[Editor’s note: This story was reported and written by ESPN reporters David Hale, D’Arcy Maine and Alex Scarborough.]
The tweet popped up in Tia Kiaku’s timeline on June 2. It was a simple message from the Alabama gymnastics program featuring a plain, black square marked with the word “unity,” part of a nationwidFfe response to bring awareness to social and racial injustice and similar to the hundreds of other tweets posted from college programs across the country. But for Kiaku, this one felt personal.
Alabama gymnastics coach Dana Duckworth preached a mantra of “one heartbeat,” the team’s de facto motto that was part of what lured Kiaku to Tuscaloosa as a walk-on gymnast less than two years earlier. After about six months at Alabama, however, Kiaku said she wasn’t embraced as part of a family. Instead, she said she witnessed teammates using racial slurs, was the subject of a racist joke from an assistant coach and was forced to defend herself against accusations of promiscuous behavior that Duckworth suggested was the result of growing up in a single-parent household. Unity in Alabama’s gymnastics program, Kiaku said, was about conformity.
Kiaku hadn’t spoken publicly about her experiences at Alabama, worried the attention would effectively end any shot she had of joining another team. After seeing Alabama’s tweet, she talked with her mother and texted a few friends and decided she couldn’t remain silent.
@BamaGymnastics Do we really stand together? The program that allowed the Assistant Coach to make a racist “joke” & ask a group of black girls “what is this the back of the bus”,allowed gymnast to say the N word, and much more. You cant stand with us & allow injustices to happen.
— Tia Kiaku 🇨🇩 (@tia_kiaku33) June 2, 2020
As Kiaku’s June 2 tweet circulated, other gymnasts from storied programs such as Florida, Auburn and UCLA shared their own experiences within the sport.
“We’re a small group, and it’s a predominantly white sport,” said Erynne Allen, a Black gymnast at Penn State who reached out to Kiaku following her tweet. “It’s not a national sport. Sometimes a gymnast speaking out, you wonder if people are going to care. [In gymnastics], everyone knows everyone, so it’s scary and hard, but it has to be done.”
The often-insular world of college gymnastics is a sport now reckoning with a culture built around white athletes. And like other student-athletes from other sports across the country, Black gymnasts say they are finding more courage to speak out amid the recent public protests in response to George Floyd’s death while in police custody in May. Thanks in part to the success of Black gymnasts such as Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles, there has been an increase in participation over the past decade, but as of 2019, only 9% of Division I female gymnasts in 2019 were Black, up from 4.5% in 2008, according to the NCAA Demographics Database.
Over the past two months, Kiaku and Allen were among the more than 30 people ESPN interviewed within college gymnastics, including current and former athletes, coaches and administrators. Many were hesitant to talk on the record, out of pressure not to “rock the boat.” But a commonality surfaced among them, at Alabama and beyond: a clear disconnect between Black gymnasts and their predominantly white coaches, who have trended toward recruiting what one source called a “specific type of gymnast.”
Alabama officials said gymnasts were encouraged to speak out about race after Floyd’s death, but ESPN obtained a copy of a group message sent by Duckworth shortly after Kiaku’s social media post, which said, in part, “It is best that our staff, team and parents NOT comment, engage directly or indirectly” regarding Kiaku’s claims.
ESPN confirmed details of Kiaku’s accounts through multiple sources directly associated with her and Alabama gymnastics and documents shared by Alabama through the Freedom of Information Act. The accounts describe a culture of racial insensitivity and a pattern of offensive behavior by Duckworth that resulted in an official reprimand from athletic director Greg Byrne and eventually led Kiaku to leave the program.
ESPN also made several requests to talk to Duckworth and Alabama officials. Those requests were denied, but at Alabama’s request, ESPN emailed specific questions to Duckworth and the athletic department, including opportunities to address specific allegations made by the people we spoke with. Duckworth said she would not answer those questions, but the coach provided ESPN with a statement that read, in part:
“I appreciate the opportunity, but respectfully disagree with the assumptions included in many of the presented questions, which don’t align with the materials [the Title IX investigation documents] that were provided,” Duckworth said in the statement. “We care about every single student-athlete that comes through this program and want each one to have the best experience possible. This was no different for Tia. …
“Looking back, yes, I wish I wouldn’t have worded some things the way I did. That being said, I always had Tia’s well-being in mind. I’ve learned important lessons from this situation, and I apologize to Tia and am sorry that her experience at Alabama was not what she hoped it would be.”
