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John Geddert Is Dead After Human Trafficking Charges

todayFebruary 26, 2021 32

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The sexual abuse crisis that has shaken American gymnastics deepened on Thursday when a coach of the 2012 women’s Olympic team was charged with human trafficking and sexually assaulting a teenage girl, before killing himself a short time later.

The charges against the coach and gym owner, John Geddert, once again highlighted the dark side of the marquee Olympic sport that was revealed in the investigation and conviction of Lawrence G. Nassar, the former United States national team doctor, who abused hundreds of girls and women.

The Geddert case grew out of the Nassar investigation and Mr. Geddert was suspended by U.S.A. Gymnastics in 2018 after being accused of abuse. Soon after, he announced his retirement from the Twistars gymnastics club in Dimondale, Mich., the gym he owned.

The accusations against Mr. Geddert, 63, revealed a previously unreported level of abuse at the hands of a coach who helped the 2012 team to a gold medal and had worked closely with Mr. Nassar. It is also now clear that Mr. Nassar’s crimes were far from an aberration in the sport known for its grace, beauty and athletes who perform daring physical feats.

The charges were filed by the Michigan attorney general, Dana Nessel, who said the victims suffered from self harm and eating disorders and endured “extreme” emotional and physical abuse, including being forced to train while injured.

“Many of these victims still carry these scars from his behavior to this day,” Ms. Nessel said.

Ms. Nessel had planned a new legal strategy in charging Mr. Geddert with human trafficking. The term refers not only to sexual exploitation but to coerced labor of any kind, and Ms. Nessel charged that Geddert had “subjected his athletes to forced labor or services under extreme conditions that contributed to them suffering injuries and harm.” The charge was added in an effort to stop coaches and other people in power in gymnastics from abusing young athletes who might be too intimidated or frightened to speak out.

John Manly, a lawyer for victims of Mr. Geddert and Mr. Nassar, said the human trafficking charges could deter other coaches from abusing, or continuing to abuse, their athletes.

“It’s an important step in child protection,” Mr. Manly said in a phone interview. “It tells the other John Gedderts that if you do this, you will be held accountable.”

Ouleye Ndoye, who serves on the board of directors of Wellspring Living, a shelter based in Atlanta for people who have been trafficked, said she thought the alleged crimes fit the “force, fraud and coercion” elements that define trafficking.

“It checks all the boxes,” she said. “They don’t have to be kidnapped. The coercion is inherent in the way that he was exploiting their careers.”

“I think it’s applying the definition appropriately and I think more states should follow suit,” she added. “We should stop using chains and bars and cages as the sole definition of what human trafficking looks like. The fact is, it’s happening right under our noses.”

A lawyer for Mr. Geddert did not answer a message seeking comment.

Mr. Geddert did not report for a scheduled afternoon arraignment. His body was found Thursday afternoon at a rest area along an interstate highway in Clinton County, Mich., the State Police said in a statement on Twitter.

The suicide upset many of Mr. Geddert’s victims, said Mr. Manly, who spoke to some of them by phone after they had heard the news.

“They were gratified that the A.G. did what she did, but were horrified that he was able to end it like this because they really wanted their day in court,” he said.

He said he told the women to focus on one important takeaway: “I said they should all put their heads on their pillows tonight and sleep well, knowing that John Geddert can never hurt another girl.”

Mr. Geddert, who coached the 2012 Olympian Jordyn Wieber to an all-around title at the 2011 world championships, was the latest high-profile figure in gymnastics to be accused of assaulting his athletes or enabling abuse in the sport struggling to right itself.

In January 2018, more than 150 girls and women abused by Mr. Nassar gave formal declarations known as victim impact statements against him in a Michigan court, telling their stories of physical and mental abuse in the sport. Some spoke of Mr. Geddert’s harsh coaching practices.

Makayla Thrush, one of his former gymnasts, said that Mr. Geddert ended her career when he threw her on top of the low bar of the uneven bars and ruptured lymph nodes in her neck, gave her a black eye and tore muscles in her stomach. But beyond the physical abuse at Mr. Geddert’s gym, Ms. Thrush and other gymnasts said, were intimidation and persistent mental abuse.

“You told me to kill myself not just once but many other times, and unfortunately, I let you get the best of me,” Ms. Thrush said.

The testimony from the gymnasts turned a spotlight onto a longtime culture of tyrannical coaching that had scared abused gymnasts into silence.

That approach, championed by many of the world’s top coaches, was tolerated, and in some cases even encouraged, because it was thought to yield gold medals. Hundreds of gymnasts worldwide came forward on social media this summer to tell their stories of abuse and to demand change in gymnastics organizations that catered to athletes of every level.

Mr. Geddert was part of a coaching system that helped win those medals at a high cost to the gymnasts themselves.

Sarah Klein, a former student of Mr. Geddert’s who was abused by Mr. Nassar, said in a statement that Mr. Geddert “maintained a culture of fear” at his gym.

“It was widely known that Geddert and Nassar were close friends and it would have been unthinkable to approach him and complain about Nassar’s actions,” Ms. Klein said.

Mr. Geddert’s arrest and death puts even more pressure on U.S.A. Gymnastics, the national governing body of gymnastics, to try to find ways to stop abuse in the sport. Already the federation is facing a battery of lawsuits brought by Mr. Nassar’s victims and a multimillion-dollar settlement it proposed last year was turned down. The federation also has been going through bankruptcy proceedings since 2018.

Some gymnasts, including Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast in history and the sport’s top star, have said the federation has failed its constituents and continues to do so. This month, Ms. Biles, a four-time Olympic gold medalist, told CBS’s “60 Minutes” that she would not allow her daughter, if she ever had one, to participate in a U.S.A. Gymnastics program because it has failed to make the sport safe.

“I don’t feel comfortable enough, because they haven’t taken accountability for their actions and what they’ve done,” she said. “And they haven’t ensured us that it’s never going to happen again.”

Rachael Denhollander, who attended meets with Twistars’ athletes as a gymnast, called the charges brought against Mr. Geddert “sobering.”

“The reality is Geddert’s abuse was never a secret,” Ms. Denhollander said. “Geddert could have and should have been stopped decades ago.”

Michael Levenson and Shaila Dewan contributed reporting.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the United States at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.

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