Olympian Terin Humphrey: USA Gymnastics ‘discarded me like I was trash’
In the nearly two decades after she helped the U.S. win its first World Championships team title, Terin Humphrey established herself as one of the most influential figures in American gymnastics.
Serving on USA Gymnastics’ three-member selection committee for the Olympic and World Championships team, Humphrey played a key role in shaping what emerged as the greatest dynasty in international gymnastics, perhaps in any Olympic sport, this century.
“The Second Most Powerful Woman In Gymnastics,” Gymcastic, the influential podcast, claimed in a 2013 headline on its website, the most powerful woman being longtime U.S. national team coordinator Martha Karolyi.
Humphrey today is estranged from her sport and USA Gymnastics, the Indianapolis-based nonprofit national governing body with $91 million in assets now battling for its survival in the wake of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal.
Humphrey, who in an exclusive interview with the Southern California News Group alleges she was sexually assaulted by Nassar in 2002, was fired as a member of the selection committee and as a USA Gymnastics athlete representative in May 2019 after posting comments on her Facebook page that some critics said condoned abusive coaching practices.
Humphrey said she was driven out of her USA Gymnastics positions by Li Li Leung, the organization’s fourth CEO since March 2017, who Humphrey accused of misleading her and continuing a culture of cover-ups that existed under previous USA Gymnastics CEO Steve Penny. Humphrey was fired shortly after she found out she was pregnant with her first child.
“They publicly fired me while I was pregnant,” Humphrey said. “Discarded me like I was trash.”
A divisive figure
Humphrey, an NCAA champion at Alabama, acknowledges she is a polarizing figure in American gymnastics, a position she said causes her deep pain.
To some in the sport, including several Nassar survivors, Humphrey was a tone deaf member of Penny and Karolyi’s inner circle who, while in a position of influence, failed to speak out against a culture of abuse that was prevalent during Martha and Bela Karolyi’s tenure as U.S. national team directors.
Others like Olympic medalist Kathy Johnson Clarke see Humphrey as a convenient fall girl for USA Gymnastics, thrown under the bus by an organization looking to take heat off itself while failing to address the rampant abuse in the sport in a substantive way.
“I think she was a scapegoat,” said Johnson Clarke, a member of the groundbreaking 1984 U.S. Olympic team.
USA Gymnastics’ removal of Humphrey, Johnson Clarke continued, “makes them look like they’re taking action. They can say, ‘We’re listening.’ But really you’re just running circles around the real issues.”
Humphrey, in an interview, details how Penny tried to influence the selection of Olympic and World Championship teams, and ordered her and other USA Gymnastics officials not to discuss Nassar after the scandal became public shortly after the 2016 Olympic Games. She also described how U.S. national team camps at the remote Karolyi Ranch in central Texas were understaffed, especially in regards to sports medicine personnel.
Penny, who was forced out as USA Gymnastics CEO under pressure from the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, often tried to interject himself into the selection of the Olympic and World Championships teams, Humphrey said. Penny came to USA Gymnastics after a career in sports marketing with no gymnastics background.
In addition to Martha Karolyi and Humphrey, the selection committee included Steve Rybacki, a former U.S. national team coach, longtime Karolyi confidant and director of Charter Oaks Gymnastics in Covina.
“There were times and we would go in there and Steve would say how about this person? And we’d say no,” Humphrey said. “And he would go, ‘But it would be easier if this person was on there and we would be like, no. So he did try to persuade quite a bit. But I saw all of that.”
The Nassar scandal
Humphrey said she first heard of the Nassar scandal while working on an Olympians tour after the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games.
In the interview, Humphrey said she remembers Penny instructing staff not to discuss the matter.
“Steve Penny brought us all into a room and said, ‘Just so you know, there’s something going to come out in the media about Larry. I don’t want you guys to discuss it. I don’t want you guys to discuss it among yourselves. I don’t want you to talk about it period,’” Humphrey said.
An attorney for Penny did not respond to a request for comment.
Humphrey became an athlete representative in 2009 after being forced to retire from gymnastics because of injuries while at Alabama.
“When I was an athlete, I saw my athlete rep once or twice. I rarely saw her,” she said. “I didn’t want that (for the current U.S. national team members). I wanted them to know I was available for them.
“And so almost every training camp I would hold a meeting. ‘Are there any concerns? What do you guys want? Is there anything I can do?’ And quite honestly they used me quite a bit. At the ranch, they asked for scrambled eggs and hard-boiled eggs. They asked for pillows. They asked for deodorant. I remember quite a few times when I took them into town to buy razors. They used me all the time. A couple of times they came to me and said, ‘Can you talk to me about my coach? She’s being a little bit hard on me.’ One athlete even said, ‘Will you go talk to Martha?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely.’ I tried to do what I would want my athlete rep to do.”
