Even as USA Gymnastics fought to contain a broadening sex abuse scandal last year, it allowed an official accused of misconduct to sit on a committee judging his own accuser’s performance, IndyStar has learned.
When it came time to vote on who would attend the World Championships, that official cast his ballot for another athlete. One with a lower score.
Even after USA Gymnastics was confronted about the official's apparent conflict of interest, a hearing panel upheld the selection. And the system that failed to detect and prevent that conflict remains in place today — raising questions about the potential for retaliation and the silencing of abuse survivors.
Two years after IndyStar revealed the first public allegations of sexual abuse against longtime USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, the Indianapolis-based national governing body is still struggling to overhaul the culture that many say enabled Nassar to sexually assault as many as 330 women and girls under the guise of medical treatment.
Some wonder if it can ever regain the trust of the athletes it serves.
And the case of former coach George Drew and gymnast Kristle Lowell offers one narrow glimpse into the complexities of changing a culture that has been a stunning success in competition, yet a miserable failure when it comes to athlete protection.
Allegations of sexual misconduct
In a 2017 complaint to the U.S. Center for SafeSport, Lowell claimed Drew, her former coach who also is a doctor, conducted an unwanted and unnecessary breast exam.
Drew, who retired last year as USA Gymnastics' director of the trampoline and tumbling program, has denied wrongdoing. His USA Gymnastics membership is suspended pending a hearing, gymnastics records show. It's unclear when a decision will be made.
Less than two months after Lowell filed her complaint, Drew served on the selection committee that decided whether Lowell made the World Championship team. How was that possible?
For its part, USA Gymnastics claimed ignorance. The complaint went to SafeSport, a separate organization that has been cited as the solution to the sexual abuse reporting problems uncovered in USA Gymnastics. USA Gymnastics said it was unaware of Drew's complaint when the selection committee met, according to a USA Gymnastics position statement obtained by IndyStar.
Still, it’s not as if USA Gymnastics was unaware of personal friction between the two. Lowell had filed an earlier complaint against Drew in 2015, claiming he improperly prescribed her drugs while he was her coach from 2012 to late 2014. He was also her landlord, and she said he was exerting extreme control over her as her coach, doctor and landlord.
In a statement, USA Gymnastics said it "retained an independent licensed private investigator to investigate allegations of non-sexual misconduct regarding Dr. Drew. Those investigations resulted in inconclusive findings."
Despite that history, Drew remained on the selection committee.
Drew's lawyer, Doug Van Essen, said Drew did not recuse himself because he felt he could be impartial despite the 2015 complaint Lowell filed against him. He said Drew was not aware of the 2017 complaint at the time he served on the committee.
Essen dismissed Lowell as a person who complains excessively, claiming that if everyone she had complained about was disqualified from serving on the committee, no one could serve. Lowell and her father disputed that claim, indicating she had filed multiple complaints, but they were only directed at three people, one of whom was Drew.
So, why wasn't USA Gymnastics notified? SafeSport would not comment specifically on the case, but a spokesperson said its policy is to notify a national governing body of a complaint "as soon as the Center decides on a sanction against an individual." When asked how SafeSport ensures that a potential victim is safe while it deliberates, the organization replied: "Provided the Center has sufficient notice of a potential interaction between a reporting and responding party it will engage in safety planning measures, which can include full time supervision, no contact order, etc."
Lowell, a world champion in double mini who had represented the United States six years in a row, did not make the worlds team in 2017 — despite earning the second-highest overall score over four competitions.
"Words can’t even describe how disappointed I was in the entire process," her father Stephen Lowell told IndyStar. "I can’t even tell you the anger, the rage that I felt. And I felt like somebody took a beer bottle and smashed it over my face. That’s how I felt. Totally incapacitated."
It was a unanimous vote of the five-member committee. Members decided Lowell's personality would "adversely affect" others on the team.
