New USA Gymnastics president supports Simone Biles speaking out

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Li Li Leung wants Simone Biles to speak up whenever, however and wherever the Olympic gymnastics champion sees fit.

It’s a freedom that Leung, USA Gymnastics president and chief executive officer, stressed isn’t reserved for the sport’s biggest star. If the embattled organization truly is going to make a cultural shift in the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal, Leung believes giving agency to all involved — from athletes to coaches to parents to club owners — isn’t just encouraged but required.

“Historically, our organization has silenced our gymnasts and I am 100% supportive of giving our athletes a voice,” Leung said Thursday in her first extended public remarks since taking over in March. “Our athletes should be able to say what they feel and be comfortable doing so. I understand that we have let down many athletes, we have let down Simone, and she needs time to heal from that. If voicing her concerns and her feelings is one way to do that, I am completely supportive of that.”

Biles took USA Gymnastics, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee and the FBI to task on Wednesday, angry over the findings in a congressional report that revealed a series of mistakes that allowed Nassar — a former team doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University — to abuse athletes even after victims began to come forward.

“You literally had one job and you couldn’t protect us,” said Biles, who is among the hundreds of women abused by Nassar under the guise of medical treatment.

Leung understands Biles’ anger and her importance as a leading advocate for change. Leung said the two hugged and chatted briefly about setting up a time to talk in depth after the national championships wrap up.

In a way, Leung’s relationship with Biles mirrors the challenges she faces as the organization’s fourth president and CEO since March 2017. Leung played no role in creating the environment that let Nassar’s behavior to run unchecked for so long, a path that led to Nassar spending the rest of his life in prison and pushed one of the U.S. Olympic movement’s marquee programs to the brink of dissolution.

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Yet Leung, a former collegiate gymnast, came forward anyway in an attempt to steer USA Gymnastics forward. The organization filed for bankruptcy last November to consolidate the dozens of civil lawsuits filed against it by Nassar victims, a move that also stayed the USOPC’s attempt to strip USA Gymnastics of its role as the sport’s national governing body.

The lawsuits are now in mediation in federal court in Indiana, something Leung hopes can be resolved in a “relatively efficient and short amount of time.” Leung said the organization remains in contact with the USOPC about the steps it is taking to re-create itself.

“We need to take steps to demonstrate why we should remain the NGB of gymnastics,” she said, citing leadership stability, financial stability, athlete safety and rebuilding trust within the community.

Leung said she has spoken with more than 400 members of the gymnastics community — including Nassar victims — in an attempt to create an open dialogue about what USA Gymnastics needs to become if it wants to survive.

USA Gymnastics is beefing up its staff to deal with the long road ahead.

Current job openings include a chief programming officer, a vice president for Safe Sport and a vice president of athlete health and wellness, a position Leung drew upon her own personal experiences to help create. Leung spent so much of her childhood in the gym that she believes she had the maturity of a 13-year-old when she went off to college. Finding the proper balance between training and personal lives remains a struggle to the current generation of athletes.

“I believe that we have as an organization a responsibility and an obligation to holistically develop our gymnasts and our athletes,” Leung said. “So it’s not just about developing a technically superior gymnast who performs well in the gym but it is about developing a holistic athlete who is best set up for life even beyond the sport.”

It’s part of Leung’s long-term vision for the sport but one only attainable if USA Gymnastics can find a way to restore faith in its mission. Transparency is a key part of the process, and Leung pointed to several changes made in recent months.

USA Gymnastics overhauled its selection procedures for all world championship and Olympic teams, mandating that an independent observer “from outside the gymnastics community” will sit in during the final selection meeting.

It is also making an effort to revamp its vetting process for job candidates after several hires — including Dr. Edward Nyman, who was removed as the first full-time director of sports medicine and science after just one day in April due to an unspecified conflict of interest — flamed out. Leung took responsibility for the mishandling of Nyman’s appointment, saying while the process of hiring Nyman was mostly complete by the time she took over, she still signed off on it.

″(Vetting) historically is not as robust as it needs to be,” she said. “And we are putting measures in place to ensure that every stone has been turned over.”

USA Gymnastics revealed a new Safe Sport policy in June designed to clear up “gray areas” over what constitutes improper contact. The policy is part of what she described as a “robust” plan to help educate the organization’s 200,000-plus members.

Leung said financial support for the elite programs remains stable, though she has made it a point not to court corporate sponsors “until we get our house in order.” USA Gymnastics did reach an agreement with Nike to outfit the athletes at competitions and Leung said there has been outreach from potential corporate partners.

All of those things, combined with what Leung called record ticket sales for this week’s U.S. Championships, point to forward momentum.

“I believe we are on a positive trajectory,” she said. “We’ve made a lot of strides. We’ve put a lot of building blocks in place.”

Progress will be measured in slow increments and critics remain skeptical. While Biles said Wednesday that “all we can do at this point is have faith that they’ll have our backs, they’ll do the right thing,” she added: “It’s a waiting game.”

One Leung understands needs to be played. She is aware USA Gymnastics has spent a significant portion of the last three years talking about change. Now, she believes, it is finally coming.

“This is still the beginning,” she said. “These are just some proof points we have under our belt. But we need many, many more to win back the trust of our community. But we are putting those steps in place.”

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MORE: USA Gymnastics revamps Safe Sport policy amid abuse scandal

FIFA rules on Olympic men’s soccer tournament age eligibility

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For the first time since 1988, some 24-year-olds will be eligible for the Olympic men’s soccer tournament without using an over-age exception.