At times, Humphrey said she was called into action to deal with medical issues at U.S. national team camps at the Karolyi Ranch.
“It’s been awful,” she said. “I held body parts together. I would go to the doctors with the kids when Larry wasn’t there. I would hold limbs together while we were on our way to the doctor. I would be calling their moms and I’d sit with them in the hospitals all night. I tried to do everything for these kids.”
One incident in particular stands out: accompanying a sobbing gymnast riding in a car on the bumpy dirt, clay and gravel U.S. Forest Service road from the Karolyi Ranch to the nearest hospital more than 20 minutes away.
The gymnast, Humphrey said, “snapped her arm out and I literally held her arm in the car, so it wouldn’t shake. I held it from the moment we left the gym to the moment we got to the hospital and I had her phone in my ear talking to her mom.”
Eventually, the demands of the position led Humphrey to resign from her job as a police officer in Missouri.
“I quit my job for them,” Humphrey said. “I quit being a police officer for them. I worked the night shift. I would work a 12-hour shift, get on an airplane and work for USAG all day.
“In my heart, I did everything that I could.”
A controversial post
On May 2, 2019, Humphrey reposted on her Facebook page a meme showing Alabama coach Nick Saban and three other college coaches screaming in the faces of players.
“What Champions consider coaching is what the entitled consider abuse. Parents … if your son is gonna be great he will take some ass chewing along the way. Get ready!” read the text accompanying the four photos.
In reposting the meme, Humphrey wrote: “I will be the first one to admit I needed a good butt chewing every once in awhile.”
“I’m an Alabama alum,” Humphrey said this month. “I love Coach Saban. I saw how he turned that program around.
“The meme just popped up and I just said I’ll be the first to admit I needed a good butt chewing. I was a lazy athlete growing up until I realized how important hard work was and I worked hard. But I needed my coaches on me sometimes not only to get my gymnastics going but to prevent injuries. In no way shape or form was that directed at anybody but myself.”
But for many in gymnastics’ loyal and often intense fan base, the post and Humphrey’s comments were a tone-deaf slap in the face of many sexual and physical abuse survivors at a time when the sport was struggling to come to terms with the prevalence of abuse within gymnastics.
“Archaic,” is how Alyssa Beckerman, a former U.S. national team member, characterized Humphrey’s comments on Twitter.
Some former Olympians and former U.S. national team members joined the calls on social media for Humphrey’s removal as USA Gymnastics’ athlete representative. Others, Humphrey said, went even further.
“I received many death threats and backlash and my reputation was tarnished,” Humphrey said.
Johnson Clarke at the time took a more measured approach.
“There’s a very clear line between hard, intense, elite level coaching & abuse, over which a coach should never step,” the 1984 Olympian wrote on Twitter. “Yes, at times elite athletes need to be called out for a myriad of ineffective, unproductive behaviors, but in your face ‘ass-chewing’ is abusive & destructive.”
Forced to resign
Humphrey said she first became aware of the controversy the post created at a U.S. national team camp when she received a text from Annie Heffernan, USA Gymnastics vice president for the women’s program.
“’You need to take your twitter down,’” Humphrey recalled Heffernan telling her. “Screen shot it and send it to me. And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this has nothing to do with anybody but myself. This has to be a joke.’ And I thought about it and it just irritated me because I never once condoned abuse. And so I called my mom and said, ‘I feel like I need to say something back.’ And I did, I said something back.”
Before long, Humphrey also heard from Leung.
“Li Li talked to me and at the time she was very nice,” Humphrey said. “I was upset. This was never about anybody but myself, and her exact words to me were, ‘No interviews. Don’t say anything. We’re in litigation right now and I don’t want you to cause a stir. Whenever this is done, you can say whatever you want.’
USA Gymnastics is named in lawsuits filed in several states by hundreds of Nassar survivors. Nearly 200 of those Nassar survivors, including four-time Olympic champion Simone Biles, are represented by John Manly, an Orange County attorney and persistent critic of USA Gymnastics and Leung in particular. Manly was also one of the most vocal critics of Humphrey’s Facebook post.
Humphrey said Leung told her, “She did not want to fight for me during litigations with Manly.”
USA Gymnastics officials were also influenced by criticism of the organization on social media triggered by the Facebook post, Humphrey said.
As the training camp was wrapping up, Humphrey said she was summoned to an office at the gym by USA Gymnastics officials.
