My first love was toxic and abusive and began at ground zero of a pedophile scandal: Child gymnast

Trinea Gonczar
·12 min read
Trinea Gonczar and her son Ashton in Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan, on April 7, 2021, with her husband, Justin, and their son Lochlan.
Trinea Gonczar and her son Ashton in Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan, on April 7, 2021, with her husband, Justin, and their son Lochlan.

"Once a gymnast, always a gymnast,” they say. I hold that close to my heart. From the time I was 8 to when I turned 17, I trained on “the team," an extremely competitive, handpicked group of elite gymnasts who represented the Great Lakes Gymnastics Club in Lansing, Michigan.

Parents would drive from hours away and spend nights in hotels, or with other families, in order to have their gymnasts practice there with John Geddert, the legendary coach who would lead the USA Women’s Gymnastic Team to a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics. In the early 1990s, after he had a falling out with the owners of Great Lakes Gymnastics Club, most of those parents would follow John to his newly formed Twistars Gymnastics Club, where their daughters were treated by a medical student named Larry Nassar.

The sport of gymnastics is beautiful, magical and captivating to watch: Flipping and twisting and turning to perfection. Toes pointed. Legs straight. Arms by your ears. Pretty fingers. Stick your landing. Smile.

It was a language I could speak. A space where we were good — really good. Gold medal good.

Gymnastics was my first true love. But what if my first true love was as toxic and abusive as it gets? What if my favorite childhood memories include moments surrounded by Larry Nassar, John Geddert and Kathie Klages? What if my childhood experience was “ground zero” for what is now known as the place where one of the most prolific pedophiles in sports history began his abuse and where the toxic culture of youth gymnastics as we knew it began to crumble?

How it was

Imagine being one of us, one of the few gymnasts who come from that place.

It wasn't always scary. We were teammates and friends, spending over 25 hours a week together, winning national competitions, having slumber parties at one another’s homes, bonding through the chalk, sweat, blood and tears.

Trinea Gonczar, at 13 years old.
Trinea Gonczar, at 13 years old.

We were the team that other teams didn’t want to see walk into a competition. Chin up. Walk with grace. Be proud. Show no fear. We were the team that other parents talked about in the bathroom when they didn’t know we were in the stalls, wondering aloud what they force-fed us, or whether we took steroids.

Imagine mounting the balance beam under the discerning gaze of Kathie Klages, the future head coach of the Michigan State University Gymnastics team. It was the hope and prayer of every single girl in that gym to catch Kathie’s eye and the possibility of a scholarship her attention signified. Then imagine John Geddert standing near the uneven parallel bars across the floor, a toothpick in the side of his mouth and a pencil behind his ear, perpetually dressed in what we called his “MC Hammer pants,” a track jacket and white Reebok tennis shoes. And imagine the training room off the back side of the gym, where Larry Nassar attended to our swollen ankles, shin splints and mental anguish after a tough practice.

The smell of chalk and sweat filled the air. If floor music wasn’t playing, it was classic rock or country on the stereo system — John's choice, always. If you weren’t practicing on a specific apparatus, you were doing some other form of conditioning: situps, pushups, pullups, climbing and jumping rope. Girls waiting for their turn on an apparatus clustered on the red-and-yellow tumble strips, sitting in splits. We were tiny bodies with big smiles, being transformed, methodically, into gymnastic machines.

John would stand open legged with his arms crossed while coaching the girls on the bars. But he would also be scanning the room from that position, watching everything going on in that gym. He would yell from across the floor to someone on the vault, or upstairs to someone tumbling into the pit. His whistle would make everyone stop.

Standing up for a teammate

John was a very intimidating man. When he spoke, you listened. You did not talk back or ask questions. You did not cry. You did exactly as you were told. And if you did not, and I mean if you did not make the exact correction he asked you for, he made you pay for it.