Lowell filed an "opportunity to participate" complaint with USA Gymnastics.
In a document obtained by IndyStar, USA Gymnastics justified the selection committee's decision by saying Lowell had "a demonstrated history of unacceptable and disruptive behavior." The organization also pointed out that Lowell had signed a document before the competition that indicated Drew would be one of the committee members.
A hearing panel upheld the selection committee's decision, and Lowell did not pursue it further. Earlier this year, Lowell earned a spot on the national team.
But the sexual nature of the complaint, and the fact that Drew was allowed to vote after the complaint was received, highlight questions that have plagued gymnastics for years.
The dynamics of team selection
One of the reforms called for in the wake of Larry Nassar's arrest in 2016 is an overhaul of the way USA Gymnastics chooses teams.
For example, the national governing body does not simply take the five highest-scoring athletes to make up the U.S. Women's Olympic team. Only the top all-round finisher at team trials is guaranteed a spot.
USA Gymnastics allows a selection committee to determine the remaining athletes best able to compete in all of the events needed to win a team gold medal, including floor exercise, vault, balance beam and uneven parallel bars. That’s because different athletes excel at different disciplines. The selection committee is allowed the discretion to move lower-scoring athletes ahead to fill a need, citing something called "team dynamics."
In Lowell’s case, team dynamics meant her presence on the trampoline and tumbling team was believed to have an effect on the other athletes.
Both Bela and Martha Karolyi, the former national team coordinators who are widely credited with the Olympic success of USA Gymnastics, believe the selection committees should continue to enjoy such discretion, according to a statement from their lawyer, David Berg of Berg & Androphy.
"Relying solely on individual results often is detrimental as a particular person’s consistency or specialty is needed to achieve the highest team score," Berg wrote. To bring home the gold, they and others argue, leaders need to make some hard choices.
Most associated with gymnastics agree there has to be some give-and-take in selection of teams to represent the U.S. in international events. After all, the system also protects top athletes from losing a spot on the team simply because they have a bad day at trials. And even if you change the team selection process, you could never remove all subjectivity from a judged sport.
How subjective is too subjective?
Still, some are concerned the process has become too subjective — and can be used to retaliate against athletes and coaches who challenge the status quo or speak about concerns, including sexual abuse.
"USA Gymnastics created a monster when they included a team dynamic," said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a former Olympic swimmer and sports law attorney who heads the nonprofit advocacy group Champion Women.
Hogshead-Makar said the system "makes athletes be more obedient and compliant. But the unexpected consequence of this is that ... it is perfectly acceptable to kick somebody off a team if they're not popular, if nobody likes them."
In an interview earlier this year, gymnast Tracee Talavera, who served on the committee that selected the 2000 Olympic team, saw the subjective process as the root of many of the problems USA Gymnastics is still grappling with today.
Because the selection committees face "no rules to be accountable for," she said, an athlete has little power to influence the outcome. Mastering a difficult routine or improving consistency is no guarantee one will make the team.
The focus can shift to who the athlete needs to please. And that can foster fear, silence dissent, encourage bullying and create opportunity for "nice-guy" predators such as Nassar.
"I think the whole selection process is very much the beginning of what allowed this all to get where it got," Talavera said, referring to revelations of widespread sexual abuse in the sport.
Team selection, of course, is subjective in many sports.
But, in a report on sexual abuse in gymnastics, former federal prosecutor Deborah Daniels pointed out that, unlike athletes in other sports, the girls who participate in elite gymnastics typically have an extremely narrow window of time in which they can compete. Most have only one shot at making it to the Olympics.
That can heighten the tension. "And the subjectivity of it, while in some ways fully understandable, adds to the likelihood that an abused athlete will not report the abuse for fear of being seen as a 'troublemaker' and kept off the team," Daniels wrote.
USA Gymnastics said it plans to "fully review the athlete selection process with experts" and is in the process of drafting a "detailed policy that defines conflicts of interest within the team selection process, what constitutes a conflict, and what actions must be taken when a conflict arises."
