Former San Jose State gymnasts, trainers stand behind ex-coach accused of emotional abuse

More than 70 former San Jose State University gymnasts, trainers and parents of gymnasts have signed a petition in support of ex-head coach Wayne Wright, who was accused this month of emotionally abusing athletes.

Hawley Almstedt, who was a member of the Spartans women’s gymnastics team from 1994 to 1998, helped write a “statement of appreciation” for Wright after he was accused of verbal abuse by a former gymnast.

“Through all the wins and losses, broken records, and conference championships, when we look back on our tenures with SJSU Gymnastics, not one of us can think of this gymnastics family without a sense of appreciation for Wayne Wright,” Almstedt wrote in the petition, which had been signed by 70-plus people as of Monday morning. “Even with a brief time away from the team, Wayne has been the bedrock of SJSU Gymnastics since 1988.”

Wright served as women’s gymnastics coach until 2018, when he stepped down after being accused by 25 current and former gymnasts of verbal abuse, body shaming, manipulative behavior, threats to take away scholarships, stopping student-athletes from being treated by a trainer or following treatment plans and interfering with the athletes’ academic obligations, according to a university investigative report from May 2018 obtained by The Times through a California Public Records Act request.

Wright left San Jose State on July 9, 2018, and agreed to not seek employment or volunteer with the school going forward, according to a university spokesperson.

However, the allegations weren’t made public and Wright’s departure was announced as a retirement in an online post that praised his accomplishments, with no mention of the investigation into his conduct. The online post has been taken down. Wright was also mentioned earlier this year in a since-deleted Twitter post from the San Jose State gymnastics program lauding him for his contributions, which a university spokesperson said was “an error.”

Wright didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment Monday. The abuse allegations surfaced in the fallout from an investigation of former director of sports medicine Scott Shaw, who was accused by more than a dozen athletes of sexual assault.

Amy LeClair, a former San Jose State gymnast who settled with the school over claims against Shaw, accused Wright of emotional abuse in a newspaper article this month.

Tanika Byrd, 44, a former San Jose State gymnast who was part of the group of former gymnasts and parents who wrote the letter supporting Wright, said she spoke to Wright after the allegations against him surfaced. While Wright didn’t ask her to write the letter, Byrd said that he brought up the letter written in support of former UCLA gymnast coach Chris Waller and that it would “be great” if something like that could be done for him.

“It was a host of things,” said Byrd, who was recruited by Wright in 1996 but wasn’t directly coached by him. “[He felt] disappointed. Some disbelief, I’m sure. Frustration was in there too.”

Byrd, who is Black, said she thinks a racial component may have played into the abuse allegations against Wright, who is also Black.

“In gymnastics, most of the young women who participate come from means. It’s an expensive sport and they don’t have Black men in authoritative roles anywhere else in their life,” she said. “His anger could’ve been seen as triple the amount of anger because of his identity. If a white coach did the exact same thing, maybe these young women wouldn’t have felt as threatened or shamed.”

Kimmy Cianci, 42, another former Spartans gymnast, trained under Wright during his first year as head coach in 2001. Cianci was team captain that year; she and her parents signed the letter in support of Wright after she saw the news of the allegations against him.

“He saved our program,” she said. “He was amazing with fundraising and getting alumni involved. He was an excellent spotter and was always looking out for us.”

Cianci said that she didn’t want to discount what others may have experienced but that she had nothing but positive things to say about Wright.

“I was surprised,” she said. “I read through everything and thought, ‘Wow, this was not my experience at all.’”

LeClair, 28, who was on the gymnastics team from 2012 to 2016, said she and her teammates endured abuse from Wright that included yelling, insults, humiliation, being forced to train while injured and being forbidden to speak to their parents or seek medical treatment without Wright’s permission.

LeClair wasn’t surprised that some of her fellow gymnasts signed the letter of appreciation. She said that Wright often played favorites and that many of the people who signed were team captains and their parents or staff members who witnessed the abuse but did nothing to stop it.

“The backlash is what corroborates the abuse,” she said. “Wayne would test his behavior on everyone and some people, he just decided they were good enough to be his favorites and other girls, he decided they weren’t. The favorites were the most likely to make lineups, they were willing to wield power over the other girls and they ultimately, at the end of the day, were willing to support him even if they saw what he was doing was wrong.”

LeClair said she spoke out about the abuse for the “underdogs” on the team who were mistreated by Wright.

“I’m here for the girls who had eating disorders, were depressed or suicidal, who had Wayne’s voice in their head telling them they were unimportant and small,” she said. “I’m here for the girls he made sit aside in practice or he wouldn’t let march out with the team because they weren’t ‘good enough.’”

Cianci disagreed that Wright played favorites, but said that after having been a coach herself, she could understand if someone would appreciate one athlete more because of the person’s hardworking attitude.

“I don’t like when somebody’s name is tarnished,” she added. “It was important to me to make it known how I felt.”

Allison Falat, LeClair’s twin sister who was also on the gymnastics team, said she continued to practice despite having a stress fracture in her shin because she feared being disciplined by Wright. Falat said that because Wright forbade the team to see outside doctors, she saw another doctor in secret, who told her that her shin would split in two if she continued to train on it.

“My overall feeling was just because it didn’t happen to you, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen,” she said about the petition supporting Wright. “They were those who were Wayne’s favorites on the team. When people minimize the experience of others because it doesn’t match their experience, they allow the cycle of abuse to continue.”

Alyssa Telles-Nolan, 31, who was on the team from 2009 to 2013, was one of the taller gymnasts and said that she was one of the team members singled out by Wright to complete additional cardio and ab training exercises, but that not everyone was required to do them.

“We had to do cardio and abs but only certain girls were required to do them,” she said. “We pretty much knew if you got the assignment to do cardio and abs, then you were one of the fat ones. Some girls had to go twice a week, some girls had to go every day and some girls didn’t have to go at all.”

In an email sent Dec. 14, 2012, and viewed by The Times, Telles-Nolan emailed Wright that she completed 45 minutes of cardio on the elliptical and 300 ab exercises.

Patricia Aubel, 28, another former San Jose State gymnast, also accused Wright of abuse in the 2018 investigation. In an email she sent to several university administrators on March 24, 2018, which was viewed by The Times, she said that, with the exception of his “favorites,” the coach would berate injured gymnasts. Wright also pitted team members against one another by granting them “some amnesty from his abuse” if they turned in their teammates for “doing something wrong,” Aubel wrote.

Wright referred to a group of team members as the “Breakfast Club,” whom he deemed to be “not in shape” and would be required to come in to complete additional cardio exercises early in the morning, according to Aubel’s email.

When Wright wanted to discipline a woman on the team, he would put her in a chair in the middle of a room and force the other gymnasts to run around her; they wouldn’t be allowed to stop, even to the point of vomiting, until the teammate in the chair “showed remorse” and started crying, according to Aubel.

“For me, it’s a lot bigger than one individual coach,” Aubel said. “It shows a problematic pattern that the school has been able to continue to cover up behavior instead of actually making systematic changes where they’re showing they really value and protect athletes.”

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