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‘I cared too much’: A gymnastics coach accused of emotional abuse speaks out

Maggie Haney’s accusers claim that she bullied her gymnasts, publicly shamed them about their weight, encouraged eating disorders, and forced them to train with injuries.

Maggie Haney, an elite gymnastics coach who has been suspended by U.S.A. Gymnastics, in Manalapan Township, N.J., Nov. 24, 2020. Rachel Wisniewski/The New York Times

If she could travel back in time, before she was suspended from gymnastics after being accused of berating and mistreating her athletes, including an Olympic champion, Maggie Haney says she would change the way she coached.

She wouldn’t push some of her young gymnasts to redo a routine again and again after even the tiniest mistakes. To demand their focus, she wouldn’t yell at them. Instead she would learn to let some imperfections slide.

“I think my mistakes were that I cared too much, and wanted them to be a little too perfect every day, when maybe that’s not possible,” Haney, one of the most prominent coaches in the sport, said this month in an interview with The New York Times, the first time she has spoken publicly in nearly a year. “Maybe what used to be OK is not OK anymore, and maybe it shouldn’t be. I think maybe the culture has shifted.”

Maggie Haney, bottom left, oversees a balance beam training session at GymLand in Hamilton, N.J., April 22, 2016.

Haney has not coached at her gym in central New Jersey or anywhere else since February, she said, when USA Gymnastics, the sport’s national federation, temporarily suspended her before later barring her from coaching for eight years for what it called her “severe aggressive behavior” toward her athletes. She said she hasn’t even coached her own daughter, who is 11.

The athletes who have trained under Haney include Laurie Hernandez, who won a silver medal on the balance beam at the 2016 Olympics and helped the United States win the team gold medal.

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Hernandez’s complaint to the federation was one of nearly a dozen that led to Haney’s ban, which she is appealing to an arbitrator. It was considered the harshest penalty for emotional and verbal abuse in the sport’s recent history.

The suspension was also viewed as a warning that coaches could now face stiff penalties for the mental and nonsexual abuse that was long accepted in the sport before the Lawrence G. Nassar sexual abuse scandal shed light on the toxic culture in gymnastics. Nassar was the longtime U.S. national team doctor who in 2018 was sentenced to prison for molesting more than 200 girls and women under the guise of medical treatment.

Olympic gymnast Laurie Hernandez gets advice from coach Maggie Haney at a training facility in Hamilton, N.J., in 2016, four years before Haney was suspended over accusations of emotionally abusing Hernandez and other gymnasts.

Haney said the accusations against her — particularly those from Hernandez, whom she coached from age 6 — had come out of nowhere, and she vehemently denied them. More than 30 gymnasts at MG Elite, Haney’s gym in Morganville, New Jersey, and their families continue to support her and are awaiting her return to the sport, she said. Some have voiced their support for Haney in a YouTube video compiled by the public-relations firm she hired to help restore her reputation.

Haney, 42, said she was convinced that USA Gymnastics had used her as a scapegoat after its missteps in the Nassar case, in which the organization failed to protect its gymnasts from a sexual predator. The federation needed to do “something bold, something dramatic,” she said, to prove to the public that it cares about its athletes.

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“I’ve dedicated my whole life to this,” Haney said, her voice beginning to waver. “To be out of the gym has been really hard. I feel like it was unfairly taken away from me.”

Haney’s accusers have not wavered. They say the ban is warranted, and some even wanted a permanent one. They claim that she bullied her gymnasts, publicly shamed them about their weight, encouraged eating disorders and forced them to train with injuries.

Hernandez, who is now training in California for the Tokyo Olympics next summer, told The Times in April that Haney’s treatment of her was “just so twisted that I thought it couldn’t be real.” She said the abuse included Haney calling her weak, lazy and messed up in the head and that the emotional abuse led to a continuing battle with depression.

Riley McCusker, who has a good chance of making the U.S. team for the Tokyo Games, filed a lawsuit against Haney last month. Among the accusations in the complaint was that Haney had forced McCusker to train through injuries, including while she had a painful, potentially serious medical condition called rhabdomyolysis, which is a breakdown of muscle tissue that can happen from overexertion.