Conflicts are not limited to team selection, either. In one case this year, a Maryland acrobatics team faced a judge who was married to a competing team's coach. USA Gymnastics told IndyStar it revised the conflict policy for the acrobatics program. But USA Gymnastics has not yet addressed the potential for bias in some of its other programs.
Daniels recommended the team selection system be reviewed. She recommended the removal of the athlete representative from the selection committee, because that person also plays the duel role of being an athlete advocate in abuse cases.
"It is highly unlikely that any athlete under consideration for inclusion in the team will confide in the Athlete Representative, thus reducing the potential for the reporting of abuse," she wrote. USA Gymnastics said it has separated those roles.
Daniels walked a fine line in her recommendations, acknowledging the possible benefits of coach discretion in team selection, while emphasizing the need to remove systemic bias that might discourage the reporting of abuse.
But Talavera, a former Olympian and member of the U.S. Gymnastics Hall of Fame, puts the emphasis squarely on the need for USA Gymnastics to take bold steps to win back athlete trust. With big money and television rights involved, she fears selection committee discretion allows things that have nothing to do with gymnastics — such as a girl’s looks or attitude — to be considered.
And Talavera remembers her 2000 service on the team selection committee as "one of the worst experiences I had in gymnastics."
'There's the team we want'
She said she believes Bela Karolyi tried to influence the selection of specific gymnasts for the 2000 Olympic team by criticizing various girls for things such as chewing gum, listening to music on headphones or looking heavy.
"They would find any excuse to offer a reason why this girl shouldn't be on the team," she said.
After team trials ended, Talavera said, the selection committee was preparing to retreat to a back room at the Fleet Center in Boston to select the team members.
Karolyi, then the national team coordinator, approached.
Talavera said Karolyi circled one athlete's name, drew an arrow, then crossed out gymnast Vanessa Atler's name. It eliminated Atler, the sixth-place athlete. The eighth- and ninth-place athletes would leapfrog her, winning a ticket to the Olympics.
"'There's the team we want,'" Talavera remembers Karolyi saying.
The other two committee members went along with Karolyi's choices. But Talavera, the athlete representative on the selection committee, didn't like what was happening. "And I said, 'I just can't do it. I won't sign off on that.' "
Berg, the Karolyis' attorney, said some of Talavera's recollections were incorrect. He said the selection committee "named a team that included all of the top five finishers at that 2000 U.S. Olympic Trials, and exercised its discretion to name the eighth-place finisher, Alyssa Beckerman, as an alternate. The seventh- and ninth-place finishers, Dominique Dawes and Tasha Schwikert, comprised the final team."
Talavera said she refused to go along.
With television cameras focused on the door that separated the committee from gymnasts, coaches and fans, commentators noted deliberations were taking much longer than expected. It was supposed to last less than five minutes. And at least 12 minutes passed.
Finally, the door opened.
With thousands of fans waiting in the arena, and confetti ready to be released, the athletes were about to hear whether the dream many of them had worked for years to achieve would come true, a dream they may never have a second chance to fulfill.
Officials announced the team members alphabetically. Atler told IndyStar she knew immediately her Olympic hopes had been snuffed.
Then 18, she bit at her lip. She didn't cry. At least not with the TV cameras pointed at her. It was only later, in the locker room, that she allowed the tears to flow.
After all her hard work, the U.S. women's team went on without her. She was so disappointed, she retired from the sport. After a hiatus, she is now coaching.
"I’m the head coach of a girls' competitive team. We don’t do elite or anything like that," she said. "My main focus is more about having fun and the good stuff about gymnastics. I do love it, but I think there’s things that need fixed."
Two years after Larry Nassar's crimes were exposed, USA Gymnastics says it is trying to foster an athlete-centered culture. And how team selection might look in such a system remains a bit of a mystery.