They were at the top of their game, but these elite child athletes had a dark secret

They were at the top of their game, elite child athletes in the hyper-competitive world of gymnastics. But behind the scenes, these women say they were subjected to terrible physical and emotional abuse.

Jen Smith was once an Olympic athlete, but these days she doesn’t want to talk about it.

The talented gymnast had achieved the dizzying heights of Olympic competition by the age of 16, when she represented Australia at the Atlanta games.

But it’s no source of pride for Jen, now 41.

Jen Smith says looking back on the past causes pain.(

ABC News: Andrew O’Connor


“I don’t like it when someone introduce[s] me as an Olympian because I don’t know where to take that conversation,” Ms Smith says. 

“I feel it puts me in an awkward spot.

“It should be something that I’m proud of but I would rather my identity not be wrapped up with that because it was just, it was not a good time.”

Gymnastics Odyssey - JenSmith -  pose arm in the air
Jen Smith says her experiences left her with ongoing trauma.(

Supplied: Jen Smith


Gymnastics Odyssey JenSmith-on bar legs above head
Jen Smith trained up to 37 hours a week as a 12-year-old.

She’s not the only one struggling to embrace her past as an elite child gymnast.

Joni Whale was also an outstanding junior athlete whose flair for gymnastics saw her represent Australia on the international stage.

But like Jen, she would prefer to forget than celebrate her past achievements.

Woman with dark hair in pink top standing at doorway looking to camera
Joni Whale finds it difficult to talk about her time as an elite gymnast.(

ABC News: Andrew O’Connor


“When people discover what I did in representing my country, they’re so eager to talk about it and think it must have been the coolest experience ever in the whole wide world,” Ms Whale says.

“But for me, it’s not.

“It’s very much a time of pain. And very, very [humiliating].”

Both women were part of the Western Australian Institute of Sport (WAIS) elite gymnastics programme which aimed to progress young athletes considered capable of competing at the highest levels of the sport.

Now they are among a group of 20 former WAIS gymnasts who have signed a joint submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s review of gymnastics culture in Australia currently underway

A group of young girls in leotards posing in front of gym apparatus.
The young gymnasts who were part of the WA Institute of Sport’s elite gymnastics programme in 1996 were considered the best in the state.(



The women make serious allegations in their submission to the AHRC about training practices at WAIS, and what they say was its prevailing culture which included sustained physical, emotional and psychological abuse by some of their coaches.

They say they have spent the rest of their lives trying to deal with it.

From Olympic dream to bitter reality

Jen Smith spent more than a decade of her childhood training for Olympic glory.

At 16, she reached the pinnacle of success by competing at the 1996 Atlanta Games.

But more than two decades on, Ms Smith reflects on her experience as an Olympic gymnast with bitter resentment.

The relentless physical and mental abuse she says was inflicted on her has left her with ongoing physical and psychological challenges, making all of her achievements seem worthless.

A diet of crackers

Diary entries recorded by the 16-year-old at the Atlanta Games paint a picture of a deeply unhappy child longing for the event to be over.

Close up of handwritten lines in a diary
Jen Smith recorded her experiences as a child gymnast in her diary. (

ABC News: Robert Koenig-Luck


She says there was an unhealthy focus on weight.

She recently revealed on social media her typical diet in the lead-up to the games.

“I remember training 6.5 hours a day, having a 250ml fruit box after morning training, 4 dry SAOs for lunch, 10 Jatz crackers before afternoon training, an apple on the way home and then dinner, because the focus was on weight, not nutrition,” she posted.

Ironically, Ms Smith was used in an advertisement by the WA Health Department at the time to promote healthy eating.

A girl eating from a bowl in a healthy eating ad.
Jen Smith appeared in a Health Department healthy eating advertisement, despite being on a restrictive diet that consisted mainly of crackers at the time. (

ABC News: Robert Koenig-Luck


She said the focus on her weight has resulted in a lifelong addiction to exercise and an ongoing battle with bulimia.

“[I] haven’t exercised today so that’s making me feel quite disjointed in my conversation.”

A young woman flanked by her parents.
Jen Smith had hoped to compete in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, but injury meant she was only able to particpate in the torch relay.(

Supplied: Jen Smith


Shamed for being late

She has lasting memories of being yelled at, shamed and punished, often for circumstances beyond her control, such as being late to training.