FIFA announced Friday that it will use the same age eligibility criteria for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 that it intended to use in 2020 — that players born on or after Jan. 1, 1997 are eligible, plus three over-age exceptions. FIFA chose not to move the birthdate deadline back a year after the Olympics were postponed by one year.

Olympic men’s soccer tournaments have been U-23 events — save those exceptions — since the 1992 Barcelona Games. In 1984 and 1988, restrictions kept European and South American players with World Cup experience ineligible. Before that, professionals weren’t allowed at all.

Fourteen of the 16 men’s soccer teams already qualified for the Games using players from under-23 national teams. The last two spots are to be filled by CONCACAF nations, potentially the U.S. qualifying a men’s team for the first time since 2008.

The U.S.’ biggest star, Christian Pulisic, and French superstar Kylian Mbappe were both born in 1998 and thus would have been under the age limit even if FIFA moved the deadline to Jan. 1, 1998.

Perhaps the most high-profile player affected by FIFA’s decision is Brazilian forward Gabriel Jesus. The Manchester City star was born April 3, 1997, and thus would have become an over-age exception if FIFA pushed the birthdate rule back a year.

Instead, Brazil could name him to the Olympic team and still keep all of its over-age exceptions.

However, players need permission from their professional club teams to play in the Olympics, often limiting the availability of stars.

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Jenny Thompson’s new team is on the front line fighting coronavirus

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Two weeks ago, Jenny Thompson, the 12-time Olympic swimming medalist turned anesthesiologist, told close friends about the worrisome situation at her hospital in Charleston, S.C.

Thompson and her perioperative team of 40 or 50 were stressed that they would not have the most effective personal protective equipment (PPE) for when the coronavirus pandemic peaks there, projected to be later this month.

The messages caused fellow former Stanford swimmers and Olympic teammates Gabrielle Rose and Lea Maurer to act.

“She almost never asks for any sort of help or support,” Maurer said. “She’s Herculean in her ability to take on life and all its challenges.”

Rose and Maurer started a GoFundMe titled “Go Jenny Go” on March 22 for help to purchase PPE for the hospital. At the time, critical care doctors were “scrambling to piece together purchases on their own in anticipation of their high risk patients,” Maurer wrote.

Thompson said the PPE situation is better now. The GoFundMe was suspended Wednesday. Future support is directed to help those in New York City. Thompson specifically noted a GoFundMe for NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and the COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund.

More than $9,000 was raised in less than two weeks. Also, the hospital started receiving more PPE on its own. Thompson’s team now feels prepared for what’s to come.

“People were responding and donating from all chapters of my life,” Thompson said by phone Thursday. “People I didn’t even know. Family from USA Swimming and international swimming. It’s really touched me to know that so many people care and are able to donate, help share the message.”

Thompson woke at 4 a.m. several days this week with thoughts of her peers in New York City. Healthcare workers there have cited a lack of PPE in putting their own lives at risk while they fight to save others. Some have contracted the virus.

“We’ve been fortunate [in South Carolina]. I feel lucky,” Thompson said. “We’ll definitely be in a place where we’re taking care of a lot of Covid patients, but we’re not there yet.

“I’ve heard people say, people in healthcare knew what they were signing up for. I never signed up to get sick and potentially die from this job. I always assumed that I would have the protection or the supplies needed to help me do my job, and that’s been a real struggle nationwide.”

Thompson went to medical school in New York at Columbia University starting in 2001.

“I’d been there maybe a couple weeks at Columbia, when 9/11 happened,” she said. “I remember feeling very helpless as a first-year medical student. I wanted to help so badly, but there really wasn’t much I could do. All my classmates felt the same way. I’ve always had that as part of the making of me as a doctor, having to go through crisis, but I never imagined a pandemic. I guess some people prepare for this sort of thing their whole life, but I didn’t.”

The term “front lines” has been applied to healthcare workers around the globe. Thompson said it’s apt at her hospital.

“We definitely have Covid here, but we have not had a major outbreak like some other cities,” she said. “We consider every patient who we give general anesthesia and intubate to be a potential risk. As anesthesia providers and people who intubate the airway, we are on the front line. We are at a much higher risk of getting sick without the right PPE.”

Thompson’s team feels more ready for the peak with every passing day. They’re simulating, donning and doffing and scheduling to work longer shifts starting next week. The preparation extends home, where she has a husband and three children.

“I have, like, four different pairs of shoes,” Thompson said. “I spray my socks with fabric disinfectant. I take them off in the car, and then I put on flip-flops. Then when I get home, I shower and put my clothes in the wash immediately. It’s a strange place to be, but just consider everything I touch to be contaminated in an effort to protect myself.”

Both Rose and Maurer still see in Thompson that swimmer who awed them in college. As Thompson trained to become the most decorated female U.S. Olympian in history, she studied at Stanford and then Columbia to become a doctor.

“I knew I wanted to take care of critically ill patients,” she said.

As a swimmer, Thompson was known as the ultimate teammate. Eight Olympic gold medals in relays, often an anchor. Always there. Dependable.

“She knows that she’s going to make a difference,” Maurer said. “She knows that she’s going to achieve that goal. She knows that she’s going to help to make people better. And so she does it.”

Thompson believes the next few weeks will be unlike anything she’s ever faced.

“Everybody was sort of freaking out in the beginning and feeling very stressed, and I think that at some level has not gone away,” she said. “That’s going to stay with us, but we have a we-can-do-this-together fighting mentality that we are leaning on each other for. It’s really no different than being a part of any kind of team.”