As a damning review reveals the ‘systemic’ abuse within the sport in Britain, one mum tells ANNA MOORE why her child’s Olympic dreams descended into a nightmare – and how they found the strength to fight back
One day in the early 2010s, back when her daughter Aasha was 11 and an elite gymnast on the GB team, Nikki Kimpton collected her and a friend who was coming for a sleepover from training and asked what they wanted for dinner. The friend suggested a McDonald’s and asked if they could they get it on the way home.
‘We turned off towards McDonald’s when one of the girls spotted their coach driving behind us,’ says Nikki. ‘There was absolute panic. The girls were saying, ‘She knows we don’t drive this way, she knows where we’re going.’ And I’m thinking, ‘How the hell am I going to explain this?’
This was a coach who had convinced Aasha that she fell three times in a competition because she’d eaten too much at breakfast, a coach who called one of their teammates ‘fattikins’. This was the coach who had told Nikki that she needed to put her gymnast daughter on a diet and make her go running.
McDonald’s was definitely outside the rules, so Nikki drove past it and stopped at a service station instead where she filled up with petrol that she didn’t need.
One day in the early 2010s, back when her daughter Aasha was 11 and an elite gymnast on the GB team, Nikki Kimpton collected her and a friend who was coming for a sleepover from training and asked what they wanted for dinner. The friend suggested a McDonald’s and asked if they could they get it on the way home- but the girls spotted their coach and were upset they would be seen by them
‘The girls were so upset that they wanted to go straight home,’ says Nikki. ‘We all had this fear of being caught going to McDonald’s, knowing there would be an interrogation later. How did we get into this crazy situation?’
A decade on, it’s a question Nikki still asks herself. How did something that had started with her four-year-old daughter skipping to her first gym class lead to a life that sucked up all their time, money and maybe their sanity? A life where Aasha was almost always in some kind of pain, where she was shouted at, belittled and even pushed off the beam if she wasn’t doing a good enough job?
Aasha, now 22, walked away from elite gymnastics at 14. Her former coach has been suspended and Aasha has launched a civil case against the clubs where the coach was based. Their experience is by no means atypical.
Last month saw the release of the Whyte Review, an independent investigation into the allegations of mistreatment of British gymnasts. Its author Anne Whyte QC received hundreds of submissions from gymnasts and their parents claiming physical and emotional abuse by coaches including training while injured, withholding food, water and access to the toilet, physical manhandling, extreme weight management, shouting, swearing and humiliation.
The review found that, as an ‘early specialisation sport’, women’s gymnastics is especially vulnerable
The review found that, as an ‘early specialisation sport’, women’s gymnastics is especially vulnerable. While male gymnasts reach full potential only after puberty, female gymnasts become world-class athletes while still children, hitting senior level at 16. Their coaches are almost ‘surrogate parents’, while their real parents are confined to the outskirts, delivering them to training, managing their medical appointments, expected to follow instructions and stay back.
How British gymnastics reached breaking point
24 June 2020
The Netflix documentary Athlete A is released, which tells the story of the investigation into abuse within USA Gymnastics.
10 July 2020
The British Athletes Commission chair calls for a ‘thoroughly independent’ review after a number of gymnasts make allegations about mistreatment.
25 August 2020
The Whyte Review, led by Anne Whyte, begins. It is tasked with assessing whether the wellbeing of gymnasts has been at the centre of British Gymnastics.
9 October 2020
The evidence-gathering stage closes, with more than 400 submissions. During the period the review covered, British Gymnastics received around 3,800 complaints.
16 June 2022
The review is published. Noting physical and emotional abuse within the sport were ‘systemic’, it recommends mandatory safeguarding training for all club owners.
This was certainly the case for Nikki, 52, who works as a bookings officer for a sports company. She was a single mother of three living in North London when Aasha, her youngest, started at the local gymnastics club that her elder brother enjoyed. The girls’ group instructor was Ukrainian and had trained Olympians in the Soviet Union. He seized on Aasha’s potential. She seemed to have everything – flexibility, strength, balance, grace. ‘When Aasha was five he told me she could be Britain’s first Olympic champion – unless Beth Tweddle beat her to it,’ says Nikki.
Ironically, Nikki moved Aasha to two different clubs in search of the healthiest environment for her daughter. In that first club, Nikki felt that all the focus was on Aasha and it was too much pressure. In the next, Nikki was worried by the shouting she heard from coaches. (‘Do I look like I want to see your f***ing fat a*se flying at me like that?’) Eventually, she found a coach who was young and dynamic and trained a tight-knit group of girls who all seemed to love her. Soon, Aasha was leaving school early to train up to 24 hours a week.