“We were children who relied on our parents for transport,” she recalls.

“We would be punished with rope climbs and other strength exercises.” 

A young woman curled on a gymnastics mat hiding her face
Jen Smith lies injured on a mat during the trials for the Sydney Olympics.(

Supplied: Fox News


After retiring from the sport in 2000 when she injured herself during trials for the Sydney Olympics, Ms Smith then pursued competitive boxing. 

She completed her PhD in 2011 and now works as a research fellow at the Centre for Clinical Research in Emergency Medicine at Royal Perth Hospital.

Woman with blonde hair and glasses seated, looking at camera with computer monitor in background.
Jen Smith says her recovery is ongoing.(

ABC News: Andrew O’Connor


Ms Smith has had repeated bouts of psychotherapy over the years to help her process her gymnastics experience, but admits she has a lot more work to do.

“I haven’t even I haven’t touched the surface,” she says.

“Life is … I was going to say life is a struggle.

“Life isn’t a struggle, but I am tired of living this life.”

‘The emotional and physical abuse of children’

Ann-Maree Vallence is also receiving psychological help as a result of her experience as an elite child gymnast.

Now a senior research fellow in neuroscience, she has received multiple awards for her work, but her career success hasn’t allowed her to erase the memories of what she says happened to her as a child.

Ann-Maree Vallence says she has blocked out a lot of her memories of her time at WAIS.(

ABC News: Phil Hemingway


Ms Vallence was just seven years old when she began the elite gymnast program at WAIS in 1991, and was soon competing at state, national and international levels.

Her overarching memories of that time are of “being yelled at… being scared of being yelled at… and doing anything possible not to get yelled at.”

While she initially blocked out a lot of her experiences from her WAIS days, 15 years after quitting the sport a traumatic incident led to her seeing a psychologist.

Woman with dark hair and glasses looking to camera standing in dimly lit corridor.
Dr Ann Maree-Vallence has spent years in therapy as a result of her experiences as an elite child gymnast.(

ABC News: Andrew O’Connor


She has since spent a lot of time in therapy,  processing the treatment she received training at the institute.

“The culture of gymnastics at WAIS supported the emotional and physical abuse of children,” she says in her submission.

A young Anne-Maree Vallence in her gymnastic costume.
Ann-Maree Vallence says the pressure from her coaches was relentless and cruel.(

ABC News: Phil Hemingway


She says her physical appearance, intelligence and character were attacked on a daily basis during her entire nine years at WAIS.

“I was called stupid, I was negatively compared to other gymnasts and I was laughed at by [my coaches].”

And she says the repercussions are hard to shake to this day.

Woman with dark hair and glasses watching medical scan conducted on young man in lab
Ann-Maree Vallence is now a neuroscientist at Murdoch University.(

ABC News: Andrew O’Connor 


“I find that I’m a real people pleaser and I’m very obedient. I do, kind of, whatever I’m told, and that’s in personal relationships and friendships and … in work settings as well.

“I never say no really.”

‘You’re just weak’

Ms Vallence says WAIS coaches repeatedly failed to investigate athletes’ injuries.

During one three-week US competition, she injured her hand within days.

The injury was so bad she could not even tie her hair into a ponytail.

“There was no care or sympathy from the coaches,” she says.

“I was just yelled at for crying and complaining about my hand.”

When she returned to Perth two weeks later, a scan revealed a broken bone. 

She says the prevailing attitude at WAIS was that “only babies cry” about injuries.

A mantlepiece holding medals on ribbons, photos and newspaper clippings
Ann-Maree Vallence won many gymnastic medals and awards.(

ABC News: Phil Hemingway


A newspaper clipping on a desk alongside several medals.
Ann-Maree says she was forced to compete through the pain of injury and was shamed if she complained.(

ABC News: Phil Hemingway


“You would be sent out of the gym, sometimes [for crying],” she says. 

“You would just be yelled at and kind of lectured about how all of the best gymnasts in the world train through pain and you’re just weak.”

Ms Vallence says her self-worth was very low until relatively recently.