Public comments from current and former Alabama gymnasts largely defended the program and Duckworth, who, along with both of her assistants, is white, while still acknowledging Kiaku’s struggles.
“Although [my experience] was different from hers, I know that she should be heard,” former Alabama gymnast Kiana Winston, who is Black, told ESPN. “My experience was different. I was loved by everyone there. The coaching staff, the support staff, they all made sure I had everything I needed. I proudly wore that script ‘A,’ and I still do today.”
Alabama’s official investigation found just one violation of the university’s diversity guidelines, but Kiaku’s experiences as a Black collegiate gymnast have been echoed by more than a dozen other prominent gymnasts in recent weeks.
“This is happening everywhere,” former Auburn gymnast Kennedy Finister told ESPN. “I thought, if they’re strong enough to come forward and do this, I need to stand behind them, because it happened to me too, and I wanted them to know they weren’t alone.
“If there’s a time to speak up, it’s now.”
It’s ‘just a joke’
Gymnastics had been Tia Kiaku’s outlet, her source of pride, for nearly her entire life.
She started in the sport at 3 years old in Apex, North Carolina, and spent the bulk of her youth working at local gyms. In such a small town, it was difficult to access the expensive private facilities at which most high-level gymnasts train. Heading into her senior season of high school, her mother, Desiree Gregory, enrolled Kiaku at High Point Gymnastics Academy, a top prep program 90 miles away. Kiaku took online academic classes to make the schedule work, while Gregory drove Tia to workouts (a three-hour round-trip trek) six days a week.
In 2017, Kiaku’s floor routine was the best in her region, and she placed ninth overall in the discipline at the Women’s Junior Olympic National Championships. She enrolled at Ball State in 2018 and later qualified for NCAA regionals. After realizing she wouldn’t earn a full scholarship at Ball State, Kiaku decided she would rather finish as a walk-on at a prestigious program such as Alabama.
“She’s strong and independent and knows exactly what she wants and deserves,” said Emery Summey, a gymnast at the University of North Carolina who trained with Kiaku at High Point.
Kiaku transferred to Tuscaloosa for the 2018 fall semester, with College Gym News saying her floor routine was one of the top routines to watch in 2019. She said her early experiences at Alabama were mainly positive and recalled a dream vacation she took to Thailand with her two roommates and other members of the program.
After that trip and at the end of the 2019 spring semester, Kiaku was given a new honor bestowed by her teammates called the Unsung Hero Award. It came with a note: “Tia is always selfless, supportive, and loving. Her positivity can always bring a person up. She is hardworking and persevering in the gym. Tia never complains and is always ready to go when she is needed.”
Behind the scenes, however, Kiaku said she began to notice a pattern of incidents that were difficult to ignore.
During a photo session in January 2019, Kiaku said, Duckworth insisted on taking a picture of Kiaku and another Black gymnast for what the coach called “African-American Appreciation Month,” but Kiaku said the photo was never used. Another time, Kiaku said, a white gymnast was pulled out of a photo opportunity because Duckworth wanted “a minority picture.”
The choice by some programs to draw attention to Black gymnasts in various photographs and activities is not isolated to Alabama. Chris Licameli, an assistant coach at Southeast Missouri State from 2016 to 2019, wrote a blog post about how the program’s then-head coach proposed a “Cowboys and Indians” theme for their Halloween intrasquad meet. Licameli said all of the Black gymnasts were assigned to the “Indians” squad, posing with the white “Cowboys” who were pointing their fingers as if they were guns. The pictures remained on the team’s social media accounts until Licameli’s essay was posted.
