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Rick Westhead

TSN Senior Correspondent

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One of the coaches on Canada’s Olympic gymnastics team was sent to the Tokyo Games even though multiple abuse complaints filed against her remain unresolved, complainants say

Documents and email correspondence between the complainants and Gymnastics Canada obtained by TSN detail at least three complaints over the past two years that have been filed against veteran gymnastics coach Lorie Henderson, who has coached in Brandon, Man., for more than 40 years and is a member of the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame.

According to Gymnastics Canada’s website, Henderson’s accomplishments include coaching gymnast Isabela Onyshko at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, the 2014 and 2015 World Championships, and the 2015 Pan American Games. Onyshko also competed for Canada in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.

Onyshko and her parents, Daniel Onyshko and Paula Moreira, are among those who have filed abuse complaints with Gymnastics Canada against Henderson. Onyshko, who is attending Stanford University and competes for its gymnastics team, is not a member of Canada's 2020 Olympic team.

TSN has a policy of not naming victims of alleged abuse without their consent. Moreira said both she and her daughter are allowing the public reporting of their names.

According to Onyshko’s parents’ complaint, filed Dec. 20, 2020, Henderson allegedly refused to allow access to her gym to a physiotherapist who was helping build a training plan for Onyshko after she suffered a torn Achilles tendon. The complaint also alleges Henderson refused to speak with Onyshko following a “bad competition.”

“After such competitions, she was not only subjected to telling and the silent treatment but also she witnessed her coach yell and demean other gymnasts for reasons she thought were unexplainable or unwarranted,” Onyshko’s parents wrote.

Moreira filed a separate complaint on Jan. 25, 2019, with the Manitoba Gymnastics Association against Henderson over “bullying behaviour and threatening language” allegedly used by the coach towards another child at the Brandon Eagles Gymnastics Centre. The provincial association never responded to that complaint.

Henderson did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Gymnastics Canada chief executive Ian Moss refused to discuss Henderson specifically when contacted by TSN.

“The Gymnastics Canada complaint management process includes a significant level of preliminary vetting, assessment, and investigation of all complaints that is conducted by the independent case manager prior to any formal action being taken by the organization,” Moss wrote in a July 18 email to TSN. Not all complaints reach the disciplinary and appeal process, he wrote.

In another email sent July 27, Moss wrote that Gymnastics Canada deals with, on average, two to three queries, concerns or formal complaints per week, “all of which are properly addressed, independently vetted, and, if required, redirected and/or formally actioned as per our Safe Sport policies. Multiply this number over a two-to-three year period and you get a sense of the volume of work required within our staff and external case managers just for the complaint management component of our Safe Sport platform.”

Despite Moss’s statement, none of the complainants said they have received written confirmation that their allegations will not be further investigated or provided with an explanation why they won’t be scrutinized.

Gymnastics Canada is among many sports organizations confronting a new reality where athletes and their families are filing abuse complaints alleging verbal, mental and psychological mistreatment as well as pressure to train through injuries, which for decades have been overshadowed by more sensational cases of sexual abuse.

Gymnastics in particular has been forced to reckon with its treatment of young athletes following revelations that USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar had sexually abused hundreds of athletes. Nassar received a prison sentence of up to 175 years in prison.

Following Nassar’s conviction, national gymnastics organizations in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand and Holland all commissioned independent investigations into the culture of their sport.

In late 2020, Gymnastics Canada suspended coach Elvira Saadi pending an investigation into allegations centred on emotional and psychological abuse, publicly shaming an athlete about their weight and encouraging eating disorders. In March, Gymnastics Canada suspended former coach Dave Brubaker for life following an internal investigation into multiple abuse complaints against him. Brubaker is appealing that decision.

In addition to Moreira, another parent wrote in an October 2019 complaint to Gymnastics Canada that Henderson pressured her daughter to return to training prematurely after injuries and regularly used inappropriate language with her daughter and other gymnastics.

“[My daughter] couldn’t take Lorie’s coaching style – at 10 years old, she got upset if her coach called her or her friends “pathetic – as in you are pathetic… She at 10 years old, had a panic attack on the floor and was pretty much unable to walk through the door at the gym from that day forward. I want you to know that the language, intimidation and bullying that Lorie uses as her ‘coaching techniques’ are, in my opinion, way beyond what it takes to coach an aspiring gymnast… Parents are intimidated by Lorie to the point where their children quit the sport. Some of Lorie’s language is so demeaning that (I am told) girls have to leave in order to protect their own mental health – others (I am told) are reaching out to mental health professionals to help them deal with the issues that result from this type of coaching.”

A third parent confirmed she has also filed a complaint with Gymnastics Canada about Henderson, which remains unresolved. The parent refused to speak publicly because she feared repercussions for her daughter, who is still involved in the sport.

TSN has also learned that Moss received multiple abuse complaints, both formal and informal, against Alex Bard, the former head coach of Canada’s women’s artistic national gymnastics team, in 2019.

The complaints were made by coaches after Bard was seen touching a teenage gymnast on her bottom, said a person familiar with the matter. In email correspondence with Gymnastics Canada staff, which was reviewed by TSN, Moss wrote that he was removing Bard from his position.

However, instead of publicly sanctioning Bard, Gymnastics Canada issued a press release announcing Bard was immediately resigning “for personal reasons.” Gymnastics Canada wrote in a press release that Bard was “instrumental as part of the leadership group for the WAG national team over the past two years and helped the team achieve its best ever performance at the 2018 World Championship.”

“We thank Alex for all he has contributed to Canadian gymnastics in his long career,” the release said.

Moss wrote in his July 27 email that it was Bard’s decision to leave Gymnastics Canada.

"Regarding Alex Bard, Gymnastics Canada provided a public statement in early June 2019 confirming the decision of Mr. Bard to resign from his national team role for personal reasons," Moss wrote.