Former gymnast Becca Seaborn watches the sport on television with a genuine appreciation for the athleticism. But one part makes her cringe.
It’s when a male coach hugs a female gymnast after her routine.
“I honestly have a hard time seeing that,” said Seaborn, who was molested by her coach starting when she was 10. Seaborn is now 26. She is building a life of her own, moving past the pain. Still, she said, “because of what happened, my mind goes to the worst.”
A jury in 2003 found Becca’s predator, Mark Schiefelbein, guilty of seven counts of aggravated sexual battery and one count of aggravated sexual exploitation of a minor. He was sentenced to 96 years in prison, which was later reduced to 36 years.
How USA Gymnastics protected coaches over kids
Early in the trial, prosecutors learned that USA Gymnastics had compiled a thick file of prior complaints about Schiefelbein, without forwarding them to authorities. So Schiefelbein moved from gyms in California, Utah, Texas and Illinois before getting a coaching job in Tennessee, where he met Becca’s parents, Ross and Jill Robinson.
He became a family friend. He had dinner at their home. He went to hockey games with Ross.
He told Becca she was his favorite gymnast, and not to tell anyone about the touching. It would only get him in trouble. Becca testified that she stayed silent for more than a year because she was scared to make her coach angry. She also was scared that her parents would be disappointed in her. And, she said, she was embarrassed.
“In her heart, she knew it was wrong, but at the same time, being that young, she was confused about what to do, how to handle it,” Ross Robinson told IndyStar. “They don't have the emotional mechanism in place or the maturity to handle that."
At the sentencing, the Robinsons described the human toll on Becca.
They said she suffered from “severe nightmares,” including one in which her predator was chasing her to touch or kill her. In another version of the nightmare, the coach would force her to watch him touch other people. She would wake up crying.
She was afraid to go out alone. She lost friends who didn’t believe her. Counseling, the Robinsons said, helped Becca control anger and do better in school.
IndyStar seeks to unseal abuse documents
Ross Robinson recalled a phone conversation he had with former USA Gymnastics President Robert Colarossi. Robinson said Colarossi told him USA Gymnastics couldn’t police coaches aggressively because it couldn’t afford legal expenses from lawsuits brought by coaches.
Colarossi didn’t respond to IndyStar’s phone messages seeking comment. But Robinson remembered his own response to Colarossi this way: “How do you live with yourself? How does this organization live with itself? Basically, you're telling me the money is more important than our kids are and their safety is."
The Robinsons considered filing suit against USA Gymnastics for failing to stop Schiefelbein. But they decided against it. They already had been through a trial covered by newspapers and television. They had been on a national television program to talk about the issue of abuse.
Becca, who now has a 2-year-old daughter, also is ready to move on.
“Yes, I was molested by my gymnastics coach,” she said. “But I'm a wife, I'm a mother, I'm a daughter. There's so much more in this life than what has happened to you, and you can move on and grow and still live your life and be extremely happy.”
But the Robinsons were willing to speak out again, after an IndyStar investigation revealed that the USA Gymnastics policies that allowed Schiefelbein to keep coaching remain in effect.
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Jill Robinson, who competed in gymnastics at Brigham Young University, said sadness and anger remain.
“It just makes me sick that this is still happening, that these children are not being protected,” she said. “It's just not fair. The Olympics are going to start. These kids are going to want to go jump to gyms and be just like these heroes they see on TV. And it just starts all over again. It just makes me really sad that nothing's changed.”
Ross Robinson said it’s time for USA Gymnastics to become more transparent and to report allegations to authorities.
“I understand that you're innocent until proven guilty, and I believe in that,” Robinson said. “It's the right way for the justice system to work. But I also believe we need a little bit of logical thinking here, that where there's smoke there could be fire. And when kids are involved, then we have to take the extra steps to make sure that that's not the case — that your kids are safe with these individuals.”