Bars were John's event, his pride and joy. One Friday practice, after finishing a mistake-filled bar rotation, my group headed into the dance room, the only enclosed space in the gyms besides the training room. I was maybe 12 that year. We were taking off our bar grips and fixing our hair for the dance rotation when John burst through the doors with fury in his eyes. He approached one of the younger gymnasts, a girl maybe 8 or 9 years old, and grabbed the front of her leotard in his hands, puling her face close to his.

"If you ever have another bar rotation that bad, I will never let you back in this gym," he said. Then then he threw her down.

Trinea Gonczar, gymnast, age 10.
Trinea Gonczar, gymnast, age 10.

My younger teammate started crying, then rolled up in a tight ball on the floor, clasping her knees to her chest. John looked at her, laughed and went to grab her again. Instinctively. I stepped in between them, face to face with John. He glared at me, astonished and enraged.

"Please don’t be mean to her anymore,” I pleaded. I knew my younger teammate could not withstand another of John’s tongue-lashings, but I could.

He pushed his forehead to mine and yelled directly in my face: “You are pathetic!" Then he stepped back, laughing, and turned to my other teammates.

"If any of you ever want to be a good gymnast, do not be like her,” he told them. “She will never go anywhere, and she will never be good enough."

Then he put me in a headlock and dragged me out into the main gym, yelling as we entered that he wanted everyone to stop what they were doing and listen to him.

When the gym had fallen silent, John screamed that if anyone in the room ever talked back and disrespected him like I had just done, they would amount to nothing. He would make sure of it.

Humiliated, I burst into tears and ran from the gym. As I reached the sanctuary of the locker room, I heard John laughing derisively behind me. “Another one bites the dust!” he exclaimed.

Former USA Gymnastics coach John Geddert’s body was discovered on Feb. 25, 2021, at a rest area on Interstate 96 in Clinton County, Michigan, just hours after he was charged with 24 counts including human trafficking, sexual assault, racketeering and lying to police.
Former USA Gymnastics coach John Geddert’s body was discovered on Feb. 25, 2021, at a rest area on Interstate 96 in Clinton County, Michigan, just hours after he was charged with 24 counts including human trafficking, sexual assault, racketeering and lying to police.

I was still in a bathroom stall, sobbing, when I saw John’s white Reeboks on the other side of the door a few minutes later. Before I could react, he punched the door in and looked down at me, disgusted.

“Get your f---ing shit and get the hell out of my gym," he said. I grabbed my bag and shoes and ran outside into a freezing Michigan night.

Larry Nassar to the rescue

This was before cellphones, so I had no way to call my mother. I changed my clothes in the dark, then looked for a place to hide from my teammates until she arrived to pick me up.

I was still standing there, alone outside the gym, when a door opened and someone yelled, "Trinea, come here!" It was Larry Nassar.

Larry pulled me inside the door and told me to hide behind the popsicle freezer where John wouldn’t see me. He said he would look for my mom and asked me what I was thinking talking back to John like that? He handed me a water. Then he got me a pair of scissors to cut off my ankle tape.

This was typical of my other teammates’ relationships with John and Larry. John was bad, and Larry was good. Larry exploited our toxic relationship with John to his advantage to gain our trust and build an emotional connection. When John broke us down, Larry built us up.

When my mom arrived, John summoned her into the gym and told her in front of everyone — coaches, gymnasts and other parents — that I had disrespected him. He said I had one chance to “get your shit together” if I wanted to be welcomed back to his gym.

Longtime USA Gymnastics team physician Larry Nassar, now serving a 175-year prison sentence, in court in Charlotte, Michigan, in 2018.
Longtime USA Gymnastics team physician Larry Nassar, now serving a 175-year prison sentence, in court in Charlotte, Michigan, in 2018.

I sat in horror, worried that my mom would be disappointed in me. After all my family had done for me — the money, the time, the booster club commitments, the travel to and from practice and competitions, the care to make sure I did my homework and ate in the car after practice ended, usually around 9:30 at night — I had squandered my opportunity. My gymnastics career was over.