“We were about to leave, I was called into the office and I was asked to resign,” Humphrey said. They said, quote, ‘We don’t want trolls. We don’t need trolls. So you have to resign.’
“I was attracting the trolls. So I was pretty upset, this was about myself. How was this being construed this way? So I felt pretty discarded. They were so cold. They were like, ‘Terin, you have to resign,’ and it was like they were saying, ‘You haven’t given your whole life to this organization. You haven’t done anything for us.’ That’s how I felt, that’s how I construed it.
“So I said I will not resign because I haven’t done anything wrong and that was when we got the emails.”
Humphrey received a May 7 email from Paul Ruggeri, chairman of USA Gymnastics athletes council, that the council had a matter it had to discuss on or around May 17.
The topic to be discussed was Humphrey’s post.
Humphrey said Leung told her at the camp, “I was to not say anything, that I was not to do any interviews. She then spoke to (USA Gymnastics attorney) C.J. (Schneider), the president of the board and (asked) for my resignation. I told them I did nothing wrong.”
On May 20, Schneider sent Humphrey a text informing her that the athletes council had voted to remove her from the athletes council and the women’s Olympic and national teams selection committee.
“The Council would like to give you the opportunity to resign, if you choose to do so,” Schneider wrote. “If you do not resign, then the AC’s decision will take immediate effect.”
Later, Humphrey said, “I did get really upset and I wrote an email to Li Li, and it was really how I felt, like she just discarded me like trash. I was an athlete who helped pave the way for USA Gymnastics and she discarded me without talking to me, and I shared that with her and I shared with her that I felt like it was not a fair shake.”
SCNG emailed Leung a list of questions detailing Humphrey’s allegations. USA Gymnastics responded with a statement.
“In May of 2019, the USA Gymnastics Athletes Council voted to remove Terin Humphrey as a volunteer member after she made comments that the Council felt conflicted with their values and goals,” the statement said. “The Athletes Council is the only body with the authority to remove a Council member, and the Council ultimately decided to exercise that authority by a unanimous vote following established procedures. Those procedures also allowed for Ms. Humphrey to appeal the Council’s decision – a measure she did not undertake. USA Gymnastics staff were not involved in making the decision to remove Ms. Humphrey from the Council.”
But a May 7, 2019, email from Ruggeri to athletes council members first alerting them to the controversy seems to undercut USA Gymnastics’ assertion that the organization’s staff was not involved in the matter.
“Our CEO, Li Li Leung, is requesting a call with the entire AC on Friday May 17th, or as soon as possible after that date,” Ruggeri wrote.
Ruggeri declined to comment on the matter.
“I’m no longer in the community,” he said. “I have no desire to get into that.”
In a text from Leung to Humphrey after the firing, the USA Gymnastics CEO acknowledges initially telling Humphrey she wouldn’t have to resign because of the controversy.
“For clarification, it was on Friday and I had said I wouldn’t be asking for a resignation at that point in time, but that we would need to see what else transpired going forward,” Leung wrote.
“What transpired was that there was further discussion with the Board Chair and legal counsel over the weekend and it was determined that your action (e.g. post) isn’t aligned with the values of the organization and what USAG wants to accomplish going forward.”
Doing gymnastics ‘a service’
Humphrey was replaced on the athletes council by former U.S. national team members Anna Li, an alternate on the 2012 Olympic team. Li resigned from the athletes council under pressure in August 2019, just 11 weeks after Humphrey’s removal.
Li’s resignation on the eve of the USA Gymnastics Championships in Kansas City, Mo., came less than a week after an SCNG report in which gymnasts coached by Li and her mother Jiani Wu at Legacy Elite Gymnastics in Aurora, Illinois, and their parents alleged in interviews and confidential formal complaints filed with USA Gymnastics that Li disparaged gymnasts in front of their peers on a “daily basis.” Among the allegations against Li and her mother were that they bullied athletes, regularly called girls fat, pressured injured athletes to train or compete, and threatened to make negative comments to college coaches recruiting them.
Li’s resignation was the fifth by a top USA Gymnastics official in less than a year.
Reflecting on the Humphrey controversy a year later, former Olympian Johnson Clarke said Humphrey actually did American gymnastics “a service.”
“Because what she (posted) forced us to have a conversation about this,” Johnson Clarke said.
Humphrey, Johnson Clarke said, is emblematic of several generations of gymnasts who grew up in and prior to the Karolyi era.
“She actually believes that was good hard for her,” Johnson Clarke said referring to an in-your-face coaching style. “She believes that’s what made her great. No, she was great in spite of that.”