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‘The whole culture needs to change:’ Sarnia women fighting to end abuse in sport

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Editors note: This story contains reference to physical, emotional and sexual abuse, and may be disturbing to some readers. A list of resources can be found below.

Tara Jeffrey

A call to action

A pair of Sarnia women helped lead the charge in Ottawa this week as calls grow louder for a national inquiry into the abuse of Canadian athletes.

Mel Hunt speaks at a news conference in Ottawa this week.

“I’m a bit shaky because I feel very honoured to be here and finally be able to use my voice,” Melanie Hunt said during a news conference in Ottawa, alongside fellow members of Gymnasts for Change Canada — an organization dedicated to eradicating child abuse in sport.

They were in parliament to testify as hearings got underway on the safety of women and girls in sport — a study launched by the Standing Committee on the Status of Women — and calling on the federal government to launch a national judicial inquiry into the issue.

“A judicial inquiry is so needed for athletes like all of us up here who left the sport broken instead of enriched and more whole as humans beings,” said Hunt, 35, who is speaking out about the abuse she says she suffered as a young gymnast in Sarnia. “We were participating in a system that cared more about the athlete and less about the human experience and that needs to change.”

Sarnia’s Mel Hunt and Abby Spadafora in Ottawa this week, along with fellow members of Gymnasts for Change Canada. (Submitted photo)

Hunt was joined in Ottawa by fellow Sarnian and former gymnast Abby Spadafora; their stories have earned national attention this year after breaking their silence on the physical, emotional and sexual abuse they say they endured as elite athletes at Bluewater Gymnastics. The pair, both members of Gymnasts for Change Canada, were featured in a recent TSN/W5 documentary “Broken: Inside the Toxic Culture of Canadian Gymnastics.”

“I think this is a real watershed moment for sport — specifically gymnastics,” Gymnasts for Change Canada co-founder Kim Shore said at the news conference. “The profoundly vulnerable little humans that we put into sport as children need our protection; every adult needs to come together in Canada when it comes to sport to ensure that our children are safe.”

More than 600 Canadian gymnasts have signed an open letter, penned by Gymnasts for Change, addressed to Pascale St. Onge, Minister for Sport, calling on the Canadian government to initiate “an independent, judicial investigation to address the toxic culture and rampant child abuse entrenched in Canadian gymnastics.”

It cites sexual assault by coaches, sexual grooming, verbal, emotional and physical abuse, refusal of medical treatment, body shaming and more.

“Let me be very clear; what we’re discussing today is not a sport crisis; it is a human rights crisis happening in sport,” Shore said at the hearings. “Every child in Canada deserves to enjoy sport and grow up to be a better person because of their sport experience, not despite it.

“I ask this committee: how can we continue to hear these stories and not act?”

Surviving Bluewater

Melanie Hunt and Abby Spadafora

Melanie Hunt and Abby Spadafora (formerly Melanie Rocca and Abby Pearson) are part of a club they never asked to join: The Bluewater Survivors.

The group is comprised of 11 former gymnasts who say they were abused by coaches Dave and Liz Brubaker.

“We are the core group of athletes who, in 2019, pushed for a third-party investigation regarding misconduct at the hands of Dave and Liz Brubaker,” the group writes on its website, bluewatersurvivors.ca, signed by Hunt, Spadafora, April Nicholls, Alheli Picazo, Alysia Topol, Athlete A, Athlete B, Athlete H, Athlete I, Athlete K and Athlete K.

“Ten of the 11 survivors who testified in the 2020 disciplinary procedure involving the Brubakers were Bluewater athletes. One was an athlete belonging to another gym.”

They’re referring to an internal investigation launched by Gymnastics Canada, from which a discipline panel found 54 counts of misconduct, including emotional, physical, psychological and sexual abuse, “in their capacity as coaches over multiple years, up to and including the year of Dave’s arrest in 2017,” the group notes, adding that the “multi-year, quasi-judicial process” to which they were subjected through Gymastics Canada was “harmful and re-victimizing.”

“It centred abusers over victims, compounded the trauma of survivors, and prolonged what had already been an open-ended nightmare,” they wrote.

In March 2021, the panel ruled that Brubaker is “permanently banned and prohibited from any future application or attempt to gain reinstatement, membership, or any other status with Gymnastics Canada member associations or clubs,” while Elizabeth Brubaker, first suspended January 18th, 2019 following the receipt of written complaints by GymCan, had her suspension extended to Jan. 18 2024.

The Brubaker’s initially appealed the decision, but withdrew their appeal application in April.

Attempts to reach the Brubakers via email were unsuccessful.

“We are reclaiming our power and our voices, and will use both to advocate for change and accountability,” the Bluewater Survivors wrote in response to news of the withdrawn appeal application. “We will tell our truths — the truth — in time, and work to ensure that future generations of athletes, no matter their level of skill or sport of choice, are spared of what we were not.”

Brubaker was director and head coach at Bluewater Gymnastics for nearly 30 years, and was formerly the national team director for GymCan’s women’s artistic gymnastics national team. He was arrested by Sarnia Police in December 2017, charged with one count of invitation to sexual touching, three counts of sexual interference, three counts of sexual exploitation, and three counts of sexual assault.

He was acquitted in Sarnia court after Justice Deborah Austin noted the Crown’s case was damaged by the relationship between the complainant and the investigating officer. At the time, the victim’s identity was protected by a publication ban.

But by the spring of this year, she was ready to come forward.

