Gymnastics champion Shewfelt urges strict policies to deter sexual abuse

Canadian gymnast Kyle Shewfelt says policies dealing with abuse in sports need to be strengthened to help prevent further incidents of sexual assault and other crimes against young athletes.

The Olympic champion said Thursday that it was good that the Larry Nassar case in the United States has raised awareness about abuse but it needs to be followed up with strong measures from authorities in all sports, not just gymnastics.

Nassar, a sports doctor who admitted to molesting some of the U.S.’s top gymnasts over many years, was sentenced Wednesday to 40 to 175 years in prison for sexual assault and other charges in a Michigan court.

“We need stronger policies in place so Larry Nassar can’t get away with what he got away with for 20 years,” said Shewfelt. “The conversation has started, but much more needs to be done.

“The deviants are always going to have a plan. Let’s have zero tolerance. Let’s have black and white policies.”

Shewfelt, who now runs his own gymnastics club, said that if authorities in the U.S. had listened to the first athlete to complain about Nassar years ago, he would not have been able to continue his abuse. When action was finally taken, more than 150 women made statements against him.

Shewfelt said he was heartened by the fact that athletes now appear more prepared to speak out when faced with abuse than in the past.

“At least it’s something that a lot of people in Canada and around the world are talking about,” said Shewfelt. “As horrible as it is.”

While the Nassar trial has taken centre stage in recent days, gymnastics’ governing body in Canada has also been dealing with sexual assault allegations.

In December, Gymnastics Canada suspended Edmonton-based coach Michel Arsenault after CBC’s French-language network reported he sexually abused at least three gymnasts in Quebec when they were minors in the 1980s and early ’90s. Less than two weeks later, the organization placed Sarnia, Ont., coach Dave Brubaker on leave after learning he was facing multiple sex-related charges. Police haven’t released any details in that case and a publication ban has been imposed.

Shewfelt, 35, owns Kyle Shewfelt Gymnastics in Calgary. His staff held a meeting recently to discuss the Nassar case, go over the club policies and underline the need to protect young gymnasts.

He said strict rules are in place at his club on interactions between coaches and athletes. They include the Coaching Association of Canada’s Rule Of Two, which says a young athlete should never be left alone with a coach or other staff member, which is a deterrent to predatory behaviour.

“If I have a coach who is not following these policies, I do have to let them go,” he said.

Shewfelt said it is next to impossible to entirely eliminate sexual predators, calling them “master manipulators,” but strong policies can greatly reduce their number.

The Calgary native was Canada’s first Olympic gold medallist in gymnastics at the 2004 Games in Athens, winning the floor exercises, and remains deeply involved in the sport as a coach and a broadcaster. He said his sport and others could emerge stronger in the wake of the Nassar case.

“There are thousands of coaches who are doing the right thing,” he said. “We need to look at what they’re doing.”

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