“My fear was I’d be labeled as someone that’s hard to work with.” Gymnast Tia Kiaku on her consternation around bringing up concerns of racial insensitivity to Alabama
Kiaku recalled other cultural stereotyping she witnessed at Alabama, including when Duckworth pulled her aside for a conversation about several Black gymnasts who had come through Alabama’s program, saying one former gymnast was “not Black-Black.” Additional sources with close ties to the program confirmed other conversations in which Duckworth referred to gymnasts as “not being raised Black.” In interviews with Alabama’s Title IX office, Duckworth said her statements were simply meant to convey the gymnast was “not raised in a Black environment.”
Kiaku remained largely silent on issues of race, unaware of phrasing such as microaggressions; racial and ethnic grouping terms; or unconscious bias — terminology she would familiarize herself with as the situation worsened.
It was the team’s seniors — all white — who spoke to gymnasts about racial insensitivity during a team retreat in September 2019, according to records obtained from Alabama. Kiaku said she thought the conversation was productive, but issues continued to mount.
According to Kiaku, a teammate referred to hip-hop music played during practice as “your music,” and after Kiaku corrected a white teammate on the pronunciation of a word, the teammate replied, “I don’t tell you how to pronounce your language.”
Kiaku said white teammates routinely sang along with song lyrics that included racial slurs and that the N-word also was used on numerous occasions outside of that context. When another Black teammate specifically told a white teammate not to use the word, the white teammate did anyway, claiming it was “just a joke.” During a vault practice, Kiaku said assistant coach Bill Lorenz approached her and two Black teammates, Makarri Doggette and Sania Mitchell, who were all sitting together and said, “What is this, the back of the bus?” referring to segregationist policies protested during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Kiaku said she never received an apology from Lorenz, but Doggette and Mitchell both told Alabama that Lorenz had apologized to them and the incident “was handled.”
The “just a joke” explanation from teammates and coaches, which Kiaku referenced in her June 2 Twitter post, was a near universal concern raised by Black gymnasts ESPN interviewed, and some of the specific language used was jarringly similar.
Three-time All-American Ashley Lambert, who is Black, shared via social media her experiences at Nebraska, where she said she witnessed racist comments from a teammate as well as her coach at the time, Dan Kendig, who is white. She was a member of the team from 2014 to 2017.
Kytra Hunter and Kennedy Baker, two former University of Florida and U.S. national team gymnasts who are Black, each recalled similar uses of epithets that were later shrugged off as jokes. Hunter, who led the Gators to three national championships and won four individual NCAA titles during her time at the school from 2012 to 2015, complained to the coaching staff, but she later said her concerns “fell on deaf ears.”
Baker, who competed for the Gators from 2015 to 2018, described an incident with teammates in a post earlier this week, as well as recounted what she believed to be subpar treatment from the team trainer.
— Kennedy Baker (@KennBaker15) August 10, 2020
Very on brand for a lot of these college teams to stay silent, kinda like how my own team asked for my silence when they were saying racist things to me, and calling me racist names. You guys can’t put out a statement of support? Like bare minimum?
— Kennedy Baker (@KennBaker15) June 1, 2020
This wasn’t easy, but I am human too. Racism is taught, not born! It’s time for a change ✊🏽✊🏾✊🏿 pic.twitter.com/d6FbrkSsDX
— Kytra Hunter (@KytraHunter) June 5, 2020
At Alabama, Zan Jones, a Black team manager, started a text chain in late September 2019 with Kiaku, Doggette and Mitchell to vent about racism within the program.
The texts, which Kiaku shared with ESPN, suggest members of the gymnastics program used racist language, referred to competing gymnasts as “attractive for black girls” and said Duckworth offered preferential treatment for certain white gymnasts. Jones confirmed he started the chain, but he said he has since resolved his concerns. Neither Mitchell nor Doggette spoke to ESPN for this story, but Doggette posted a statement via Twitter saying she “felt manipulated/pressured to react a certain way being one of the only black women on the team.”
The concerns were never expressed to Duckworth or Alabama’s administration, as Kiaku worried about the “angry Black woman” stereotype.