“It’s really only been in the last few years … that I have felt that I’m able to change as a person and kind of feel better about myself and realise that it’s not just my achievements that are worthwhile, but me as a person,” she says.

Memories still distressing

More than 25 years after abandoning the elite gymnastics program while she was the reigning state champion, Joni Whale is still deeply traumatised by what she says she experienced at WAIS.

The scars are so deep that sometimes carrying out even the most basic of tasks overwhelms her, fearing whatever she does won’t be good enough.

Ms Whale prefers the presence of animals to people because of the unconditional love they give. 

Woman with dark hair holding small dog
Joni Whale prefers the company of animals to humans.(

ABC News: Andrew O’Connor


Talking about her past gymnastic success continues to be harrowing.

“[It] makes me very nervous [and] makes me… sink back into myself because it brings back memories of just feeling completely worthless and useless,” she says.

Ms Whale says when she entered the WAIS program she was a bright and bubbly child. 

Black and white picture of a young gymnast balancing on her hands on a beam.
Gymnast Joni Whale says she was contantly yelled at and accused of faking her injuries.(

Supplied: Joni Whale


“I had a cheeky smile… I had a spark in my eyes, I was just a bright, positive person,” she says.

“But that was railroaded out of me very quickly.

“Within two years I was yelled at on a daily basis. I was called a baby. I was called immature. I was accused of faking my injuries.”

A young girl in a pink leotard doing the splits.
Joni Whale represented Australia as a child athlete.(

Supplied: Joni Whale


Ms Whale has been in and out of therapy since she was 15, and is seeking the services of a specialist trauma counsellor on the recommendation of her GP to further help her recovery.

‘I am in pain most days’

Galvanising the group is Julia Murcia, who began training under the WAIS gymnastics program as a seven-year-old in 1990.

The toll the sport took on her body is still apparent.

Woman with blonde hair looking to camera with black background
Julia Murcia began thinking about her past after watching the Netflix documentary Athlete A.(

ABC News: Andrew O’Connor


She visits three different gyms five times a week to keep the pain in check and worries about how her body will cope as she ages.

“The pain has affected my work for as long as I can remember,” Ms Murcia says.

“I am in pain most days from my back and wrists.

“My bones crack and pop uncontrollably, to the point it’s embarrassing in public.”

Julia Murcia as a young gymnast
Julia Murcia began at WAIS when she was just seven, and suffers pain most days as a result of her time as a gymnast.(

Supplied: Simon Cowling


She first began thinking about her experiences at the institute after stumbling across a blog post by Jen Smith five years ago, detailing her time as an elite gymnast.

But it was after watching the Netflix documentary Athlete A last year — which highlighted the toxic culture of elite gymnastics in the USA — that she reached out to her former gymnastics colleagues.

There is no suggestion from Ms Murcia, Ms Vallence, Ms Smith, Ms Whale or any of the women who are part of the submission that they were sexually abused.

Woman with blonde hair on weight machine under instruction from male trainer
Julia Murcia visits the gym multiple times a week to try to keep her pain in check.(

ABC News: Andrew O’Connor


Ms Murcia established the Gymnast Alliance Australia group to raise awareness of allegations of physical and emotional abuse in gymnastics and to seek acknowledgement of past wrongs.

The group’s Facebook page provides a safe space for former gymnasts to share their stories and provide support to one another.

Ms Murcia posts excerpts from other gymnasts’ AHRC submissions anonymously, with their permission.

“You have to be good at gymnastics, you are too stupid to do anything else, you could only get a job at McDonald’s,” one excerpt said.

Coaches await WAIS investigation outcome

The ABC approached the coaches named by the women in their submissions.

A modern building.
Current and former coaches say the WA Institute of Sport is handling the complaints.(

ABC News: Jon Sambell


Jo Richards remains at WAIS and is currently a performance team director.

“Given WAIS has commissioned SIA to undertake an independent review of the athlete allegations and I am a current employee of WAIS, it is not appropriate for me to comment on the allegations or the program at this time,” she said in a statement.

Liz Chetkovich was head of the WAIS gymnastics program.

In a statement she said: “It would be inappropriate for me to comment at this time as WAIS has engaged Sport Integrity Australia to undertake an independent review of the allegations and I wish to respect this process.

