Saturday, August 13, 2022

Valeri Liukin to coach Team USA while under SafeSport investigation for abuse

Former Olympic champion Valeri Liukin will head Team USA at an international competition in Germany this week while under investigation by the US Center for SafeSport for allegedly verbally and psychologically abusing multiple athletes and pressing them to train or compete with broken bones.

Liukin, 55, will be the US national team’s head coach at the DTB Pokal Team Challenge and Mixed Cup in Stuttgart this week, USA Gymnastics and event officials confirmed.

Liukin, the father and coach of 2008 Olympic all-around champion Nastia Liukin, has been under investigation by the US Center for SafeSport since at least Jan. 27, according to the US Center for SafeSport emails and documents obtained by the Southern California News Group.

USA Gymnastics CEO Li Li Leung, Stefanie Korepin, USA Gymnastics’ chief programs officer, and Annie Heffernan, the organization’s vice president for the women’s program, have been aware of abuse against Liukin since at least Feb. 9, according to a series of email exchanges between top USA Gymnastics officials and former gymnasts.

“If (Liukin) is under investigation and they know about it why are they sending him with minors out of the country?” said McKenzie Wofford, a former US national team member who trained under Liukin at World Olympic Gymnastics Academy, a Plano. Texas club co-owned by Liukin.

Heffernan is listed as the head of the US delegation for the Stuttgart event, according to official documents. Liukin’s wife Anna, is also listed as a US “coach,” according to official event documents.

“Unfortunately, this is not surprising whatsoever,” said Megan Marenghi, a former gymnast who has alleged to the US Center for SafeSport that she was verbally abused and fat shamed by Liukin on an almost daily basis while she trained at WOGA.

“This just speaks to how nothing has truly been done to make sure the system is changed with USA Gymnastics. (Liukin) shouldn’t be the national team on an international assignment. He shouldn’t be coaching period, at least until the are investigated. The whole gymnastics world is going to see him back coaching. It’s like (USA Gymnastics) is sending a message: there’s absolutely no change here.”

Liukin continued to be considered by USA Gymnastics as the women’s national team high-performance director even after Cecile Canqueteau-Landi, coach of four-time Olympic and 19-time World champion Simone Biles, was informed she was no longer being considered for the position , according to three people familiar with the process.

“We have neither offered nor hired anyone for the position, and the process continues to be ongoing,” Jill Geer, USA Gymnastics chief communications and marketing officer, wrote in an email to SCNG Monday.

The US Center for SafeSport investigation of Liukin remains ongoing. Investigators continued to contact multiple potential witnesses of Liukin’s alleged abuse as recently as this weekend, according to two people familiar with the investigation.

Liukin’s presence this week in Germany and USA Gymnastics’ consideration of him for the organization’s top coaching position have seriously undermined Leung’s promise in the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal to change a culture of abuse within American gymnastics that marked the so-called Karolyi era as much as Olympic and World Championships gold medals, according to former gymnasts and their supporters.

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“Please know that we absolutely believe in and value listening to athletes and giving them a voice,” Leung wrote in an email to Wofford last week.

But few coaches, if any, were more entrenched in the inner circle of former US Olympic and national team directors Martha and Bela Karolyi than Liukin.

“Li Li knows everything,” said Marenghi, who is starting a Ph.D. program in clinical psychology in the fall. “When she (Leung) took over the position of CEO, she said she was going to change all the things that led to Larry Nassar. That’s just a lie. She’s done absolutely the complete opposite of that. She wants the US girls to win the next Olympics. That’s it. Because getting second isn’t good enough. Li Li is not oblivious to what’s going on with (Liukin). She just doesn’t care at all. Not even remotely. Her only agenda is getting back to winning.”

Multiple gymnasts allege they were routinely berated, belittled and screamed at by Liukin, that he forced them to compete and train on broken bones or when they were ill, and they were fat-shamed daily, according to SafeSport complaints and USA Gymnastics documents and multiple interviews by SCNG. Some of the gymnasts were as young as 10 years old at the time of the alleged abuse.

“Being called fat, worthless, weak, stupid, idiot, etc. was a common occurrence,” Wofford wrote in a complaint filed with the US Center for SafeSport. “Going into the gym, I was terrified about what was going to happen that day. While there were multiple incidents that were traumatizing.”

Marenghi said in an interview that she witnessed Liukin “drag (Nastia Liukin) into his office and scream at her. She would come out bowling her eyes out.”

She also alleges she saw Liukin push his daughter “up against the wall.”

Liukin regularly forced gymnasts to run on a treadmill or in the Texas summer heat in sweatsuits if he deemed them overweight, even though some of the girls weighed less than 80 pounds at age 14, 15 or 16, according to SafeSport complaints and interviews.

Valeri Liukin has not responded to multiple phone messages and emails requesting comment over a two-week period including an email detailing issues and touched on in this report.

Nastia Liukin did not respond to an email requesting comment. Multiple attempts to reach her by telephone were unsuccessful.

Valeri Liukin has previously served in the top national team post. He was named as Martha Karolyi’s replacement as US national team coordinator shortly after the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Less than 18 months later he stepped down against the backdrop of increasing demand from Olympians and gymnastics fans that USA Gymnastics undergo a complete overhaul in the wake of the Nassar scandal.

“Valeri Liukin will be part of the delegation by virtue of being the personal coach of several of the team members,” Geer wrote in her email to SCNG, referring to the Stuttgart event. “All other (non-coach) staff members of the delegation, including medical staff, is selected by USAG. All members of the delegation, including the personal coaches, must be USAG Professional Members in good standing. They are credentialed by the (local organizing committee) based on the delegation list USAG submits.”

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Liukin coaches Team USA headliner Konnor McClain at WOGA. McClain won the all around at the recent Winter Cup. There are two other WOGA gymnasts on the US senior team for Stuttgart, two WOGA athletes on the Team USA junior squad. All four are coached by other WOGA coaches, according to their bios.

“For both the men’s and women’s teams, there is a ‘head coach’ as ​​denoted automatically by being the designated personal coach of the highest-scoring athlete in each of the senior, junior and mixed divisions,” Geer wrote. “For the senior women’s division, that coach is Valeri Liukin, as Konnor McClain’s coach. Head coaches work with the team leaders to determine training schedules and lineups. Because no member of the delegation is currently under suspension or limitation by the Center, USAG does not interfere with an athlete’s ability to choose who they designate as their personal coach in the delegation.”

Sarah Jantzi, however, was named the US women’s team head coach for last summer’s Olympic Games even though she did not coach Biles or eventual all-around gold medalist Suni Lee.

“It doesn’t matter that he’s their club coach,” said Marenghi. “The whole point of filing these complaints with (the US Center for) SafeSport and writing to USA Gymnastics was to protect the girls he’s coaching.

“What if Konnor gets the flu over there? Look at what happened to (Wofford). If Konnor gets sick is the same thing going to happen?”

Nation World News Desk
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