Kyle Shewfelt wants gymnastics to emerge healthier and stronger. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Kyle Shewfelt pained by turmoil in gymnastics, but hopeful for a healthier sport

CALGARY — Canadian gymnastics is having a reckoning.

As painful as it is for Canada’s lone Olympic gold medallist in gymnastics to see coaches charged with sexual offences, Kyle Shewfelt wants his sport to emerge healthier from under its current cloud.

“We’re in that muddy period right now looking at our past and figuring it out,” Shewfelt told The Canadian Press.

“Now we’re coming up with the tools to be able to identify what a positive sport experience should look like. My hope for all of this is that the sport is going to come out stronger.”

Shewfelt’s gold medal in 2004 in the floor routine made him the first Canadian to win a medal of any colour in the sport. The 36-year-old now owns and operates a recreational gymnastics club in his hometown of Calgary.

Two Canadian gymnastics coaches were charged with sexual offences in the last 14 months on the heels of a U.S. national team doctor facing multiple accusations.

When Graham James was charged and convicted of molesting junior hockey players he coached in Swift Current, Sask., in the 1990s, the Canadian Hockey League and Hockey Canada introduced a flurry of programs and support services to address abuse, bullying and harassment.

Gymnastics Canada has similarly been forced into action.

A judge is expected to deliver a decision Wednesday in Sarnia, Ont., on Dave Brubaker, the former director of the Canadian women’s gymnastics team who pleaded not guilty to one count of sexual assault and one count of sexual exploitation.

Gymnastics coach Michel Arsenault faces charges of assault and sexual assault in Quebec, where provincial police said the victims of the alleged crimes in Montreal were between the ages of 10 and 20.

American doctor Larry Nassar was accused of molesting dozens of athletes, including members of the U.S. women’s team, dating back to 1992.

He pled guilty to seven counts of criminal sexual misconduct and was sentenced just over a year ago to up to 175 years in prison.

The scandals put gymnastics front and centre in a loud and widening conversation around abuse and harassment in sport.

“I’ve heard stories from the wrestling mat, I’ve heard stories from the swimming pool, I’ve heard stories from all across different sports and I think that youth sport — you look at Graham James — is something where there’s vulnerable people,” Shewfelt said.

In the midst of the turmoil, Gymnastics Canada hired Ellen MacPherson as director of safe sport in May 2018.

In addition to developing a safe-sport policy emphasizing athlete welfare, MacPherson says she’s revised and strengthened the organization’s code of ethics and conduct and updated the harassment, abuse and discrimination policies.

“We’ve included behaviours that do make a safe sport environment,” MacPherson said. “We didn’t want to point out only what is not allowed.

“It’s important the people coming up in our sport will also have an expectation of what great behaviour and actions look like in our environment.”

MacPherson is the go-to person at Gymnastics Canada for questions and complaints on safe sport.

Shewfelt says his own experience with Kelly Manjak, who coached him to Olympic gold and world championship medals, was healthy in that Manjak supported him but did not try to control him.

But Shewfelt says as a competitor, he witnessed power imbalances in which coaches demeaned or ignored athletes as a way to motivate them, or the athlete was too dependent on the coach for validation.

“Those environments were created on power and not on mutual respect,” Shewfelt said. “Environments built on the power of the coach and the athlete being the subordinate.

“Now, if I was to see that, I would instantly feel the power to go up to a coach and say ‘hey, why do those kids look like they’re afraid of you? What’s going on here?’”

Gymnastics is a sport in which coaches touch their athletes when they spot them, meaning coaches physically assist them in safely completing a skill.

“Because this has been a question from the community or something they needed feedback on, we’ve created guidelines or best practices to help people navigate spotting because it has been a challenge for them understanding the landscape of safe sport,” MacPherson said.

Shewfelt says it’s important to deal with an awkward situation by immediately addressing it with athlete and parent.

“When you’re putting a kid in a hand stand and you need to save them because they’re falling down and you accidentally touch them on their bum or their chest, what do you say and what do you do? You acknowledge it right away,” he said.

“You say “You were falling, I’m sorry, I had to catch you, are you OK?’ and then you talk to the parent after.”

He says his gym’s staff must complete a Respect In Sport program and undergo mandatory police and reference checks.

“We have the conversation amongst our staff,” Shewfelt said. “What are appropriate things, how do we develop strong relationships with kids and make them feel we are trusted adults, but not crossing lines?

“Trust is something, you don’t just get it. It’s something that’s earned. It’s earned through creating environments that foster it.”

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