“My fear was I’d be labeled as someone that’s hard to work with,” Kiaku said.
The team’s seniors called a second gymnasts-only meeting on Oct. 20 — just three days after Kiaku had shoulder surgery. Duckworth later told Alabama’s Title IX office the meeting was called because of claims that athletes from other Alabama sports were being told “the coaches and gymnasts were racist.”
In that meeting, Doggette and Mitchell both expressed concerns about specific incidents, according to Doggette’s statement. Duckworth told Alabama’s Title IX office that Kiaku then escalated the conversation, resulting in “a lot of tears, people were mad, offended and hurt.”
Kiaku said she did not explicitly call any teammates racists but rather explained how their words and actions “had racist connotations.”
According to Duckworth’s notes to university officials, the parent of one white gymnast called to say she was “very upset about their child being accused of being a racist in a team meeting.” Duckworth then took time to visit each of the girls who “were traumatized.” She did not reach out to Kiaku until two days later, when she asked Kiaku to meet in her office.
Kiaku was surprised to find Tiffini Grimes, Alabama’s deputy athletic director in charge of diversity, in the meeting. According to Kiaku, Grimes questioned her about her future and what she hoped to accomplish through gymnastics. Duckworth noted the concerns of teammates who were offended by Kiaku’s words. Kiaku sobbed as Grimes questioned her. The result of the meeting, Kiaku said, was a recommendation from Grimes that she “step away” from the program to collect herself. Gregory said Grimes later apologized for that advice and said she had not been made aware of the full context of the situation in advance. (Alabama denied ESPN’s requests to interview Grimes for this story.)
Kiaku wanted to drop out of school, but Gregory urged her to stay through the end of the semester. Kiaku said she found support at the administrative level, where she was connected with a therapist, but her relationship with Duckworth effectively ended when the coach called her mother just a few days later.
The Oct. 24 conversation, according to Gregory, covered multiple topics: Duckworth said she was concerned about rumors she had heard about Kiaku’s sex life, asked if she had “multiple friends” and wondered what type of image Kiaku was creating; she then pressed Gregory for information on Kiaku’s father, with whom Kiaku does not communicate regularly. Duckworth added it was common for women without a strong father figure to seek out other relationships, and perhaps that could explain Kiaku’s behavior. (ESPN spoke to a separate source close to the program who said Duckworth had a similar conversation with them about single-parent households.)
As part of Alabama’s Title IX investigation, Duckworth said she didn’t have any racist intent when inquiring about Kiaku’s father and that Kiaku had “many things going on that were concerning,” including missing several classes. She also said she heard “Kiaku was sleeping with multiple people” and “was concerned for Kiaku’s well-being,” though she never addressed concerns directly with Kiaku. Duckworth acknowledged “how the comment could be reasonably interpreted and that those comments are not acceptable.”
Duckworth also suggested to school officials that Kiaku instigated unrest among her teammates and might have manipulated the other Black members of the team. The coach said she received a call from an unnamed woman who believed Kiaku was “trouble” and “created a clique.” Duckworth later said she “noticed [the three Black gymnasts] distancing themselves from the team.”
When pressed by Kiaku’s mother on why the concerns of white gymnasts were made a priority and Kiaku’s struggles were deemed a problem, Gregory said Duckworth ended their dialogue. “I have a program to protect and girls to think about,” Gregory said Duckworth told her, “and I’m wasting time talking about things like this when I’m trying to win a national championship.”
Black gymnasts’ experience of alienation
A 90-minute drive from Tuscaloosa, three Black gymnasts at Auburn say they were ostracized because they raised their own team issues with school administrators. Finister, A’Miracal Phillips and Telah Black each told ESPN they frequently felt isolated during team events and were uncomfortable speaking to head coach Jeff Graba or his staff about their experiences. They said Graba, who is white, often tried to downplay racist incidents.
Black, a member of Auburn’s gymnastics team from 2016 to 2018, recalled a holiday party where a teammate gifted her a bag filled with hundreds of acorns. When Black, who wore her hair in a bun, asked what it meant, the teammate responded, “That’s what your head looks like.”
