Li Li Leung said she wants Simone Biles to speak up whenever, however and wherever the Olympic gymnastics champion sees fit.
It’s a freedom that Leung, USA Gymnastics president and CEO, stressed isn’t reserved for the sport’s biggest star. If the embattled Indianapolis-based organization truly is going to make a cultural shift in the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal, Leung believes giving agency to all involved—from athletes to coaches to parents to club owners—isn’t just encouraged but required.
“Historically, our organization has silenced our gymnasts, and I am 100% supportive of giving our athletes a voice,” Leung said Thursday in her first extended public remarks since taking over in March. “Our athletes should be able to say what they feel and be comfortable doing so. I understand that we have let down many athletes, we have let down Simone, and she needs time to heal from that. If voicing her concerns and her feelings is one way to do that, I am completely supportive of that.”
Biles took USA Gymnastics, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee and the FBI to task on Wednesday, angry over the findings in a congressional report that revealed a series of mistakes that allowed Nassar—a former team doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University—to abuse athletes even after victims began to come forward.
“You literally had one job and you couldn’t protect us,” said Biles, who was among the hundreds of women abused by Nassar under the guise of medical treatment.
Leung understands Biles’ anger and her importance as a leading advocate for change. Leung said the two hugged and chatted briefly about setting up a time to talk in depth after the national championships wrap up.
In a way, Leung’s relationship with Biles mirrors the challenges she faces as the organization’s fourth president and CEO since March 2017. Leung played no role in creating the environment that let Nassar’s behavior run unchecked for so long, a path that led to Nassar receiving what amounts to a life sentence in prison and pushed one of the U.S. Olympic movement’s marquee programs to the brink of dissolution.
Yet Leung, a former collegiate gymnast, came forward anyway in an attempt to steer USA Gymnastics forward. The organization filed for bankruptcy in November to consolidate the dozens of civil lawsuits filed against it by Nassar victims, a move that also stayed the USOPC’s attempt to strip USA Gymnastics of its role as the sport’s national governing body.
The lawsuits are now in mediation in federal court in Indiana, something Leung hopes can be resolved in a “relatively efficient and short amount of time.” Leung said the organization remains in contact with the USOPC about the steps it is taking to re-create itself.
“We need to take steps to demonstrate why we should remain the [national governing body] of gymnastics,” she said, citing leadership stability, financial stability, athlete safety and rebuilding trust within the community.
Leung said she has spoken with more than 400 members of the gymnastics community—including Nassar victims—in an attempt to create an open dialogue about what USA Gymnastics needs to become if it wants to survive.
USA Gymnastics is beefing up its staff to deal with the long road ahead.
Current job openings include a chief programming officer, a vice president for Safe Sport, and a vice president of athlete health and wellness, a position Leung drew upon her own personal experiences to help create. Leung spent so much of her childhood in the gym that she believes she had the maturity of a 13-year-old when she went off to college. Finding the proper balance between training and personal lives remains a struggle to the current generation of athletes.
“I believe that we have as an organization a responsibility and an obligation to holistically develop our gymnasts and our athletes,” Leung said. “So it’s not just about developing a technically superior gymnast who performs well in the gym but it is about developing a holistic athlete who is best set up for life even beyond the sport.”
It’s part of Leung’s long-term vision for the sport but one only attainable if USA Gymnastics can find a way to restore faith in its mission. Transparency is a key part of the process, and Leung pointed to several changes made in recent months.
USA Gymnastics overhauled its selection procedures for all world championship and Olympic teams, mandating that an independent observer “from outside the gymnastics community” will sit in during the final selection meeting.
It is also making an effort to revamp its vetting process for job candidates after several hires—including Dr. Edward Nyman, who was removed as the first full-time director of sports medicine and science after just one day in April due to an unspecified conflict of interest—flamed out. Leung took responsibility for the mishandling of Nyman’s appointment, saying while the process of hiring Nyman was mostly complete by the time she took over, she still signed off on it.
“(Vetting) historically is not as robust as it needs to be,” she said. “And we are putting measures in place to ensure that every stone has been turned over.”
USA Gymnastics revealed a new Safe Sport policy in June designed to clear up “gray areas” over what constitutes improper contact. The policy is part of what she described as a “robust” plan to help educate the organization’s 200,000-plus members.
Leung said financial support for the elite programs remains stable, though she has made it a point not to court corporate sponsors “until we get our house in order.” USA Gymnastics did reach an agreement with Nike to outfit the athletes at competitions and Leung said there has been outreach from potential corporate partners.
All of those things, combined with what Leung called record ticket sales for this week’s U.S. championships, point to forward momentum.
“I believe we are on a positive trajectory,” she said. “We’ve made a lot of strides. We’ve put a lot of building blocks in place.”
Progress will be measured in slow increments and critics remain skeptical. While Biles said Wednesday that “all we can do at this point is have faith that they’ll have our backs, they’ll do the right thing,” she added: “It’s a waiting game.”
One Leung understands needs to be played. She is aware USA Gymnastics has spent a significant portion of the last three years talking about change. Now, she believes, it is finally coming.
“This is still the beginning,” she said. “These are just some proof points we have under our belt. But we need many, many more to win back the trust of our community. But we are putting those steps in place.”