In a separate lawsuit filed last month, another gymnast, Emily Liszewski, a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh, accused Haney and an assistant coach of forcing her to perform an advanced skill on the uneven bars at the Arena Gym, a gym not far from MG Elite, and it led her to fall and hit her head. Liszewski was unconscious for three days, with multiple skull fractures, and had seizures because of the injury, the lawsuit said. The suit also claimed that Haney once picked Liszewski up from the floor by her hair after the gymnast had fallen.

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“These situations are not at all the way I recall them,” Haney said, adding that Hernandez’s mother and McCusker’s mother were often in the gym — sometimes on the training floor — but never expressed displeasure over her demanding coaching style. (Neither mother returned a request made through a representative to comment for this article.)

Haney added: “I just think when money gets involved, people will say and do different things. I think a lot of this is about money.”

The arbitrator’s ruling on Haney’s appeal is expected in the coming days, said one of her lawyers, Steven Altman. He said he hoped that Haney’s suspension would be rescinded because USA Gymnastics’ hearing for the case had been biased and flawed, and “as a practical matter, a kangaroo court.” Seven of Haney’s accusers were not even coached by her, Altman said, and the gym offered a fun environment amid the intense training that is generally needed to master the sport’s daring moves.

In this Aug. 27, 2016, file photo, Old Bridge Township resident and Olympic champion Laurie Hernandez, right, and her coach Maggie Haney, wave from a motorcade during a welcome home from the Rio Olympic Games celebration in Old Bridge Township, N.J.

“When they were doing gymnastics, it was serious,” Altman said. “They worked on life-threatening skills for hours a day.”

USA Gymnastics, in an emailed statement, said on Sunday that Haney’s hearing was “both fair and impartial, and adhered to the requirements” of the organization’s procedures, as well as the law that oversees Olympic sports in the United States.

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Haney conceded she could be intense in the gym. But she said that most of the time “everybody is smiling and laughing and music is playing.” She carefully crafted the atmosphere at the gym, she said, knowing that parents had entrusted her with their children, at times from morning until evening. The program, Haney said, included closely monitored online learning, a certified teacher holding classes during the day and an emphasis on safety.

As a young gymnast herself, training in an elite program for a while, Haney worked with harsh coaches who screamed at the girls, she recalled, and had them step onto a scale daily, then listed everyone’s weight on a bulletin board in the gym. To make the girls lose weight, the coaches forced them to wear rubber suits or 20-pound belts and jog around the gym, she said.

“It didn’t faze me and didn’t bother me, but that kid next to me, it could’ve really bothered and scared them,” she said, adding that she never weighed her gymnasts or forced them to lose weight. “I think what I’ve learned over the last year is that so much of this comes down to perspective. Every person. Every athlete. Every coach. They have their own perspective of things.”

Some of the families whose children continue to train at MG Elite were drawn to her gym because of what they described as an exacting nature.

Henry Rivera, an engineer at a software company, moved his 12-year-old daughter to MG Elite last year so she could train with Haney. He said she had left her previous gym because her routines were getting sloppy and the coach there was pushing her to perform skills she didn’t feel prepared to do.

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Rivera said he appreciated that Haney had made the gym a safe space for his daughter, yet never babied her.

“If I wanted her to come home happy and smiling every day, I’d send her to clown school; I’m serious,” Rivera said. “If my daughter has goals and her goal is to be an elite athlete, I need a coach to teach her the right things and safely, and to push them.”

Rivera said if Haney ever was abusive to his daughter, he would have noticed because he monitors what she is going through “emotionally, mentally and physically,” considering it his job as a parent.

“As parents, we need to be vigilant,” he said. “And if you don’t like it, get up and leave.”

In a telephone interview with her parents standing by, his daughter, Hezly, said Haney just wanted her gymnasts to be the best and was tough on them, “but not like to the point where it was horrible.” She said that she was sad to see Haney go and that she missed her.

