibly could. Giving them welts on their legs, backs, and buttocks. You could hear the whack from the front and back doors of the gym. Gymnasts in other rotations would yell across the gym that ‘they heard that one’. If you got hit by the french fry, you had to run stairs.
“Perry loved it. He’d swing his arm as fast and hard as he could. The harder he’d got you the bigger the smile he’d get on his face. He’d laugh. Sometimes the girls had small tears in their eyes from the pain. But they wouldn’t ever say anything. Especially not to him.”
Gymnasts and parents said they found another Davies’ practice equally disturbing.
“Perry tickled you,” Woodbury said. “I was pinned down and tickled by Perry.
“He would pin us down and make our friends hold us down. He would lay you down on your back. Someone would hold you down, he’d sit on your legs and tickled you.”
Shikuma provided USA Gymnastics with a similar account.
“Perry used to pin the girls down and tickle them all the time. He’d make the teammates pin their friend down – one girl would hold the arms, one girl would hold the legs and he would have full access to tickle her,” Shikuma said. “The girls would try to stand up for one another and say they wouldn’t hold their friend down. But then he’d threaten that if they didn’t they’d be next. So the girls would reluctantly hold their friend down as he tickle tortured them. The girl being tickled would laugh and laugh and laugh, and scream stop, stop, stop, as she continued to laugh. Her friends would try to let go but he told them to keep holding her down. He wasn’t done yet. Then, Safe Sport came about and said that coaches were no longer allowed to tickle their gymnasts.
“One of the girls … started getting tickled and, after hearing the coaches talking about Safe Sport rules, started yelling out ‘Safe Sport! Safe Sport!’ as she was being tickled by Perry. He tickled her even more until she eventually got free. And in that moment, she had learned that Perry was above it all. No Safe Sport rule could stop him. He was above it all. I will say, that the tickling slowed down quite a bit but there were still times where he would tickle the girls even after that rule was set.”
Davies said he tried to lighten the mood in the gym.
“We tried to play games, have fun,” he said when asked about the tickling allegations 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.”
Parents restricted from viewing practices
Much of the alleged abuse initially went undetected because of an Azarian policy that prohibits parents from being in the gym except for the first and last 15 minutes of practice, gymnasts and parents said.
This policy is outlined in the gym’s 2019-2020 team handbook and in a March 1, 2017 email to parents from Gonzalez.
“For safety reasons, parents, as well as non-participating siblings, are not allowed to view their child’s practices on a daily basis,” the Azarian 2019-20 handbook states. “It is the staff’s recommendation, from years of experience, that parents limit this time to the first 15 minutes and the last daily. You are also welcome to come in once a month to watch an entire workout if you choose.”
Eduard Azarian wrote in a welcome letter to parents in the 2019-2020 handbook “remember that our doors are always open to new input and ideas.” But three parents said in interviews that Azarian refused to meet with them about concerns they had with coaches.
In a letter to parents last week in response to Gonzalez, Davies, and Hensley’s suspensions, Azarian officials wrote “this is the first time that Azarian Gymnastics has ever received a verbal or written complaint on any of these coaches and we are confident that the investigation will show that our coaches have not been abusive in any way.”
But complaints to USA Gymnastics, emails from Azarian coaches and parents, and interviews show that gym employees and coaches have repeatedly received complaints from parents about allegedly abusive behavior by coaches.
In a Sept. 28, 2016 email to the parents of gymnasts in a training group that Davies was copied on, Gonzalez wrote, “We have heard that there are a number of parents that are unhappy or have concerns the lavender group. We will have a meeting to address these concerns tonight at 7:30.”
A parent attending the meeting said “bullying” and “excessive punishment” were discussed during the meeting.
“Nothing changed” after the meeting, the parent said in an email.
The father of an Azarian gymnast detailed in a formal complaint to USA Gymnastics how his wife informed Albina Azarian-Myers, Eduard’s daughter and the gym’s office manager and special events coordinator, that the family was leaving in a February 3 telephone call.
“She asked my wife why we were leaving,” the father wrote. “My wife stated that ‘we are leaving because of Coach Vanessa’s harsh treatment of our daughter became too much to bear, and it was not a healthy environment.’ Albina replied, ‘Vanessa can be strict at times, and she will look into it.’ Albina also stated, ‘I know Vanessa well, and I can’t see her do that.’ Albina never reached out to my wife to follow-up with ‘looking into it.’”
A mother of an Azarian athlete wrote in an August 28 complaint to USA Gymnastics that “I spoke very candidly and transparently to the owner of Azarian last week (Albina Azarian-Myers) and implored her to suspend Vanessa and Amanda, sharing the attached allegations in the document with her.” ”]
Gymnasts continue to battle the effects of the alleged abuse they suffered at Azarian even years after they left the gym, gymnasts and parents said in complaints, emails and interviews.
The gymnasts continue to struggle with eating and body image issues, suffer from depression and anxiety, struggle in personal relationships, and lack confidence because of what they endured at Azarian, the athletes and parents said.
The father whose wife called Azarian-Myers in February told a USA Gymnastics investigator that their daughter has been in “psychological counseling for 1 1/2 years due to gymnastics.”
The mother of another gymnast wrote in her complaint to USA Gymnastics that her daughter has required hospitalization because of her panic attacks.
“Even though it’s been two years after she left Azarian, she is now showing the physical impact of her time at Azarian due to the abuse she had experienced,” the mother wrote. “I hope you understand that abused children don’t manifest the impact of their abuse right away – that it often takes time and it shows up physically in young kids, even years later. My daughter’s panic attacks are very severe, even including an emergency room visit and being placed on a heart monitor. She felt she could not breathe and that felt she was going to die. After her most recent attack this week, she shared with me her deep rooted fears based on Azarian coaching over many years.”
Woodbury said she got to the point where she didn’t recognize herself during her time at Azarian.
“Where did all the confidence go?” she recalled asking herself.
“Azarians made me hate gymnastics. They really killed my spirit. I used to be the most confident child in the world. The issue came from that gym.
“They had my life in their hands in the most pivotal years. My parents trusted them. All I wanted was their approval. All I wanted was to be loved. The sport is already hard enough. I didn’t need to be bullied by a full grown person.
“It breaks you. It’s hard to get back a confidence that is so shaken. You doubt yourself. You doubt everything you do.”
That confidence remains lost in her darkness. More than two years after leaving the gym, Woodbury’s nights are still haunted by her time at Azarian.
“I had one last night,” she said referring to a bad dream.
“In the nightmare I was trying to do beam and Vanessa yelled at me because I couldn’t get it done.”
Source: Orange County Register