“I remember everyone laughing, but I didn’t think it was funny,” Black told ESPN. “It was just one situation of many where I felt so uneasy, and like I had no support.”
Black, a walk-on, was dismissed from the team after her junior season, and Phillips was suspended. Both said they were blindsided. Black told ESPN that when she asked Graba why she was being dismissed, he said, “If you don’t know, I can’t tell you.” Black later wrote she still does not know why she was dismissed.
The Auburn gymnasts met with associate athletic director David Mines and women’s sports administrator Meredith Jenkins in what they believed were confidential conversations. But shortly after, they said teammates approached Phillips angry that the group had “tried to get [Graba] fired.” Soon after, Mines and Jenkins were fired by Auburn for unrelated reasons. Phillips said the gymnasts never again heard from anyone in athletic administration on the issues and that she was allowed to rejoin the team after sitting through a meeting with teammates, who berated her with accusations. She described her final season at Auburn as “lonely and challenging.”
Auburn declined ESPN’s interview requests for Graba or any member of the athletic department but sent a statement Graba later posted on Twitter, saying he was able to “listen, learn and apologize for where I’ve fallen short as a leader.”
Alabama’s Title IX office took a more active investigative approach, reviewing the gymnastics program from November 2019 through early January 2020 at Kiaku’s request. It found one violation of the school’s harassment policy — Lorenz’s “bus” comment. Lorenz told officials he did not recall the incident, but in a statement released by the school after Kiaku’s tweet, he said it was intended “as a lighthearted comment that ended up having an offensive impact, and I regret that.” And while the school’s review concluded issues of racism within the program were isolated events and “not indicative of a culture of harassment,” it offered several recommendations to improve communication and racial awareness within the program.
As part of the report, Lorenz and Duckworth were both ordered to complete additional diversity training. In her statement to ESPN, Duckworth said she has undergone such training through the university and athletic department, and she has “done a lot of reflecting and self-evaluation.”
“Through training and education, I’ve worked to enhance my awareness of how thoughts, beliefs, words and actions can affect others,” Duckworth said in her written statement to ESPN. “In coordination with our University’s and Department’s strong diversity, equity and inclusion leadership, we’ve also done trainings and had conversations as a team to further enhance the inclusive and supportive culture of our program, where racism and racial insensitivity have never been acceptable.”
Byrne also wrote to Duckworth, citing his overall concerns, saying the ultimate responsibility for the culture of the program was hers. The athletic director added it was her job to report violations and concerns and “not actively engage in any conduct or commit any act that brings [the school] into public disrepute, contempt, embarrassment, scandal or ridicule.”
“We appreciate your positive contributions, but I strongly encourage you to evaluate the seriousness of [these] issues and not allow these actions to continue in the future,” Byrne wrote. “You are expected to make the necessary commitment to adhere to requirements [and] … failure to do so may result in further disciplinary action, up to and including termination.”
Sources who confirmed details of Kiaku’s accounts to ESPN offered serious reservations about sharing their own stories, each asking they not be identified out of a fear of retribution. (In gymnastics, even former gymnasts often rely on college coaches for recommendations or as a source for clients who seek private lessons.)
None of Kiaku’s former teammates explicitly challenged her recounting of events, though several defended the program via statements on social media. In June, the team issued a joint statement to the media to address questions about Kiaku’s social media posts and also appeared in a video produced by the university, but most of the two dozen current and former Alabama gymnasts, coaches and parents of athletes refused to comment when contacted by ESPN.
Duckworth released a statement after Kiaku’s social posts, saying in part, “No one in life is exempt from mistakes, regret, heartache and challenging issues.”
Kiaku called it a hollow statement, doubting much would change until Alabama took a harder look at the pervasive culture within the program.
“Athletes will still be afraid to speak out,” Kiaku said. “Look what happened to me. I’m out of the sport I love.”
The culture clash
There was minimal diversity among Division I women’s gymnastics coaching staffs in 2019. There were only two Black head coaches and, according to the NCAA Demographics Database, only four Black assistants. In that same year, 703 of the athletes they led were white, while 101 were Black (284 were identified under other ethnicities).