“Getting our voices back”

“For the past five years I’ve been kept in silence as a former gymnast and abuse survivor,” Melanie Hunt said in Ottawa this week. “I was put through a criminal trial and unfortunately my abuser was acquitted; and then a disciplinary hearing that lasted way too long.”

By May of this year, Hunt knew she was ready to tell her story, and asked that the publication ban on her name be lifted.

“I feel really empowered, to be honest,” she told The Journal. “It’s been a long time coming for me.”

Abby Spadafora and Mel Hunt. (Tara Jeffrey photo)

She’s seated at a local coffee shop across from Abby Spadafora, planning their trip to Ottawa. The pair grew up together, making headlines as young, elite athletes representing Sarnia and Bluewater Gymnastics, all over the world. Now, they’re back in the spotlight: this time, trying to ensure no other young gymnasts suffer the trauma they say they endured.

In May, Spadafora penned an open letter, published by Global Athlete, breaking her silence, “for the benefit of every child, athlete and parent in the sport,” she wrote.

“In October 2017, I received a call from Sarnia Police that changed my life forever,” Spadafora recalled. “A call that brought to light the years of abuse I was subjected to in the sport of gymnastics. Other than my sister, my husband and therapist, no one knew of the abuse I had endured and with that one phone call, everything I thought I was taking to the grave with me, was about to be exposed.”

Spadafora went on to outline years of abuse that she says included fat shaming and extreme, dangerous diet restrictions (“I saw 12 and 13-year-old girls required to run while wearing garbage bags over their clothes in an attempt to sweat out retained fluids”); verbal abuse (“I knew not to tell my parents because those who did were belittled and yelled at even more”); physical abuse, including neglecting proper medical attention (“my parents were rarely informed and rarely were doctors consulted), and sexual abuse (“I would cry myself to sleep thinking it was my fault.”)

Hunt also recounted the physical, mental and sexual abuse she says she suffered, including a violent incident that she says led to a witness reporting to the Children’s Aid Society.

“There’s other stuff that was so normal that I just didn’t think to say anything,” Hunt recalled. “The environment is perfect for abusers. It’s systemic; it’s everywhere, across the board. The whole culture needs to change.”

“You can’t rely on the gymnast to speak out; you need the adults around them to speak out,” Spadafora said. “There needs to be a lot of changes before I could ever say to somebody, ‘Put your kid in gymnastics, it’s great; it’s safe.’

“I can’t say that right now.”

“We’re not going anywhere”

Both Hunt and Spadafora say they’re still healing from the trauma.

“I stopped [gymnastics] when I was 19, and I am 35-years-old now — still getting nightmares, still getting counselling, going to the eating disorder clinic,” said Hunt, who has a 20-month old son.

“It doesn’t stop when you leave the gym.”

Spadafora, mom of a 13-year-old daughter and six-year-old son, has been in therapy for nine years.

“This is what I wish people understood…it does have long lasting effects; we will continue to heal, and we will keep moving forward but it’s still there and it has changed us,” she said.

Both Hunt and Spadafora say there needs to be more oversight for coaches, protection for children in the gym, accountability for board members, and increased parental presence and involvement. They also stress that it’s not just girls being abused in sport, but boys as well.

The Journal reached out to Bluewater Gymnastics board president Rob Dawson, who provided the following statement:

“Bluewater stands shoulder to shoulder with those who have been affected and we fully support them in talking openly about past events. We trust that can help with healing and moving forward. While the events connected to Bluewater happened over five years ago and have been dealt with in the courts, a vitally important subject is being examined, and it needs to be discussed openly and addressed. We need to support each other in moving forward and working to ensure the best possible atmosphere in sports and in training, as in all sectors and areas of life.

Sports for young people should always be a safe and happy experience. Full stop. When the events of many years ago first came to light, our club immediately worked to ensure a culture and environment of respect and safety for everyone involved in this sport. Our club has and is continuously working with parents, staff and our athletes to ensure a safe, healthy, supportive, respectful and fun environment for our young athletes in their chosen sport. That’s at the core of BGC’s vision, mission and culture. We encourage our athletes to grow and train at their own pace and we ensure that there is a supportive presence for them, at all times.

While we know this is an important conversation, we also need our young and aspiring athletes to know that their chosen sport can be and is a healthy and safe pursuit, and that we’re doing everything we can to ensure that.”

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Bloc MP Andreanne Larouche tabled a motion in the House of Commons asking the federal government to commit to a public inquiry examining the issue of abuse in sports. It was rejected by the Liberal government.

“Maybe I’m naive,” Hunt posted on Twitter. “But I’m utterly shocked that child abuse didn’t receive a unanimous vote.”

But survivors don’t give up, Spadafora said.

“We’re talking children being abused… just one child abused should be enough to make change,” she told The Journal. “If we go away, there’s going to be nobody to protect these children.

“And we’re not going anywhere.”

[email protected]

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“If you are experiencing sexual abuse, or are a survivor of sexual abuse, the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Centre Sarnia-Lambton offers free, confidential services, and can be reached at 519-337-3154 or visit www.sexualassaultsarnia.ca. A 24/7 crisis line is also available at 519-337-3320.”

Other resources:
Child & Youth Crisis Line: 1-833-622-1320
The Lambton Mental Health Crisis Service: 1-800-307-4319 or 519-336-3445
Sarnia-Lambton Distress Line: 1-888-DISTRES (347-8737) or 519-336-3000
Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 686868
Kids Help Phone:1-800-668-6868

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