‘It creeps up as you move through the ranks,’ says Nikki. ‘Very quickly, your daughter is being classed as an ‘elite gymnast’ from a very young age. At nine, they select the GB team so they’re getting GB kit.
‘You feel very special,’ she continues. ‘You feel good when your child achieves and you’re told great things about her. Aasha enjoyed it so I wanted to facilitate what she has. By the time she was ten or 11, the Olympics were being talked about.’
Gymnastics became all-consuming. ‘My time with Aasha was collecting her from school and driving her to training, then she would spend four hours in the gym and I’d drive her home, by which time she would be too tired to talk,’ says Nikki. ‘She’d eat and go to bed.’ Her relationship with her older children suffered. ‘They stayed at home while we were at training, and when Aasha had competitions round the country, they’d stay with friends. They wouldn’t want me to share how it has impacted them but it hasn’t been good. Aasha’s brother used to call her the golden child.’
Financially, it was also difficult. ‘Everything went into Aasha’s sport,’ says Nikki. ‘The club fees, the travel, the leotards, the competition fees, the hotels. It probably cost £4,000 a year – for something my other two children were excluded from.’
Yet it seemed worth it. ‘Aasha truly loved her coach at first,’ says Nikki. After just six weeks with her, Aasha was placed sixth in the nationals. The next year, she was second. At the same time, they were adjusting to this strange new world.
Aasha aged ten, competing in the Southeast Regional Championships, 2010.
‘Normal rules go out of the window,’ says Nikki. ‘You wouldn’t send your child to school if she was vomiting – but you would send her to the gym. [One parent said their club had a bucket just for this purpose.] In your old life, you’d write a note if your child had a swollen ankle to excuse her from PE. Now your child trains even if she has been in A&E the night before.
‘You learn from other parents how to behave,’ she continues. ‘You’re told about parents who complained and their child was taken off the team. By then, your child has no other life, no friends, no identity outside gymnastics. She has given years of her childhood. You don’t want her to lose everything because you did the wrong thing.’
Nikki still doesn’t know quite what went on in Aasha’s training sessions. Aasha is only beginning to tell her now, in dribs and drabs. She knows that Aasha still struggles around eating so they have no scales in the house. She knows the coach once shouted at Aasha to overdose on painkillers for all she cared. She knows that when Aasha broke her foot after landing badly from a somersault that she’d been forced to do while injured, her coach just threw a phone at her and told her to call her mum for a ride home.
Aasha began complaining of stomach aches and migraines. She was having nightmares. Then she came out of training one day and told Nikki she’d been made to spend around an hour alone in a painful raised splits position because she’d been a bit stiff.
Aasha at the 2014 British Championships
Aasha tried other clubs, but at 14 she decided she’d had enough of gymnastics. ‘It was her choice and although I was very supportive, I was devastated,’ says Nikki. ‘As a parent, my identity had been wrapped up in gymnastics for ten years. I’d had no time to do anything outside the sport. My social life, all my focus, everything had literally gone overnight. It felt like grief. There were times I just burst into tears, although I tried to keep it from Aasha.’
In fact, Aasha moved on, refocused on school work and new friends. It was Nikki who found herself shell-shocked. What had the past ten years been about? How had she allowed her family to sacrifice so much? She co-formed a group, Gymnast Parent Alliance, for other parents asking the same questions and she is now working on a PhD which examines the role of parents in recognising and reporting gymnast abuse.
‘I felt like the most horrendous parent in the world; I’d allowed awful things to happen to my child,’ says Nikki. ‘Hearing so many other parents having exactly the same experiences didn’t lessen the guilt, but it made me feel less alone.’
In 2017, the coach was suspended from practice and is still under investigation by British Gymnastics. There was also a police investigation which closed without charge due to ‘insufficient evidence’.
Aasha is now a trainee solicitor with an international law firm and believes her gymnastics career helped build her rock-solid work ethic. At the same time, she knows that years of hearing that she was ‘weak’ and ‘lazy’ has left a deeper mark. She still lives at home but her bedroom shows no trace of her ten years as an elite gymnast – ‘no photos, no medals, no trophies. It’s as if it never happened,’ says Nikki.
On Nikki’s laptop, though, are scores of videos which show a small girl spinning and somersaulting. Nikki knows each one by heart but there’s only one she looks at now.
‘It’s a video I watch when I’m really down,’ she says. ‘Aasha was 11 and she’d had a tough year. She had come third and it’s one of the few times I’ve seen her show true joy. People talk about rollercoaster rides with highs and lows but if you asked Aasha, she’d probably say that 90 per cent of her gymnastic memories are lows. I can look at her in that video and think, ‘Yeah! On that day, at that time, she was happy.’