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

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

Hawley Almstedt, who was a member of the Spartans women’s gymnastics team from 1994 to 1998, wrote a “statement of appreciation” for Wright after he was verbally abused by a former gymnast.

“For all the wins and losses, broken records and conference championships, as we look back on our tenure at SJSU Gymnastics, none of us can think of this gymnastics family without having a sense of appreciation for Wayne Wright,” Almstedt wrote in the petition, which was signed by over 70 people on Monday morning. “Even with a brief absence from the team, Wayne has been the foundation of SJSU Gymnastics since 1988.”

Wright served as a women’s gymnastics coach until 2018, when he resigned after being accused by 25 current and former gymnasts of verbal abuse, body shaming, manipulative behavior, threats, taking away scholarships, and preventing athletes from becoming a Coaches treated or pursued treatment plans and interfered with athletes’ academic commitments, according to a May 2018 university investigative report obtained by The Times at the request of the California Public Records Act.

Wright left San Jose State on July 9, 2018, and agreed not to seek employment or volunteer at the school in the future, according to a university spokesman.

However, the allegations were not made public and Wright’s departure was announced as a resignation in an online post praising his achievements without mentioning the investigation into his conduct. The online post has been removed. Wright was also featured in a since-deleted San Jose State Gymnastics Program Twitter post earlier this year, praising him for his contributions, which a university spokesman called a “mistake.”

Wright did not respond to multiple requests for comment Monday. The abuse allegations emerged in the wake of an investigation into former director of sports medicine Scott Shaw, who has been accused of sexual assault by more than a dozen athletes.

Amy LeClair, a former San Jose State gymnast who was among the women who settled a federal lawsuit against the school over claims against Shaw in November, accused Wright of emotional abuse in a newspaper article last month.

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

“He saved our program,” she said. “He was great at raising funds and involving alumni. He was an excellent spotter and always looked out for us.”

Cianci said she doesn’t want to ignore what others may have experienced, but she has nothing but positive things to say about Wright.

“I was surprised,” she said. “I read through everything and I was like, ‘Wow, that wasn’t my experience at all.'”

LeClair, 28, who was on the gymnastics team from 2012 to 2016, said she and her teammates suffered abuse from Wright, including shouting, insults, humiliation, being forced to train while injured and being forbidden from speaking to her parents or seeking medical treatment to search without Wright’s permission.

LeClair wasn’t surprised that some of her fellow gymnasts had signed the acknowledgment letter because she said Wright often played favorites and many of the signers were team captains and their parents or employees who witnessed the abuse but did nothing about it.

“The backlash confirms the abuse,” she said. “Wayne tested his behavior on everyone and some people, he just decided they were good enough to be his darlings and other girls, he decided they weren’t. The favorites formed the most lineups, they were willing to wield power over the other girls and at the end of the day they were willing to support him even when they saw he was wrong.”

LeClair said she spoke about the abuse of the “underdogs” on the team, who were abused by Wright.

“I’m here for the girls with eating disorders, depression or suicidal thoughts who had Wayne’s voice in their head telling them they were unimportant and small,” she said. “I’m there for the girls he left aside in training, otherwise he wouldn’t let him march with the team because they weren’t ‘good enough’.”

Cianci disagreed that Wright was playing favorites, but said having been a coach herself, she could understand if anyone would appreciate an athlete’s “hardworking attitude” toward someone else.

“I don’t like it when someone’s name gets tarnished,” she added. “It was important to me to share my feelings.”

Allison Falat, LeClair’s twin sister, who was also on the gymnastics team, said she continued to train despite suffering a stress fracture in her tibia because she feared being disciplined by Wright. Falat said that because Wright forbade the team from seeing outside doctors, she secretly went to see another doctor, who told her her shin would break in two if she continued training on it.

“My general feeling was just because it didn’t happen to you doesn’t mean it didn’t happen,” she said of the petition in support of Wright. “Those 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.”

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, and seen by The Times, she said the coach would berate injured gymnasts with the exception of his “favorites.” Wright also pitted team members against each other by granting them “some amnesty from his abuse” if they reported their teammates for “something wrong,” Aubel wrote.

Wright referred to a group of team members as the “Breakfast Club” whom he considered “out of shape” and who, according to Aubel’s email, had to come in early in the morning to do extra cardio.

When Wright wanted to discipline a woman on the team, he would put her in a chair in the middle of the room and force the other gymnasts to run around her. They weren’t 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 much bigger than a single coach,” said Aubel. “It shows a problematic pattern that the school has been able to continue to cover up the behavior rather than actually making systematic changes where they show they genuinely value and protect athletes.” Former San Jose State gymnasts, trainers stand behind ex-coach accused of emotional abuse

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