“I am proud of my contribution to the sport of gymnastics and if asked to contribute to the review will willingly do so.”

‘Everybody respected each other’

Nikolai Lapchine, who is now retired, spent many years as a coach at WAIS.

He says language and cultural barriers make it difficult for him to understand what the women are alleging.

However, he describes the atmosphere during the years the women refer to as “perfect”.

“Everybody respected each other, everybody helped each other,” he says.

A man in headshot with framed awards on a wall beind him.
Fomrmer WAIS gymnastics coach Nikolai Lapchine says the atmosphere was ‘perfect’ during his time as a coach at the institute.(

ABC News: Samia O’Keefe


“If something was happening in the program between coach or gymnast or parent [then] straight away parents would come in to [see] me or Jo or Liz and we’d fix this problem.”
He denies calling gymnasts stupid, but says he would have used the phrase “stupid job” if he wasn’t happy with the standard to which a gymnast performed.
He also denies he prevented gymnasts from seeking or receiving medical treatment if injured, saying medical support staff were readily available to gymnasts.
“Maybe if skin [was torn] they tape it and continue… that’s normal,” he says.
Mr Lapchine said he was proud of his achievements and points to numerous awards and thank you cards as evidence the affection was mutual.
“Ninety per cent of parents and athletes say only positive things about me,” he says.

Thank you cards arranged face-up on a table.
Mr Lapchine says the overwhelming majority of parents and gymnasts were very happy with his performance as coach.(

ABC News: Samia O’Keefe


‘Firm, fair and challenging’

Trudi Nurse participated in the WAIS elite gymnast program as an athlete and later as a coach.

Ms Nurse said she had an amazing experience working with Ms Chetkovich, describing the physical and mental environment as “firm, fair and challenging.” 

She says she never witnessed the children being punished for being late to training, nor heard them called the names they allege including “pathetic”, “stupid” or “lazy”.

“Not those words specifically no. But you know, when you’re training someone, you might inference that they can work harder, etcetera. 

“And yes you’re definitely going to [urge them to] get into training on time, you know, those sorts of things.

“But to the kind of language you’re talking about, it’s not something I’ve experienced.”

Waiting for a response

While the Australian Human Rights Commission review has Gymnastics Australia as its focus, Ms Murcia’s attention and anger is directed towards WAIS. 

She is also seeking a review of WAIS policies and practices to ensure adequate protection of children and young adults training at the institute.

In October, Ms Murcia, Ms Smith, Ms Vallence and a fourth former gymnast attended a meeting with WAIS chief executive Steve Lawrence and board member Fiona Pixley and received a personal apology from the pair, which Mr Lawrence says was given because the women were “visibly emotionally distressed”.

Medals, ribbons and certificates laid out on a table.
The women want to ensure no other young athlete is subjected to the treatment had to endure.(

ABC News: Robert Koenig-Luck


“Steve wrote us an email that evening saying that WAIS would apologise, and he understands what we went through. So we walked away from that feeling like we’d been heard,” Ms Murcia says.

“Then pretty soon after that we got a letter from the Chair [of WAIS] that sort of seemed to be really backflipping on that initial meeting saying … they needed to do some broader fact finding. 

“And since then, I feel like overall WAIS has been very backwards, or certainly not modern, in the way that they’ve dealt with us as people that have been through trauma.

WAIS has since sought independent legal advice and engaged Sport Integrity Australia [SIA] to “undertake an independent review and assessment of the historical complaints and issues raised by the group”, though it has yet to begin.

Meanwhile, fed up with waiting, Ms Murcia has lobbied a number of Ministers including Premier Mark McGowan, who is patron of WAIS, to aid in her quest for an apology.

A government spokesperson described the womens’ allegations as “extremely concerning”.

“Failure to protect children from harm, abuse or neglect is completely unacceptable and such allegations are taken very seriously by the State Government and need to be fully investigated and understood,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

“The State Government supports WAIS requesting an independent investigation into these allegations.”

Earlier this week Ms Murcia sent an email to every current WAIS board member, asking for them to act.

Concerns taken seriously: WAIS

The Western Australian Institute of Sport shut down its women’s artistic gymnastics program at the end of 2016 after 28 years, following a review that prioritised WA’s contribution “to Australia’s international sporting success”.