When we were in the car, Mom asked me what had happened. I told her that I had worried John was going to hurt my young teammate, and that I knew I could withstand his verbal abuse better than she could. My mom started to cry. She told me she was was proud of what I had done, and that I should never change the part of me that had stood up to John. She told me that if ever wanted to quit, she would support me.

No more hugs

One of John’s rules was that no matter what happened at practice, you were always to give him a hug at the end. This was a way to "end the problems of the day." I know now that this is like the honeymoon periods many domestic violence survivors describe experiencing after they have been beaten.

The day after John raged at me for talking back to him, I returned to the gym. At the end of practice, John looked at me and said I never had to give him a hug again. I recognized this as a signal that John intended to continue punishing me indefinitely. But I also knew he wouldn't kick me off the team — at least, not permanently. I was now the black sheep of the team, but he needed my scores.

I accepted this compromise. I never did hug him again after that day. Not ever.

I recognize that my teammates’ stories about John may differ from my own. John himself would say that he broke young gymnasts down only to build them up again. But every one of us in that gym saw what was happening to the girls who went home sobbing because the coach they loved had broken their hearts.

Closure for one

In February of this year, I received a message from a journalist that was unlike any of the others I have received as a publicly known survivor of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse. The reporter wanted to know whether I had any comment on reports that John Geddert was about to be charged with 24 felony counts for crimes ranging from human trafficking to sexual assault.

The next day, a second reporter called to tell me John was expected to surrender to authorities later that day, probably anticipating that the news would provide me with some measure of relief.

What took so long? So many missed chances to stop Larry Nassar, so many people at fault

But his disclosure had the opposite effect. Instead of relief, I felt tremendous apprehension. I had spent nearly a decade of my childhood with John; I knew there was no way in hell he would surrender. Not ever.

If anything, it would go down like some kind of police chase. John would make a run for the Canadian border, or barricade himself inside his house; he would go to any lengths, I believed, to avoid prison. I wasn't wrong.

Just an hour later, I learned that John had taken his own life. I dropped to my knees and buried my face in my hands, shedding tears for John’s family. I cried for the the girls who never got justice, for the teammates who suffered under John and for the ones who still loved him.

A life redirected

The day I learned that John would be charged criminally, I was sitting in a conference room with my boss, Kimberly Hurst, the founder and executive director of Avalon Healing Center, a 16-year-old nonprofit that supports survivors of sexual violence like me.

Formerly known as Wayne County Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner Program, Avalon welcomes and supports anyone who identifies as a person affected by sexual assault, at any stage of their journey, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. It promotes public awareness and social change, inspires healing and seeks to empower those affected by sexual violence through free, comprehensive services.

I learned about the center while I was trying to find support for another survivor. I witnessed first responders, advocates and forensic nurse examiners showing up to support survivors wherever they were at, in the worst moments of their lives.

After I had been introduced to Kim, Avalon’s director, I asked: “Why doesn’t anyone know about you?” It was a question that would change the trajectory of my life.

Empower athletes: We investigated Nassar abuse of gymnasts. Here's how to make sure it never happens again.

Unlike most survivors, I did not remain anonymous, and I began to tell my story publicly. On behalf of those who do remain anonymous, and to represent the voice of the voiceless, my mission now, as the director for development at Avalon Healing Center, is to make sure that in every opportunity I have, and in every possible moment with every breath, that every single person knows about us here in Detroit so that others will find the same support that I found.

Now, as a 40-year-old woman, I am looking back at my 12-year-old self, both of us staring fear in the face and standing up in a terrifying space, sharing the hard stories and telling the difficult truths. Some days I am strong. But every day I am surviving by walking this journey alongside other fighters and survivors. And I am staying true to who I am, just like my mom told me to do.

Trinea Gonczar (@itstrinea), director of development for the Detroit-based Avalon Healing Center, is a former gymnast, sexual assault survivor and advocate for victims of sexual abuse. This column first appeared in the Detroit Free Press.

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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Gymnastics coach John Geddert set the table for abusive Larry Nassar