Rutgers coach Umme Salim-Beasley is one of the few female coaches of color, and she said the culture issues in the sport run deep.
“There are stereotypes that follow African-American gymnasts, like that they are gymnasts of power, not so much gymnasts of grace,” she said. “I’ve heard that judges like a specific look and they like that elegant European-style gymnastics look, and that gymnasts of color tend to not score as well because they don’t have that particular build.”
Margzetta Frazier has had plenty of success in gymnastics. A former member of the U.S. women’s national team and currently a junior at UCLA, she had a fifth-place finish in the all-around competition at nationals in 2017 and helped lead the Bruins to a third-place team result at the NCAA championships in 2019.
Despite Frazier’s strong résumé and what she describes as an overwhelmingly positive experience at UCLA, she said she has spent the majority of her gymnastics career worried about how she looks.
“I hated my body for the longest time,” said Frazier, who is Black. “I felt the only way for the judges to get past my color was for them to at least see how beautiful and thin my body could look, but it was impossible for me to look like that in a healthy way.”
While she doesn’t think it’s always intentional, Frazier said it speaks to the unconscious bias within the sport. She now views the bias as “a them thing” and doesn’t let it bother her, but it can be nearly impossible to avoid.
“You accept the fact that when you go to a meet, the mesh isn’t going to match your skin tone because you’re not white,” said Allen, from Penn State. “When you order your undergarments for your leotard, they’re not going to match because you’re not white. We have to put what’s called ‘skin tone’ tape we have to put over our athletic tape, and I always laugh because it doesn’t really do much for me.”
It’s not surprising, then, that there is such a disconnect in the sport when it comes to Black gymnasts.
Without the current societal climate, Frazier said, “These women would have been called ‘ignorant’ or ‘loud’ and dismissed without being taken seriously.”
‘If I can help be part of that change … I can sleep better at night’
Alexis Brown shook as she kneeled on the floor of The Pavilion, the home arena for her UC Davis gymnastics team. She had done it before during the national anthem for an away meet, but this felt bigger.
Brown, who was the lone Black gymnast for the Aggies during her time with the program from 2015 to 2018, said the silent protest by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to raise awareness of police brutality and social injustice had inspired her to do the same. But a day later, she said she was called to meet with head coach John Lavallee, who told her she was setting a bad example for children in attendance and disrespected the American flag.
“Racism is not a thing anymore,” Brown recalled Lavallee saying to her. “You’re being overly dramatic.”
Brown continued to kneel throughout the remainder of her career, even raising a fist each time she won an all-around competition or individual apparatus event, but her teammates began to avoid her in meetings and other settings.
“I felt isolated every single day,” Brown said. “At that point, I was crying multiple times a day, crying through beam routines. It was pretty hostile.”
Salim-Beasley said she is aware of incidents when coaches encouraged gymnasts to distance themselves from Black teammates who spoke up about race, labeling them as selfish or having “a bad attitude.”
“They’re almost retaliated against for expressing their opinions,” Salim-Beasley said.
In the wake of Alabama’s ensuing reports to university administration, Kiaku said she felt the same isolation.
Throughout Alabama’s investigation, Kiaku said she could barely force herself out of bed. She said her roommates were cold toward her; coaches brushed by her in the dining hall without a word; she stopped attending practice and team functions, while her Black teammates were now fully supporting the coaching staff; she failed to reply to several requests from Alabama’s administration to help with the investigation; and, after making dean’s list in the spring of 2019, she routinely missed classes. At the conclusion of the fall semester, Alabama’s gymnastics program posted photos to its social media accounts honoring each gymnast. Kiaku was the only team member not included.
“I hated my body for the longest time. I felt the only way for the judges to get past my color was for them to at least see how beautiful and thin my body could look, but it was impossible for me to look like that in a healthy way.” UCLA gymnast Margzetta Frazier on how Black gymnasts fought against body stereotypes in the sport
Exhausted and miserable, Kiaku left campus for winter break in December and returned to North Carolina. At one point, Kiaku said she resorted to cutting herself as a means of relieving stress. Her therapist has since diagnosed her with depression.