“She never crossed the line,’’ she said.

Another parent at the gym, Charisse Dash, is a sports agent who recruits athletes from the Dominican Republic to play in Major League Baseball. Her 10-year-old daughter has worked with Haney since she was 6.

“You’re not there to play, you’re there to work,” Dash said, describing that type of gymnastics as “a 9-to-5 job.”

She added: “Do I classify the rigor of the training as abuse? I think you really have to see it on a case-by-case basis.”

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Dash said she and her husband ran “a very tight ship” at home with their five children, where screaming, not coddling, was common. So, to them, Haney’s demanding style was a great fit.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say that Maggie is an abuser, by all means,” Dash said. “It depends on how much any child or any person can tolerate.”

Haney’s USA Gymnastics hearing in February and March was held by telephone, and Haney listened to weeks of it while huddled in a closet so her two children would not interrupt her. About a half-dozen parents testified in support of her, but not all of the parents who wanted to testify were given the chance to, she said. Even when Haney herself testified, she said, she felt that her side of the story didn’t matter. She was sure the three-person hearing panel had already made up its mind.

Some of the gymnasts who accused her of abuse, she said, had been asked to leave the gym because they could not physically keep up. The part she remembers as the worst, though, was sitting through Hernandez’s live testimony. Haney considered their relationship strong, so it was inconceivable to her that Hernandez felt mistreated.

Hernandez often slept at Haney’s house and was considered a part of the family, Haney said. Haney took Hernandez to the beach, to restaurants, to get her nails done, and gave her a tuition break at the gym. When she and Hernandez returned from the 2016 Olympics, Haney said, she helped organize a parade in her town, in Hernandez’s honor.

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When Hernandez was competing on the television show “Dancing With the Stars” soon after the Rio Games, Haney said, she spoke to her one night for three hours. The coach remembered their talking like old friends, about makeup and music and how Haney, with her perfectionist’s eye, noticed that Hernandez’s foot had slipped during an earlier dance, but that she had covered the mistake well. Haney recalled telling Hernandez to enjoy her break from gymnastics.

“You’re a star now,” Haney said she told her.

Within days, Laurie Hernandez’s mother, Wanda, called Haney to say that they were cutting all ties. Though Wanda Hernandez told The Times in April that she had severed the relationship after learning that Haney had mistreated her daughter, Haney said she was blindsided by the move and now thinks it was financially motivated because the Hernandezes first offered her a cut of Laurie’s income after the Olympics, but then did not follow through.

“For me, it was never about the money,” Haney said. “I just remember being so confused and not understanding any of it.”

Neither Wanda nor Laurie Hernandez responded to interview requests made through Laurie’s agent, Sheryl Shade.

The situation left Haney wondering what she had done wrong. She said she had been protective of her gymnasts, even when it came to food, as she watched other coaches at meets hover over the meal table to control their athletes’ consumption.

“My kids were never the ones stuffing bread into their pockets,” she said, describing how some athletes felt compelled to sneak food back to their rooms.

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She said she encouraged her gymnasts to make smart choices, though McCusker’s lawsuit said Haney promoted unhealthy eating and weight-loss habits.

Haney acknowledged that there had recently been a change in how some gymnasts expected to be treated by their coaches, especially since this summer, when hundreds of them worldwide began speaking out about the abuse they endured from tyrannical coaches.

Many coaches, Haney said, now don’t know when they might cross the line or upset an especially sensitive child or parent, so they “are just letting the girls do whatever because they don’t want to get in trouble.”

The culture has shifted perhaps too far, she said, and she expects the sport, going forward, to be filled with underachievers. She said she thinks coaches will not push their athletes as hard.

Haney blames parents for that. They have become too invested in their daughters’ success, she said, and now are emboldened to lash out at anyone — and potentially crush anyone — who stands in their daughters’ way.

“I feel that somebody needs to stand up for coaches,” Haney said. “If I don’t stand up and fight for the truth, then other coaches aren’t going to, either. I know if this can happen to me, I think it can happen to anyone.”

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