It was acknowledged at the time that a dip in the performance of its athletes had contributed to its demise.

Current WAIS chief executive Steve Lawrence was present throughout that time, having been with the organisation for 36 years. 

He says he had “low level/intermittent interaction” with the elite gymnastics program on occasion as a sports scientist.

Headshot of a man
Steve Lawrence says WAIS takes the gymnasts’ concerns seriously.(

ABC News: Jon Sambell


But he did not witness any behaviour at the time that he thought was inappropriate. 

“The training I witnessed was highly disciplined and challenging, as you would expect in high-performance sport,” Mr Lawrence says.

WAIS takes the women’s allegations seriously, he says.

“[Fiona Pixley and I] offered our support and reassured the group that their concerns would be treated with the utmost respect and seriousness by us and by the board,” Mr Lawrence says.

Leotards hanging in a change room
Steve Lawrence says the WAIS gymnastics programme was highly disciplined and challenging.(

ABC News: Phil Hemingway


A leotard hangs over a locker door.
WAIS closed its gymnastics programme in 2016.(

ABC News: Phil Hemingway


A tracksuit and leotard hanging on hooks.
The WA Institute of Sport has sought legal advice about the womens’ allegations.(

ABC News: Phil Hemingway


Having supported Gymnastics Australia’s cultural review of the sport, he believes it’s pertinent to wait for the report to determine how the sport can best address these issues in moving forward.

“Additionally, we advised the group that before WAIS could provide an appropriate response to their allegations there must be a process that provides procedural fairness in assessment of their claims,” he says.

Younger gymnast says issues remain

Georgia Simpson, 26, has never met Julia Logan, Joni Whale, Jen Smith or Ann-Maree Vallence. 

She trained at WAIS in some instances more than a decade after they’d left.

Yet many of her complaints are identical.

A girl doing a mid-air high kick in a gymnasium.
Georgia Simpson training at the WA Institute of Sport in Perth. Pic date unknown.(



A girl practising gymnastics on a high beam
Georgia Simpson wants her experiences acknowledged.(



A girl with arms raised on a balance beam.
Georgia Simpson training at the WA Institute of Sport in Perth. (



A gymnast does mid-air splits in a gymnasium.
Georgia Simpson says she was scared of her coaches at the WA Institute of Sport.(



This includes being yelled at and being ridiculed for being scared to perform a skill.

Ms Simpson is at pains to stress she does not want to demonise or vilify any one person, and says an apology from WAIS isn’t as important as the organisation acknowledging her “lived experience”.

“I’m not going to say no to an apology … but for me, it’s more … [that] there are stories in this world of gymnastics that were never heard and [that] involves honesty and transparency.”

Young woman standing on path in shade with trees in background
Georgia Simpson wants the culture of gymnastics to change.(

ABC News: Andrew O’Connor


Her focus is on helping the sport’s culture to evolve.

“I’m really aware that things need to change,” she says.

“Back then I was young, not really in a place where I felt I could go there, and or even feel like it would have maybe an impact.

“So it feels like an opportunity to just shed light on some shadows that exist and existed.”

‘You risk being humiliated all over again’

As Julia Murcia, Jen Smith, Ann-Maree Vallence and Joni Whale prepare to share their stories, they admit they’re terrified of how people will react.

For some of them, the first their families will know about their experience is when they read it here.

The four women stand in front of some seating stands in a stadium.
The women say acknowledgement and an apology from WAIS are vital for their healing. (

ABC News: Kenith Png


Ms Whale says that while she is terrified of speaking out, she hopes it will bring change.

“It’s hard putting yourself out there and being vulnerable again,” she says.

“Because it takes you right back there to [thinking] ‘well who’s going to believe me, I was a child?’

“And you risk being humiliated all over again, by people in a position of authority.”

But Ms Vallence says it helps that other gymnasts are sharing their stories.

“It makes it easier to realise that we’re not exaggerating,” she said.


  • Reporter: Samia O’Keefe
  • Photos: Andrew O’Connor, Robert Koenig-luck, Phil Hemingway, Jon Sambell, Kennith Png
  • Video editing: Aran Hart and Claire Borrello
  • Digital producer: Andrea Mayes

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