“I shouldn’t have been at school at that point,” Kiaku said.
Alabama’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion staff worked on a plan that would allow Kiaku to comfortably return to the team and remedy any conflict. It included training and meetings among Kiaku and coaches, roommates and teammates, but she wasn’t optimistic.
On Jan. 6, Kiaku and her mother met with Duckworth. In the meeting, Gregory said Duckworth again suggested Kiaku had “persuaded” her teammates to bring up racial issues and said Kiaku “has a strong personality.” When pressed about Kiaku’s standing with the team once doctors cleared her to resume workouts, Gregory said Duckworth told them Kiaku would not practice with the team or receive coaching during her rehab training, but Kiaku would be an official team member. Duckworth also offered Kiaku, a communications major, a role working with the media during events.
On that same day, Duckworth also replied to an email from Gregory, who inquired about her daughter’s future with the program. The coach replied by deleting Kiaku’s mother from the recipients and telling Grimes and Alabama’s Title IX office that, “I would not see Tia on our team next season. With the healthy talent we have coming in and returning plus the direction we are taking as a program, Tia may not in fact be talented enough to help Alabama Gymnastics in the future.”
A day later, Kiaku decided not to attend an all-team meeting planned by Alabama’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion office, and she officially withdrew from her classes and left Alabama on Jan. 15.
Since then, Kiaku has had virtually no interaction with her former teammates, many of whom have unfollowed her on social media. She has reached out to nearly 20 schools in hopes of completing one last season of gymnastics, but none has offered her a spot. Kiaku said she would love to find a home at one of the historically Black colleges and universities, but none offers a gymnastics program.
Kiaku said it was never her intention to hurt Alabama’s reputation. She still has friends in Tuscaloosa and is proud she wore an Alabama uniform. But she knew the problems wouldn’t go away until she reckoned with them publicly.
“There was a lot of backlash on social media for Dana and the team, and I know that’s a lot for them,” Kiaku said. “That wasn’t my intention. I put that statement out for me to start my healing process.”
Some gymnasts told ESPN their public statements have had some immediate impact. Allen said her coach at Penn State is instituting regular diversity training, and Florida coach Jenny Rowland said she is working to create lasting change rather than a brief moment of public awareness.
“This is a time for everybody to listen, learn and really look within to see what each person individually can do a better job at,” Rowland said. “My eyes have been opened, and my senses enhanced, and I am committed to keeping that feeling in me for however much longer I’m able to walk on this Earth and to be able to educate and teach others, as well.”
Brown said Lavallee apologized soon after one of her social media posts, and she provided him with a list of action items she believed would help the team culture, including hiring a Black coach.
Black said Graba has talked with each of the three former Auburn gymnasts and discussed a list of changes he hoped to implement to address their concerns.
“I can’t change what happened to me, but I really don’t want to have anyone else go through that,” Finister said. “If I can help be part of that change … I can sleep better at night.”
Inspired by the public commentary, Salim-Beasley and several other coaches put together an NCAA diversity and inclusion task force specifically for gymnastics. The group sent out a survey to every Division I gymnastics coach, looking for feedback on the recent social media posts, and Salim-Beasley was disappointed with many responses.
“It definitely shook me some to get responses where they’re not concerned about the Black Lives Matter movement and just outright saying that, ‘This is a waste of our time.’ It’s disheartening, for sure,” Salim-Beasley said. “So that’s the mentality we’re trying to push to change, especially if you have gymnasts of color on your team. You need to be aware of the situations that they’re living through and how they’re feeling.”
Kiaku said she understands things might not change overnight but that it’s been a relief to publicly share what she experienced, and she has found a sense of closure, improved mental health and support from dozens of other women who also feel empowered to tell their stories.
“I didn’t want my gymnastics career to end so quickly,” Kiaku said. “But if I have to be the guide for other Black gymnasts to feel like they can speak out, I’m totally fine with that.”